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"Can I just say, please don’t fucking call me a storyteller on your fucking cover! There’s my quote for you."
Conversations
1 October 2013

Ira Glass is an icon

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photography by Brandon Wickenkamp

Myke Bartlett on Ira Glass

There’s a peculiar unease involved in interviewing an interviewer. Alongside the usual concerns about getting under the subject’s skin, there’s a potent sense of performance anxiety. This isn’t helped when your subject is Ira Glass, whose voice has become familiar to millions of listeners during his 17 years hosting This American Life.

Broadcast by Chicago public radio station WBEZ (Glass and the program are now based in New York), the show’s mix of personal stories, hard news and investigative reporting has become an internet sensation, thanks to its availability as a free podcast. Whether tackling the Iraq War, inner-city violence, gambling or the extraordinary tale of two babies swapped at birth, Glass and his crew manage to find an approach to their topic that belies its weightiness.

Put simply, no matter how grim the subject, listening to This American Life never feels like hard work. Part of this is down to the structure of the show, which tends to break a story into three neat acts, with the attendant peaks of drama and intrigue. Part of this is down to Glass himself. With his easy, warm manner and atypical presenter’s voice, Glass is a comforting guide, with a storyteller’s knack for easing us into and through the world of his tale. Just don’t ever call him a storyteller.

It’s nine o’clock for Ira when we chat via Skype. He’s sitting on a sofa in the two-room New York apartment he shares with his wife and dog, scoffing down takeaway. He has the interviewer’s knack for quickly establishing intimacy and, within seconds, our conversation is hightailing it away from the questions on my sheet. Throughout, there’s a bit of good natured wrestling, as if both of us are grabbing for the wheel. I find myself answering questions when I should be asking them.

Not that it matters, as an hour with Ira Glass (as listeners of his show well know) is terrific fun. Too much fun, perhaps. Suddenly it’s 10 o’clock and Glass has to go walk his dog in the company of an elderly neighbour. I worry we’ve ended on a slightly glum note and, also, that I won’t have enough. But, when I come to write up our chat, what has felt like a lightweight, if enjoyable affair, rife with tangents and diversions, proves to have a surprising amount of heft.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

MYKE BARTLETT: It’s 9:00pm in New York and you’re eating takeaway. What is a typical day for you?

IRA GLASS: I’m picturing this in the really weird, beautiful typesetting you guys do. Everything you say looks profound in that typesetting. It’s like playing music under somebody’s words.

Actually, I wanted to talk to you about music, because I know that you do play music at your live shows, while you’re talking. Is that why – you’re ensuring that you sound profound?

Absolutely. Without the music, I just sound like some guy standing on stage. Also, it simulates the feeling of the radio show. But it’s way easier to perform with music underneath you, for sure. I mean, at my level of performance, it really helps.

Music is used very cleverly in This American Life. Has it always been very important to you? Are you a music geek?

No, none of that. I played instruments badly in grammar school. I don’t play music very well. Years ago, I had a girlfriend who was really into jazz. Nina Rowe was her name. Her dad knew everything about jazz and one Christmas – even though they were Jews – they celebrated Christmas, which I never understand.

Really? I have Jewish friends who are very big on Christmas.

I do not understand that at all.

It’s kind of like double dipping, isn’t it?

That’s only if you see Christmas as a positive thing. It’s not for me. But, anyway, I gave Nina’s dad this Don Byron CD that had just come out. He was so impressed. He was like, “Does Ira know a lot about jazz?” And she was like, “No, he just knows a lot about music you can talk over.” Which is so true. It’s so sadly true. You know, Philip Glass is my cousin. I didn’t know him at all before moving to New York, but since then I’ve seen him a lot and hung out with his musician friends. I feel that I understand that world just a little bit. But no, I’m not a frustrated composer or anything. Classical musicians seem like professional athletes, training all the time. And a little bit cuckoo – in a really wonderful way. We can go back to your first question about my day, if you want.

Did we answer that? I suppose we didn’t. Let’s go back. This American Life is a big program to turn out once a week. Do you get any time off?

I don’t get a lot of time off. But that’s because I keep taking on extra projects. If I just had the radio show, I think I’d have quite a normal life. Right now, I’m in a touring show with these dancers, where it’s me with two dancers on stage. I tell stories and they dance and sometimes I dance with them. So there have been a lot of dance rehearsals, which suck up a lot of time.

