Question the answers
Radio host Ira Glass gets the tables turned on him
The son of an accountant and an infidelity researcher, 48-year-old Ira Glass is best known as the witty, sympathetic, city-tinged voice hosting public radio’s hugely popular This American Life. The weekly program just entered its twelfth year with themes ranging from convicted murderers acting in Hamlet; to what’s so great about camp; to what it’s like to be on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea supporting the war in Afghanistan (one soldier stocks candy machines 12 hours a day).
I figured that Glass, having both conducted and given countless interviews, might appreciate a novel approach to this one more interview he had to do. So I made up a questionnaire that was a combination of mundane questions taken from an Internet “Job Evaluation Questionnaire,” a “Job Content Questionnaire” and—for a little added excitement and ridiculousness—a dating questionnaire focusing on social skills.
When we were all done, Glass thanked me for my “odd project” and said he hoped he had done all right.
CN&R: Give a short statement about your job’s basic purpose, and why the job exists.
Ira Glass: [Laughs] I mean, I do a job that’s halfway between journalism and entertainment, and sometimes it seems like there’s no purpose to either one of those. Why does my job exist? It exists because I willed it into existence. When the day goes badly, I can remind myself that I have asked for this job by name and thought to create this for myself, and I can only blame myself for the whole thing.
List the duties involved in your job.
I write stuff. I edit stuff. I supervise people who are also writing and editing stuff. Once a week, I actually have to perform on the radio, which is actually the smallest part of my job. Editing is the biggest part of my job. I do promos, charity events. I’ve been to a lot of those lately, like Doctors Without Borders—events to promote my new “826” anthology [called The New Kings of Nonfiction; proceeds from a recent charity event promoting the book went to 826 Chicago, a nonprofit writing/tutoring center for students ages 8-16]. Also various public radio fundraisers.
Who tells you how to do your job?
The people I work with, the people who ostensibly work for me. It’s kind of a collaboration. They could be bossing me around even more and I’d probably be better for it.
List unusual or hazardous working conditions in your job. How do these conditions affect your performance?
There are usually only good conditions working in radio. I mean, a stack of books could fall on your head or speakers could be turned up too loud and hurt your ears. But it’s indoor work; a studio is a room within a room. There’s nothing hazardous. But it’s a job that causes a tremendous amount of anxiety. I wake up thinking about all the things I’ve done badly. Danny Miller, the Fresh Air [Terry Gross’ NPR show] producer, said it never occurred to him that as a broadcaster that you would have one day without anxiety. As a broadcaster you’re controlled by anxiety.
Are your actions related to the safety of others? How?
No. I’m too self-centered for that.
Do you do occasional lifting of 12 to 50 pounds?
Frequent lifting of 12 to 50 pounds?
No. I’m more into the occasional, but I do own a dog, and I have to lift the dog. I do daily lifting of a 50-pound dog: in the morning; he has no desire to go outside. He’s a pit bull; a rescue. He’s kind of a coward. Although he’s a pit bull, he’s afraid of everything. I live in New York and there are these tiny dogs everywhere who sniff him, and he’s afraid of them. [Laughs] It’s like I am a pit bull who doesn’t know he’s a pit bull and thinks he’s smaller than a poodle.
Do you perform any of the following and give an example of each: Planning?
Yes, exactly. I’m in an odd situation. My job requires a superhuman amount of planning but I am only capable of the normal amount of planning.
Ditto for “planning.”Analyzing?
Yes. Analyzing is a big part of my job. Most radio stories are trying to be mediocre. And in radio or any other medium, you’re hearing things and doing diagnoses about why they don’t have feeling, and figuring out how to make them better.
I do less compiling than most radio hosts. Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Scott Simon—I view them as mainly compilers. My compiling cannot compete with theirs.
In the math sense? Or in the Lex-Luthor-evil-criminal-mastermind-rubbing-his-hands-together-while-staring-at-a-slowly-spinning-globe sense? Put that all in hyphens, I think.
In either case, the answer is yes to both.
You really can’t do analyzing or calculating without a good bit of comparing, so yes to this, too. You know the phrase “comparing apples to oranges?” I’ve never understood what that means. It’s meant to be pejorative, but of course you can’t compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, because there’d be nothing to say. Apples to oranges seems precisely the thing you should do. You know, this is taking all of my brainpower. I don’t know what that says about me!Copying?
I mean, being a journalist means going out in the world, copying down what other people say and repeating it back to the world.
What kinds of errors can be made in your job?
Errors … [pauses] There can be errors of fact, but we’re pretty good at preventing those. Then there’s the error of mediocrity, being boring. The Rosh Hashanah service talks about the error of too much pride, and too much humility. Also, not having enough levity, and too much levity at times. Not listening to people, or listening wrong.
Where would you most likely hang out if you were trying to get a date, if you were single?
Well, I’m married, but if I were single … Every answer I can think of is either wrong-headed or deeply creepy.
What do you usually do on Friday nights?
Well, lately I’ve been on this thing where I don’t drink during the week as an act of self-discipline. So Friday night I get to have a drink. Friday night is also when I do my show. Usually—pretty much always—the order is: do the show, have a drink.
It’s been said that you should never leave the house without looking your best, because you never know when you might meet someone. Do you agree or disagree?
I agree, but that’s a standard no one can live up to.
What’s the first question that you would ask a good friend who had a new love?
The first question. [long silence] “Have they pledged?” I mean to their local public radio station … I’m not serious.