The World According to Glass

By David Gilson '94 and Lyssa Mudd '97 / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007

Ira Glass would rather be heard than seen. As the creator and host of the public-radio program This American Life, Glass '82 is best known for his quirky voice and on-air intimacy, but off the air he literally shies away from the spotlight. At a recent San Francisco stop during a nationwide speaking tour, Glass kept the stage lights off until minutes into his talk. When the lights came on, they revealed a boyish forty-year-old with a gray suit, thick black glasses, and intentionally disheveled hair who was sitting behind a bank of radio equipment - a mixing board, microphone, CD player, and cassette deck. He seemed slightly embarrassed. The audience, many of whose members had come to put a face to Glass's voice, cheered.

Like Glass, This American Life has become a phenomenon. The hour-long weekly program is heard on more than 350 public radio stations nationwide and boasts more than 900,000 listeners. It is the second most popular non-news program on public radio, after Garrison Keillor's enduring A Prairie Home Companion. Some listeners are so devoted they rearrange their schedules to hear it. Yet the show defies easy description. Glass says it documents "stories of these United States with all the tools of radio storytelling: documentaries, monologues, overheard conversations, found tapes, anything we can think of."

Each week's show is organized around a theme. These have included the abstract ("Invisible Worlds" explored the unseen, from radio waves to hidden rooms), the seemingly mundane ("Telephone" featured a teenager's phone conversations as recorded by his father), the humorous ("Poultry Slam" looks every Thanksgiving at turkeys, chickens, and other fowl), and the tragic ("When Words Fail" explored deaths in families). Each show is split into segments, or "acts," with distinct narrators, styles, and tones. Like a collage artist who starts with carefully chosen pieces and combines them into a single image, Glass manages, through his own commentary, to connect these segments by the end of the hour. In this way, each reveals a broader layer of meaning than was apparent when it stood alone.

On the air Glass sounds spontaneous, but what he says, like everything else on This American Life, is thoughtfully choreographed. He is known for painstakingly editing every second of audio tape, down to the timing of the ums, swallows, and pauses. It can take him days of sifting through a few hours of tape to pick out the moments that will tell a story in the most compelling way. Constructing and deconstructing narrative is second nature to Glass, who graduated from Brown with an honors degree in semiotics.

But radio came first. While Glass was growing up in Baltimore, his father, who had once worked as a radio announcer, advised him to stay away from the medium, but Glass ignored the advice and became an intern at National Public Radio in Washington when he was nineteen. He went on to work as a tape cutter, writer, editor, and producer for shows such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Later, as a reporter in NPR's Chicago bureau, he spent months in a local high school producing a series on race relations that won several awards and brought him national recognition.

Glass launched This American Life in 1995 at Chicago public-radio station WBEZ. That year it won the prestigious Peabody award for broadcasting. Since then he has come to accept the attention his show brings. He has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, been profiled in the New York Times Magazine, and has even been immortalized in a comic book that public-radio stations use to solicit pledges during fund-raising drives. The comic book reflects Glass's populist approach to his craft. In it he insists that making radio documentaries is something anyone can do. "My fellow Americans," says his pen-and-ink persona, "no mass medium is cheaper to do or easier to learn." Of course, the tools may be easy to find, but few make radio with the skill or passion Glass exhibits in This American Life. For now, listeners are more than content to let him do the talking.

Gilson: Where did the title This American Life come from?

Glass: When we first went on the air, we were calling the show Your Radio Playhouse, and that was just a tribute to Pee Wee's Playhouse.

Mudd: Were you a Pee Wee Herman fan?

Glass: A huuuge Pee Wee Herman fan. Before we went into national distribution, the program director at the Los Angeles station heard a tape of the show and said, "How soon can I start putting these on?" We were doing them locally, just kind of getting our moves down and getting this thing running here in Chicago. She's like, how soon can I put these on? We said, "Now." She said, "The only requirement is that you have to change the name."

It was horrible. My staff and I, we generally agree on everything, and on the name there was tremendous [disagreement]. The names some people would love other people would hate. I was gunning for the name American Whatever.

Mudd: Why?

Glass: 'Cause it seemed to capture what the show was, if you looked at the content. It did have a "whatever" kind of quality. My brainiac twenty-something staff insisted that it connoted Alicia Silverstone; I insisted that she was just a passing fancy. And that the moment of Clueless was, at that point, long over and no one would remember. The whole thing had a sort of Gen X feel that they detested.

On the other hand, I have come to agree that it's a terrible name. This American Life had that advantage of being like [Tobias Wolf's] This Boy's Life. The program director in Los Angeles insisted that we should call it Glass House, which I hated because I didn't want it to be about me.

