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SWAGGER, NOT STYLE

The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

From the Vault: Ira Glass, Interviewed March 2008

Chris Klimek

Ira Glass. (Photo: Nancy Updike.)

It's not every day you get to talk with one of your heroes for half an hour.  I interviewed Ira Glass 16 months ago for this thing.  Presented here for the first time is the (mostly) complete transcript from which that piece was excerpted, albeit still edited to excise boring and/or redundant material.  3 . . .  2 . . .  1 . . .

Ira Glass began his public radio career as an intern at NPR in DC in 1978. But it was This American Life, the Peabody, duPont-Columbia, and Edward R. Murrow Award-winning weekly story anthology — mostly nonfiction, but with some fiction, too — he created in 1995 that’s made him famous, at least among public radio listeners.

Originally called Your Radio Playhouse and broadcast only on Chicago's WBEZ during its first year, the radio show is now heard on 500-plus public stations nationwide, reaching an audience of 1.7 million. In 2007, Showtime began airing a long-discussed TV version of This American Life; a special, limited edition DVD set of both six-episode seasons of the TV show has just been released.  Earlier this month, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting bestowed upon Glass the 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award acknowledging of his 30 years of contributions to public radio.

I spoke with Ira by phone on March 31, 2008  -- the Monday morning after what he said was his first day off in six weeks.

So much of your taste and worldview comes through on the radio, do you run into complete strangers who feel like they know you?

Being on public radio isn’t the kind of fame where I can assume people know who I am. Generally, they don’t. I feel like I live a much more civilian kind of normal life than that.

In your manifesto on the public radio website Transom, you wrote that if an interview goes well you kind of fall for the subject.

Yeah, totally.

Do you think that ever compromises your ability to report a story?  Or that it helps you?

I don’t think it compromises my ability to report something.  We did a story last week [in episode No. 353, “The Audacity of Government”] about this guy who was the commissioner of this sort of obscure treaty organization called the International Boundaries Commission.  I had the same experience interviewing both him and the person on the other side of a lawsuit that he’s in, this woman up in Blaine, Washington.  If it goes well, and if people on both sides of an issue are willing to be candid, then I feel like all it does is make everything better.  Because it’s possible to present their stories empathetically. 

Generally, the kind of stories we’re doing on the radio show are not stories where people are taking sides and are pitted against each other.  Usually, it’s people who have had some experience, and we’re trying to document, “Well, what in the world was that experience?”  So there’s nothing there, really, to be compromised.  It wouldn’t be like we’re being unfair to someone else by presenting one side sympathetically.

I feel like I’m doing a terrible job answering this question!

No, no.  I’d just never heard anyone say that before.

Well, I think there are lots of different ways to be a reporter.  People who do work that’s more like feature reporting tend to have the experience that I have more often. 

Even when I read somebody like Calvin Trillin, reporting on people who have done terrible things, murderers — it’s clear from the quotes that he gets and the way that he writes about them that what’s he’s about is an act of empathy with them, of really trying to understand what led them to the thing that they did. 

I think that’s where a lot of great reporting comes from.  So I don’t think it compromises anything.  If anything, it allows for something interesting to emerge in the reporting.

People share some of the most intimate experiences of their lives on your show.  Is it difficult to persuade them to be interviewed?  Do you spend a lot of time with them, and use the tape from after you’ve been speaking with them long enough for them to relax?

Truthfully, it isn’t like we’re spending that much time with people.  In that way, we’re pretty traditional broadcasters.  It’s not like we’re camping out and living with people for three weeks or a month.  Usually, we get the tape really, really fast.  Often, the tape that you’re hearing will be [from] one long interview with a person over two or three hours.  And that will be the only time that I or one of the other reporters will talk to them at length.  So often what you’re hearing is often the first real conversation we’re having with the interviewee. 

It’s not really a factor of them getting to know us.  If they’ve agreed to talk, then that’s half the battle.  And then simply by the fact that we are, A) interested, and B) incredibly nosy, makes people open up.  I think being genuinely, actually interested in what they went through and what they think of it goes a long way.

It’s not very fancy, as a reporting tactic.  [Laughs.]  Simple curiosity goes incredibly far.

I have the impression, partly from the way you’ve been profiled in the past, but also because of an old episode of the show called “The Job That Takes Over Your Life,” that you just work all the time.  In 2007, you had almost two dozen new episodes of the radio show, plus you were working on the second season of the Showtime show.  I mean, I know you have a larger staff now than you used to, but still:  Are you killing yourself?  How do you do this?

