Those thick black spectacles, the shock of pepper gray hair, and that trademark nasally—yet inviting—voice. There’s only one person we could be talking about: the venerable host of This American Life, Ira Glass. Over the last 20 years, he’s told more than 500 stories on the immensely popular radio show and podcast.
Glass and an acclaimed coterie of writers and producers have recounted tales of financial catastrophes, embarrassing proms, and a man who started his own cryogenic lab. On April 12, he (Glass, not the cryogenicist) will grace Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center for An Afternoon with Ira Glass. Arts Editor Jessica Peña spoke with Glass over the phone about his start in radio, the art of storytelling, and how you can make a pedophile relatable.
ACT ONE: Who is Ira Glass?
New Times We actually asked some people on our Facebook this morning if they had any questions, and the only two so far today [Feb. 16] have been: One, “Who is Ira Glass?” and two, “Is he single?” So … who is Ira Glass?
Ira Glass So do you want me to answer those? I’m totally up for that.
New Times You can answer them. Any way you want.
Glass Great. I am the host of a show on public radio [that] is also a popular podcast, and this show is kind of hard to describe without making it sound awful. It’s … uh ... documentary stories—and that’s a word that automatically makes people not wanna listen—about everyday life, but also about bigger-issue things. And I am married. Happily married.
New Times They’ll be so disappointed, those two people. So, This American Life has their big 20th anniversary this year, and I was just curious to start off: Do you remember the first time you interviewed someone on the radio, and how did that go?
- PHOTO COURTESY OF ADRIANNE MATHIOWETZ
- ON THE RADIO: Glass began his career in radio with an internship at NPR at the age of 19. He’s worked in public radio for nearly 30 years.
Glass Let me think. I do remember the first time I interviewed somebody for the radio. It’s when I was an intern at NPR, and I interviewed one of my teachers about … something. I can’t even remember. It was something pretty heavy. It wasn’t like … I don’t think he was a Holocaust survivor, but it was something kind of World War II-ish, and he was a very funny, great talker, and it did end up on the air. He was a really charming, lovely man, which made it easy. And from the beginning, I feel like I had no interest interviewing politicians or famous people; that made me nervous. The thought of interviewing normal people seemed really more doable.
New Times And what have been some of your favorite interviews over the years? You’ve done a lot, so it’s hard to pick.
Glass It is hard to pick, because there’s always new ones that I really love. But I mean some of my favorites I think are big audience favorites. There was a guy named Myron Jones who I interviewed years ago who told me this story about growing up. His parents wouldn’t let his older sister out of the house when they were teenagers, but they would let him out of the house—even though he was three or four years younger—at night just because of pure sexism, and she invented a family that she claimed she was babysitting for named the McCrearys. And it was this elaborate lie that Mr. McCreary was an FBI agent, so she couldn’t actually tell her mom where they lived, which somehow her mom bought, and they had a whole fiction going that the McCrearys had a summer house by the beach, that they would go up to the lake with their friends and claim to be babysitting the McCrearys. It was a huge, elaborate fiction, and what was so interesting about it as a story is that, as the interview unfolded, it became clear that the mom was kind of crazy actually, and that’s why they were kids who needed to lie to her. … Myron told me that at one point she sent Myron to an orphanage, even though he wasn’t an orphan. He was her kid. She sent him to an orphanage rather than live with her, and a lot of the interview became about dealing with a parent who is mentally ill, and it was funny. And he was just an amazing talker but also he had such grace about it, like he wasn’t bitter about these things that had happened, and that’s what made it very beautiful.
ACT TWO: The Pedo Files
New Times Over the years, how have you kind of developed that instinct for what is a good story, ’cause you hear something—we get pitched all of the time—and it sounds interesting, you get into it, and you realize maybe there’s nothing there. How has that approach changed over the years?
Glass I mean, I’m not sure it’s changed much from the beginning. It’s just, in a certain way, what’s happened is that we’ve widened the net of things that we’ll consider for the show. Like, when the show started 20 years ago, the mission of the show was to apply the tools of journalism to stories that were so small and personal that journalists never would have considered them. And then what we would do is we would do stories where what we were looking for is a person in a situation where they would start the plot, the plot was interesting, things happened that were surprising, and then they had some interesting thought about it, they learned something, or they changed in some way, and then they themselves had to be somebody that you could relate to.
