One of the ironies of the Internet age is that audio storytelling, an art that 20 years ago seemed a doomed relic of the radio age, is stronger than ever. And there’s no greater example than Ira Glass’ This American Life, a weekly radio program that, in addition to being broadcast across the country on public and satellite radio stations, spends most weeks in the No. 1 position on the list of iTunes most downloaded podcasts, and for good reason: The man knows how to tell a story, which—as anyone who’s ever suffered through a bad date, a lame cocktail party or lunch with me can attest—is a deceptively challenging art form.
Each week, in several loosely related segments, Glass & Co. explore themes ranging from senior proms and life at Chicago’s Golden Apple diner to the housing crisis and the art of the political apology. Part of what makes the show so engrossing is its ability to hone in on life’s moral ambiguities, rather than promoting an agenda or passing judgment. TAL’s continued success has led to a popular televised version, now in its second season on Showtime. Glass comes to Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium Saturday, where he’ll basically present a live performance of TAL (not for broadcast), do a Q&A, sign DVDs and copies of his book The New Kings of Nonfiction and—most importantly, for the sake of your friends and party guests—explain the keys to telling a great story. In a recent phone interview with the Scene, Glass discussed the future of audio storytelling, the relative merits of Tim Russert and Chris Matthews and the evils of meat porn.
Scene: Do you record or film various segments independently and then tie episodes together as themes emerge, or do you just pick a theme and figure out what you're going to do and then seek it out?
Glass: It's sort of halfway in between the two. We'll have a story that we like, and then we'll see if it can go with any of the stories that we have sitting around looking for a home, and then we try to concoct a theme from that, and we go out and search for stories to fill it out. So basically, there is stuff that we record that we don't know exactly what it's for, we just know it's good. And we figure, well, we're on every goddamn week. We're going to have to fill something sometime.
Scene: So do you have a vault with a certain amount of stuff that still hasn't run that is looking for a home?
Glass: I wouldn't call it a vault. If you've ever been in a fancy hotel room where they have one of this little tiny safes that you can put your wallet in, it's more like that size. (pauses) Or a glove compartment. I think a glove compartment would actually capture it a little better.
Scene: Do any of the stories come to you, now that people know about the show?
Glass: That’s one of the main ways we get stories. If you have a certain kind of story you want to tell, we turn out to be your only market. There are a certain number of print reporters, who stumble on something where they think, “This might be natural for the radio.” So we still do a lot of stories with people who have never done radio stories but work in some other medium. And there's a place on our website where we say, “OK, you think you have a story for us? Please, read our instructions about the things we need for it to be a story and then email us.” Our senior producer Julie Schneider is the one who goes through those. It's actually an important job because we actually get stuff from there, if not every week, then certainly ever other week, that goes on the air.
Scene: I know even as an editor at a newspaper, people come up to me and say, “I’ve got a great idea for a story.” And they tell you and you're like, “Uh, that's not really a story.”
Glass: Well we've talked about actually doing an episode that would just be the stories that our parents tell us we should do on the show. (imitating a mother's voice) “You know, I met this man on a train, and he was so interesting. You know back during World War II....” I actually think it would be a really wonderful episode. And each segment would start with one of our parents explaining something like, (again in a mother's voice) “You've never done anything on your Uncle Lou. Why?”
Scene: How did you get into audio storytelling?
Glass: Like most Americans, I grew up having no interest in radio at all. I watched TV like the normal suburban kid. But after my freshman year in college, I was looking for a summer job in the media. I grew up in Baltimore…and somebody at the local album-oriented rock station went to college with a guy who was at NPR in Washington. I had never heard of NPR. I had never really heard of radio documentaries and I went over to NPR's headquarters and I talked my way into an internship, never having heard it on the air. In fairness, it was like 1978. No one had heard of NPR. NPR was tiny.
Scene: And did you start doing on-air reports?