Have you had much experience dancing?

None. I’m in my fifties and out of shape, or I was, before this began. And, besides that, this writer who worked on our show, David Rakoff, he died. I’m involved in promoting his book, because he’s dead. So there’s all these little side things going on. If those things weren’t there, I’d be way more sane but, as it is, usually I’m at work by eight, sometimes earlier. And then I’m working until at least seven and sometimes nine. But the rest of the staff, they have a way more normal life. This weekend, I worked.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

Many weekends I work through. But mainly that’s because I take on extra stuff. And it’s stuff that I like.

You’ve been doing the show for 17 years now, are you looking for new challenges?

It’s been easy to find lots of new ways to test myself. We did a TV show for a few years. We have a bunch of movies in development. There’s the dance show. We did this event last year, where we did our show onstage in theatres in Australia and Canada. And I feel the radio show has got a lot more ambitious. There’s a kind of investigative report that, in the early days of the show, we could only really do once every six or eight months, because we had so few staff. Now, it’s like one out of two or three shows. So, the show itself has changed dramatically.

It does seem that you’re moving away from an anecdotal style towards weightier issues. What’s driving that?

It amuses us more as a staff, is the primary thing. I wish I could say we became more responsible citizens of the world, to make us seem a lot more noble than we are. But, in fact, this really began not that long after September 11. Like most people in America, we became way more interested in the news. The show followed our interests. We did stuff on the War on Terror and Guantanamo and went out with soldiers and private contractors in Iraq. We went to Iraq a number of times and tried to figure out ways to cover these things in our style. There would be scenes and characters and funny moments and emotional moments. In the early days, the idea of this show was to apply the tools of journalism to things that journalism wasn’t bothering with, because they were so small and personal. And then once we mastered that, it became really interesting to take that style and tackle these bigger, weightier things. It’s much more difficult, it’s much harder to do a show in our style on Guantanamo than do another episode of personal stories.

And you’re finding the audience is happy to follow you on this trajectory?

The audience continues to grow every year. There are people that definitely complain. They want more fun shows. But we feel the same; we want to do more fun shows. You’ll see periodically, we’ll go through little spasms, ‘Oh, let’s do another funny one.’ Last March we did two episodes at this high school where they had 29 shootings in one year. The episode after that was just a piece of candy. It was just there to be funny. It’s not that we were really worried about the audience. It was for us. We needed a break. Even when we take on the serious stuff, we make a point of going:

‘The serious stuff should be funny too.’

I think that’s something a more traditional broadcaster doesn’t do. When it takes on a serious thing, there’s nothing funny in it at all, which I don’t understand. I feel that’s giving up one of the tools that you have, as somebody presenting a story–the presenter should be a person, rather than just some news robot. In traditional broadcast journalism there are a lot of tools left unused. The first problem you have is that everyone has baggage that they bring to issues. Nobody wants to hear another story about Israel and the Palestinians, nobody wants to hear about climate change. Everybody knows where they stand. It’s like, ‘Climate change–yeah, we’re against it,’ or ‘We don’t believe in it.’ Israel and the Palestinians, yeah, it’s fucked up, we all know it.’ When you get into those issues, you have to be very tactical about making people want to listen for even two minutes. Part of that is just trying to disguise what we’re doing for as long as we can, by being funny.

People do seem to think that serious things need to be treated in a serious manner. Films, for example, that are heavy and profound often lack any jokes. Whereas, when you meet people who work in very serious industries, dealing with horrible things, they make jokes all the time.

Really great filmmakers, like Errol Morris [The Fog of War] can make films which are dark, but also really funny. The people he’s talking to, he gives them the space to be funny. But, yeah, I feel like it’s a problem. In broadcasting, there’s a weird fear of not being taken seriously. It’s like people on television doing the news are worried they won’t be seen as the serious ones, so they have to play this character. Radio’s a little more forgiving. The character you’re allowed to play as a news presenter is a little more human.

I’ve seen that famous video in which you talk about how long it took you to find your voice. Because, when you started doing radio journalism, you were doing that thing–trying to sound serious. Do you think you would have had time to find your own voice, if you weren’t working in public radio?

One good thing about working in public radio is that nobody was trying to make money off what we were doing. We could experiment and it would be tolerated. I wouldn’t have had that space in commercial broadcasting. Especially when I started in public radio in the states. Public radio is so much newer here than it is in Australia. It began as a national system in the 1970s. Before then, there was nothing. There were individual stations, but there wasn’t a network.