Hold on for a sec. I’m jumping out of a cab … I’ve been basically working everyday for months, and we just did these two episodes of the show that were so hard to do.
New Times Yeah, the two recent cops episodes have been pretty heavy ["Cops See It Differently, Part One and Two," aired Feb. 6 and 13].
Glass Anyway, so and then every weekend, I’ve been going out and giving speeches or I’m touring with this dance company doing this show where I perform with these dancers. And so every weekend I’m away, so I’m running out to get food and take it home to my wife and watch TV and eat in a way that we never get a chance to. But anyway … we’re looking for a plot, we’re looking for an idea, we’re looking for a character you can relate to. It helps if the story is funny in some places. It helps if it’s emotional. Actually, it has to be emotional, and that’s what we were looking for in the beginning. And we’ve added to that cause we’re trying to apply that model and that way of telling stories to the news and taking on things in the news. That’s something we’ve done increasingly over the last few years.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS
- THIS IRA LIFE: 'This American Life' has won countless awards over the last 20 years, including five Peabody Awards for its ability to “capture contemporary culture in fresh and inventive ways.”
New Times I was actually curious: What are some of the more eccentric pitches you’ve had over the years?
Glass I mean, I think like the most eccentric pitches … I feel like the hardest pitches just to know what to do with are ones where it’s like they just seem so … let me take a moment to think about it; there’s just so much material. I mean, it used to be that I felt like the very worst pitch I’ve ever heard was from this guy, a teacher, who emailed us and said, “Whenever people write about pedophiles, they don’t understand what the pedophile is going through.” And he himself wants to, has like the impulse of wanting to have sex with children, and he’s a teacher in a high school, and he restrained himself, and he said that.
He said, I believe, “There are many of us out here who have these impulses but don’t act and no one ever tells our story.” And honestly, you know, I talked about it with my senior producer, and we were like: First of all, how do you make a person like that sympathetic, right? So you lose the first thing you need in your story, like there’s nobody there to relate to, and then, you wouldn’t want to necessarily make them sympathetic, right?
Like, why make people identify with a potential pedophile? And so, and truthfully we felt like, “Oh do we need to notify the authorities?”—and so we talked to our lawyer about that. So that was always my example of like, you can never do that story. And then this young reporter came across a story that was so similar but just had one twist in it which was just this remarkable story where he basically found online a community of young people, these were teenagers, and they were led by this one teenage boy who—basically when he was, you know 12, 13, 14, and started to have sexual feelings—realized that he wanted to have sex with much younger children.
And at first he didn’t know that that was exactly wrong. But then, at some point fairly early on, downloading child porn, he came to understand, “Oh, this is actually really awful.” He decided that he never would act on it, and he wanted to seek help, and what he found was that he could not find help. When he went to a therapist, the therapist basically scolded him and said she didn’t know how to treat him, and he and his mom basically went on this search for some sort of treatment. And pedophiles so rarely seek treatment, and what he found was that he was kind of like out in the cold.
That had what the original case lacked, which was that it had somebody. It was a story about somebody who would agree with us when we heard it, like he also thought it was a problem that he had these impulses and was acting on it and wanted to rid himself of them. Also, there was a scene in the story where he goes to the therapist who’s so awful to him, and you really side with him, like here’s somebody who’s being brave and seeking help and they get, they get … you know? And so, even what I originally thought was the worst pitch possible turned into something great. That something done in a slightly different way could be a story that anyone could relate to.
ACT THREE: Story Time
New Times That certainly brings up the question: Can anything be a story, given the right angle?
Glass No. I mean, well, that’s like saying anything can be a story if it’s a different story. I think lots of things are not stories. And I have to say, there are lots of stories that are important stories in a person’s life but just aren’t interesting enough to tell on the radio. Like sometimes somebody will pitch us their recovery story—you know, like they got over or quit alcohol or drugs—and I have to say those are amazing, dramatic, life-changing stories. Then, the problem is that we’ve all heard them. So, there’s a whole class of stories that we get pitched that are like that.
There’s one that we’re working on right now for an upcoming show that we’re worried will work out like that, which is on one of these high school programs where they give teenage girls fake babies, like these dolls that simulate what it’s like, and the babies cry and they have to take care of the baby, and you watch a pair of teenage girls go through having that, and truthfully we were worried it’s just a cliché. But the fact is that the reactions the two young women have are so interesting, like they themselves are both so relatable and interesting that we’re hoping that it will be strong enough that people won’t feel like, “Oh yeah … yeah I’ve heard that before.” But it’s delicate.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF EBRU YILDIZ
- HOST WITH THE MOST: For 20 years now, Ira Glass has been the host of the popular radio show 'This American Life,' which documents the lives and stories of both ordinary and extraordinary people.
