In conversation with Liv Combe
This American Life went on the air in Chicago in 1995 and became nationally syndicated seven months later. In the subsequent decade and a half, executive producer and host Ira Glass has become something of an icon for those who tune in to NPR each week to hear his “unexpected stories that happen to be true.” I spoke with Glass about the question of the journalistic revolution, reality TV and eating carbohydrates.
In 1978, you were 19 years old and you needed a summer job. How did you wind up at NPR?
I talked my way into an internship. I lived in Baltimore and NPR was in D.C. — I had never heard them on the air. Nobody had ever heard them on the air, really. They were tiny, they had one national news show at that time, and it was All Things Considered. NPR only really came to exist in 1970, so it was very new and very small, and I was able to talk myself into working there for free for a summer after my freshman year of college.
Was it love at first sight?
It’s funny. I wasn’t even doing journalism at the beginning. I was in the promos department, and it wasn’t a love at first sight thing. What it was was a really fun summer job, and I didn’t think about it beyond that. It’s fun to write and edit and mix and all that stuff, and I liked it. And then one of the producers who I did promos for was the guy who was on staff to invent new ways to do radio documentary, and he hired me as his production assistant after my sophomore year. I just learned a tremendous amount from him, and then I got interested in doing documentary stories.
You started This American Life in 1995, and in 1999 the American Journalism Review said that you were “in the vanguard of a journalistic revolution.” But seems to me that what goes on in This American Life is just so simple, and obvious, even: these are interesting stories, and we’re going to talk to people and find out more.
[Laughs.] That’s kind of a funny way to put it.
So what is it, in your eyes, that makes it so revolutionary?
Truthfully, there’s always been a strain of this in American journalism. I don’t want to act like we invented something. Studs Terkel made an whole career out of talking to everyday people about their experiences and their job in World War II and growing up on the west side of Chicago, or whatever. So we didn’t invent this. And even in public radio there are other people who do stories where there are characters and themes and feelings.
So I think what’s newish about what we’re doing is to have a place where you can regularly turn to each week, that is such a visible exemplar of this kind of thing. Because I think that kind of reporting often ends up being the kind of one feature-y story in the newspaper, or the one feature-y story in broadcast, and to have people aggressively making an hour of it each week kind of reminded everybody who was listening, Oh, right, these stories are kind of cool! That’s one way you could do it, isn’t it? So we became the most visible exemplar of it.
… I think the elements that make it seem so different are, number one, that it has no news peg. Usually if a normal person appears in the newspaper or in the news broadcast or appears in the subject of journalism, it’s either because they’re the victim of a catastrophe of some sort, or the victim of a crime, or they became exceptional in some way that made them newsworthy. And so to just do stories documenting actual, ordinary life— that still is not done that much. Just the notion that you’re hearing people who are exactly human-scale still seems kind of new.
When we came up doing it, another person who was really influential was my friend Paul Tough, who was an editor at Harper’s Magazine — at that point, editing the reading section. He was also very interested in this kind of thing; in getting all these voices out there in a much more raw way than usual. And then the trick of doing this kind of reporting — and maybe this is way more detail than it’s worth going into — the trick of it is that once you have it be ordinary people, then you’re in this bad position where, chances are, it’s going to be boring or precious. And so you actually need the stories to have an incredibly compelling plot for them to work.
Do you ever feel like you’re creating fiction?
The structural tools are those of constructing fiction. Like, the situations that I’ve been in where we’ve taken pieces of fiction and adapted them for the show, it feels exactly the same as doing a nonfiction story. You really have to think about what’s the feeling that you’re creating in this scene, and this scene, and this scene, and what’s the overall arc of it, and what’s this character’s arc, and what’s that character’s arc. I’ve just spent months, actually, with a friend editing and reediting and reediting this script for his movie, and it doesn’t feel any different than constructing the show.
You did a series of YouTube clips in which you talked about what makes a story good. Something that stood out to me was your statement, “not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” Could you expand on that?
When you’re about to do creative work, nobody talks to you about where ideas come from. That’s somehow a weirdly undiscussed part of the creative process. Which is strange, because it’s a huge part of the creative process, and it’s one of the most difficult. But instead, we all get taught how to construct a paragraph, and how to use the digital editing system, and how to do HTML code for WordPress, and nobody ever talks to us about what’s actually the engine behind the whole thing — which is, well: where are you going to get an idea? And my experience of it is that to get an idea, you have to surround yourself with other ideas.
