This American Life host to share ‘Seven Things I’ve Learned’ at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater.
Nearly 650 episodes of This American Life over the course of 23 years have made Ira Glass — the show’s creator, host, and executive producer — one of the most recognizable voices in public radio. But longevity alone hasn’t made him so renowned. This American Life, which is heard each week by 2.2 million people, regularly transfixes its listeners by beautifully weaving together unexpected narratives.
Glass will visit Tacoma’s Rialto Theater on June 24 to present Seven Things I’ve Learned, a multimedia engagement that will offer insights into Glass’ life and career in storytelling. Tickets are available online.
Glass took a break from editing an upcoming episode of his radio show to speak with South Sound by phone from New York City.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How did your early years in radio influence the types of stories that you’re telling today?
A: The very first things I did in radio were all promos. That’s what I did at my college radio station, and my first internship at NPR was in the promos department. That hasn’t affected story selection at all, or the kinds of stories I do today, but it does make me feel very aware of all the ways, in the course of any episode, we’re constantly promoting — Here’s what’s coming up. Here’s what we’re doing today — and doing it in a way that feels exciting. I feel like those promo skills come in handy.
Q: In terms of the content on This American Life, the stories are so intimate and eclectic. Every time I listen to an episode, I think, “How do you find these people?” So, where do you get your subjects?
A: It’s a disturbingly random process. It’s a mix of stories that have been pitched to us, or one of us is interested in something, or we’ll just have an idea for a thing we want to try.
The truth is, most of the interviews we do, most of the people we reach out to, it doesn’t work out. The story doesn’t turn out be quite as interesting as we thought, or the person isn’t a great talker. One of the reasons it seems like everyone is such an amazing speaker on the show is because we’ve eliminated the people who aren’t — most of them anyway — before they ever make it to air.
Q: What percentage of people you interview don’t ever make it on the show?
A: An overwhelming number. Like 80 percent don’t make it onto the show. Probably more. We easily kill a third to half of the stories. So, most things we try don’t work out.
Q: Is that mostly because people have a hard time talking on (the) radio?
A: No. I think what we need often is so particular. We need someone to talk about an experience in such a particular way.
Q: Is there anyone that you have interviewed that you’re really jonesing to check back in with for an update?
A: I feel like the right answer to this question would be yes, because it would indicate that I’m a good person who’s still mulling about the hundreds of people we’ve interviewed. The fact is, I’m so worried about getting next week’s show on the air, I don’t have much time to do that. There definitely are people who I wonder about from specific stories, and occasionally I’ll reach out to them and just find out, like, “Hey, what’s up?” But that’s pretty rare.
Q: Is there a subject that you want to get into, but that you haven’t yet?
A: I mean, right now, like a lot of people, I feel very aware that we’re living in this historic time of change in our country. It’s completely fascinating and difficult and energizing and confounding to try and document that well, and document it in ways that other people aren’t already doing with excellent journalism. So, that is the project that’s most interesting to me right now.
Q: Where do you get your professional inspiration? Are there writers, publications, videographers, or other podcasts that you turn to, to help you develop your own craft?
A: There are definitely things that I hear or see or read that inspire me. Lately, I’ve been listening to The Daily, which is The New York Times’ podcast. I can’t recommend it highly enough. They’re taking the news and doing it as narrative, which is obviously something we do on our show, and they do it 20 minutes a day. It’s the lead story, usually, from the day before, and it’s done so thoughtfully, and unpretentiously, and beautifully thought through. It’s just a model of thoughtful story selection, and focusing, and angle, and editing. You know, it’s just exciting to hear people do such good work day after day. And it’s nice to feel competitive with them. It’s nice to have someone doing work so good that I feel like, Oh, I want to get in there and do something as good about the current moment and be exciting.
Q: After creating almost 650 episodes, how do you keep it feeling fresh, exciting, and interesting?
A: I work with a lot of people who haven’t done quite as many. So, it seems like every week people are coming up with ideas that we’ve never done that would be fun to try. I feel like in that way, the ecosystem of my feelings is very primitive. I’m like a dog that someone throws a ball to. I totally do get burned out and tired, but as soon as someone says, “Why don’t we do this?” I totally forget — Wait, I was just tired.That would be fun, too. I’m both lucky and unlucky that I can be transfixed with the idea, with any story idea that seems exciting, and then just devote myself to it. That’s what keeps it feeling new.
As a staff, I feel like we’re all interested in doing stuff on the show that we’ve never done before, and stuff we haven’t heard anyone else do. Like, spend 24 hours at a 24-hour diner. Let’s follow a car dealership for one month as they try to make their sales goal. Let’s do every story from classified ads in one newspaper’s classified advertisement. Let’s make a musical — take a true story and make it into a musical. Let’s do a song from the point of view of Paul Ryan. It’s fun to make something new.
