‘This American Life’, The Art Of Storytelling, And Awkward Dancing: A Chat With Ira Glass

Ira Glass

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It’s ten o’clock at night in New York City and Ira Glass is walking down Seventh Avenue, away from the office where he’d spent the last two hours working on an episode of This American Life. There are two days left before it airs. “Everything in this week’s show is in equally bad shape,” he says, “now that I pause to realise how completely fucked we are”.

When it goes to air, the episode will be broadcast across more than 500 radio stations. 2.2 million people will listen to it when it airs and another 2.5 million people will download it as a podcast. At this point it doesn’t matter if it’s completely fucked: it’s a dispatch from the Glass world of stories, and for most of us that’s enough. Glass has spent twenty years building a sort of story kingdom for grown-ups, crafting little miniatures of modern life like poignant christmas displays for neurotic adults. I mean that as a good thing.

Here’s a classic This American Life story: Bobby Dunbar was four years old when he went missing in 1912. Eight months later, he was found in Mississippi and returned to a tearful Mrs Dunbar. Smash cut to 2008: DNA reveals that whoever the found boy was, he wasn’t Bobby Dunbar. The mystery boy’s granddaughter told Ira the story.

Or there’s the one about what happened to David Rakoff when he tried to fast his way to enlightenment, or the prisoners who staged a production of Act V of Hamlet, or the siblings who told their mother they’d found babysitting work with the made-up family “The McLearys” so they could have some unsupervised summer fun, only to have their mother start saying she’d been on the phone with Mr McLeary.

You see what I’m saying. We’ve all got stories like this, proper fireside yarns that you’ve told so many times that they start to feel like rote-learned poetry in your mouth. This American Life is the greatest-hits compilation of those stories, and Ira Glass is its face — or at least its voice.

The Isolation Of Radio

It’s a slightly unlikely voice for radio. People have called it “adenoidal”, “reliably nasal”, “sinusy” and all sorts of other goyim-speak for “more Jewish than I am used to on my airwaves”, but what really interests me about it is that it seems to move in line with his thoughts. There are ums, stammers, aborted phrases, long thinking silences, tripping rolls of thoughts where the words are coming too fast to have clear edges.

This wasn’t industry standard when Glass began as a 19-year-old at NPR: then, radio presenters were sonorous and unfaltering. There was no sense that the script was being written through its own delivery: to hear Walter Cronkite speak was not to hear him think. Ira Glass, though, sounds like a normal person in conversation; he sounds like he’s saying things at the same time as thinking them.

This is, of course, a lie. He talks about the ‘characters’ that he and Serial host Sarah Koenig play on air, and says “honestly, recording the radio show — like actually saying my lines — is my least favourite part of my job. Sitting in the radio studio, I’m pretending that I’m talking to somebody, while I’m actually completely alone. That’s a weird, artificial thing — to be in the room with the people you’re speaking with is a much more natural human experience. The situation is totally unnatural. You’re in a soundproof room talking to nobody.”

It’s a strange tessellation of intimacy and isolation. For millions of people, Ira Glass is the end-of-day anecdote while the dinner’s being made or the companion on the commute or the bedtime story, but for Ira Glass, the room is empty.

The Universal Language 

Usually, at least. One of the joys of touring with his live show Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host is that “it’s much nicer to get feedback from an audience on the spot. If it goes well, it also feels way better than if a thing goes well on the radio.”

Three Acts is a proper stage spectacle, with lighting cues and costume changes and more than a dash of Broadway debonair. This seems like a peculiar venture for a man who is, as far as I know, a floating voice: the whole point of that joke about having a ‘face for radio’ is that the host is disembodied, a weirdly non-physical presence in your home or your pocket. I can’t be the only one who feels that seeing a radio host’s face for the first time is a bit like learning which actor’s going to play your favourite fictional character. That’s all wrong, I often think. They’ve totally missed the point of that character.

For this radio voice though, that’s rather the point. “Honestly, it was the fact that I knew nothing about dance that got me into it, you know, that it was as far from radio as you could go and still be reaching an audience,” Glass says. “In a sense it’s like anti-matter for radio. There’s no talking, it’s all motion. And so all the devices are completely different from radio, and I had no experience at all – and that was kind of the attraction. I saw this dance troupe and there was something about their work that felt exactly like the feeling we try to give people with the radio show. I think when people hear it’s going to be a dance show, the fear that they have is that it’s going to be difficult and they won’t understand it.

“And this was not that at all, it was the opposite. It was super understandable, they were entertainers, they were inventing something new, and they were out for fun — but it was also very emotional, it was about real recognisable feelings and human moments that were being captured. And there was something in the mix of it — I just thought ‘this is what we’re shooting for on our show, they’re getting the same effect but without any of the tools that we have’. My first thought was if I could get these people in front of our audience, our audience would really dig them, because it’s the same thing as us.”

