Q&A: Ira Glass on structuring stories, asking hard questions

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This first episode features Ira Glass, host of This American Life. An edited transcript is below.

 

GETTING STARTED IN PUBLIC RADIO

Jesse Thorn: I think one of the things that people who don’t know much about you don’t know about you is that before you started This American Life, you were a regular public radio guy for a full 20 years or so as a reporter and a producer starting when you had an internship as a teenager.

Ira Glass: Yes.

Jesse: Did being a reporter fit you naturally? Like was it an ambition for you?

Ira: No. Just, just the opposite in fact. I wasn’t very good on the air, and so when I started I was basically like a tape cutter. I was a production assistant and a tape cutter and a behind-the-scenes person and got better and better at that part of it. And then I was a kind of producer who you would call in to fix problem situations or to do ambitious stories and so that was what I did. I worked for All Things Considered and Morning Edition. I was just like a favorite producer of the people who manage the place and got sent on a lot of great assignments and worked. Basically I produced other people. I produced Robert Siegel and Renee Montagne and Scott Simon and various reporters on various kinds of very ambitious projects and trips. And then when I was almost 30, I decided that I wanted to try to be a reporter myself, and I was not good at it. Like it would take me like a month to do a story that would take a normal reporter like three days. And I didn’t, I just, I was a terrible performer on the air, and I was not good at interviewing people in a way that you could broadcast. Like their quotes were good, but I sounded terrible  in the tape. And um, and I just had to learn every single part of it.

Jesse: Did you feel comfortable with the part of reporting that is just going and bothering people?

Ira: Yes. And I also felt comfortable since I was such an experienced tape cutter, that I knew the tape I needed and I knew when I had the tape—which I didn’t even understand was a separate skill until now that we have people who are inexperienced who come and work on our show—or you know not as experienced as I was when I started to become a reporter. Like honestly like one of the things that I learned we have to teach people is to decide what tape they need before they go out to get the tape, and then to know when they’ve got it. Like, I didn’t even understand that I had that as a skill.

TRENDING: “This is a whole generation of young people who were basically sold a lie”

 

WHAT MAKES GOOD TAPE?

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Jesse: What kind of tape are you [looking for] when you say that you are listening for something that you know ahead of time that you need? What does that mean?

Ira: It means that I need this person to explain this story or to explain. I mean it depends on the kind of story like some stories I’m going out, and I really don’t know when I’m going to find, right? But more typical is I’m going out, and I have a basic sense of what the person can tell me.

Miki Meek, one of our producers, and I were doing some reporting in a small town in Alabama, and this is a story that’s kind of a political fable about this town which in Alabama is the town where there have been more immigrants than any other town and is the town that Jeff Sessions and others have pointed to as being exemplary of the problem that immigrants bring to America. And basically we’re going in and saying: is Jeff Sessions right? Has a flood of mostly Mexican immigrants to this town made the town worse? Driven native-born Americans out of jobs, brought up the crime rate, driven down wages? Is that true? Let’s just, just go in and just—is it factually true? And it turns out, some of those things are true, and some of them aren’t. And some of them are sort of complicated in a really wonderful way. So this is like one of those projects which is like, it takes us months to do. And there’s so much reporting and we’re getting so much more tape than winds up on the air, and with those interviews, we go into the interview like talking to people who are in the city council when the city council tried to take action about these immigrants, and we just know a bunch of moments in the history of the town that we’re trying to get them to explain—like what happened? You know, tell me the story of this. What did you think, what were the politics of it.

But even there I’m going on with a plan of “there’s a bunch of stories I want to get you to tell me.” I have no idea what the answer to these questions are. Like what happened in this particular council meeting on this day? But I want you to narrate through the whole thing as a narrative—like you know when the meeting starts, what is everybody’s position, and what happens over the course of the meeting. What did people say? What do you remember? And then you know where do you come out on the other side of it? So even in that case when I’m doing an interview, I’m looking for narrative. And then there are certain places that I need people to jump out and give me the big picture idea of this story which in this case is is Jeff Sessions right about this town? Is that story correct? And if he’s not right, what is he not getting exactly right? And there’s a bunch of like “Big Idea” questions, too.