Glass: No, no. I didn't do reports for years. I started off in the promos department and I knew nothing about journalism. I had some tape cutting experience from working at my college radio station at Northwestern. I just worked in the promos department doing those 30-second “Tonight on All Things Considered” [spots], and some of the promos I did were for this documentary producer whose job was to invent new ways to do radio documentary. The stuff that he was doing was very advanced aesthetically, where the characters in the stories would narrate the stories themselves. At that time it was brand new for radio. Now, because of him actually, it is something that is done all the time at NPR. He would have a complete sound design to each show that he did. There would be music composed for it, and it was just drenched in sound. It was really beautiful production. And in the promos I would simply try to re-create the sound of the show that he had made, and apparently no one had ever done that before in the promos department. And he hired me as his assistant for years.
Scene: What was his name?
Glass: Keith Talbot. Weird footnote to the story is that when he left NPR, he created the new Mouseketeers show for Disney, which then went on to hire Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. So I am not the only star he created. I'm in very fine company. (laughs)
Scene: What do you think of the future of audio storytelling?
Glass: I think it's fine. The truth is, there are a lot of people who are interested in doing this kind of work now. Partly because they hear our show and some of the other more innovative shows on public radio, like Radio Lab and some of the stuff that Joe Richman does. I think that the aesthetics of radio storytelling fit in very closely with the aesthetics of the Internet, which to me makes it feel like we have a future. On the radio, much like writing a blog, it's very, very personal. It very much feels like a one-to-one communication, and so the aesthetics fit right in, which is one of the reasons why I think that we are, most weeks, the biggest podcast in America.
Scene: Has juggling radio and TV become complicated at all?
Glass: Truthfully, for me it hasn't been quite as bad as it has for my staff. In the first season of our TV show it was crushingly hard. But in the second season the network was kind enough to stretch out the production schedule. We asked them, “Can we spend more time doing this?” and they said yes. That decision cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. So it has been a lot more sane the second time.
Scene: How do you decide whether a story goes to radio or TV?
Glass: That’s usually a very easy call. Most of the stories don't have enough of a visual component to actually work on TV.
Scene: Well the factory pig farm story sure did. I really want to thank you for that image of pigs being artificially inseminated, which will stay with me forever. Did the people at the farm view you suspiciously? Were they like, “Oh, these are liberal city-folk who are going to try and paint us in a bad light,” or were they at ease with the whole thing?
Glass: The ones who ended up on camera felt fine about it. There were a number of people that we went to along the way who absolutely felt like we were going to make them look bad and make pig farming look bad.
Scene: I actually thought it was a pretty sympathetic story. I saw the Letterman appearance when you said you became a vegetarian because of some chicken activists’ reaction to one of your Thanksgiving “Poultry Slam” stories.
Glass: I did, but it’s been years and, truthfully, I have been eating meat lately. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this publicly because at this point, all the vegetarians know me.Honestly, the thing that got me eating meat—and my wife just ridiculed me for this—we read an article in The New York Times Magazine that a writer named Michael Pollan did, that got published in a book that became sort of big. He bought a...what's a baby cow called again?
Scene: A calf.
Glass: A calf, he bought a calf.
Scene: You are from the city.
Glass: He bought a calf that was being raised for meat, and he basically walks you through the process of what happens to it. The injections and the food it gets and how the food is inserted into its stomach and the place where it’s taken to be fattened up and how long it lives. And by the end of this article, I was just like “I want to eat a steak.” If you are a vegetarian, you never think about a steak for 20 minutes, and at the end of [the article] I felt like I had to go get a steak, so I went out and got a steak. After that, every couple of weeks I would get a steak somewhere. It's funny, because I feel like I'm so susceptible. The same thing just happened to me when my wife and I watched back-to-back Half Nelson—where Ryan Gosling plays this heroin- and cocaine-using schoolteacher—and the same night we saw, not the last episode of Gossip Girl, but the one before, which had the whole cocaine subplot. By the end of the two of them I was like, “We should do cocaine. How come we've never done cocaine?” Cocaine. I feel like both of those things are so anti-cocaine the same way that the Times article was anti-steak. I was like, “When do I ever even think about cocaine?”
Scene: So you're basically a casualty of meat porn.Glass: (laughs)Scene: You recently did “This American Live” [a live performance that was simulcast in theaters around the country]. How did that go?
Glass: Astonishingly well. It was a live performance. We had a lot of clips from the upcoming season of the TV show and there was a combination of a radio story or two performed onstage. The [TV clips] are perfectly suited to be shown in a movie theater. They're shot on widescreen and they're beautiful and they feel just like our radio show.
