Ira Glass: Great Radio Stories Need To Surprise, And Have A Great Teller

May 14, 2014

So, which show was it? What was the one show that you heard on public radio that first time that stopped you from continuing along the dial?

For many, it was a now-iconic program called This American Life.

The stories on This American Life were at turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and inspiring. And what made them stand out was not just how incredible they were, but the authenticity of the voices that told them.

Ira Glass, the show’s co-creator and host will be in Rutland Saturday night to talk about reinventing radio. He spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb.  

Glass is also known for his unassuming, soft-spoken delivery.

“That kind of delivery is also called like, unprofessional mumbling. 'What are you doing on the radio? How did you get a job in radio?' I still get emails like that all the time,” Glass said. “I understand. I could enunciate better, it’s true. In an attempt to sound like a person really sounds when they talk, unfortunately when I really talk, this is what I sound like.”

The show has been on the air since 1995. Glass said that certain things have become easier. “When I started I was the only one who made this kind of story, and then I had to train everyone who came on staff on how to make these kind of stories, where there’s characters and scenes and funny moments and emotional moments, and so basically, when ever anyone would join the staff, it would take two years before they were totally up to speed. And now, so many people do these kinds of stories, and do them so beautifully that, when it comes to making individual stories, in some ways it’s so easy, because I work with people who are so good at it. But it’s hard to find things that are worth putting on the radio in our style and it’s hard to make them sing, and that was true at the beginning and it’s true now,” Glass said.

"When I started I was the only one who made this kind of story, and then I had to train everyone who came on staff on how to make these kind of stories, where there’s characters and scenes and funny moments and emotional moments ... And now, so many people do these kinds of stories, and do them so beautifully that, when it comes to making individual stories, in some ways it’s so easy."

In Rutland, he’ll be talking about what makes a good story. Glass said that everybody has a story, but not everybody has a story for national radio. Radio stories have to be surprising.

“A common story that we get pitched is someone covering from addiction. Now, that is a huge, monumental thing, but the problem is, like, as soon as somebody starts one of those stories, you’re like, 'Right, right I know, I’ve heard this story, I know this story.' And there’s a great adage that great stories happen to those who can tell them, there are some people who get into any situation, and they make a great story out of it,” Glass said.

In a recent show called Accidental Documentaries, Glass focused on his father, who had a career in radio in the 1950s as a deejay, and was against his son’s decision to go to work for National Public Radio.

“My dad was just like, 'Why not grab for the brass ring? Why aren’t you on TV? Why not get famous? Why not make money?' Why not be important, instead of working at this outfit no one has heard of, National Public Radio, which is where I was. And to be fair to them, when I started working at National Public Radio in 1978, nobody had heard of them. Like when I started working at NPR, I had not heard of it.  I had never listened to it on the radio. It was simply like someone said, 'Oh, maybe you could get a job there.' My parents don’t like it when I say it, but it’s true. My parents are the only Jews in America who don’t like public radio. And so they were very much against it,” Glass said. “And when I found out that my dad had been in radio, and in fact really loved radio, and then when I was born, he stopped. When I was born he said, 'Oh no, two kids, I’m not making enough money.' I think I was the cause of him stopping radio, so the thought that I grow up and make it to 18 years old, and my job is I’m in radio, I think it had a weird haunty feeling to him, in a way I didn’t understand when it happened. ”

"My parents don't like it when I say it, but it's true: My parents are the only Jews in America who don't like public radio. And so they were very much against it [my going to work for NPR]."

Glass is a supporter of membership drives. In fact, VPR frequently uses a recorded spot of Glass cold-calling people who listen to public radio, but who don’t support it financially. He said the public radio model is viable into the future.

“If anything, you see other mainstream media moving toward a public radio model, where they ask people to give money so they can keep doing their work. I’m a huge fan of Andrew Sullivan [creator of the blog The Dish] and I donate to his blog, and it’s basically, he’s running a public radio station as a blog. So yeah, I think it’s totally viable, and even more viable in the age of the Internet and more useful to more people.”

Radio can seem archaic in the digital world, but Glass said it comes down to simply making content people like.

“I feel like as long as people are basically lazy and own cars, you know you get in your car and you don’t have to program every single thing you’re going to listen to. And when I’m shaving, for me to be able to turn on Morning Edition, and not having to search around and download something ... I think as long as laziness exists in this world, radio will still have a place,” Glass said.

"As long as laziness exists in this world, radio will still have a place."

Is there one episode of This American Life that people should listen to? That question stumped him.

“I literally was in this situation. In the most random way, I met Bono from U2. And somebody explained to him, 'Ira here does a very popular radio show.' And it was a very polite kind of 'Oh, if I wanted to listen to one of your shows, which one would it be? 'And then I found myself standing there talking to Bono, which is not a thing I ever wished for, like he seems like a perfectly lovely fellow, in fact very funny, charming, but like I hadn’t kind of prepared myself for this moment. And I totally froze, and later I said, I should have just told him go to the website and we have a bunch of favorites, because I feel like words were coming out of my mouth, I started to name different shows, and stories, it just felt like I could just kind of see a faraway look come in his eyes, you know, and rightly so, I felt like, I’m panicking here.”

If you’re funny, Glass would point you to this story, called Valentine’s Day, about a couple that takes a 30-day break from their relationship to sleep with other people.  

“I’m especially proud of when we take a serious topic and do it well,” he added, so for a serious-minded person like Bono, he’d point a listener to episodes about Harper High School or another show on Guantanamo Bay.  

Ira Glass, host and creator of This American Life, will be speaking this Saturday at the Paramount Theater in Rutland.