Mudd: How do you pick who you feature on This American Life? Do you think everyone has a story to tell?

Glass: Yes, I believe that everyone has a story to tell, but I don't think everyone has a story to tell that you'd want to hear on the radio. What we're looking for especially on This American Life are stories that are narratives, that describe a person or persons in certain situations where some bigger something is at stake that we all can relate to, where something happens that we haven't heard before, and where something is deeply felt and means something in a broader way. That restricts the number of stories you get or can use.

Then there's the illusion that these are just everyday stories of everyday life, that we just go out with tape recorders and chat with a bunch of people. There's a really wonderful documentary producer who sent us a tape that he had made. He did this haul with this truck driver across the country from the Midwest out to California. And the woman who he got was a good talker, and he got good tape, and it was beautifully produced, and the pacing was fine. But the problem with it was that it was only a story documenting what happens when you drive across the country. There was nothing at stake. It wasn't about anything. There was no bigger question roaming through it that reflected on anything bigger. You can't make a great story without a great theme, without a great unresolved something in it.

Mudd: Do you think your show, with its emphasis on personal narratives, is unique right now in public radio, or do you think you're at the front edge of a media trend?

Glass: There are other people whom I've known and worked with for years, who work in a similar style. There's a bunch of us who like doing stories that are like this. I feel like This American Life is the most visible because it's there every single week on schedule. But this has always been part of the public radio mission, to do this kind of thing. It's just that not that many producers take up the gauntlet. Radio is this huge, unexplored, undiscovered, weirdly underutilized medium that has the power to do so much more than it generally does. It's not that hard to make radio stories that have the feeling and emotion and power of a really good movie, or a really great book or TV show, but people don't even shoot for it generally.

Gilson: Can you think of anyone in other media who is doing something similar to what you and the people you mentioned are doing?

Glass: I think there's a little pocket of people doing things like this, and I don't think we're the vanguard of it. I think that much more at the vanguard was Harper's magazine in the early nineties and the late eighties. And a lot of magazines especially are imitating the feeling of the early Harper's Readings section back then. As are we.

You know, the Harper's-This American Life nexus is huge. One of our original senior editors used to run the Readings section; and one of our producers ran the Readings section; and some of our contributors have appeared in Harper's; and now there's sort of a huge back-and-forth flowing river between the two institutions. I think most of American journalism is still O.J., Monica Lewinsky - big scare stories about whatever's being hyped that week. The covers of magazines are still famous people. The cover of Time is not some kid telling you a story about his dog. That's not going to happen.

Gilson: Is there something unique about radio that allows such stories to attract an audience?

Glass: One of the advantages of radio is that you don't see [the people whose stories you're presenting] as you would on television. They can kind of exist without giving their names, which you can't do in print. Then the other great advantage over print is there's simply a power to hearing somebody's voice. It carries a lot of emotion, and in hearing somebody think and talk, you can create an emotional effect.

Mudd: An empathetic effect?

Glass: Empathy is everything on the show. There's a kind of ironic or know-it-all sort of quality to the way things are handled [in the media]. And that even extends into the news - just the tone of the reporter's questions has kind of a know-it-all, well-I-know-better sort of a quality that I feel serves no one. What happens is that it's hard to get past a lot of the standard-issue images that we have of people in the inner cities, of public-school teachers, of suburban parents, of big-city officials. People are sketched so quickly, in such a cynical way, that there's no room for learning anything. There's no room to actually imagine you were there.

Gilson: Some of the stories on This American Life feature subjects that are unusual for public radio. Do you ever catch flak from stations reluctant to air them?

Glass: There are elaborate messages that we have to send out to station directors. For example, we had this story where we had this inner-city single mom. We gave her a tape recorder for six months.

There's a little section in [the story that aired] where the woman, Barbara Clinkscales, talks about this man that she's falling in love with, who's twelve or thirteen years younger than her. She's had a bunch of kids. She's, as she says, a full-figured woman. And she's talking about not wanting to be undressed in front of him, and how tender he is with her, and how he calls her to the shower, and she doesn't want to go, and he calls her again, and he just makes her feel so beautiful. And it's just a really incredible thing to hear from a woman in her forties. If you think about the way we discuss inner-city single moms, it's generally so corny and stupid, the way they're discussed whenever welfare reform comes up, or whenever there's some issue before Congress. It's just idiotic.

There's something about her that just bypasses all of that, because [her story is] so personal and within the territory that any adult can relate to. But it required letting stations know. And I don't actually have a problem with that, to tell you the truth. I can't think of the last time somebody said, "We can't handle it."

Mudd: Why did you decide to transfer to Brown from Northwestern?

