Ira Glass on the allure of radio and the search for ‘the universal something’

On Saturday, an audience at Toronto’s Massey Hall was able to put a face to the familiar voice of This American Life’s Ira Glass. Rhiannon Russell was there, and describes Glass’ unique ideas and radio storytelling techniques that put his show apart from a news media world that is so full of dark stories.

On Saturday, an audience at Toronto’s Massey Hall was able to put a face to the familiar voice of This American Life’s Ira Glass. Rhiannon Russell was there, and describes Glass’ unique ideas and radio storytelling techniques that put his show apart from a news media world that is so full of dark stories.

Ira Glass at Toronto's Massey Hall on Saturday, Oct 27. (Photo: Rhiannon Russell)


Ira Glass has a killer sense of humour, talksthisfast and is immediately endearing.

Of course, if you listen to This American Life, the Chicago Public Media radio show of which Glass is the host, you already know this.

What you may not know, if you’ve only heard his disembodied voice through your headphones or over the airwaves, that he’s bespectacled, talks with his hands and walks on his toes, his heels just making contact with the ground before springing up again.

At Toronto’s Massey Hall Saturday night, Glass acknowledged that it can be unsettling for people who’ve only ever listened to him to see him in the flesh. “‘His voice is coming out of his head!’” he cried, feigning shock. “I’m really sorry about that.”

The 53-year-old broadcaster took to the stage to discuss the award-winning This American Life (TAL) and the unique allure of radio at Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass. The evening started in the dark. Glass’ unmistakable voice emanated from the speakers, nothing but the glow of an iPad visible onstage.

“You just hear somebody’s voice,” Glass said of the medium’s simplicity. “They’re talking from the heart about something that really matters to them. There’s an intimacy to [that.]”

He said he wanted to do the whole show like this, in the dark, because it’s “so nice,” but Massey Hall staff “were 100 per cent against that.”

So the lights came on, and Ira Glass appeared. The evening unfolded much like an episode of TAL: a mish-mash of stories with an overarching theme – in this case, the storytelling techniques of radio. 

Telling stories, not news

This American Life is not quite your average radio show.

“We're not a news show or a talk show or a call-in show,” its website reads. “There's a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It's mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always.”

These everyday stories are often funny or emotional or dramatic, and possess some element that makes them quite unlike everyday stories at all.

Glass was born in Baltimore, MD., and got his start in the biz as an intern at National Public Radio in Washington when he was 19. From there, he worked as a reporter, producer, editor and newscast writer for NPR, and in 1995, brought TAL to the airwaves.

Today, the show is broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations to about 1.7 million radio listeners each week. The podcast is downloaded an additional half a million times.

In a 2006 issue of Chicago Magazine, Glass said, “One of the founding ideas of the show was: Nobody who's famous, nothing you've ever heard of, nothing in the news. It was just going to be stories of everyday life … Well, about five or six years into the program, we started developing more of a storytelling style-characters and situations and dialogue. And we liked it. We liked it enough to take that style and try to apply it to the news.”

Or, as Glass put it Saturday night, “to remove the scent of broccoli from the room.”

Case in point: Glass played a clip of the music CNN used to introduce a story about the young Americans manning the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the months after 9/11. It’s dramatic, like something out of Battlestar Galactica.

Then Glass played TAL’s story, which aired in 2002. It was an interview with a young sailor whose sole job on the Stennis was restocking the vending machines. (Listen here.)

“It’s just the happiest piece of tape,” Glass said, as the audience laughed.

He said it’s these stories, the ones that give us a sense of discovery or a sense of joy, that aren’t often a part of journalism. Their exclusion, he continued, makes the world seem like a smaller and less accurate place.

“When you’re doing reporting, stories are often so dark. To leave out everything that makes life worth living seems like an odd choice.”

Using his iPad to play clips from previously aired interviews, Glass told stories that had the audience at times in stitches (like that of Bradley Harrison Picklesheimer, a Kentuckian who worked high-society parties), feeling our dinner swirling in our stomachs (a New Zealand teenager was bitten by a shark so badly that her bowels were punctured), and with tears in our eyes as recently deceased writer and TAL contributor David Rakoff read an excerpt from his last book Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish, a Novel by David Rakoff.

‘Action, action, action. Then, a thought’

Glass is an entertainer, at one point pulling out a blue balloon, blowing it up and twisting it to create a poodle. (“I used to do magic tricks at children’s birthday parties. I literally found something less cool than being in public broadcasting.”)

But magic doesn't bring stories to air

“Ideas just aren’t going to be sprinkled on you like fairy dust. Figuring out what you’re going to make your story about is a job. Ideas come from other ideas.”

Glass and the TAL producers look for a relatable character and interesting ideas. Humour and details are bonuses.

“Action, action, action. Then, a thought,” Glass said, laying out the typical sequence of the stories. He draws out from his interviewees not just what happened, but also how it made them feel or what it made them think.

“In radio, you actually say, here’s what this is,” he said. “[In everyday life] we’re telling stories all the time, and we don’t just give the plot. You go and give the meta, the narrative.”

For example, he said, when we come home to our spouse or partner after a rough day at work, we give them a play-by-play of what happened: “My boss came into my office, and he said this, and I said this, and I thought this.” Then, you add to the narrative. “I have to leave my job” or “I have to change my life.”

It’s the anecdote and the subsequent idea that make the stories on TAL so extraordinary.

‘The universal something’

Glass played an interview he did in 2001 with a man whose coworker often brought her young daughter to the office.

“She and I developed this kind of teasing relationship,” the man said. “She would come into my office, and she would drop my mail off and stick her tongue out at me. And I would fake chase her down the hallway or something.”

One day, the man exited the washroom, his glasses in his shirt pocket, and he saw a small figure in the hallway. He got down, and began crab walking towards her, talking to her in a creepy, exaggerated voice. But as he got closer, “I realize, in fact, it's not at all the young girl who I thought it was. But it's in fact, one of our interns, a business intern who is a midget.”

Back in real-time, Glass asked, “Who among us has not had a moment like this? It really sticks with you, that moment.”

This is one of the questions the TAL team asks itself when hunting for stories: “What is the universal something we all relate to in the story?”

Of this objective quality, this empathetic ingredient, Glass said, “I think there just isn’t enough of that in journalism … It’s so basic. It’s hard to even talk about it, it’s so corny.

“Radio is just particularly suited to that job. You can’t see the person … Obviously you can do this in other media, but you have to be a really good writer to pull that off. On radio, it’s like, this is what radio does when it’s not trying to do anything.”


Ira Glass on….

Tips for young broadcasters:

“There are some downsides to being in journalism, including that the whole industry is imploding (audience laughter) … Start making stuff. Be aggressive. Invent your future. Make one thing a week … Abandon crap.”

On the video he shot for Rookie (a website run by fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson with help from Glass’ wife Anaheed Alani)

They asked me to do one and make balloon animals. I’m not quite a big enough star to just answer questions … It’s a surreal video.”

On the comment that Glass made about community during an interview last week with CBC Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway:

“I said something mean… (he tried to remember and a few people in the audience shouted it out) I said it made me want to puke.” He smiled and argued his point, saying that all of us gathered in Massey Hall weren’t a community. It’s not like we were all going to hang out again at the venue tomorrow night because we had such a great time this night, he said. “If that happens, I will eat these words.”