 

STRUCTURING THE STORY

Ira: I’ve said this many times in many places, but the structure of stories on our show in this kind of narrative journalism is there’s plot and then there are ideas. And those are the two elements that you’re constantly monitoring to know whether or not you’ve got them. And in part I feel like when people hear that they don’t even know exactly what is meant by that. All plot is is a series of actions where one thing leads to the next—sort of like this thing led to this next thing, led to this next thing, led to this next thing, led to this next thing, and then some of the things in this list can be, “And then he said this to me, and as a result, I said this back to him, and then he said this back to me, and then I got angry and I stormed out and I wrote a bill saying…” What you want is one thing leads to the next leads to the next leads the next and the reason why we do that is because once you have any sequence of actions in order of like, this happened and then this happened and this happened that creates narrative suspense because you wonder what happened next. 

And once you have narrative suspense, it just makes the entire project of getting somebody to listen to a story or listen to anything you’re saying so much easier because they just want to find out what’s going to happen. And then you can just take them on a journey and walk them through all kinds of feelings and ideas—even on subjects that they don’t think they want to hear about—you know, because they just get caught up in like wait like what happened next? And so it’s just an enormously powerful tool for journalism, and even journalism that’s like just very personal journalism about documenting somebody’s personal life. You want the forward motion of events, and then the ideas that you’re driving at don’t have to be like the smartest ideas in the world.

So in these interviews that we’re doing, we’re seeing somebody for two hours, and most of it is not going to be on the air. But when somebody says the thing that is the tape, then we know it. Like I totally, I’m editing in my head, and not only am I editing in my head, but once they start, like I’m hearing it edited in my head, and I’m egging them on to say more, so I can land it as a thing that will be on the radio, and then when we walk out of those interviews right then, Mikki and I talk about what were the moments that worked best. I will just jot down like the four or five things that were the things that were the best things.

Jesse: Do you ask people the same question over again?

Ira: Oh my god, yes. Over and over and over and over again. Yes, it’s completely key, because often they don’t hear it exactly the way you mean it. And I will ask the person the same question four or five times normally before they give me an answer. That’s the actual answer to that question.

 

TRICKS OF HIS TRADE

Ira: Sometimes you have to theorize what the answer might be. Like I find myself in a lot of interviews saying, “Well is it more like this or is it like this? I can imagine it would be this way or this way. What is it?” And then when they’re forced to like kind of go somewhere—to bat away one of your theories and to run at one of the others. 

Jesse: That’s something I was talking with Marc Maron about for this show, which was Maron, always, I mean just because of the way Marc’s brain works, he always has an ideation about what someone’s deal is and why they do the things they do.

Ira: Oh my god, I know. He’s a master. A master!

Jesse: Just make an assertion that they have to parry.

Ira: Yeah. I think about that less often. The version of that that we have on our show is that anything shitty we’re going to say about somebody we say it to their face.

Jesse: Is that like written on a whiteboard?

Ira: It should be. It’s one of the laws of journalism, like basically when you think about it like the all you kind of need to know as a journalist really is you’re going to be fair to everybody equally in the story. And you’re going to make sure that everything is true. And if you have something bad to say about somebody, you say it to their face so they get to give their side of it. And, and so partly it’s just basic Journalism 101: You need to get their side of it. You know, and let them say you’re wrong, whatever. But often that’ll be like your very best tape, somebody batting that away. And also like anything that’s my theory of the story, like my theory of “Here’s what I think their story is.” I guess this is exactly like the Marc Maron or Howard Stern thing. Whatever my theory of the story is like if I think here’s what I think your story means, I say it to their face like we all do. We say it to their face because if we’re right, we need to know that. And if we’re wrong, we really need to know that and often that’s the most amazing tape, is where I say like I think what’s going on is like you have these feelings about your dad and then you just act it out, and they say, “You don’t understand this at all. No. Here’s what’s really.” And then they tell you the real story in exactly the way that you’re saying, and yeah like it, yeah.