New Times I was gonna say. You know, that could easily turn into one of those after-school specials from the ’80s. I mean, how do you negotiate that line between … ?
Glass Yeah, exactly! One of those episodes from My So-Called Life.
New Times It’s just another WB teen soap. For you, what are the standards, then, for the kind of stories that you guys are really interested in? What are the components that make stories good when you’re developing them for the show?
Glass I mean, I feel like the ones, the things that make a story good for us are the things that make a story good for anybody. Like, we feel like we’ve never heard it before, that it would be surprising, and we relate to it in a big emotional way. And then it’s good if the stakes are high, you know, if there’s some big thing that’s big in somebody’s life. But if the stakes are low, and the person is interesting enough, it still can work.
New Times Yeah, it’s still compelling. That’s probably—and this is an old question, too—but that’s probably why Serial took off, too. Everyone’s heard homicide stories in the past, but when you get into the human element of it … I mean … is that why you felt the show became popular?
Glass Yes, in large part. I mean, Sarah Koenig would be able to make you understand all these different people and their motivations, and they all seem three-dimensional and nothing seemed stock. Everybody’s very, very real, and so the thing had the complicatedness of real life. What creates suspense is the question hovering in the air: Could this seemingly nice guy have killed his ex-girlfriend? And I feel like you really wanna know the answer, and she wants to know the answer. There’s so many things about that that made it so successful, but structurally, that did. And then there’s the kind of X-factor that Sarah did such an amazing job writing it and presenting it and reporting it out and really getting to the bottom of it, but also the way she presents it and the way she writes it that we feel like we’re along with her and wanna know what she thinks.
New Times Yeah, definitely. Actually one of the teachers in our county, a high school teacher, started using Serial for his literature courses alongside Macbeth and Hamlet because there’s a definite course of themes that they share in common, and these universal stories really grip people. Do you feel like that’s why the repository for stories in This American Life is kind of endless, that these stories exist in every place?
Glass I mean, I don’t think about it so broadly, but we find stories that we think are strong enough to be on the show. I don’t feel like the stories are just out there. I feel like it’s hard to find them, and it’s hard to shape them properly so that they have as much feeling as we want them to have. But I do think that, I do agree with you that any story worth hearing, you know it says something universal; it has something that anyone can relate to.
New Times What are some of your favorite stories in television, film, or books that you’re reading right now?
Glass We’ve been in such a production chaos that I haven’t been able to do anything. I’ve just started watching Orange is the New Black. I feel like I’m just watching all the timely things that everyone in America is watching. I just started watching, last night, Parenthood, and it’s just now off the air, but my wife was like, “We should watch this.” And she had seen some of it, so we started with episode one last night, which I thought was super skillful. I have a lot of respect for Parenthood.
New Times So you’re coming to San Luis specifically for a live performance. It’s such a different kind of outfit from the isolation that radio sometimes feels like. For you, what do you enjoy about live performances as opposed to radio?
Glass I mean, it’s fun being in front of people. When you’re on the radio, you do one bit and you’re like, “Did anybody hear that?” I feel like I know in an abstract way that even though I’m alone in my room talking to myself, people hear it. But it’s much more satisfying to be on the stage, and it’s fun to be funny and hear people laugh. I don’t know. I started giving speeches just to publicize the radio show, which is what it is, and when I first started doing this, I really viewed it as, “Oh, this is really like a chore.” And I would go out and I would say this and say that and play this clip of tape and this clip of tape, but at some point a couple years ago, I consciously thought, “I need to have more fun when I’m on stage.” And since then, I feel like it really is fun to be on stage and to have the chance to do it.
New Times Do you get nervous before each performance?
Glass I used to. It’s been awhile since I’ve been nervous because I really have been going out every weekend and giving a talk or doing a dance show somewhere.
New Times To end things, I had one last question: If your life were to be made into a movie or a Broadway musical, who would play you and what would be the title?
Glass I mean, obviously either James Earl Jones or Julia Roberts. And it would be called I’m Editing as Fast as I Can.
Jessica Peña is editing as fast as she can! Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.