Excluding maybe the partisan pundits, This American Life host Ira Glass is public radio’s biggest personality. In preparation for his talk this Saturday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, Recess’ Brian Contratto chatted with Mr. Glass about story-telling and being a grown-up.
Recess: So for the Durham show, at DPAC, they’re billing you as: “journalist, storyteller, humorist.” How do you self-identify? Is there any real difference?
Ira Glass: What was the last one, “humorist”? I feel like I have a civilian level of humor. I actually know people who are professional humorists and I can tell the difference. .. I am a reporter—storyteller is a word with a very difficult width to it; you picture corny sorts of down-home people…on rocking chairs, with a pipe—I don’t really call myself a journalist. Usually I just say “reporter;” the word “journalist” sounds so pretentious. The world of journalism is divided off between the people that call themselves [journalists]—it’s so self-important. But I know and like some of those people so now I feel a little sheepish. But on my passport it says “radio reporter”—
R: It says that on your passport? Well, you’re giving a talk, so you’re also a radio personality, right? A radio celebrity…
IG: Radio celebrity! Yeah, that’s what my wife calls me when I get home, “Hey, radio celebrity, you want some coffee?” I’m actually going to [opens up passport]—it actually says…Oh, you know it must just say that on my visa. Glad I checked; I was engendering inaccuracy. I’m the host of a public radio show. I am a radio producer—a very accomplished radio producer. [At the DPAC show] I’m gonna talk about how we make stories on our show, what we do that’s different from most other shows; a live on-stage demonstration, I can recreate the sound of the show around me.
R: Do you like the live format, versus your usual territory?
IG: It’s totally fun, and way more—there’s something very direct about it, having someone be in the room versus talking in the radio. Public radio listeners do tend to be a smart listening bunch.
R: Are there great stories you can’t share, that are maybe impossible to put into the radio format?
IG: There are certain things that we need a story to have for it to work on the radio and if it doesn’t have these things we don’t do it. In our style of storytelling we need a character to relate to, a very strong plot, surprises all through the story, and if the story doesn’t have that then it isn’t right for us. Like, we need it to be a story in the old fashioned way like what you learned in third grade: stuff happens, you get caught up in it, someone learns something or changes as a result of things that have happened to them and it’s emotional or it’s funny—there’s a lot of things we need for it to work for us.
R: What’s your favorite non-NPR show?
IG: I love Dan Savage’s podcast which is simply too dirty to be broadcast in the United States. I love Marc Maron’s podcast where he interviews comedians; you just get so much of their personalities and it’s super intense—those could be on the radio but they’re not. I just saw screeners for this new HBO series called Girls [with Lena Dunham]; I loved that. But I watched three episodes of Downton Abbey and wanted to punch someone in the face for the complete and utter bulls**t that it is. It’s the most romantic, y’know, romantic piece of tripe it just made me want to kick somebody.
R: And what about another radio show? WNYC?
IG: For WNYC it’s a toss up but it’s a very close battle between On the Media and Radiolab. I would give it to Radiolab, ‘cause they’re so innovative, formally. I think it’s the best radio show anybody’s making right now. And it’s really fun.
R: What’s so special about radio and the way that people interact—versus other storytelling mediums?
IG: I don’t think it’s important to listen to the radio at all. I feel like if people are into it that’s great, if they’re not there’s plenty of stuff out there for them but I think there’s plenty of things that people do with radio that you can’t with other media. There’s just an intimacy to it that’s unmatched by anything except for like, a blog. Basically the entire internet has the same aesthetics, where you have the feeling always that it’s one person talking directly to you and that you are one person sitting there. Radio has that aesthetics. [My show] is like a very well-distributed blog.
R: But none of that solipsism—you don’t, I mean, really share too much personally.
IG: Not that much happens to me. I’m normal. Occasionally every couple of years something happens that’s worth talking about publicly but generally not much surprising happens. On the other hand the aesthetics of the radio include the idea that when a reporter goes out to pick a story, though they don’t pick a side, they do express amazement and amusement and surprise about the things that happen. In that way they are in the story. But the story’s still not about them.
R: I saw that you were a semiotics major, so I’m not really sure what life trajectory you envisioned, except for maybe being a really smart dude. How does your life, being a “grown-up,” match or differ from what the college you might’ve thought?
IG: Well, I use things I learned in college every single day. Semiotics—it’s a kind of pretentious literary theory, and what it’s about is, “How does this story give pleasure?” Like, why do I read to page two, what’s it doing to suck me in, what’s it doing to keep me listening, and then why is it satisfying if a story ends a certain way? There are tricks to making stories and the machinery of making stories that I learned in class that I use in every episode of the show. I think the college me would be really astonished at the level of success I have at what I do every day. For one thing in college I was already working at NPR in Washington and I was at the very bottom. I was a terrible writer and a terrible reporter, and the fact that I finally figured it out would be a huge relief to the college me and even up to 25-year-old me. With public radio there are people who do really good work and never get recognized and people that do good work and get more credit than they deserve. I’m in the second category. I think that most things about my current life would be pleasing and surprising; the fact that I’m married to someone awesome. The college me would be really happy about that, that she’s amazing.
R: Have you ever given any commencement speeches or been asked to? I’m really into watching them on YouTube, and I’m writing one right now.
IG: Dude. Just… yes! And the only time I ever said yes was for a journalism school. And I did some reporting for a high school that asked me, so I did it for them. And I’m supposed to do it again this year for Goucher College—I’m from Baltimore—and I’m really dreading it. I feel like the graduation speech is a really one of the hardest forms—it’s too grand of a setting, y’know, it’s a supreme challenge. I feel like I am rightly humbled.
R: Have you read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech [included in the compilation This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life]? That’s definitely my favorite, you should read it.
IG: I really should. You know, I might just say, “Humility is really important, and you might as well just hear from one of the greatest writers of the last century. I will read you [David Foster Wallace’s] speech and I will perform the hell out of it in a away I’m sure he never could have done.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.