 

OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE

Jesse: Are there situations in which you are uncomfortable asking people about things, personally?

Ira: Yeah I think, I think there are, there are many interviews I go into nervous for sure because I don’t exactly know where the person is coming from, and I’m nervous for how they’re going to react to the questions. And I hear often on the tape that the interview is kind of stiff until I relax which is really like an important thing to know.

Jesse: So are you saying that you’re like you’re nervous in part because you’re not sure you have the story right?

Ira: No. I’m nervous I’m going to get the story. I’m nervous about how they’re going to react to some of the questions. Like I’m nervous about the content we’re going to be going through. I’m nervous about whether they’re going to be frank with me, and like some people just make me nervous. Like I’m nervous around famous people. I’m nervous around people who I think would judge me.

Jesse: Ira, you know you’re a famous person, right?

Ira: No one is famous to themselves, I think. Or maybe they are. I don’t know. Like, I don’t know. You know what I mean. I interviewed Pat Buchanan a couple of weeks ago, and you know Pat Buchanan is like one of the iconic political figures of the Nixon era. And you know his famous speech at the Republican convention. You know which said that there’s a culture war in this country. He’s just this iconic figure who I’ve been reading about since I was a kid—and he’s totally friendly to journalist guy. He’s not like a combative Republican who doesn’t want to talk to journalists; he likes talking to journalists. He was a journalist like he’s a totally—he’s kind of a sweetheart in person actually—like he’s lovely. He’s really like a lovely, decent person to deal with. And happy to like bat around ideas and talk about anything you want. But I was nervous. I was nervous of the things we were going to be asking him about, and I was nervous because he’s this iconic figure.

Jesse: Were you nervous in part because he is, unlike most people who are on your show and most people that you probably talked to in the course of your work, a professional talker, that he is a guy who knows how to…

Ira: That’s a really good question. That’s a really, really good question. Yeah, like that that was part of it, that he was going to be kind of packaged, which he wasn’t actually which which was really lovely. But often that’s a huge problem. You know when you have somebody who’s a professional talker.

 

FINDING SOURCES

Jesse: How do you decide on somebody to talk to when you’re doing a piece as broad as you know with as big a question as what happened in this town? Do you just, do you do that thing where you walk into a diner and just start talking to people? I feel like that’s every political reporter’s main thing they do.

Ira: No. I mean I’m not above that, but for this story no. Because we know the thing that we’re looking for and what we’re looking for is we know the year that Mexican workers showed up in this town. And so we know the narrative we’re looking for. and what we’re looking for is the exact participants. People who worked in those jobs in poultry plants when Mexican workers arrived. And the Mexican workers themselves who arrived who are still around. Like the exact people like working for the specific people who were there when this happened, and the people who manage those plants, and we’re looking for the specific politicians who, who fought over this as the years went on. And so what we’re doing is we imagine a little map of the story and who would be interesting to hear from. And where would you want to begin the story and where would you want it to end. And then you just start going out and reporting it out and calling people, and knocking on doors literally—knocking on doors of the people who you want to get—and because like a lot of people, it isn’t a good idea to just be a voice on the phone from New York City calling a small town in Alabama. Like it’s better if you just show up and you’re a human being standing in front of them who looks sort of normal, and, and just you know what I mean? Like people treat you nicely if you’re there. Whereas on the phone you’re just like, hey I don’t know who the hell you are.

You make a map of the story in that case. And then the more common thing on the radio show is that you know we’re pitching each other possible stories and evaluating with each other like whether we should do them at all. You know, and we have a weekly story meeting and there’s a pitch document where we pitch each other. And then there what we’re evaluating is, is the plot of the story interesting? Is it something we haven’t heard before? Does it lead to some interesting thought? Does it tell us something, like what’s the likelihood that this person’s going to be a good talker if there hasn’t been a pre-interview done? You know, and so those are the things we’re looking for.