Scene: Well, I thought your stuff looked great on my 1-inch iPod screen. You can actually watch fairly well on an iPod. I was surprised.
Glass: Why is it that, when you download Tim Russert, they won't let you put it on your fucking iPod. What the fuck, Tim Russert? They'll put the sound on your iPod, but they won't put the picture. I really like him.
Scene: Maybe they figure he's not visually compelling, but I think he is. I love him. He looks like a bulldog. Did you happen to read the New York Times story about Chris Matthews a few weeks ago?
Glass: Oh my fucking God! It was so great.
Scene: Since then I’ve been watching some of the election coverage and watching Russert and Matthews interact.
Glass: I know, I know! Me too! It totally changed everything for me. It was fascinating. It's funny because I never thought of Chris Matthews as a sad figure and now I do. I didn't know that was even available as an option to view him as pathetic.
Scene: And the funny thing is, he'll say something and look out of the corner of his eye without turning his head to see what Russert's reaction is.
Glass: Tim Russert can be disappointing at moments, but there are times when I see him on a Sunday morning and he'll be interviewing somebody, and literally I'll be alone on the couch and I'll stand up and applaud. I just think like, “Score one for the journalists.” It’s us vs. them and he's leading the team down into the zone. Into the touchdown zone.
Scene: A sports analogy—how Chris Matthews! Well, he would have said, “He reeled the big marlin into the boat.”
Glass: Exactly. I feel like, Tim, what a nice job you're doing. I know he has his own TV show and all, but weirdly I don't feel like he gets the love.
Scene: Have you ever done a segment that you regret?
Glass: Yeah, a bunch actually. There has definitely been a bunch.
Scene: Regretted for what reason, because of the impact they had or because it didn't go well?
Glass: Because we got it wrong. I am going to put that out there just straight up. We said something on the radio, and we got it wrong. For example, in a show we did about garbage. There was a story that we squeezed in where basically we did a cover version of an old New York Times Magazine story. It was kind of a controversial story at the time. A writer said basically, “You know all the garbage that we produce as a culture and how it is a massive amount of stuff? Well, there is no reason to worry about it. There is plenty of landfill space for it….” And he made a totally compelling case, and basically we went on and redid his story. I can't remember if I interviewed him or maybe the sources in his story. After we broadcast that, we got so many emails saying, “There is nothing factually untrue in it, but the angle was wrong. There actually are these things to worry about and here they are.” I checked it out, and it turned out that they we totally right and we were totally wrong. We've rerun that broadcast since, and we've taken that story out, we've erased that story from the podcast.
Scene: Do you feel like public radio programs are perceived as liberal, and does that affect your show? Do you feel a need to destroy that stereotype?
Glass: In my experience, that’s the rap public radio has always gotten, and people bend over backwards to avoid that. And occasionally, tip the other way to the conservative.
Scene: But a large portion of the U.S. population perceives it that way.
Glass: I feel like if my politics were different, maybe I would see it differently. That said, I have come out on the air during the last election cycle and said that I am a Democratic voter. Seems to me that most listeners and consumers assume that reporters in the mainstream media are liberals. There is no reason to not pretend that. We, like all reporters, are trying to be fair to the other side. But we have a side. This came up in a story where [in the Kerry/Bush election cycle], there was a guy who was a Republican who was a doctor in Cincinnati who was an undecided voter, and he and I, over the course of a series of conversations, followed the swing voters over the course of the whole election cycle. Partly to answer the question, what the hell do you need to know? Why would you be undecided? It was fascinating to me. He had never voted for a Democrat. He was a staunch Republican. He was very suspicious of the Democrats. He was Catholic. I had never voted for a Republican, and I was suspicious of the Republicans the way he was of the Democrats. We found that during the election cycle, we both had the same opinions about everything, the way that we were disappointed by both candidates. There was no way to talk about that without saying that on the radio where I am [politically].
Scene: It seems like many episodes hone in on the moral ambiguity of the situations—that things aren't often black and white.
Glass: I think that is present in any good reporting. That’s just the luxury of being a weekly feature show. When you can do longer stories and you can spend more time with them, you are naturally getting to stories where everything is more ambiguous and the characters are more real.