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The Trouble With Birthdays: Ira Glass: Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

Ira Glass in his Chicago studio

Photography by CHRIS STRONG

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Sunday, December 25, 2005


What follows is an unabridged interview from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

For more information on this issue, click here

THE TROUBLE WITH BIRTHDAYS: IRA GLASS (UNABRIDGED)

There's still room for cake as "This American Life" celebrates its 10th anniversary

Interview by Robert Krulwich

In 1995, the first episode of a new show called “Your Radio Playhouse” aired on Chicago's public radio station, WBEZ (91.5 FM). One minute into that episode, the host, Ira Glass, said, “Right now, it is stretching in front of us — a perfect future, yet to be fulfilled. . . . Nobody hearing my words right now is thinking, Oh man, remember that show, back when it used to be good?” When, the next year, Glass shopped the show (with a new name, “This American Life”) around to stations across the country, a lot of program directors didn't know what to make of it. “First and foremost,” says Glass, “they were confused by the fact that some weeks it would be funny and light, and some weeks it would be very serious. They said, 'How will the audience know what to expect?' Another problem, a smaller one, was me. They all knew me and thought of me as a really good reporter from this series about public schools I'd been doing for 'All Things Considered,' but there was this feeling of, where's the host? Because I didn't sound like Robert Siegel.” Now, a decade later, the show, distributed by Public Radio International, is on 500 public-radio stations; 1.6 million people listen to it every week. “Now that I'm on the radio all the time, listeners tell me I have such a perfect voice for the radio, which is so crazy,” he says. “My voice is nasal, there's nothing special about it at all. It's just a testament to the power of repetition: People are used to hearing my voice on the radio, so now it sounds like a good voice for radio.”

Robert Krulwich is the real King of All Media. He started his career in the '70s as a print reporter, writing for Rolling Stone, among other magazines, then he moved to radio, reporting first for Pacifica and then for NPR, where he invented a new sound for news stories that was playful, theatrical and funny. He explained such complicated phenomena as supply-side economics and interest rates using the tools of radio drama, like actors and sound effects. In 1985 he jumped to television, where he's worked for CBS, ABC and the PBS shows “Frontline” and “NOVA.” He recently returned to radio, co-hosting WNYC's science-and-ideas show, “Radio Lab.” He's a meticulous and serious (and Emmy-winning) journalist, but he's also like your favorite high school science teacher, the one who would use hand puppets to help you understand conservation of matter.

We asked the two of them to sit down and talk in late October, a couple of weeks before the 10-year anniversary of “This American Life.”

Robert Krulwich: Are you generally the sort of person who commemorates?

Ira Glass: No, by disposition I'm not. It's weird, actually — in the very first episode my mom talks about this with me, about how some people are really great at beginnings and some people are really great at middles. I'm much more of a middle person. I think the people who tend to be commemorators are just a different sort.

RK: Are you a birthday celebrator?

IG: No. Are you?

RK: No, quite the contrary: I find it slightly embarrassing to be paid attention to for a reason that I haven't caused.

IG: Exactly. Yeah, so I was born, whatever. This week is the 300th episode of our show.

RK: That's an odometer number, 300. Does it mean anything to you?

IG: I feel like anybody who has a job has done 300 things over the last 10 years, and this just happens to be my job.

RK: Do you remember what it was that triggered the idea for the show?

IG: I totally remember it. I wouldn't have put it this way at the time, but there was a kind of feeling and a kind of story that I liked, and I was doing stories like that in various forms for the various national NPR shows — for “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”

RK: So there was a space in your head that had a certain kind of inchoate shape and you just kept addressing it?

IG: Yeah, there was a kind of sound or feeling to the stories that I was making, and that was true for the commentaries I was producing, and I was already reporting stories in the style that I'm reporting stories on the radio show — that is, there were characters and scenes and funny moments and emotional moments — except they just happened to be a little more tied to the news.

RK: The pieces I remember were a series about a high school, in the early '90s.

IG: That whole series got started because Larry Abramson, my editor, was the national desk editor at the time, and he was sick of editing education stories because, he said, there were only two education stories in the broadcast media or in the news media in America, and one is everything's going to hell in a hand . . . hand . . . handbag?

RK: Handbasket.

IG: Handbasket?

RK: Yeah. It's the container you go to hell in. I think it's what Little Red Riding Hood took to the wolf.

IG: OK. Well, I hate all picnics, so to me a basket always connotes going to hell. And then the other story is, you know, there's this one teacher who's figured out a new way to teach trigonometry, and if everyone would just adopt that all our schools would be fixed. Larry says those are the only two stories, and you never get a sense of, like, why doesn't this stuff work? Why is it so hard to fix a school? That was my mission. What felt new about it was that there would be all these theories about how to fix a school, and by staying there long enough I could really evaluate if the theories did what they were supposed to do. You could just sit in the classroom and watch — it was right there, right in front of you, just for the having. In a certain way it was the easiest reporting ever.

RK: But you, I'm assuming, hadn't heard a version of this — you had to make it yourself.

IG: But that took many, many stages. I had been doing radio for a long time — eight years — when I did this story about the 50th or 70th anniversary of the Oreo cookie. In the course of writing that story I figured out how to write for radio. There's a couple moments in that story where I'm saying things just to be funny, basically. And figuring out how to be funny while you're in the middle of being a reporter on a network news show — I hadn't figured that out until that story. It's sort of figuring out who my character is — who I'm playing. Because, like most people, when I got into broadcasting the first person I was playing was kind of a stiff. I heard how people sound on the radio and I thought that if you want to be on the radio you've got to sound like the other people on the radio. Did you not go through this?

RK: No. Because I was actually on the radio before I was even near a radio — but that's a whole disease. I would just report my own day to myself. “He's getting up now.” “What do you think he's gonna do now?” “Socks. Apparently he's gonna put on socks.”

IG: [Laughs] Wow, Robert.

RK: I probably shouldn't mention that.

IG: Well that shows so much more self-confidence than I have.

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