The stakes were remarkably low. Which was great for me.

Have you ever been tempted to move into the commercial sphere?

Truthfully, public radio is now way healthier. There is nothing like our show on commercial radio. To do our show, even at a modest level, you’re talking about a budget of a million dollars a year. When we started, our budget was a quarter of that. You just can’t raise a million dollars a year on commercial radio for a once-weekly, hour-long show. The economic model isn’t there. I think that if people in other parts of journalism understood the lush situation we’re in in public broadcasting and public radio especially, they would make the switch. There’s a huge, healthy audience that wants the shows, and the internet audience is still growing. Podcasting is still in its early stages. People will donate money. You can make an economic model that works. I look around at people working in newspapers and magazines and they’re very, very nervous.

It does seem that, certainly in the States, the public-radio model might prove more sustainable than current media empires. Perhaps where we’ll see good quality journalism survive is on places like your shows.

That is very optimistic.

I work as a journalist. I have to be optimistic.

I think also, the aesthetics of the radio show fit so well with the aesthetics of the internet. We just got lucky. We were doing people telling personal stories, it’s a very one-to-one kind of thing. Everything on the internet is kind of like that.

It has that intimacy. On that theme of telling stories, one of the things that always comes up in the media when people are talking about you is this notion of you being a storyteller, rather than a reporter. Is that a distinction that appeals to you?

I’m so glad you asked that because it doesn’t at all. Storyteller sounds so twee.

It does a little.

Oh my God. Storyteller sounds like I’m some guy, sitting on a log with a banjo and some hay sticking out between my teeth and I’m going to tell you some yarn about back when, here on the farm. Mostly, I’m like a professional editor. That’s most of my job. And I’m a reporter. I’m a journalist. We’re doing true stories. Storyteller has a weird feeling to it, in the same way that the word documentary has a weird feeling.

So where does this come from, why do people refer to you in this way?

[Long pause] I guess they’re just trying to bother me. They’re just doing it to annoy me. It’s the only possible explanation. It’s not like I’ve ever even said this out loud, publicly. They can just intuit. They listen to the sound of my voice and the sum body of everything I’ve ever said in public and think: What would irk him the most? [Laughs] I think that people feel that there’s something about the show that is not journalism but people telling stories. I understand why they feel that way. It’s not an unfair thing to think. I suppose, once you have people telling stories and it’s a show about stories then you are pretty much a storyteller. I’m the one who put the log out on the porch and who brought in the hay. I’m the one who bought myself a corn-cob pipe. It’s unfair that I would accuse people.

I guess, given the way the show is structured and as host, you do give it an anecdotal quality.

Yeah. We say “stories” instead of saying “documentaries”, because “documentaries” sounds entirely negative.

Why do you think that is?

“Documentaries” sounds like it’s going to be good for you, you’re going to learn something. Who wants that? Seriously, I make documentaries for a living and I don’t want that.

I suppose it’s the same thing as when something becomes work. I spend a lot of time reviewing films and I really like not having to watch films now.

Oh no!

I make a distinction between films that are pleasure and that are work. Even if I’m going to enjoy the film I have to review, there’s a little light in my brain going, “No! This is work! Switch it off!”

Goddamn, that’s a busted mentality. It’s like, people in Hawaii, where do they go on vacation? Holy fuck. So, you can’t go to the movies for pleasure.

I can, but it has to be for something that isn’t classed as work.

In the stage show I do with the dancers, one of the things I talk about is how, once something you really love becomes your job, you have to repeat it so many times that it just kills the love. That’s what you’re talking about. If you’re a dancer, you’re not just dancing for fun. You’re dancing eight shows a week. Sometimes I go out and give these talks about the radio show, so that we can make money. I know I’m a totally solid performer, but I’m not a good enough performer that I can do three weeks in a row. I’ll be onstage and I’ll completely dissociate from what I’m saying. I’ll be talking about the radio show and things that really mean something to me, but if I have to do that three weeks in a row, I’m not a good enough actor to do it. I can’t do it with a straight face.

I feel like, in a creative job, you’re forced to repeat the act so many times that it takes all the pleasure out of you.

It’s tough. Well, it’s not really tough. I still love films.

