Ira Glass on Working in Television, Public Radio’s Struggle For Innovation, and Hanging Up On People

Ira Glass

Ira Glass is the host and creator of “This American Life,” a weekly public radio show produced by WBEZ-Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International that draws 1.7 million listeners per week. David Mamet wrote in Time magazine that Glass “seems to have reinvented radio,” and the show helped launch the careers of writers David Sedaris, David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell. Glass just finished putting together a “pilot presentation,” a shorter and cheaper version of a pilot, for Showtime, which is interested in turning “This American Life” into a TV series.


(Department of full disclosure: Interviewer Brian Montopoli has reported a story for “This American Life.”)


Brian Montopoli: One thing I’ve always liked about “This American Life” is the way the stories, regardless of the subject matter, make you want to go out and make friends with strangers. And this is true, I’m not just saying it …


Ira Glass: (laughing) I hope you include that in your rendition of this in print.


BM: What? Where I say, “this is true, I’m not just saying it?”


IG: Yes.


BM: Yeah, well, you guys would, so I guess it’s only fair. Anyway, so to pick up where I left off, I was saying the show makes you feel that way because no matter what the story is, the storytelling just makes you feel like people are worth knowing, if that makes sense. Is that difficult to translate to TV, which doesn’t operate the same way radio does?


IG: I don’t think it’s difficult to translate to TV. The fact is, though, to make it translate, there are different factors that come into play. Just from making this little pilot, I feel like there are characters who come off better on the radio than they do on the TV, and then there are some characters who come off better on the TV than they come off on the radio — simply by virtue of seeing their face.


And so you can still do it, it’s just that the ingredients in the mix are different. Which is exactly what you’d expect if you take a second and think about it. Not that we did take a second and think about it.


BM: But isn’t there something about not seeing someone’s face, on the radio, that allows you to sort of project a lot into whatever you’re hearing? On TV, I don’t know, I just feel like a little of the mystery just disappears.


IG: No, that definitely is true. It’s easier to make someone in the audience love someone on the radio. It’s just easier, because the number of factors you’re dealing with are fewer. You can do it on TV, but you just have to be careful how you handle it. On the radio, because you don’t see the person, you empathize. It’s easy to imagine yourself as them really, really quickly. Whereas on the television, from the get-go they are somebody else, and you have to kind of build up a different sort of bond with them. You can have a very fond feeling for them on the TV, but the first fact you know about them is they are not you, whereas on the radio, they appear to you for the first time as a voice in your head.


BM: So what’s it been like putting together the TV show? In the Times story that came out a couple weeks ago …


IG: You know, there’s a much better story, actually — well, I shouldn’t say that on the record. There’s a very fine story — and the New York Times reporter did a very fine job too — but there’s a very fine story that was in the Los Angeles Times this weekend too.


BM: You seem sort of ambivalent in that [New York] Times story, and I don’t know if that was because of the way the Times framed it, or what. But you talked about how you weren’t sure if you were going to walk away from the TV show or not, and how the heart of the thing wasn’t there, and all this stuff. Is this — are you just nervous? Is there something about the culture of TV that’s just been a little bit frustrating? You don’t really seem like an LA guy.


IG: Well, we wouldn’t be moving to LA.


BM: Right, but still, you’re in that world, I guess. Which is very different.


IG: (laughing) If by “LA guy,” you mean somebody with money, I would heartily agree.


BM: You know what I mean, though. You guys are in your little public radio enclave in Chicago, and you’re around all these smart, thoughtful people, and I sort of read that ambivalence as maybe you just haven’t been so happy with whatever you’ve had to deal with in putting the TV show together.


IG: Yeah. To be truthful, we have both a movie deal going with Warner Brothers, and the TV deal. And I find the people in the movie and TV business who we’ve been lucky enough to deal with to actually be, like, pretty smart — really smart actually — and kinda great to work with. And maybe we’ve just been lucky, I don’t know.


BM: So no real culture clash?


IG: There hasn’t been a culture clash. It would be a more dramatic story if there were, but there wasn’t. There are people who have a different set of priorities, sometimes, than we do, because we’re public broadcasters, and we exist in a very special space in our nation’s culture — you know, where we are actually completely exempt from all market pressures. And we can do whatever we want. Like, it’s really, really different. They have very different things that they have to worry about to keep their jobs and keep their companies going. But that all seems very straightforward.