Well, with the radio and the TV shows both, yes, absolutely.  We also have a movie deal with Dreamworks, where they’re trying to take some of the stories from the radio show and make them into movies, so there’s a certain amount of work on that each week.  So between those things, yeah, it’s been an incredibly busy year -- or two.  But if we didn’t have the TV show, honestly, it would almost be a normal job.  At this point, the producers who make the show with me are just as skilled as I am in terms of just making stories work.  So truthfully, if we didn’t have the TV show, I’d have a semi-normal life.

You've spoken candidly on the air about very intimate things.  When your mom died, you talked about that.  I think the most vulnerable I’ve ever heard you sound on the radio was an episode called “Get Over It!”, where you talked about shopping for clothes with a recent ex-girlfriend.  You’re married now, to another journalist.  Do you feel less free to share those kinds of things?  Does your wife tell you, "Don't let me hear you talking about this on the radio!"

[Laughs.] It’s pretty much the ground rules of the marriage that I talk about nothing that happens between us on the air except for anything that I clear with her.  So, um, yeah. 

Truthfully, I feel like I don’t end up talking that much about myself on the air, but it’s only because not that many things happen that would be interesting to others.  Big things have happened in my life in the 12 years I’ve had the show, but they kind of play out in a way that isn’t terribly interesting. 

Like, I got married.  That was incredibly meaningful to me, but the story of it isn’t an interesting story for the radio.  There weren’t any huge fights at the wedding, everybody got along.  There was nothing to tell.  Which was great from a personal point of view, and of course from a business point of view, maybe less ideal.[Italics mine.  I followed up with Ira on his comment here via e-mail and got the following response back from him.]

Oh!  I guess I meant that from a business point of view, it's helpful to find a story somewhere - anywhere.  It takes time to find a good  one - we probably spend half our time as a staff looking for stories  and running after stories, including lots of stories that go nowhere.  So if one just arrived, ready for national broadcast, at my own  wedding, well that would be like money in the bank. 

Um, provided I  could talk my family into letting me use it.

The show, and your identity were firmly established when you two met, right?  She knew who she was marrying.

Yeah.  She and I knew each other before I started the radio show.  The story about Danielle -- the one that's in the "Get Over It!" show -- that's something that happened before This American Life went on the air.  It was a story that I did for a show before This American Life, and then we put it into This American Life.

To answer your question, I’ve known her a really long time.  She understood I’ll always be doing something like this, if not this. 

You’re going to be 50 next year, and you’ve already been in broadcasting for 30 years.  Do you want to try anything else?  Fiction maybe, for prose or film?

I don’t have any desire to write a book or anything like that.  I feel like any story I’d want to tell, I’d want to do in radio or on a TV show.  I had the experience about two years ago of co-writing a romantic comedy, a movie, with this screenwriter and director named Dylan Kidd, who did a movie called Rodger Dodger.  That was super fun.  It didn’t go anywhere, like most of these things don’t go anywhere, but it was really, really fun to do. I think if I had some time at some point it would fun do another screenplay, but that’s not a very active wish on my part. 

I feel like I know how to make this radio show.  I’d be perfectly happy if there was nothing but that. That seems like plenty.  It’s plenty hard enough to get that right.

Your show uses the device of presenting each story as one of several “acts” unified by a given theme.  Is that idea of finding themes something that you live out in your personal tastes; in music or clothes or food or whatever?

[Laughs.] I wish that were true!  It would be a fantastic thing to put in an article.  I feel like what I’m going to say will be so disappointing in comparison with the vision of that.  Sadly, I’m much more normal than that, and less interesting. 

The idea of the theme for the show really is a function of what would work as radio.  When we started, especially, none of the normal reasons that you would put a story on the radio were there:  The stories weren’t about famous people; they weren’t about things in the news, they weren’t about things that most people considered important.  It was journalism applied to things that were so small it was hard to explain why you were even hearing this story. 

The theme makes it seem like there’s a reason for these things to be in the radio: “Today, we’re going to do this important scientific exploration of this theme!”  So it seems sort of credible on the radio doing these stories.

In addition, it gives you a way to organize, like, “What are we doing this hour?” too.  If we have two stories, what do we fill this hour out with?  Let’s figure out something that will talk to those two stories.  So it was a way to organize the time as well.  It just turned out to be a handy way to do things, and a very functional way. 