I guess I’m more in an information vacuum. I see nothing. I read nothing.

I was going to ask you about that. Where do you get your news from, now? What do you enjoy?

The New York Times. It arrives at the house and I read it on my way to work and in the elevator on my way up to work. I don’t really get news from the internet, I don’t get news during the day. Occasionally, I’ll have a TV show that I’m watching, but it’s been a while. Right now, I’ve just started up again with The Newsroom. I know all the reasons people don’t like it, but I enjoy it in an unironic, unabashed way. I enjoy the fuck out of it. I like the bigness of it, I like that Sorkin’s out to entertain. I don’t care when the characters don’t exactly make sense. I like the conceit that he’s taking real news from a couple of years ago. I feel like he’s out for my fun. Leave that man alone. I watch that once a week.

I’ve just started reading again in the last couple of months. I read the Daniel Handler book Why We Broke Up [illustrated by Maira Kalman]. Have you read that? It’s like a perfect book, it’s like a poem. It’s so pure. Each chapter is one object and the narrator tells the story of that object, but simultaneously, it’s the story of why she broke up with the boy she’s writing to. Each chapter ends with this little coda where she says: “And this is why we can never be together and this is why you’ll never understand me and this is why we had to break up.” It’s fucking ingenious. But, really, I don’t have much time to read.

This is a cheap segue, but hearing you talk about that book made me think again about the structure of your show.

I am respecting the segue. I’m giving you positive vibes for it.

Thank you. One of the other reasons I think the storyteller thing comes up is the fact that there are moments of reflection built into This American Life. There’s an attempt to find the meaning of the stories you cover.

We consciously do that. Partly that comes out of the fact that for so long we were doing stories that weren’t in the news. There was no reason to listen to them unless they made a point. And because it’s radio, it’s curiously didactic. It’s not like we’re making poems or dramas or something. If somebody’s saying something, they just really have to say it. You can’t just let it speak for itself. So the early structure on the show was that someone would have to say: ‘This is what I learned, this is what it made me think, this is how I changed, this is a new way of thinking about the world that I gained from having this experience.’ It sounds dreadful now as I say it. It sounds very formulaic, but I swear, it’s what a lot of very good radio interviewers naturally do. They have people come on and tell an anecdote and they’ll drive them towards, ‘So, what do you think, how did you feel?’ When we went back towards covering the news, we wanted to stay with that structure, because it’s effective. It’s satisfying. Journalism is allowed to do that.

You can ask a normative question, you can ask an interpretative question. Often that’s the thing that we want, which we’re not getting from the daily coverage.

I don’t want to be too hard on traditional journalists. There’s plenty of analysis in all good newspapers. But there’s something different in the context of a story that’s character and emotion based. It enters you differently as a listener.

You’re looking at events through the prism of the personal. Do you think that there’s a danger that can be a reductive approach?

I think done badly it can be reductive. It can totally be done badly and stupidly, as in any kind of writing and reporting. Sure.

I wanted to talk about the Mike Daisey story. It’s a good example of the dangers of the personal–one man’s interpretation being presented as fact. Firstly though, I want to say that the retraction episode is one of my favourites.

It’s always funny to hear that, because it’s like somebody watching your trial. I felt like we were on trial for murder and we barely got off. We pled guilty and the jury acquitted us. We were allowed to keep our jobs. So for people to be like, That was really interesting, you pled for your lives.

Have you ever listened back to that show?

No. No. But, truthfully, that’s not unusual. If I listen back right away, all I hear is, Oh, we should have brought the music in a little earlier. I need six months to go by before I understand what really happened. But that one is so fraught with feelings. Okay, I’m backtracking. I probably will never listen to it again.

Were you seriously worried that it was going to irretrievably damage the show?

Of course. Of course. We took on a pretty big target, the Apple corporation, and to get something wrong is really terrible. The thing is, we knew Mike Daisey wasn’t a journalist. I told him, “We’re going to fact check this. Anything we can’t prove, we are going to take it out.” Everything had to be totally solid. We went through this long fact-checking process before we went on air, but the one thing that we didn’t do was talk to the translator. Mike said he didn’t know how to reach her. Somehow China seemed really far away. It didn’t seem possible that we could track this lady down. Everything else checked out. All the other allegations, people who had been inside the factories confirmed them. With one exception, that there was child labour, that he met 15 or 16 year olds. Everyone else told us Apple’s record was very, very, good; they didn’t use child labour. But in the original broadcast, I argued with that. Obviously, we messed up. We shouldn’t have broadcast without talking to the translator. As soon as we found out it wasn’t true, we thought, Okay, we have to tell people. The substance of a lot of the things he was saying was true, but the details of the actual incidents… I don’t think any of that happened.