 

THE INTIMACY OF AUDIO

Ira: The thing that happens to me is that if it’s going well, and the person is really talking from the heart about a thing that means something to them. And I’m talking back to them, and we’re understanding each other, and like I start to feel really close to them. I know that as like a professional journalist, it’s not like the right thing to say, to say this, but I start to really love them. Like it has the intimacy of any like actual intimate conversation with somebody who I feel super close to. And it’s exciting because we’re strangers, and so it’s like a very first date-y kind of conversation. I know this all sounds awful the way I’m saying it. But like just to say to have somebody who you don’t know, and then suddenly you’re talking in a very real way about something very big that happened to them. Very emotional. They really share their emotions, and then I react with my real feelings about what happened to them. And we’re talking back and forth and back and forth, and we feel like we’re understanding each other, and like we’re sharing a thing that’s real.

And I feel like there’s a point in my career where I was around 30, where I understood, oh there’s a power to hearing two people do that. Literally just like the feeling I’m getting in the conversation, you can hear it in the tape, and it gives it to you over the air. And in the very best interviews I feel like the intimacy of that actually, like, transmits over the air and gives the listener that feeling as if they were in the conversation and gives the whole thing a lot of, a lot of, a lot of magnetism. I don’t know a better way to say that. You just, it gives you like the feeling that you get when you, when you’re having a great conversation with somebody. You know, and so, and in those moments I totally like, man, woman, child, any age, any sex—it doesn’t matter like who they are at all. Like I totally, like a part of my heart. It’s just like I really start to love them, like it’s the actual accurate word for what’s happening.

Jesse: That’s unusual, right?

Ira: No. I mean it doesn’t happen every day, but I do a lot of interviews so I can get to that. Like that’s the goal. The goal isn’t just to give out information in a show like this, that I’m doing. Like the goal is to have a moment that’s special. And it took me a long time. I was doing radio for a long time before I was even able to name to myself what I thought those special moments were and how to get to them, and it’s a real trial and error process. I mean that’s why we throw so much stuff away. Because I wanted to be at that level. And I, you know, yeah I get to that. I mean, I think at least once a week, but like to get that once a week, like I’m doing a lot of interviews.

Jesse: Are there things that you do besides trial and error to generate that feeling?

Ira: Yeah, I mean I try to think through what, what the other person would feel if they had the experience they were—you know just like it’s an active act of imagining and empathy. There’s a lot of like imagining what the other person’s experience is which, which any good interviewer does. Well like, like Terry Gross—I remember my very favorite Terry Gross interview question is this thing we’re about to probably quote in an upcoming show that we’re doing about magicians, where she asked Ricky Jay the author and magician. She asked him, “Is there ever a trick where what’s going on kind of behind the scenes that we don’t see is actually more interesting than what we do see?” And he got really excited he’s like, “Yeah.” And she’s like, “Can you give me an example?” He said, “No, of course not.” But like if you think about the construction of that question, that’s like putting herself inside his world and inside his head so thoroughly, you know. Or another question I remember she asked my cousin Philip Glass, the composer, the very best question he’s ever been asked in any interview—and I say that as somebody, I’ve had to interview him on stage, and so I’ve gone back through a lot of interviews of his to see like what people ask him, or what works and what doesn’t. And she asked him like the perfect Philip Glass question which was, she asked him, “Did you ever, have you ever tried to write music that doesn’t sound like the music of Philip Glass?” And he gets really excited like, “Oh my, oh yes, yes, yes, absolutely. Every time.” And then he pauses and he goes, “And every time I fail.”

 

ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING

Jesse:  I’ve talked to you a number of times on a few times on my show and a few times in real life and like social or semi-professional contexts, and you never fail to bring your enormous empathy muscle to bear upon me. You never fail to like, ask me about almost immediately about something important and how I feel about it in my life. Do you feel it’s comfortable being the subject of that or opening your own feelings and emotions up, as you do opening up the can of other people’s emotions?

