The creator of the popular radio show This American Life talks about why a conversational style is where the medium is headed.
Ira Glass is looking for a story. The host of This American Life, the phenomenally successful US public radio show, has flown into Sheffield for one night. He has come to the city’s documentary festival, hoping all the assembled film-makers will pitch him ideas for TAL, which boasts 1.8 million listeners in the US, and produces a weekly podcast that’s downloaded by 900,000 fans worldwide. His first UK appearance doesn’t seem to be going too well, though. “I don’t feel like people here know who I am,” he says.
TAL is all about surprising, character-driven stories. It’s an hour-long show divided into acts, each one taking a broad theme. Episode 484, called Doppelgänger, opens with Glass introducing a co-host, given the name Ira Glass (this is to be his own doppelgänger, played by Portlandia star Fred Armisen). We cut to a story about “imitation calamari”: pig rectum that was reportedly being sliced and sold as deep-fried seafood in Chinese restaurants. Nobody could confirm the story, though, so the TAL team simply made their own batch, and found it did indeed taste just like squid. Next is a piece about the similarities between cases of post-traumatic stress disorder seen in inner-city Americans and Afghanistan war vets. Then it’s back to Ira (and “Ira”) for the outro. One show, several tones: a blend of humour and fact-finding, anecdote and investigation.
“Traditional broadcast media seems old-fashioned and vague to me,” he says. “When I watch television news, I’m aware of what skilled journalists they are, but I find it hard because of the corny way they present it.” He contrasts this with TAL’s conversational style, which he sees as much more contemporary. “That’s what the internet is: someone talking to you personally, in a way that’s very similar to radio.”
Born in Baltimore in 1959, Glass – the first cousin once removed of composer Philip Glass – went to school in Maryland, then majored in semiotics at Brown university, graduating in 1982. He started in radio at the age of 19, working as a production assistant, writer and reporter at National Public Radio in Washington, DC. When This American Life – then called Your Radio Playhouse – was set up in 1995, with money from the MacArthur Foundation, which funds creative endeavours, Glass was plonked in the presenter’s seat. It was just him, a team of three, and a tiny budget – yet in their first year they made an impressive 48 programmes. One year later, TAL and its quirky, frequently fascinating takes on the day-to-day in the US was being syndicated to 500 radio stations.
Glass’s Doc/Fest talk, which is held in a church, is packed with the TAL devout. As sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows, he plays clips from two audio reports recorded aboard a US warship stationed in the Arabian sea shortly after 9/11. One is by CNN, the other by TAL. CNN’s thunders along: jets screech in the background as a booming, deeply masculine voice talks of “bringing America’s fighting power to every corner of the globe”. TAL’s report, by contrast, zooms in below deck, to the servicewoman responsible for restocking the vending machines. “Snickers go real fast,” she says, adding that nobody wants Bonkers!, a type of fruit chew. “Sometimes, if we don’t have anything else, we’ll just put in Bonkers! – and they’ll stay in here.”
Operation Anaconda, a mission that would see close to 2,000 US troops roll into Taliban territory, was readying to launch, and TAL was chewing over sweets. But this is the revelation in each episode of the show: that micro-level storytelling can hold its own alongside “big news”; that it’s OK to have fun stuff in reporting if it leads the listener into heavier issues. This is not something, says Glass, that large news networks appreciate. He makes a comparison with an Orthodox Jewish synagogue: “On one side are the men, on the other the women. And if they mix, all hell will break loose.”
Since 2006 the team – nine now, with support staff – have been based in New York, and have knocked out almost 500 shows. They have even dabbled in film-making: several TAL-sourced stories are in development (or development hell); only one has so far been made, becoming a comedy called Sleepwalk With Me by the US standup Mike Birbiglia.
TAL is now gathering steam internationally thanks to the podcast, often the most downloaded show on the iTunes US chart. Yet, in the UK at least, it’s still niche, stereotyped as a hipster’s fancy. Perhaps its problem is that it has no obvious equivalent in Britain. In recent years, though, TAL’s tone has shifted. There are fewer folksy anecdotes and more of a focus on larger, longer investigations, including reports from US bases in Iraq, post-Katrina New Orleans and gangland Chicago. But it has kept its idiosyncratic style because Glass is still there – turning a story over until he finds the angle other news shows won’t cover.
When he’s reporting, he’s a relaxed interviewer, uncomfortable with confrontation but never shirking it. He doesn’t seem to like being on the receiving end, however. He speaks carefully, seeming to checking each phrase for imperfection before letting it out to play. “I want to be a good interviewee,” he says at one point. “If I were healthy, that’s what I would be. If my brain and my personality were put together properly, that’s what I would be.” He apologises for his incomplete answers, as if every quote should spin a headline. It’s surprising behaviour from a man with hundreds, if not thousands of interviews in the can.
Being a new voice in news reporting has not always been easy. Glass’s tone – gentler, more nasal than is normal on the airwaves – took the public some time to get used to, he says. “When I started This American Life, one of the reactions I got was, ‘When is the adult going to show up who will host the show?’ At some point, people just got used to it. I’ll meet listeners who tell me what a great voice I have. But I don’t have a great voice for radio. My voice is the utterly normal voice, but sheer repetition has made them think it’s OK. Mick Jagger once was asked, ‘What makes a hit song? He said, ‘Repetition.'”
Five TAL episodes to get you started
An episode devoted to the work of Scott Carrier, a Peabody award-winning producer from Salt Lake City. Carrier’s stories – from a time in his life when he hated his job and was divorcing his wife – are desperately depressing, but completely wonderful.
29 students from Chicago’s Harper High School were shot last year. The This American Life team spent five months in the school and documented the day-to-day reality of kids living with extreme trauma.
Cautionary tales about signing on the dotted line. Contains the true story behind the Van Halen contractual clause that said the bowl of M&Ms on the heavy metal band’s rider must have the brown ones taken out.
An episode broadcast days after it was revealed that Mike Daisey’s story about the working conditions at an Apple factory in China had been elaborated and falsified. This American Life, which had ran a special on Daisey’s allegations, created an even more compelling show from their fact-checking process and apology.
Nine TAL radio producers spend a weekend at a service station on the New York State Thruway. They come away with much more than de-icer and a tin of dusty boiled sweets.