Glass: Because I hated Northwestern.

Mudd: Did you like Brown? How did going there influence you?

Glass: I hated Northwestern because the students only seemed to be interested in getting graduate degrees and making money. There weren't that many people who were obsessively studying for the sake of learning things. At Brown, I found people who were obsessively studying for the sake of learning things.

Mudd: And you could study semiotics.

Glass: Though I'd never heard of it before. It was a choice between Brown and the University of Chicago as a place to transfer to. And the University of Chicago seemed like it was going to be grindingly dustier and hard. And Brown seemed like it might be more fun and lively, which it was.

There are things I learned at Brown that I use every single day at this job. Most of what I understand about how to make radio is all filtered through what I learned in semiotics at Brown. Before I got to Brown I had already been working at NPR. I'd already been a tape cutter for All Things Considered. I knew a fair amount about radio when I went to Brown, but everything I knew was re-processed through what I learned about semiotics. There are certain things I learned, like from [Professor Emeritus of Modern Culture and Media] Robert Scholes, that I think of every day.

Mudd: Like what?

Glass: The structure of narrative. Semiotics talks about why is this book, this movie, this play, this radio show, this television show - why does it give us pleasure? How, specifically, does it give us pleasure? What is the machinery that it uses?

For example, one of the things that's really useful if you're making radio stories is to consider what Roland Barthes talks about in quoting Aristotle: a proaritic code. When you have a sequence of events - this thing happened, and then this, and then this, and then this, and then this happened - it seems more interesting because we anticipate that it's going somewhere. And you want to find out where the place is that it's going. If you structure it right, you're raising questions all the way through.

There was a period after I was at Brown when I was making stories and was unsatisfied with the way a lot of radio is made. [I was] trying to figure out a way to be on the radio without being corny. Corny in kind of a public-radio way. And dull. And I was really awake to everybody who was doing work that didn't seem corny. I would really think about Why is this work better than this? At the point where I started to notice, Okay, here are the moments that are most affecting, I was able instantly to connect them to everything I'd learned at Brown and how the structure of narrative works.

Gilson: Have you been back to Brown since?

Glass: No, I've never been back. It's funny, because even though I had a perfectly decent experience at Brown, I don't feel a very strong tie to it. Because I transferred in and because I already felt more grown-up. Though in retrospect, I was a kind of an immature nineteen-year-old.

Gilson: Did you talk about post-structuralism at NPR?

Glass: No. That was for myself. I was like anybody working for a news organization: they would give me whatever assignment, and as long as I covered the territory of the assignment, [the story] was fine with them. If it did anything else in terms of being funny or having feeling, that was just gravy.

Mudd: But for you, it wasn't just gravy.

Glass: Yeah. I felt like anything less was not satisfactory. I had a little exercise I would do with myself even when I was doing daily general-assignment reporting, which was: every single story had to have one moment that was completely observed on my own, that no one else would have.

Mudd: Do you ever worry that This American Life is too personality-driven, that it couldn't exist without you?

Glass: I don't know what to say to that. From week to week the stories are selected and edited by me and the producers whom I work with. Sometimes somebody else will be in love with something that I'll only sorta like and we'll do it, and vice versa. Do I worry that it's too much about me? In a radio program that's inevitable. The way the radio works as a medium, it's best if you feel like it's coming from some specific person talking as close to the way people humanly, normally talk.

Gilson: In the past year or so, you've been on David Letterman and featured in the New York Times Magazine. What's it been like to go from being a disembodied voice to being a full person with a face?

Glass: I feel like it detracts from the quality of the show. It definitely makes the show a less interesting listening experience. When I lived in Washington years ago, I was a huge Howard Stern fan. When I finally saw what he looked like - it's not like I had pictured him looking like anything different - it was a letdown. Now people can see that I'm kind of a specific guy in a specific demographic group instead of just a reasonable voice.

Gilson: Your persona has become very attractive in certain circles. Does it make you uncomfortable that attraction to you might become an element of your show?

Glass: My staff and I made a decision to totally sidestep the whole babe-magnet side of marketing the show. A couple months ago we got a phone call from People magazine because they didn't know what I looked like, but they had read press about the show. And they wanted us to send photos so I could be considered for the "50 Most Beautiful People of the Whatever." So we had to decide as a group, do we even want to participate in this? It just seemed like bad marketing.

Mudd: Where's the perfect place to listen to This American Life?

Glass: A car, because you're not doing anything else. I think it was Martin Shores who described a car as simply a big stereo, an elaborate sound system on wheels. I think it's the perfect listening environment.

David Gilson and Lyssa Mudd are first-year graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Bet- ween deadlines, they listen to more public radio than is healthy.

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