To actually answer your question, instead of mouthing off about things I don’t know that much about, the reason why it’s a tough choice about going into TV is actually because we have such a sweet deal in radio. I’ve talked about this with my staff, about how nobody gets the deal that we get, where we have 1.7 million people listening to us every week, so the audience is completely there. It’s a huge, huge audience, and we’re fully funded, forever — we can just keep doing this until we all die. The funding is there, it’s all set up, we’re all good. The stations love us. We do great in pledge drives. We have complete creative control. We can do whatever we want. There’s no adult supervision. And you just don’t get that. Steven Spielberg doesn’t have that. We have a huge audience, by journalism standards.


We’re reporters, and for a reporter to get that many people — that’s bigger than most magazines and most newspapers. And so for us to go to TV, it has to be the right sort of setup, where they’re giving us enough money to do it well, where they agree with our vision of what the thing should be, going in. And so far, so good, but it still hasn’t come down to kind of like brass tacks.


BM: With regard to the state of public radio in general, what do you think — well first of all, let me just say this to whoever’s reading this interview. NPR, PRI, and public radio are all different things. “This American Life” appears on PRI, and then goes over public radio — it’s not actually NPR. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…


IG: (laughing) That almost made no sense at all, actually.


It’s a tough situation because you have two competing networks — there’s Public Radio International, and there’s NPR. NPR makes the big news shows, and PRI does our show, and does a bunch of other shows. And everybody knows NPR’s name, and nobody knows the other guy’s name. And then the stations themselves run both shows.


BM: Yeah, and then never really make the distinction.


IG: Yeah.


BM: But in any event, let’s just talk about public radio in general. What do you think the state of public radio is, and what would you change about it if you could?


IG: I mean, you know, like most people, if I were put in charge of things, I would enforce, incredibly selfishly, my own tastes. So I don’t know if that would make public radio better. But I would enjoy it more.


I feel like public radio’s in a situation where the journalism is great and has never been better, and there’s never been as deep a bench of really great reporters, and enough money to put reporters wherever news is happening all over the world and still have people who were always geniuses at their job like Nina Totenberg and Robert Siegel and Scott Simon and keep them on the air. In terms of the news, it’s great coverage. Where public radio falls down — and any program director in the system will tell you this — is innovation. One of the prices of success is that now it has a sound, and the sound is really predictable. And so what do you do, 30 years into the vision?


There isn’t a lot of money that goes to innovation. I have a friend — do you know the musician John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants?


BM: Yeah.


IG: OK, so, he did two pilots for WNYC. They’re great. WNYC produces what I think is the single best new show in public radio, which is “On The Media,” which is continually fresh and fun to listen to and smart and with original angles on all their stories. And this has the exact same feeling — but it’s about pop music. And he gets everybody, because he’s a pop musician, so David Byrne is in the pilot, and — it’s been so long since I heard the pilot — but I think it’s Bikini Kill. And everybody agrees it’s a great show. And he finished it a year ago, and nobody can come up with the money to get it on the air. WNYC, which produced it, doesn’t have the money. NPR literally doesn’t have a programming fund. If you were to ask the head of programming at NPR, this guy named Jay Kernis, he loves the show, he wants to put it on the air, but he doesn’t have a half-million dollars to just write a check with. The same thing with PRI. The woman there who’s in charge of it, Melinda Ward, she doesn’t have a programming fund, so she can actually get a show that she likes. She also likes the show.


So you have these three huge multimillion dollar entities — NPR, PRI, and WNYC — and they all like the show, which would have a natural place with the NPR audience. And honestly, I think they’re all going to dick around with it for so long that Flansburgh is just going to say, “Well OK, time to make movies.” This is exactly the problem in public broadcasting in general and public radio right now. You’ve got people, you’ve got innovative ideas, you’ve got programming executives who know what should be done next — and, literally, there’s no machinery to fund innovation. And so that’s why you get one new show every four or five years.


BM: Well, there’s all that Joan Kroc money. Where does that go?


IG: Yeah, well — I mean, I don’t actually know. (laughing) That would require actual reporting and I’ve never looked into it. Do you know what I mean, though? I feel like what you have is a really successful network with a news product that could be doing a lot of other things with the audience it has and the talent it has, but it just isn’t set up for innovation and it isn’t set up to cultivate new ideas and it isn’t set up to cultivate the next generation of things. And it seems like a waste to me. The Fox network is more innovative than public radio. FX is more innovative. Bravo is ten times more innovative. And remember, it’s public broadcasting’s mission to actually innovate.


BM: I’ve always had the impression that part of the problem is that the affiliates build around the tent poles — “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” — and that uniformity of sound is what makes the brand so strong, and so the affiliates think, we don’t want to put on something quirky and innovative, because it’s not going to fit.