Listening to Mike Daisey on that retraction episode, it sounded like he’d become fixed on the truth of the meaning of the story, rather than the details. The story felt true to him, so he couldn’t quite come to terms with the fact that the details weren’t real.

I think that’s exactly right. But he’s not a reporter. He’s a theatre artist, an actor. Their job is to lie. In the end, he was saying stuff was true that wasn’t. That wasn’t the right thing to do. But we were the ones who put him on the radio. We’re the ones who were supposed to know better. People lie to reporters all the time, sometimes unknowingly. People say stuff in interviews that they think is true, but isn’t. That’s our job. The fault is ours, in the end. I feel like I don’t want to let us off the hook in any way. I feel like I’ve launched into this whole self-justifying speech about the translator, but I wondered if it was going to change the way people thought about the show. I would understand if it did.

I totally felt, when we learned that was untrue, that nobody was ever going to trust us again.

Was it crucial that This American Life were the people to break that story?

We were very lucky that we were the ones who got to break the news. The reporter that found out was with another show called Marketplace. It was only out of a sense of vague public broadcasting collegiality that when he told his editor, his editor got in touch with us. They could have broken the story and said, ‘This show is full of lies.’ Instead, they reached out and said, “We could spend six minutes on this but it feels like you guys could do more, let’s team up.” That was an incredibly lucky break. It was very helpful that we were the ones to tell the world. If it had happened any other way, things would have been very different.

You think it would have been hard for the show to survive with its reputation intact?

Probably. That’s my guess.

One of the reasons it was so upsetting that that story proved to be false was because it did something This American Life does very well, which is to…

To look at an international story that we all know is true. This is what’s so beautiful about the story. We all wonder: What’s going on in the factories that make the stuff that we love? Something messed up is probably going on, right? This thing is too inexpensive. You think about how little one of those small iPods costs – how do they do that? Somebody’s being exploited somewhere. You can buy a pair of pants for $19. If you had to make those pants yourself that would take you a day.

The genius of Mike’s original work was that it totally made you care. It was something you’d been avoiding thinking about. He says, ‘I’m going to take you there, let’s go there. I want to help you see it. It’s an incredibly powerful and personal thing to do and he’s in it himself, as somebody who loves Apple products. He doesn’t want to think badly of them. So his disillusion is part of the story. He wants it to come out okay for the products. It’s a really beautifully crafted story, in the style of what we like to do. Which is why when I saw him on stage I thought, This would be really great on the radio.

But I don’t think there’s any grey area here. I don’t think there’s a hazy line. We can tell the difference between a truth and a lie. Truthfully, the thing I’ve been proud of about the show all these years is: That’s what’s going to be great about it. That’s the original thing we should be doing. Our shows should be completely as compelling as a great movie or a great novel, but in addition, they’ll be real! That’s our product, that’s our ambition By shooting for that, are we entering some crazy, hazy area? No! We’re not children. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the truth, but you can say it’s hard to figure out. You can say: ‘This is what we don’t understand.’ You can be unambitious and make shit up to make stories work better or you can be ambitious and make stories where the truth lays things out in a really interesting way.

They’re going to be absolutely true stories and they’re going to be just as good as really great fiction.

There’s your manifesto. There’s the line, perhaps, between reporting and storytelling. This is why you don’t want us calling you a storyteller on our front cover?

Can I just say, please don’t fucking call me a storyteller on your fucking cover! [Laughs] there’s my quote for you. Yes, I am a storyteller but please don’t call me that. I’m going to give you every variation your editor can use: Fucking-twee, fucking word storyteller, fuck, fuck, fuck. Not on the cover, you motherfuckers [laughs].

I’m writing this down in bold.

I have to take out my dog! At the start, you asked me about my day. Every day at 10:00pm, I take out the dog and meet my 85-year-old ladyfriend… She’s not my ladyfriend, I’m not having an affair with her. My 85-year-old friend. I meet her in the dog park every night and we walk our dogs.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photography by Brandon Wickenkamp

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