Q: How does Episode 1 compare to your latest episode? What’s changed? What’s stayed the same?
A: In Episode 1, I’m performing my lines differently. I sound different. It feels more like a live radio show than it does now. I wasn’t as used to performing, for sure.
Also, Episode 1 has way more artsy-ness to it. In the early years of the show, there was less hardcore investigative journalism than we do now, simply because we didn’t have the money. We were a staff of four people versus a staff of a dozen people now. We couldn’t take three weeks to work on a story — or, we could take three weeks, but we couldn’t take, like, three months to work on a story. We just didn’t have the staff for it.
There were way more straight interviews with authors like David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell. There’s way more stuff that wasn’t journalism in the show. Over time, the staff became more interested in the journalistic mission we were on.
Q: There are so many podcasts out there now. Is there any pressure to stand out against all of them? Or is that not something you even think about?
A: It’s not something I think about a lot. There was a period that we were never not the No. 1 podcast on iTunes. Now, on any given week, we might be, we might not be. Other people get up there all the time, and I notice for sure, because I’m very competitive.
But it’s not clear what it would mean to compete with other podcasts. All we can do is make the very best (and) most exciting show we know how (to do), and just hope the audience agrees with us. It’s not like I’m taking steps to study what all these other shows are doing and knocking them off. I have no interest in knocking anybody off. I feel the pressure of the competition, but I’m doing nothing at all different to beat the competition. Which, maybe, is the very definition of a loser (laughing). But I think we’re still going strong.
Q: You will be in Tacoma in June to talk about seven things you’ve learned. Is there any sneak peek you can give us for one of those items?
A: It changes each time I deliver the talk. One of the stories I will definitely do is a story that we did years ago. We had a TV show about this boy who decided he didn’t believe in love, and it’s a totally wonderful story. One of the things that we did to be able to show to an audience today is that we went back to him — now he’s grown up — to see if he still doesn’t believe in love. It’s super wonderful hearing what he has to say as a grown man. So, there’s that.
Generally, there’s a mix of me talking about how we make the radio show and behind the scenes looks at stories people might have heard on the radio show. And then mostly just a lot of stories that seem like they would be fun to tell in front of an audience, some of which have appeared in other places, but a bunch of them have not.
Lately, one of the pieces that I’ve been playing for people was the very first story that I did that I thought was any good. I had been doing radio for eight years and it’s the story that I did that I was, like, “Finally, I know what I’m doing.” When I pulled it up to do the speech, I was, like, “Oh, no! I was still really bad.” So, I play that for the audience.
Q: What story was that? Can you give us a synopsis?
A: It was a story on the 75th anniversary of the Oreo cookie, and I really thought I nailed it when I did it back in 1986, or whenever it was.
Q: What would you do differently for that story now?
A: I’ll talk about that in some way in the program. I did not know how to tell a story at the time, but I didn’t know that. The short answer to your question is: Everything. I think I just didn’t understand how to take an experience I was having and just say it in a plain way — Here’s the thing I saw, and here’s what’s interesting about that. I was not naturally talented. I really had to invent skills, sort of atom by atom, until I was decent.
Q: Do you think you’re decent at it now?
A: (laughing) I think I’m totally solid. I totally have a lot of confidence in my game. My chops are very solid — (just as good) as anyone on the staff, for sure.
I don’t know if you’re aware we have a fellow(ship). We used to call them interns, and then people who were so unbelievably qualified started to apply for our internship. We hired one person from NBC News and someone else from TheNew York Times. So, we were, like, we can’t call this an internship. We have to call it a fellowship. And then, at some point, I was aware that if I was in my 20s, and if I had applied for the fellowship at This American Life, I wouldn’t have gotten it. Like, I literally didn’t have the chops. At 28 or 29 or 30 (years old), I couldn’t have gotten an internship on my own show. That occurred to me the other day.
Q: Does that bruise your ego a little bit that, years ago, you wouldn’t have made it on?
A: It bruises my ego, but it also kind of props up my ego to look at how far I’ve come. If I were to apply to the fellowship, I would totally get it. I am totally qualified for the fellowship now. I would definitely beat out any of the contenders.
Q: You’ve done a lot of interviews, and you’ve probably been asked just about everything. Is there anything you wish people would ask you about? Is there anything you’d like to talk about?
A: The thing that I know a lot about, that I don’t think is generally interesting, and occasionally someone will ask me about and I feel so excited, is just questions about how to run the business of the radio show. Once a year, someone is starting up a podcast or starting up a radio show, and (they) say, “How do you do this?” And I always feel like I can totally talk about this. I had to figure it out on my own. It was really hard, and I totally have thoughts about how to run the business of a radio show — like, what to do in the pledge drives, or how to talk to the stations — that no normal person would have any interest in. But in order to have my job now, I had to become an expert in a lot of arcane details about the public radio system.