IG: But I think one of the thing’s that’s happened in the last few years — and it started with the car guys, actually, and then continued with us — is that when the car guys became the most popular hour on public radio, program directors had to kind of notice that it isn’t like anything they do any other time during the week, and it’s people’s favorite show. And when we started our show nine years ago, we basically said, remember the car guys — that’s what this is. We were seen as a tremendous risk by stations in the beginning. And then we were fine. We were a big hit. At this point I feel like the stations actually understand that they need to do new stuff. There’s space in the schedule.


At this point, the weekdays are pretty much done. NPR puts out a bunch of decent shows, other people put out a bunch of decent shows during the day that pretty much fill the day. And stations that have local programming have stuff during the day as well. The real estate that everybody’s still fighting over — that there’s no uniformity about, or no consensus about — is the weekend …


Where people are going on Saturday afternoons, if they’re choosing not to listen to the public radio station, is they’re going to music. So if somebody could actually do music on Saturday afternoons on the network level, in the way that feels right to the public radio audience, a lot of those people would come back.


BM: I do think that a lot of the same people who listen to your show also listen to, like, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Maybe they listen to it on the Internet …


IG: Well if they’re in a city where they can get “Morning Becomes Eclectic” …


BM: Right. Well, I listen to it on the Internet.


IG: Well, most people don’t listen to the radio over the Internet. You are part of a tiny elite. A vanguard.


BM: Well, I’m flattered.


IG: (laughing) But a very nerdy vanguard.


BM: I listen to your show on the Internet as well. I don’t even know when it’s on in New York. I listen to it while I clean my apartment on the weekends.


IG: Wow.


BM: I don’t think that puts me in a vanguard, though. I think all the vanguard people all have cleaning ladies. Anyway, and feel free to just blow this question off if you want, but …


IG: Wouldn’t it be weird if you were to ask me a question that is so offensive that I would actually like hang up? I would totally do like a Robert Novak on you and be like, “I’m sorry, I don’t talk about that anymore.” (laughing) I would love that.


BM: Sadly, I don’t think my question is anywhere near offensive enough for that. I did this fellowship at NPR a few years back, and when I was doing it, I told people that I liked “This American Life.” And what everyone said to me was, “Oh, you know, Ira Glass took that show to NPR and they blew him off, and so he took it to PRI.” And then I would get conflicting reports about what actually happened. And I was hoping just once and for all, there could be the definitive account of, like, whether you were blown off by NPR, and then angrily, in a huff, took your show to PRI, or what exactly happened.


IG: I’m sorry, I don’t talk about that.


(Glass hangs up. Thirty seconds later, he calls back.)


BM: I can’t believe you actually hung up.


IG: See, that felt good. I want to do that every interview, now.


BM: It would change your reputation, that’s for sure. I just thought it was like a fake clicking noise, but it was actually a real click. I’m blown away.


IG: I guess it sort of takes some of the spice out of it that I called you back.


BM: Yeah, it does …


IG: So the answer to your question is, you know, I didn’t do anything in a huff. What happened is that we had been on the air for about a year. Here’s the fact pattern. We were on like 112, 114 stations. We were on in 7 of the 10 largest markets. We were doing huge money in pledge drives, so stations really liked us. We had won a Peabody award. We were fully funded. That’s the show that they had. So that’s pretty good, that’s pretty successful — that’s about as successful as you get, one year in.


And we were distributing it by ourselves — WBZ was basically distributing it, which means calling up stations on the phone, and saying, “Don’t you want to take this show? Let’s send you a tape.” All of that. So that’s where we were. And we tried to get NPR to pick it up. And I wanted it to be NPR because I had worked at NPR since I was 19 — at the time I was 38. So I’d spent half my life working for NPR. Literally.


So I came to NPR and the people who were in a position to make it an NPR show — they just didn’t like it as a show. They didn’t get it. They didn’t see what was good about it. They didn’t see what stations were liking about it. And so they didn’t want to take it. Those are people at a sort of vice president level. Meanwhile, remember I had worked there since I was a teenager, so I know everybody. The people who are turning me down are people I had actually worked for, in one job or another. And so all my friends from the news division, people I had worked with basically — the head of “All Things Considered,” and the vice president for news, and Robert Siegel — I had been a producer for “All Things Considered” for years, and a reporter for years, and those people heard the early shows. And they went to management and said, “We own this. We created this. Ira is ours. Ira started here when he was a kid. Everything he learned he learned on the second floor of our building. Everything he’s doing on this show — from his documentary stories to David Sedaris — he first put onto ‘Morning Edition’ and ‘All Things Considered.’ This came out of our incubator. We should be distributing it. This is the logical next step for what we should be doing.”


