If anyone can make someone’s job stocking vending machines an integral part of a news story about a U.S. aircraft carrier in Afghanistan during wartime, it’s Ira Glass, host and executive producer of National Public Radio’s (NPR) award-winning broadcast, “This American Life.”
Glass was in town last Saturday night, speaking to a sold-out crowd at Hillman Center for the Performing Arts at a program entitled “Reinventing Radio,” co-sponsored by Shady Side Academy and the Pittsburgh public radio stations WYEP and WESA.
To demonstrate the power of storytelling in radio, Glass walked on stage in darkness and played a portion of a show about a tornado in Tuscaloosa, featuring a woman describing how she was floating like an astronaut while her house was flying through the air. Glass said that when you are not seeing, you are not distracted by what someone looks like, and that there is an intimacy to just hearing someone’s voice. When the lights finally went on, Glass said to the rapt audience, “You look different than what I thought you would, too.”
While this often does come through on his broadcasts, the simple truth is this: in person, Ira Glass is hilarious. And that’s the secret behind his show — incorporating humor into otherwise straightforward news reporting, and being “unashamedly entertaining.” Glass said he felt that mainstream broadcast journalists almost never point out the funny moments in a serious story. “I feel that is a failure of the craft. It’s giving up a powerful tool in your arsenal to get people to listen to you.”
Throughout the night, Glass spoke about the formula behind his successful show, while incorporating snippets of the broadcast throughout the evening via an iPad Mini. The audience learned, through a tale about a girl who survived a shark attack in New Zealand, that he structures his stories as if they were detective mysteries. Every story is motivated by a question that is driving the story forward; some questions will be answered quickly, and others will remain unanswered until the end. “A trick for the show that pulls it forward is that we start the show in action.” The question always becomes: “What is the universal thing we are all relating to?”
Considering Glass is usually heard and not seen, he is clearly quite comfortable in front of a live audience. Anecdotes such as his dealings with the FCC regarding certain forbidden words and the more melancholy reflection on the late David Rakoff, a regular contributor to “This American Life,” captivated the crowd.
Glass’s story subjects run the gamut of birth, death and everything in between. Stories have tackled drunkenness at Penn State and gang violence at a high school in Chicago; middle school and the invention of money; winning the lottery and babysitting; and a recent one about coincidences (a personal favorite of his). Contributors have included David Sedaris, John Hodgman, Julia Sweeney, Sarah Vowell and Shalom Auslander, as well as a slew of others.
When asked how the story ideas come to him, Glass said that he’s on a constant search, and it is an inefficient and messy process. “You think ideas will be sprinkled on you like fairy dust. Ideas come from other ideas; you must surround yourself with information.” He acknowledged that fortune comes into play too: “We’re trying to harness luck as an industrial product.”
At Brown University, Glass majored in semiotics, which he described as “a deeply pretentious French literary theory designed to disappoint one’s parents.” He quipped that his parents wanted him to be a doctor “ … because we’re Jews. I was born to the only Jews in America who hate public radio, probably the reason I ended up in therapy.”
Glass has been in radio since the age of 19, when he started as an intern at NPR. Now in his 50s, Glass was named Time Magazine’s best radio host in the country in 2001. “This American Life,” on air since 1995, is now broadcast on 500 stations, including locally on WESA (90.5) on Saturdays from noon to 1 p.m. and Sundays from 4 to 5 p.m.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)