I had little sleep the night before I interviewed Ira Glass, radio show host and producer of This American Life. The phone interview was to take place at 2pm on a Monday – 5pm at his office in New York — which gave me the entire morning and early afternoon to do breathing exercises and mull over all of the ways it could go wrong.
I was experiencing equal parts excitement and dread; on the one hand, I was about to interview a person whose work has had a profound impact on my life, and I felt like I had won the lottery by getting to speak with him. On the other hand, I was about to interview a person who, for more than 30 years, has had the job of interviewing others for public radio, garnering more than 2 million listeners and reinventing the medium in the process. And thinking of that terrified me.
At two o’clock sharp I rang his desk, my cat meowing loudly at my feet. I hear his voice mid-sentence, an octave higher and much faster than radio. “…writing. I think the last sentence of the piece is anticlimactic. Hello.” It’s not a question, but a statement, with all of the emphasis on the ‘hel.’ I am grinning ear to ear. I am suddenly relieved that this is not an in-person interview. I introduce myself, he tells me about a call that he has to take in exactly 15 minutes, but that I can call back if we aren’t finished. He asks some people to get out, and then tells me, “I’m kicking people out of my office.” As my mouth opens to form the first question, he tells the people he’s kicking out, “It’s just, I think this story is getting — I just feel so good about it. I feel like it just lives up to the dream. Don’t you feel like it lives up to the dream of what the story could be? And, oh my God, it’s so terse. It’s getting extra punch with each bit of terser-ness. Hold on, I’m putting the phone down… Ok. Let’s go.”
Let me back up. I mentioned before that Ira Glass has had a profound impact on my life. That seems funny to say about a person I’ve never met before. But This American Life helped to change the course of my life completely. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. One morning, on the way to my job in middle management at a department store, I found myself crying in the parking lot as I listened to the ending of an episode. Not because the story was an incredibly moving one, but because at that moment, I knew what I really wanted to do: I wanted to tell stories. Other people’s stories, my story, I didn’t care. I was done just being part of an audience. I wanted one, too.
I had prepared questions for Ira in hopes of learning how one becomes a good storyteller — the kind that can draw a large and ever-growing audience and keep them from leaving their car before the story is over. But instead of referring to my notes, the questions typed up clearly and coherently, I opened my mouth and words came out. Ira said, “Let’s go,” and I went.
Ok, cool. I’m just going to start in on it, then. Um, so, I’m really curious about your process in general and how you got to be so great, really. In that video that you —
He cuts me off. It’s been five seconds.
–That’s a really great opening question for the interview: “How did you get to be so great?”
I’m not sure if I should be mortified quite yet, so I laugh, and rephrase the question.
In your video, “The Gap,” you talk about the first years of a creative endeavor as being, essentially, bad.
There’s occasional exceptions. But mostly it goes like that.
Well, I think I read in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” that in order to become an expert in your craft or field, you need about 10,000 hours of experience. At what point did that ‘expert moment’ kick in for you? Like where you finished something and said, yeah, I’ve got this.
I did have that moment, but it was at like 40,000 hours.
It’s true. I started working in public radio at NPR headquarters when I was 19, through an internship. The following summer I got my first paid job working there, and I was working on news shows when I was very, very young. And I was always very good from the start at one thing: I was a very intuitive tape editor, and everything else I was awful at. I was a bad writer, I didn’t know how to research a story, or how to report a story and then structure it with tape, and I was an awful performer on the air. I performed like I was a stiff. And my stories didn’t make a lot of sense. I was really, really bad. That continued up to the time I was 27 or 28.*
I had a turning point story that I did where I was like, “Oh, ok, now I finally think I know how to do this.” And it was kind of a nothing story on the 75th anniversary of the Oreo cookie. It was just this little fluff piece that NPR assigned to me. So I went out to a factory in New Jersey where they make Oreo cookies… and I wrote a piece that was the first story where I thought, “Oh, this sounds just like me.” Like, “This is my actual personality.” It was the first story I wrote for the radio that was funny.