If you want anything to be good, you have to run at a lot of stuff knowing that a certain portion of it isn’t going to work, and you have to be able to recognize, okay, now it’s time to give up on this. …there’s something in that process of running at that stuff bravely and trying to make it work and figuring out what to throw away that I think is really important, if it’s going to be any good.
How much material do you end up killing?
We kill a huge amount of material. Sometime when the show began, and we really didn’t have that much money, it was built into the budget that we would be killing a tremendous amount of material. Usually in broadcast you don’t kill very much. In broadcast journalism, if somebody goes out on a story, 95% of the time (or more) that story will be on the air that day — because you have a hole to fill, and that many reporters, and you run a business. Our kill-ratio — from the beginning, we’ve always assumed that it would be a third to a fourth of everything we do. But in practice, it can be even more.
For example, this show that I’m working on for two weeks from now: it was unclear whether we should do a show whose theme was reality shows — about TV reality shows — or if we should shift the theme and make it about guardian angels. We have an anchor story, basically, that’s about guardian angels who, at one point, shoot a reality show about themselves… and then we’ve collected a bunch of other stories. There’s this really amazing essay we have from this one guy — this piece that’s fiction, that one of our contributors just happened to have on the shelf, something he’d sort of written for something else — then I did an interview with one of the producers of The Hills that is really entertaining. The question is, should we do that? Or should we throw out all of that stuff and just use the guardian angel piece for a different show?
I think, in a practical way, often we’ll have an idea for a show, and [between] the time we have an idea for a show and the time the show goes on the air, three or four months will pass, or more. And we’ll go through 15 or 20 story ideas, and look into them, and maybe get a little tape, or have somebody do a draft, and then we’ll kill, you know, everything but the three or four that end up on the air. And so the real kill-ratio, if you look at the number of ideas, is more like — we’re only running one out of four things that we ever research and look into.
It’s weirdly exhausting. And it’s weirdly, like — you don’t know how to judge whether you’ve made the right decision. You end up just kind of talking about it, over and over, because it’s almost like you’re imaging two such different things. The guardian angel show has an opening anecdote which I recorded the interview for on Wednesday, and I’m like, That’s okay, but not as funny as the guy from The Hills (which was amazing).
You end up having to judge all of these things, that are both aesthetic questions and also production questions. Which honestly is part of what makes a job like this kind of fun, too. But there’s a lot of creating stuff, and then having a good fit to make it kind of entertaining, and then just killing it. Like, if we have to kill that interview with the Hills guys, I don’t know what I’m going to say to him because he was an ideal interviewee. He was, literally, a perfect interviewee.
He had exactly the right attitude about reality TV. And he was inside of it — so encyclopedic in his knowledge — and he was really opinionated in a really funny way. And he was both kind of like one of us, as viewers, and one of them, as an expert. And he just had a lot of funny stories. And then he had a nice personal story, too.
It seems that around 2007, you went through this phase of doing a lot of visual stuff — there was the Showtime show, and a few live shows and broadcasts. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?
No. No. No. Much like the decision to get into radio, the decision to go into TV and cinema events — there was no deliberateness. It was like a drunk person stumbling into a church.
Yeah, you didn’t know that’s where the sentence was going! And neither did I when I started it. No, we just kind of happened to end up there. A TV network came to us and said, “Do you want to do TV?” And we said “no” for a really long time, and they kept kind of rephrasing it in different ways, and then it just seemed like, Oh, sure, let’s shoot 20 minutes. And then it seemed really fun.
I think I wouldn’t want to overstate the thoughtfulness with which anything has happened in relation to This American Life. I think a lot of it — of what’s happened with the show, and the history of the show, starting with its existence — has not been anything smarter than a bunch of us sitting in a room saying, “Hey, that might be fun!”
After the couple of years of being seen, were you happy to go back to the invisibility of radio?
Yes! It’s nice not having to think about what you look like.
I heard you had to have your ears taped back during the show?
I had my ears taped back, yeah. And I’ve gained about 15 pounds since then. And I don’t give a fuck.
Back to eating starches and carbohydrates?
That’s true! I am! Yeah, back to eating — yeah, exactly! And when I eat them, I think: now I can do this.
This interview was originally published (in a slightly different form) in The Oberlin Review.