Art of Glass

This American Life creator on the secrets of great radio.

Ira Glass makes “no promises” about the state of his sobriety during his upcoming Grass Valley appearance.

Ira Glass makes “no promises” about the state of his sobriety during his upcoming Grass Valley appearance.

Photo By Stuart Mullenberg

Ira Glass will be in Grass Valley at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium on December 3, for a look behind the scenes of This American Life. The event is sponsored by the Nevada County Center for the Arts and Capital Public Radio. Tickets are $55 for general admission. Go to for more information.

Ira Glass says he came to radio, “in a really sideways way.”

“I had never heard anything good on the radio, really. The radio just didn’t seem interesting,” he told SN&R in a recent interview.

Still, he took a summer job at NPR when he was just 19, and over the years developed a signature style of storytelling that would become his popular public radio program, This American Life, as well as a critically acclaimed but short-lived TV series on Showtime. (“It was really hard,” Glass explained.)

In the 16 years that the show has been on the air, Glass has proven that you can tell an interesting story about anything—terrorism, the mortgage crisis, even middle school. And the show’s sound is now so recognizable that Glass even landed a cameo on The Simpsons last year.

SN&R caught up with Glass ahead of his December 3 show in Grass Valley to ask about the craft of nonfiction storytelling, the future of public broadcasting, and some new projects he’s working on.

I feel like the show features some of the best journalism around. Do feel like you’ve had some kind of influence beyond radio?

I don’t know. I would like to think that … [but] it’s not why I’m doing the show at all.

In a way, I feel like what we’re doing is such traditional storytelling, it’s almost corny how traditional it is. It’s just a scene-by-scene construction of stories, where there’s a plot and the plot unfolds and things are revealed as the plot happens and it’s just super, supertraditional.

Then it’s taking things like the tea party or Guantanamo [Bay] or Iraq or the mortgage crisis and trying to make it so you can imagine being the people in the stories. So that you can imagine, “Oh, that’s right. That’s what I would have done if I was in a mortgage company, I would have sold terrible mortgages to people.” So you can have that experience of empathizing enough to have an emotional understanding, not just an idea understanding. But that’s supertraditional reporting and storytelling. I don’t feel like we’re such special geniuses. What’s surprising to me is that more people don’t do it.

Do you think you’ll branch out again into another format, like with the TV show?

Yeah. This week I’m consumed with making our radio show, then we are guest editing an issue of the New York Times Magazine, the last issue of 2011. Then, we’re also waiting to hear from Sundance [Film Festival]. We have a feature film—like a feature with actors in it—based on a story from our show that we’re producing. And we hope it gets into Sundance.

Oh, wow. Which story?

It’s a story by a comedian named Mike Birbiglia. He basically wrote a book and a one-man show called Sleepwalk With Me. And then he wrote a movie script that we’ve been working on for two years. It’s got Lauren Ambrose and Carol Kane, Marc Maron, Loudon Wainwright III. And it’s good—it’s really good. Well, it might be bad, but I can’t tell. I think it’s good.

You’ve tried to put the tools to make radio into people’s hands. You had the TAL comic book. On the website you have link to resources on how to make radio. Why not just keep your secrets to yourself?

Radio is fun. I feel like I and my fellow producers have stumbled into this little arena of the media where because, weirdly, people aren’t pushing you to make more and more money. Somehow we’re in this lucky situation where we have incredible freedom and also a huge audience. To have those two things together, at the same time—I feel like if people only knew, they would try to get our jobs. And I feel like if more talented people came into public radio, it would be really good for public radio.

Do you think that’s true of just public radio, or radio generally?

I don’t think it’s true of radio generally. Radio generally is suffering. The opinion shows are doing well. But just straight-up reporting, no. Newspapers are in trouble, magazines are in trouble, network TV is in trouble. But public radio grows in audience and revenue almost every year.

I wonder what you make of the political attacks on public broadcasting.

I think it’s complicated. When you look at what Juan Williams was saying, I don’t think he should have been fired. When people on the right were upset about that, they were right to be. That was a fuckup. It was just wrong in every way. But I feel like that’s a weird isolated case. It says nothing about what we’re doing on the air every week.

Does that political stuff end up hurting public radio?

Possibly. I think it’s a very serious problem. Weirdly, it might not hurt our audience size, or funding, it might just hurt the perception of public radio in a way that would taint it. There’s a Pew [Research Center for the People & the Press] poll about trust. Public radio, every year for a decade grew in people’s trust, even while newspapers fell and network news fell and everything else fell. But public radio just grew and grew. I feel like the political attacks could start to wear that down. You know, the president’s not a Muslim, but at one point, 40 or 50 percent of people told pollsters they thought he was. It doesn’t matter what the truth is in that situation, it matters how you’re perceived. I feel like the problem is public radio has no counter strategy against the strategy that’s being used against them. So yes, I’m scared.

I recently saw a Simpsons rerun, and Lisa’s listening to her iPod. Then your voice comes on, “Each week we choose a theme. … This week, condiments.” How does it feel to get that kind of recognition?

It was crazy. It was exciting. It was a huge honor, of course, and it is sort like saying, “Come sit down at the table with the big people,” or something. Truthfully, when something like our show is on The Simpsons, they know that a huge portion of their audience is not going to know who we are, and certainly most of the kids are not. But it’s really nice that they invited us to the table. It’s really sweet.

You should think about doing condiments as a theme for the show.

The problem is they own the copyright. They beat us to it. That’s the one theme we can never touch, copyright Fox Network.

So at the Grass Valley event, are you going to be getting blackout drunk on stage?

Wow, you have done your homework. Um … no promises. If those are the customs of the Sacramento and Grass Valley area, I will abide by the local customs.

Do you not want to talk about it?

No, I’m happy to talk about it. I’ve talked about it.

So, my wife has been producing this monthly variety show that’s she’s done for about a year. Eugene Mirman, the comedian, asked her to do one for this comedy festival that he runs. And they had this idea to do a “drunk show,” where over the course of two hours everyone on stage would get slowly drunk, and there would be games and challenges and things we were supposed to do like answer trivia questions and build a human pyramid, stuff like that.

It was Eugene and Rachel Maddow and me and John Hodgman and … I was very nervous that I was not going to be able to get drunk on stage. And I was very nervous about being onstage with a bunch of comedians, I thought I just need to go out there and give it 110 percent. So there was alcohol backstage. I thought we were supposed to start drinking backstage, so we’re sure we’re drunk before the show starts.

What I remember very clearly is the first 15 minutes of the show. The next thing I remember is that I was arm-wrestling a guy on stage on my stomach. But that’s just a memory that has nothing before it or after it.

The next thing I know, I woke up in my own bed the next day, smelling of vomit. No memory of anything else that happened.

My wife tells me that I did nothing to embarrass myself. I’m choosing to believe it. I have talked to other people who were there, and they say there was nothing terrible. But the way they talk to me about it … there’s a tone to it which I find disturbing. I’m just going to act like it’s fine.