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The Trouble With Birthdays: Ira Glass

RK: One time I was on TV in the middle of doing a show, and unfortunately a ferret that I was supposed to be talking to — it was one of those late-night shows — had gone up my sleeve and was in my underarm. I was quite concerned about the ferret. So I stopped talking — actually for a minute I forgot that I was on TV — and was trying to push the ferret down my arm. And in my ear, the guy in the booth said, “Krulwich, you're not watching this on television — you're on television!”

IG: [Laughs] The thing is, broadcasting is so new, you know? Compared to theater, or even sailing or, like, most things, it's really new. So the aesthetics of it are still really, really crude. You want to have a format that's flexible enough for you to express everything you think is interesting about a story — so you can express the funny part and you can express the odd idea and you can express each part of it. You want the format to be able to accommodate that.

RK: Do you ever bore yourself, or get scared you're not breaking new ground?

IG: Sure. But that's the advantage of actually working with other people. Even on a week when I'm not breaking new ground, Alex [Blumberg] or Julie [Snyder] or someone else will be — somebody will be doing something — and all I have to do is introduce the show and get out of the way. It's a deep enough bench now that I don't have to hit a home run every week myself.

RK: You've had to do it now for 10 years. So something has to keep being able to intoxicate you — something sort of fundamental.

IG: This is sort of a dumb thing to say, but I like making stuff. The feeling of it isn't different from when I played with Legos as a kid. The feeling of it is exactly the same, of taking the pieces and putting them together this way and this way and this way, until it turns into what is for me the most pleasing way, you know? And it still feels like there's a huge territory of things that weirdly, on our show, we have a complete monopoly on. We're doing a show this week — our 300th show — where Alex Blumberg, one of our producers, is doing a story about how many civilians have died in Iraq, and all he's doing is going back to a news story that was there for a day in October 2004 and literally talking to the guy who nobody talked to, who put out a study about this. And the guy is amazing, and the stories he tells are so credible. And then Alex found a second guy who was a targeter in the Pentagon in the war in Iraq. The night we invaded Iraq, he personally had to choose 411 targets that we would drop bombs on, and name the number of bombs and the kinds of bombs and the directions that planes would fly in so as to reduce collateral damage. Then he quit that job and worked for Human Rights Watch, basically going into Iraq to see what the damage was that the bombs actually did. Everything about that story feels like we totally own it. But then the whole idea that basically we're going on the air saying, “Here's this overlooked study that was a news blip back in the day, and what it said was that 100,000 civilians as of a year ago died in Iraq, and it's probably right, even though nobody in the media thinks it's right, and nobody in this country takes it seriously, but actually here are all the reasons that you should actually think this is a real number,” the fact that that falls to us? Do you know what I mean? A weekend feature show on public radio? That all the rest of the media is busy thinking about something else and that we end up with that story? Like, that's really crazy.

RK: So you've asked the question. What's the answer? Is it laziness?

IG: In that case, one of the things that's lucky about the format of our show is it takes as its premise that we're not going to be running with the pack. Once you've decided that, you can go anywhere.

RK: Maybe that's the key: Your inner architecture is tight as a drum — how you listen, how you cut, how you parse. But your outer architecture is loose like the Blob. It's allowed to flow.

IG: I guess. My experience of it is more that it feels like there's continually new stuff that I feel excited about.

RK: So you've got like a body of work, and you've got a crowd — the people you work with — and you're sort of stitched together. And your crowd includes funny gay guys who live in France, and women who are fiercely patriotic and talk in a voice that's not typically radio, and —

IG: Actually all sorts of gays all over the country. There's many, many gays.

RK: Yeah. And everything in between. So which gives you the most pleasure, the body of work or the crowd, the network of affection?

IG: Oh, I feel like I would be such a better person if I would say the network of affection. I feel like that's the answer that gets you the A on the test. However, I am not that person. As everybody who knows me will tell you. You know, all those people — I adore them, I think the world of them, I trust them. I love them, actually. But as they would tell you themselves, my feelings for the work are so deep, and, you know, when it comes to a choice between their feelings and my feelings for the work, their feelings are always secondary.

RK: Do you ever think of yourself as a monster?

IG: I think of myself as a monster in the way that a lot of people who are under a lot of pressure and don't always handle it well do. But I don't think I'm exploiting anybody or anything.

RK: So the world that's totally thrilling, is that still making something in the edit room?

IG: Pretty much. The actual performing of the radio show I'm not so great at, or not so excited about. I mean, I can do it fine. I have my own national radio show — I can do it well enough for that. But it's not my favorite part of it. The part of it that is actually interesting and engaging and fun is in the editing room. I mean this week, just listening yesterday to the third edit on Alex's story, I just had this feeling of, like, We are sitting on such gold! This is so exciting! I can't believe we get to put this on the radio!

RK: What does that feel like?

IG: I feel really proud of Alex, and I know that it's a home run before we even go to bat. Before the audience even hears it I know how people are going to feel about it. I know how I would feel if I would hear this on the radio: I would just think, Oh my god, I can't believe I get to hear something like this. So much of the job of working on any kind of show is like, you know, you're kind of moving pails of water from here to there. It feels like we spend so much time setting up the shot, and then we make the shot. And it's just like I thought it could be. But it was the end of a process that took weeks and weeks and weeks. It just takes so many steps to get to that point. I imagine that when people have kids who they see make it to the end of second grade or third grade or high school, they just feel like they've invested so much time to get to this point. And it's that feeling in a very, very miniature version — you can't believe it worked out.

RK: Do you ever wish that you had actually become a pharmacist or something?

IG: I feel that quite a lot too. There are various ways that happens. One is that I'm just so overworked, and the show doesn't come out in some way that I want it to, either in some subtle way or it just was not right. And then there's just when I screw up in the way I talk to somebody, which happens enough that it gives me pause.

RK: Is it self-loathing or just quiet disappointment?

IG: I say out loud to myself that I just want to kill myself. And others. I will mutter to myself, like a mad robot, “Must. Kill. Self. (Pause.) And others.” Sometimes the others don't make the cut, though. Sometimes it's “must kill self.” I say this just trying to be honest. I wish it weren't true, because it's so stupid.

RK: Is it fear of failure?

IG: It's not fear of failure, it's just failure. It's actually achieving failure.

RK: I get very worried that I'm never going to be able to justify the thought in my head — I'll never get there.

IG: What do you mean, justify?

RK: Either make the thing that I have in mind or even solve whatever problem I need to solve in order to make the thing that I have in mind. Sometimes I just think I just can't.

IG: Then there's the whole other thing, which I'm sure you get, which I get all the time, being on every week — and I think you're on even more than I am — where I sort of kill myself to get on the air, and then it's not like it's greeted with hostility, but it's just greeted with a shrug. Sometimes you'll be working on something, you'll be working on it really hard, and, like, Tamar [Lewin, Krulwich's wife] will go, “Yeah. Sure. That was a good one. Whatever.”

RK: Here's where I think we differ. When I deliver it, I kind of resign, and that becomes “Robert's stuff.” Robert who's not me anymore. “It's OK, it's Robert's stuff now.” Whereas I sense that you still own it even after you've finished it and it's out there. You're like a coach on the
sidelines screaming.

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