After more than 30 years of interviewing, it’s tricky for Ira Glass to turn his reporter senses off when he’s on the receiving end of questions.
“It’s hard for me to stop ... editing the interview in my head the entire time,” the creator and host of “This American Life” said during an interview ahead of his appearance at the Academy of Music Theatre this Saturday.
While answering questions, he’ll keep a running log of notes, critiquing himself with thoughts like, “Oh, that wasn’t such a good answer,” or “That didn’t get to the point; better get to the point now.”
“I’m totally evaluating each quote as I‘m saying the words out loud,” said Glass. “Because I know what it is to have to find a decent quote from an interview.”
Dubbed “The King of All Public Radio” by the Los Angeles Times, Glass’ contributions to journalism and media as a whole are irrefutable.
More than 4.5 million fans tune in to his Peabody Award-winning show each week, and many of today’s most successful podcasts — including “Serial,” “Planet Money” and “S-Town” — can trace their lineage back to “This American Life.”
“Without Ira Glass and company, we wouldn’t have a lot of the podcast world, or the public radio world for that matter, that we see today,” Nicholas Quah wrote when Vulture kicked off its list of The 10 Nonfiction Podcasts That Changed Everything with “This American Life.”
Radio had a history of storytelling, but by the time the 1990s rolled around there was little in the way of that still on the air.
Instead, airwaves were filled with news broadcasts, political commentary, sports games, “and music, of course,” said Glass, who began his career in radio when he interned at National Public Radio in 1978.
After more than 15 years working his way up the ranks at NPR, going from tape cutter to producer to substitute host of “Weekend All Things Considered,” Glass decided to bring that storytelling energy back to the radio.
But he didn’t want to simply replicate the format of radio drama from the 1930s and 1940s.
Instead, he said, he set out to “do it in a way that seems contemporary, and feels appropriate for people who grew up on TV and movies.”
The show’s storytelling style — which incorporates the cinematic elements of character, plot and emotion — as well as Glass’ signature conversational style of narration made “This American Life” a hit when it premiered in 1995 under its original name “Your Radio Playhouse.” It premiered on Chicago Public Media and was nationally syndicated in 1996.
“In a time where so much information we receive [is] in sound bites or quick headlines for clickability, [Glass’] level of journalism ... [is] really in depth in a way that touches on the humanity of the subjects of the story,” said Geoff Kershner, executive director of the Academy and a longtime “This American Life” listener. “It’s really emotional and powerful.”
Since its debut almost 25 years ago, the radio program’s success has only grown.
It is this journey, and the lessons Glass has learned along the way, that he will share with audiences at the Academy during his presentation, aptly called “Seven Things I’ve Learned.”
“I’ve always wanted to bring Ira Glass to the Academy,” Kershner said. “I think that we didn’t have the venue to house a journalist of his stature prior to having the historic theater open.”
Ironically, Glass, who received the Edward R. Murrow Award for his contributions to public radio in 2009 as well as a George Polk Award, doesn’t see what he and the producers at “This American Life” do as revolutionary. Certainly, he conceded, they were one of the first to put narrative journalism on the radio, but the concept behind the hit program is a simple one.
“It’s just storytelling, you know?” said Glass. “I think the things that attract me and my coworkers to these stories just attract other people to stories as well.”
Before Glass shares his seven lessons with the crowd at the Academy, the radio veteran spilled a few secrets about his work and the program that made him a household name.
While much of “This American Life” has stayed the same over its 24-year run, the program has evolved, Glass said.
Early episodes focused much more on personal stories, something that was uncommon before memoirs gained popularity in the early 2000s and people started regularly spilling their guts on Facebook.
It was “almost like applying the tools of journalism to stories that were so small and personal that journalists wouldn’t have touched them in the past,” Glass said.
Eventually, the subjects “This American Life” covered got more topical. The show’s 2008 episode on the housing crisis that led to the recession, its two-part special on gun violence in schools and its 2016 report on ideological changes within the Republican party are just a few of the stories that have garnered press awards.
“Now, it’s very typical for us to try to do stories that are about the big issues that everybody else covers, except when we do it, we do it in the same way that we did the little stuff,” Glass said. “So there’ll be scenes and characters and funny moments and emotional moments.”
Keeping these storytelling elements, even when tackling current issues, allows the program to remain in the realm of entertainment and not directly compete with more traditional news shows.
“We’re like any journalists out there trying to document the historic and seismic changes the country’s going through,” Glass said. “And our jobs aren’t that different than they were before. We’re still just going out, looking for stories — trying to find ways into big, national stories that we feel like other people haven’t found.”
Welcome to my party — err, radio show
When asked how he approaches his interviews, Glass often tells young journalists he looks at every interview as if he’s hosting a party.
“Whatever you do, the person who is sitting there, they will imitate [you], sort of like they came into your space,” he said. “... And so, if you’re kind of a stiff, reading down a list of questions, then they will respond in a stiff way and give you formal answers.”
Talk to them as you would with someone outside of the job, “then you create the space where they can be a person.”
That doesn’t mean leaving all your professionalism at the door — after all, you’re still on the job.
“I think there’s a balance,” Glass said. “You’re not there to be their friend, for sure, but you can talk to them like a human being.”
Learning to be more chill
There’s something about Glass’ conversational, on-air tone that leaves listeners feeling as though the radio host is talking directly to them. It’s so effective it has led to many an imitation and emulation among the current generation of podcasters.
Turns out, this casual way of talking wasn’t so natural to Glass.
“It’s funny. Before I started ‘This American Life,’ I was an NPR reporter,” he said. “And I sounded like any other NPR reporter in a very kind of formal way of talking.”
Glass actually trained himself out of the classic radio personality voice by appearing on a Chicago late-night radio program.
“I would bring in quotes and music and scripts and then just try to perform them as if I was just speaking,” he said.
All that practice worked — and good thing, too.
“When I was starting off [as a reporter],” Glass admitted, “what I sounded like was somebody imitating an NPR reporter and not doing a very good job of it.”