Tell me a story 

A fleeting moment with raconteur Ira Glass

Today's story is about Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, an award-winning public radio program that attracts 1.6 million listeners each week. This American Life is a program about small moments that illuminate a larger truth: family grudges, rats in New York City, a man who's placed a "prayer shield" over a town.

Ira Glass is the rock star of radio hosts, if one can imagine such a thing, and when he takes his show on tour, boys want to be like him and girls want to scream, except it's not cool to scream in front of Ira Glass, so they keep it bottled up inside. A silent scream.

First, a brief detour about how you can miss an interview with Ira Glass.

Several Thursdays ago, Todd, who I gather is his scheduler, but not his handler, because while Paris Hilton needs a handler, surely Ira Glass does not ... anyway, Todd told me to call a certain number at 4 o'clock central time.

I called at 3:57 and wondered if three minutes early seemed too anxious. I got a polite answering machine with a voice that sounded exactly like Ira Glass does on the radio. I left an equally polite message and called Todd.

"He's not in his office? Hmm, he must have gone to the bathroom."

Ira Glass goes to the bathroom! I quickly erase the image from my mind. It's not something I want to dwell on.

At 4:20 I called and left another message, this time with my phone numbers. I complained to my co-workers: "I think Ira Glass is going to blow me off." Al Green once blew off our music editor, Gilbert Garcia, seven times before the interview finally happened.

"Gilbert, Ira Glass is my Al Green."

"Everybody has one," he replied, not looking up from his typing.

I told the receptionist to page me if Ira Glass called.

"Ira Glass? Who are they?"

Ninety minutes later, I was half-asleep on the couch when Ira Glass called. He apologized; no one had told him about the interview. Give me five minutes, I said, I'll call you back.

• • •

IG: You know, KSTX was the first Texas station to pick up the show, before Dallas or Austin. Los Angeles and New York were easy, but it wasn't clear who else would pick up the show first. And then we got a station in Texas! We got a red state and our program seemed like a blue state."

LS: That's amazing that we got it before Austin, because San Antonio is to Austin as New Jersey is to New York.

You've criticized the predictable formula of public radio newscasts. You use a much different structure to tell stories. How do you keep stretching the boundaries of storytelling while remaining faithful to the narrative?

"We interviewed a 19-year-old whose job on the war on terror is live on this boat thousands of miles from home to fill vending machines."

— Ira Glass
IG: All the stories are built around characters involved in some drama. They're structured like little movies. Recently, we did a story about the Republican Party. It's hard to do something about the Republican Party without saying something everyone knows. We wanted to find people who are in some kind of conflict, to have a set of stories where people would talk about why they were Republicans and would argue about ideas. For example, we got a gay Republican and a Christian Republican, so they spoke each other's language.

We went on an aircraft carrier where soldiers were flying missions over Afghanistan. We interviewed a 19-year-old whose job on the war on terror is live on this boat thousands of miles from home to fill vending machines. We captured what it's like for these people and it came off funnier and way more complicated.

LS: Do the pitches you get from people start sounding the same?

IG: Certain things are really a problem. People trying to figure out the true story of their parents. You can only do that story so many times. Some of the most interesting shows are the ones where we took on something that nobody else has done. We spent 24 hours in a 24-hour diner. We took every story from the classified ads in one Sunday paper and made each one into a story.

LS: You often call radio a "visual medium." The fun of radio is that listeners can fill in the gaps with their imagination. Is that what you mean?

IG: When you hear anybody's voice, you start to fill in something as a listener. In a good radio story, there will be moments where there's stuff to look at. Within the interviews, they'll get very, very visual.

LS: I was reading a story about how National Public Radio turned down This American Life, saying that "nobody wants cutting edge." It's like the guy from Decca Records turning down the Beatles because "guitars are on the way out." Do you feel vindicated?

IG: We had won a Peabody and we were fully funded. I had spent my whole career at NPR in the news division and at that point a lot of the elements for This American Life I had done for All Things Considered. People were going to the bosses and saying, 'we created this.' But in the end the managers just didn't get the show. Since then, the people at NPR have been very nice. But yes, I feel vindicated.

LS: Do you get hate mail?

IG: We got hate mail recently about the Republican story, all from Democrats, because we didn't challenge some of the things they said. That's not my job; there were people in the stories arguing. People complain about my enunciation.

LS: I heard you're thinking about taking the show to TV. Do you think television will ruin it for people?

IG: We might shoot a pilot for a version of our show for Showtime after the election. It could work on television. But part of the power of the shows comes from not seeing; people seem larger than life. That would be gone. But people can seem as mythic as they do on radio if it's done right. •

By Lisa Sorg

This American Life airs on KSTX 89.1 FM Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Wednesdays at 7 p.m.


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