And finally the president of the company sort of issued an order to the people who were in charge of making these programming decisions, and said, they’re right, make him an offer. And at the time, PRI very, very badly wanted the show. And they put together a really sweet offer for us … and meanwhile we’d get on these calls with NPR and the people wouldn’t make us an offer, they wouldn’t make us an offer, and finally they just said, “Well, tell us what PRI is offering you, and we’ll just match that.” And I just felt like, if it’s going to be exactly the same offer, and you don’t have any enthusiasm for this at all, I’m just going to go with the people who actually seem like they’re going to do the job, rather than the people who are slowly, grudgingly coming around to this, who I’m going to have to deal with for the next ten years or twenty years of my life. It just seemed like a really obvious choice.


BM: Were they surprised you turned them down?


IG: I don’t think they were surprised. Because they were doing such a bad job of pitching us. And I don’t think they were disappointed either. And honestly since then, so many of the NPR brass — people got fired over this …


BM: They got fired?


IG: We were chief among a number of bad programming decisions. Like other things that got away. And since then, there’s been much more competition. Now, any new show that comes along, there’s very much a feeling at NPR, like, oh, they’ve made a boneheaded mistake. The person who now has that job, Jay Kernis, is actually one of my oldest friends, and periodically we’ll go get drinks. And you get two drinks in that man and he’s pretty much like, “Don’t you think you should be leaving PRI?” And I’m always like, “Jay, it’s going great with PRI. Let’s talk about something else.”


At various points, various NPR executives have come to me and said, please, if you ever want to come to NPR, we would very much like to have you as a show. And that’s very, very nice. At this point, I feel like it doesn’t really matter. If we were an NPR show instead of a PRI show, all the same stations would be running us — it would all be the same. It wouldn’t help anybody in any way.


BM: Thanks for clearing this up. It’s weird that there are all these rumors about it …


IG: I feel like it took on a symbolic meaning for people at the company, especially among the people who felt like NPR wasn’t taking risks, and wasn’t doing enough new stuff. There’s a whole cadre of people at NPR — young people especially, but some older people, actually, including some of the most experienced people, too — who feel like the network is not doing a lot of things it could be doing. And I feel like we fit neatly into that idea, as a perfect fable of the failure of NPR. And at the time, I think it was true. It absolutely illustrates a problem that was at NPR. I actually think NPR is better managed when it comes to that stuff now. That they would very much like to be doing more innovative stuff.


BM: All right. Well, I have like a cutesy final question, but I don’t know …


IG: Bring it. Bring it, bring it.


BM: Are you sure?


IG: I’ve already hung up on you once.


BM: That’s true. All right, well, as you told me over email, you’re about to get married. And I remember when you did that story about your ex-girlfriend throwing clothing on you in the changing room. You think you’ll end up doing a show about getting married, about, like, this whole process?


IG: I absolutely do not think I’m going to do a show about getting married. ‘Cause the whole relationship is off the record.


BM: The whole relationship is off the record? Was that made clear to you from the beginning?


IG: Pretty much once you start to talk about your friends to a national audience, all your other friends make a declaration that unless stated otherwise, you’re off the record. A person would have to be pretty insensitive — even the story about the girlfriend in the dressing room, even that, I got her permission. You have to be kind of a creep not to.


BM: Yeah. But still, like the story I did for you guys, was basically, you know, my friend had had something happen to him. It seems like an easy place to get ideas. But I can understand how it could put a strain on a relationship.


IG: Well, she’s an editor too, she’s a newspaper editor, and honestly, if something came up that seemed like it was worth talking about on the radio, I would totally try to talk her into letting me talk about it. There’s no question about it — if something interesting happens, I would try to get it on the radio. But it’s kind of a relief to have a non-reporting zone in your life. We don’t have trouble coming up with material for the show. So I don’t need to.


And honestly, something’s got to be sort of spectacularly interesting in your own personal life to be worth talking about on the radio. And how often does that happen, anyway? And there’s nothing more boring than a wedding, except to the people who are in it. But I mean, our wedding is exactly like everybody else’s weddings, you know what I mean? And our feelings for each other are pretty much your standard feelings that people have for each other. They’re huge, but there’s nothing uniquely compelling about them as a story for the radio. We squarely fall into the category of stories that people often pitch for the show, which are, “that’s really wonderful for you to have gone through that, but nobody wants to hear about it.” And nobody recognizes that better than me and her. America doesn’t need to know whether we’re getting the pit bull, you know? America doesn’t care.


BM: Right. Like that you left the dirty dishes in the sink, and she was mad …


IG: (laughing) I mean, just for the record, she’s the one who leaves the dishes in the sink.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.