Yeah, there are still lines that I remember. Up until then, I had been struggling to do that. I think it’s a really good example of how it doesn’t matter what you’re working on, or why you’re getting your hours in –you just need to be logging hours. It wasn’t a profound story. It was just a story that sounded like me. And I finally figured out how to express myself. [pullquote] Ira Glass just talked to me for ten minutes about Oreo cookies.[/pullquote]
*I did the math. If Ira worked 40 hours a week, every week, for 9 years, it would be around 18,720 hours.
Ira goes on to talk about cookies for six more minutes. He mentions how he never thought about how the cookies were actually baked and not just an industrial product; he talks about the conveyor belts at the factory, and how when the cookies break you’re supposed to throw them over your shoulder into a bin of broken up cookie bits. I’m looking at my clock at this point and am starting to panic. We’ve been on the phone for ten minutes and haven’t even gone through two questions.
Like, one of the ingredients in the cookie recipe is ground up cookies that have been broken.
Yeah, I know.
He stops talking and I have no idea what to say. Ira Glass just talked to me for ten minutes about Oreo cookies. So I give the dumbest, most amateur response possible: I thank him for “giving me that” and move on to the next question.
Writers of fiction and creative non-fiction talk a lot about how their city or environment shapes the way they write. How did being based in Chicago for so long affect the way that This American Life was written and edited?
I don’t think it had any effect at all. Chicago is a really wonderful place to be a reporter, and especially to be a radio reporter, because you’re in a place that sounds like America. Meaning you’re in a place where there’s all kinds of people, and they’re talky people who are really funny. But that’s true of most places in the country.
I think the kinds of stories that I like to do, and that we do on the radio show, are so specialized that it doesn’t matter where the show is based. I wish that I could have that kind of firm sense of place, but I don’t.
Now we produce the show out of New York City. We moved to New York to do TV years ago, and then quit doing TV after two years, and I was the only person that wanted to go back to Chicago. Everybody else wanted to stay, because people had mortgages, they’ve got kids in school, and I had neither. And my wife wanted to stay. And basically everybody in my life wanted to stay, but me. New York is fine. But it’s harder to do a ‘man on the street’ interview with someone with it sounding like New York City, because you just don’t sound like you’re in the country. I don’t feel like I live in America any more now that I live in New York. Like, I don’t drive a car. Not driving a car makes you not an American.
Yeah, I think you’re right.
Now, I never hear the radio in a car unless I’m somewhere else doing a story, and I rent a car. It feels really weird. But I have a lot of respect for New York. But I definitely do not feel like I live in the United States. [pullquote]I feel like radio is a machine for empathy.[/pullquote]
My bigger point is that to do the kind of stories that we’re doing, we need some specialized things that are particular to our format. That is, we need a plot, and the plot has to be surprising, there has to be something. There has to be somebody in the story that you can relate to. It’s best if there are funny moments… It has to drive toward some idea about the world that you haven’t heard before. That’s a lot of weight to put on a story; and so you end up invariably just finding them from all over the country, and all over the world. We do stories from other countries even though the show is called This American Life. Basically we’re open to a story that’s entertaining enough to put on the air.
You mention entertainment, but it seems like every show contains subjects that a large portion of your audience might not relate to. Yet by the end of the act, we are completely moved by their stories. Do you think that one of the things that TAL does best, actually, is its ability to foster empathy?
I feel like radio is a machine for empathy. And the stories are machines for empathy… I feel like that’s just the premise of doing a show of narrative storytelling. Radio is so unusually great for that. Sometimes we’ll do things – like this show we did on a high school in Chicago where 29 kids got shot in a year… and eight of them died. [It’s] not like what you see on TV. When they try to portray such violent neighborhoods, the reality is very different. And it’s like what the sense of radio is, it’s the intimacy of it, just hearing people talk has such a power and makes it so easy to empathize. You know, I thought, if you wanted to do [that story] on TV, you would really have to shoot it like a film. It would have to be beautifully lit and beautifully shot and the camera very, very close for it to have the intimate power that radio has, simply through the fact that you don’t see people and that that’s just built into the medium, that’s what it does when it’s not trying to do anything in particular, it has that intimacy.