Ira: You mean in my personal life or you mean on the radio?

Jesse: Either or both.

Ira:  I mean over the last few years, at the urging of my spouse, I’ve become much more articulate in personal situations about talking about my feelings. And in fact even knowing what my feelings are. Like I’ve talked about this on stage, how, how like there have been many situations where I have been asked, you know like, so how do you feel about that. And I sort of like survey my own feelings and just nothing comes up like I look on the, I look on the radar screen, and there’s no planes coming in at all. And you know, and um, and I’ve consciously trained myself to understand better what I’m feeling and all kinds of personal situations that I think I was just sort of like shutting down. Now that’s maybe a more personal answer than you’re asking for, but it’s a truthful answer. And on the radio, I’ve always felt like it’s better for me to be to be more personal. For me to be in any situation where it seems like that’s the appropriate place for the conversation to go, I go there, and it was interesting to me on our 500th show we did, kind of a look back at different things, and Sarah Koenig, she was like, that was something she had always noticed about my interviews—it’s like, if there’s a chance for me to say something personal—or if there’s not a chance, but if there’s an appropriate turn to deepen the conversation to say something personal, I’ll say it. And honestly, like, a lot of times I say it, then we cut it out of the interview. And um, because it just like ends up not fitting into the pacing of the story and not being relevant enough to go there. But over time I’ve gotten much more comfortable. And in fact like just a couple of months ago, I felt like I really took a turn in this, in that I wrote more personally about a thing than I ever have on the ever. And that is, like, within a few weeks, within a few weeks’ time, um, my wife and I decided that we were going to split up, and the person who I talked to every day—a friend of mine from the neighborhood who is 89 years old, who I knew from the dog park but talked to every day and we traveled to Ireland together, and we were very close—she died. And suddenly I was in a moment in my life where the two people who were the two closest people to me were gone, and it was odd. And there was a theme that came up the week that my friend Mary died, that it was appropriate to talk about. And just like, I wrote a draft of a thing and kind of read it to the staff, you know to some of the staff, and then edit—and they didn’t know that I had separated from my wife three years before. They didn’t know that we were thinking of splitting up, like this just—because they kept, I feel like I’m their boss and that they don’t—it’s just weird if your boss is telling you all kinds of personal stuff in the office. And so, and so, they didn’t know any of that. They found it out in the edit which I apologized for, knowing how completely symbolic and maybe not the best way to handle things it was, but there we were and you know like I love the people I work with. You know what I mean we work together. You know, I don’t know, anyway, I could say more about that too. But anyway. So maybe it wasn’t the exact best way to handle it with them and basically read this very personal piece of writing to them. And I was like, I don’t even know, oh does this belong on the radio? And they’re like yeah, yeah, this belongs on the radio. And so then I, then we put that, put that on the radio.

Jesse: How is it reflected in your life that you are more willing in a nonprofessional context to recognize and be open about your feelings?

Ira: I feel like I’ve become a better friend to my friends and a little happier. It turns out being awake to your own feelings is just like a helpful thing.

 

THE QUESTION THAT ALWAYS WORKS

Ira: It’s been so long so thought about this. It’s like, he [Noah Adams] said that like the question that always works is: how did you think it was going to work out before it happened? And then how did it really work out. Is that it?

Jesse: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And you then explain why it’s a good question.

Ira: Which I think the thing I see in the comic book is that because you get two stories.

Jesse: Right.

Ira: And you get the shift between them, you get the kind of like, here’s how I thought it would go, which is one story. And then here’s how the reality is different than the dream of that. And then the jump between the two is just kind of interesting.

Jesse: Yeah, I mean it forces—it basically forces someone to generate a This American Life story, which is to say it forces them into narrative. It forces them into another narrative and because they’ve given these two narratives, it forces them into reflection, right? Like there’s no choice but to compare them.

 

The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Photo credit: Stuart Mullenberg

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.