In some of the shows, we really are aggressively trying to think through some question, or some thought, like the show that we did about fiascoes. Or last week, when we did a show on  when we did a show about the Bush Administration’s aggressive, unrelenting style.  We had a bunch of pieces of journalism about very small things, things, really, that would escape -- that have escaped the notice of a lot of serious news organizations.  But things that we thought were sort of telling, and that are interesting to hear about.

In that kind of case, concocting a theme lets who make some sort of broader point.  In other weeks, the theme is a looser collection of things that fit together in a pleasing way but aren’t trying to make such an aggressive point.

It does seem like you’ve done many more topical stories in the last few years.  You did quite a few HurricaneKatrina stories, WaronTerror stories, and lots of IraqWarstories -- there was that incredible Nancy Updike hour about the private military contractors, and Jack Hitt's episode about the Gauntanamo detainees, "HabeasSchmabeas."  Did you guys decide you needed to be more topical, or was that just a natural reaction to what was going on and what people were thinking about?

A year or two before September 11th, we decided as a staff that it would be interesting to do more topical stories.  And when we did it, it was really fun to do, to basically take on things that were in the news but sort of do it in our style, with characters and scenes and full narrative arcs to everything.  So they would be these novelistic or cinematic stories that happened to be about the news.  And because we’re a weekly show, we have the luxury of being able to do stories like that, which can be harder to find and harder to execute.

So we made the decision before September 11th, and then after September 11th, like everyone else in the country, we became much more interested in the news.  We ended up doing a lot of things on the War on Terror and national security and what’s going on overseas, and some of the changes in government policy that have come about since September 11th.  So it’s a combination of those things.

One of the topics I’ve heard you speak about, and that I presume -- correct me if I’m wrong here -- you'll bring up at George Washington University, is “the fake pomposity of the news,” I think you called it, and how the style of your show evolved as a reaction to that.  Since This American Life started, we’ve had things like The Daily Show, and blogs like Slate, where it’s much more of a blend of editorializing and personality and humor and news.  Do you thing that pomposity has eroded at all?

No.  [Laughs.]  As long as Fox News stays on the air, that will be with us always.

No, there is a theatrical seriousness in the way a lot of news is performed, still.  At the same time there are a lot of interesting people doing work in a normal, conversational tone, [like] Anderson Cooper.  There are a fair number of people who I think do really wonderful broadcast reporting.  But I don’t think there’s a big shift away from the kind of theatrical pomposity of broadcast news.

You said a few minutes ago that there are a lot of people around you who are just as skilled as you are.  If you chose to leave, would you want This American Life to continue under someone else?

If other people wanted it to continue, it’d be fine with me.  I like these kinds of stories, and like this kind of show on the radio.  If I were to quit, if station managers felt like they still wanted [the show], and if my staff wanted to do it, that would be great.  But if people though, “Okay, it’s been around for over ten years, time to try something else,” I think that would be okay, too. 

This kind of thing is perfectly suited to my taste.  But it’s okay with me if everybody else moves on and something else happens instead.

I should have thought of some kind of Washington-centric question, since you started your career here at NPR.

Yeah.  I’ve lived in a wide variety of places that were really sort of dangerous when I lived there.  But now it seems like I couldn’t live there if I wanted to, because they’re so expensive. 

You guys just did a gentrification story set in DC, where I’m speaking to you from. Yes!

Well, on that topic: You moved to New York two years ago to do the TV show after being Chicago for more than a decade.  Not that Chicago is a small town or anything, but New York is often thought of as the center of the universe.  Has being there changed the perspective of the show?

No.  It’s hard for us to find stories that will work on our show, where the characters are appealing and they’re surprising and you haven’t heard the story before.  It was hard to find stories that would work when were in Chicago, and it’s hard here in New York.  I don’t think [the move] has changed anything in the way we make the show or what we do.

For you personally, how's that been?

I really liked living in Chicago.  I had no trouble amusing myself and having a perfectly nice life in Chicago. 

New York is really, really fun, and there’s a lot a to do.  But it doesn't seem better; it just seems different.  There were definitely advantages to Chicago, like being able to drive.  I really miss driving.  And you can just live so much more nicely, and the people are lovely.

Living in New York, I don’t feel like I live in the United States of America.  I feel like I live in a very special little enclave, and I’m not so fond of that.  I liked being in the Midwest.

A much-abridged version of this interview appeared in the April 6, 2008 Washington Post.