What do you experience, personally, when you tell other people’s stories, when you help them tell their own stories?
You’re asking what do I experience?
Yeah. I don’t know if that’s a good question.
Yeah, that’s a totally good question. I experience the feelings that are in the story, like everybody who’s listening to the story; but also, you know, I’m editing the story in my head as I’m talking to them. So while I’m cutting the tape… I mean, Terry Gross says this, from Fresh Air, that when you’re doing an interview for radio, and I’m sure for print, too, it’s like you’re editing the interview as you’re having the conversation. So you’re hearing what goes in and what comes out, and you’re hearing what you want to use and what you don’t want to use. You’re both an interviewer and an editor. And so, I’m having all the feelings, but I’m also trying to make sure that those feelings get staged on tape, in a way that other people will have them, too. And you know it’s a funny job… where you’re just trying to line up the pieces of the story in the right order, in the way that it’ll have the maximum impact. Like I said, in a way you’re a technician.
This is a meta moment, dear readers. I am interviewing an interviewer talking about how he interviews.
And some of the stories we do are just so hard to tell… Like we did a show last week on this guy who the FBI shot and killed in Florida during an interrogation in his own apartment. They shot him seven times under circumstances that are still very murky. And just figuring out how to tell that story, honestly, like four of us spent weeks just rewriting that story over and over and over with different structures, going with different moments as the key moments. It was a real puzzle.
It’s like you’re doing that tape cutting still like when you first started.
Fortunately, that was the one thing I was good at.
I laughed, and told him he was still good at it. Before hanging up the phone, I asked him about his show in Tacoma, and whether or not he is going to have anything Northwest specific for us.
I’ll look through old stories to see what we’ve done from Seattle or Tacoma –and I hope it’s ok that I would include Seattle stories with the Tacoma stories. I’m scared that that’s just like fighting words…
Well, we are the step-sister city.
You know, like will people beat me up if I try to play clips of Dan Savage?
I’m sure there’s going to be lots of Seattle people here, so (laughs) I’m sure that’ll be okay.
So, yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I mean, honestly sometimes I’ll look for local material, but I’ll look to see if there’s anything that’s happened in the last couple of weeks that will be fun to talk about. I’m not a good enough performer that I can actually give the same speech everywhere. I need to change it up for it to work. It’s for me as much as it is for the audience. I have more fun if part of it is completely new.
And then here’s the amazing part: after 15 minutes of me tripping over myself, Ira asked if I wanted to call back for a few more questions after his call. And of course I did. Of course.
When we started talking again, I asked him what his thoughts were on Tacoma. He said that it reminded him of Chicago, and that it was beautiful, but most importantly, how much better life for his dog would be if he lived here: “We’d have a yard. His feet would touch the grass, you know, instead of just being on concrete all day every day.” [pullquote]I learned things about screenwriting and making movies that were really interesting to learn but I resent having learned them.[/pullquote]
The conversation shifted and I asked him what would have happened if 19 year-old Ira hadn’t landed an internship at NPR. Would he still have ended up telling stories? Or maybe ended up a doctor, like his parents had always wanted? I guess what I was trying to ask is whether or not he somehow felt ‘called’ to tell stories, for lack of a better way of describing it. But, if I’ve learned anything from my Ira research (like reading 50+ interviews with him), as well as our short conversation, it’s that Ira Glass is a pragmatist.
I mean I wouldn’t be in radio, if I hadn’t talked my way into an internship at NPR. The only reason that I’m in radio is because NPR let me hang around for free, and then I got a job with this guy the following summer, Nick Talbot, who was on staff at NPR. His job was to invent new ways to do radio documentary. And half of what I know about radio I learned from him, if not more. And before working with him, I didn’t even know what could be so interesting about making radio. And so everything I know comes from that.