Besides the obvious difference in medium, though, Glass is quick to point out that live stage shows and narrative radio share an emotional vocabulary: “the feeling that I wanted to get into the stories I was working on [at NPR] was the feeling that I got from Broadway shows that my parents would take me to when they would tour through our town.

“If you think of those old Broadway musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, it’s like — they’re funny, and then they’re really sad, and they’re about an idea. So somehow I wanted to do what I was doing in radio journalism but add that kind of feeling. I should say I didn’t set out with that goal, like I wasn’t aware of what I was trying to do, but in retrospect when I look back like ‘why did I create this’, I basically think it’s because I was raised going to those kinds of shows.”

Glass has been touring with the show a few weekends a month for three years now, and it makes a sort of psychological sense — if you did manual labour in your job you’d want your weekends idle, if you worked in an office that played commercial radio you’d want your weekends silent. If your job was to record material alone, that unmet strangers would then use as a Rorschach blot for their own projections about what a Trustworthy Funny Man looks like, then you might get your weekend relief from being physically present in front of real people. Or maybe it’s not that complicated — maybe it’s just another stage. Producer Julie Snyder once told the New York Times: “I think he likes attention more than money”.

The Future Of Storytelling

It’s hard to imagine that’s his main motivation, though — he seems as surprised as the rest of us that a little show from Chicago has changed the face of contemporary radio. “I’m used to the fact that we’re allowed to stay on the radio, but even that — I didn’t picture anything this successful at all when I started it. My vision of it when I started it was just I like these kinds of stories, but it wasn’t clear to me that anybody else would. I thought we’d be like an indie movie, people who like this kind of thing will like this, and hopefully we’ll get enough of them that we can stay on the air. Even Serial was just this little side experiment by Julie Snyder, the producer, and Sarah Koenig, the host, and they really viewed it as ‘we can do whatever we want, nobody’ll be listening.’”

Wrong. Serial has had 12 million people listen to every episode. “It’s such a crazy boom time in the last couple of months,” says Glass. “Those are the kinds of numbers that advertisers really like. Those are larger numbers that many TV dramas get.”

Glass was onto something in the early days when he thought there might be a market for compelling stories with good characters and real-sounding reporters. So what’s his next prediction? Where does storytelling go to from here?

“I feel like what’s happening — I can tell you this from the inside — is that all these people are getting trained in numbers we’ve never seen before. There are more shows that are more ambitious than there ever have been, and I feel like we’re forming an army of people with real skills. When I started This American Life 20 years ago every single person who I hired would take like a year and a half to get up to the point where they had the skills to the job, because other shows like this didn’t exist. And now there’s enough shows that when we hire somebody they come in able to make stories like this.

“But often what we find is that the number of people who are at the ambitious expert level is still in the low dozens. And I feel like in three years it’s going to be three or six times that. There are so many people getting trained right now and making material — and like making weekly shows, getting muscle. And I feel like something’s going to come of that , there’ll be some critical mass … I feel like one of the directions things could go in is like a chatty version of a real news program that has the tone of what podcasts are doing but is the actual news, and doing it at the quality that Sarah Koenig does [in Serial] but as a weekly or daily news show. That’s something I’d be really interested to see somebody try. Or I wonder if somebody’s going to bring back radio drama but do it with the quality of contemporary television.”

The Importance Of Feeling

But at the heart of everything – from Serial to This American Life to Three Acts – remains what he calls the “traditional” story. Story is the spine of every Glass project.

“For a story to work,” he says, “there’s got to be someone that you as the listener relate to. If you can’t relate to them you’re just marching through the plot. I remember years ago I got invited by one of the producers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to come to the set. And we got to sit in the writers’ room for a little while, and on that particular week, David Fury was just marching through the plot of the episode: this thing, this thing, commercial break, and then this thing and this thing, sketching out the episode that we were going to write. It was this super ingenious story and he’s very entertaining to watch tell the story, and at the end of it Marti [Buffy’s executive producer] is like ‘this is all great, but what does Buffy feel?’. Where are we going to pause for a second and register ‘here’s what she feels’? ”

“It’s such an interesting lesson about how to build a story … on our show, like on any show, the big thing you’re thinking about is ‘what are the order of the actions that are going to happen in this story?’ and you’re constantly aware ‘this is the first beat, this is the second beat, this is the third beat’, that’s the spine of the whole thing. But then that’s not enough, like there has to be somebody inside that you can relate to and there have to be moments built in where you’re going to be feeling.”

If you’d like to experience some moments of feeling, go along to Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne,  co-presented by the Wheeler Centre, on July 14 and 15, or at the Sydney Opera House on July 17 and 18.

Eleanor Gordon Smith teaches ethics and philosophy at the University of Sydney.