So what has been the hardest thing you’ve ever done, creatively?
There have been episodes of the radio show that have been enormously difficult. But I think the single hardest thing that I ever did was that I co-wrote and co-produced a movie that Mike Birbiglia wrote and starred in, and figuring out how to make that script work in a way that had as much feeling as the one-man show it was based on… It was an enormously tricky challenge and I learned things about screenwriting and making movies that were really interesting to learn but I resent having learned them.
We both laugh.
Like, when I watch a movie, I understand things about the machinery of the story that’s kind of interesting to know – a little bit of special knowledge or this trick or that trick – but honestly it still makes me mad to [have gone] through that (laughs). That’s hard won knowledge.
And because you can edit a film so quickly now… by the time you’re done shooting, your editor — pretty much that day or the next day — can show you a cut of the film. And so we edited the film over and over for four months and had public radio audiences… of 60 or 80 people that we kept showing it to… and people hated it. Not only did people hate it, but people hated it and said things to Mike and I like, “It just seems like neither of you really understand what it’s like to be in love.” or “Have either of you been in a relationship with a woman?” You know what I mean?
And they’d say things like “it just seems like you two are misogynists and hate women.” There was enough of that that it became clear we did not know how to portray a couple in love very well.
(I laugh… again).
And, (laughs) that was a challenge. People just didn’t buy the central couple as a couple. And we were just like, goddammit. And then someone explained to us that there’s a trick, there’s something in writing called ‘save the cat.’ And they told us, ‘Well, you just got to have them save the cat.’ And we were like, what do you mean? So there’s this scene in the movie where the whole point of the scene is, ‘Aww, I like them.’ Like, that’s the whole point of the scene.
He goes on, and says that the ‘save the cat trick’ — a trick he never knew about before creating this film — saved the movie. Just one little ‘nothing’ scene, where Mike Birbiglia brings his girlfriend some nuts and water, completely changed the audiences’ perception of the couple being a real couple.
He then asks me if I had seen Inside Llewyn Davis yet. I hadn’t, so he tells me all about the inside joke in the film, “They basically have a running gag where he does save the cat. In scene two. And then, he keeps losing it. The entire film. He saves the cat, then loses it, then saves it, then loses it, and like, they know that it’s a hack move, so they do it, and they just really play it out for maximum dramatic effect.”
I am having a bit of an out-of-body experience at this point. The conversation has turned casual — we’re talking about film and the Coen Brothers and how Ira doesn’t want to be in the movies anymore, “So, my new thing is like, I don’t want to be in the movies anymore… I just want to go to the movies.”
And then he slips in that he has a cameo in the new Veronica Mars film, and he’s heading to the premiere as soon as he hangs up the phone with me.
Oh, you are? You have a cameo, playing Ira Glass?
I do, yeah, I play Ira Glass. It’s a part I’m entirely qualified to play. If I had to play anyone else I don’t think I could do it.
We talk for a few more minutes, about his bit part in Sleepwalk with Me and how he takes his coffee. And yes, I asked him that. I laughed most of the time, and mistakenly called the premiere a ‘taping’ and he corrected me, “It’s the most glamorous thing I’m going to do for two years, so I have to have respect.”
* * *
When we ended the call, it felt like I had finished a marathon. I knew that I would be nervous going into this, but never knew how exciting it would actually be. When I’ve had celebrity encounters in the past, I was always left with the feeling that they’re just like me, but really lucky. And I thought I would feel the same way after talking to Ira. But instead of losing his sparkle when viewed up-close, he remains an extraordinary figure in my mind… I’m not someone like him, not yet. I want to be as ‘great’ as that someday.
I just hope it will be less than 10,000 more hours.
You can see Ira Glass live in Tacoma on Sunday, May 4th, at the Broadway Center for Performing Arts.