From creativity to creative struggles and what makes or breaks a “This American Life” story, Ira Glass reflects on his career on the airwaves.
Design Matters Live: Ira Glass
BROADCASTER / JOURNALIST
THIS AMERICAN LIFE / SERIAL / NPR / RADIO / PODCASTING / JOURNALISM / MARC MARON / BALTIMORE / PEANUTS / SNOOPY / CHARLIE BROWN
Perhaps the best lens through which to view Ira Glass … is the world of Harry Potter.
But forget the eponymous wizard himself. When The New York Times asked Glass who his favorite character from children’s literature is, he cited Hermione Granger.
“Harry Potter to me is a bore. His talent arrives as a gift; he’s chosen. Who can identify with that? But Hermione—she’s working harder than anyone, she’s half outsider, right? Half Muggle. She shouldn’t be there at all.”
“Like most people,” Glass has joked, he had no interest in working in radio. At school, he studied semiotics—“an incredibly pretentious literary theory”—which he credits with teaching him to structure a story. In 1978, after his freshman year, Glass started poking around for media jobs. Someone at a rock station pointed him to a new outlet in Washington DC: National Public Radio. Glass walked in and offered to work for free over the summer. He then got hired as a production assistant, and wound up staying at NPR for 17 years … to the dismay of his parents who, unlike Granger’s, were not exactly proud of their son’s chosen path.
“They completely opposed everything that I was doing working in public broadcasting,” Glass said in his 2012 commencement address to Goucher College. “Somehow, my parents are the only Jews in America who do not listen to public radio. They thought I should be a doctor. I was a pre-med student, among other things. … I hope this is not embarrassing to say this: I had my own national radio show; I had been on David Letterman; [and] there had been a New York Times Magazine article about me before they stopped suggesting medical school was still an option.”
Glass’ success on air was anything but instantaneous. In fact, he wasn't on air in his early years at NPR; he worked as a tape-cutter, and has said he wasn’t competent writing and structuring stories until he was almost 30. He had to work. “I’ve never met anyone who took longer, and I’ve met hundreds of people who work in radio,” he told Transom in 2004. “I was a very corny wannabe humorist. I’m not exactly sure what kept me going. Part of it, I’m sure, was that I didn’t have any other prospects. I certainly didn’t have any other skills.”
He also lacked the voice—the classic baritone of the medium.
“I bring all of this up to say that if you’re someone who wants to make radio stories (or do any kind of creative work), you’re probably going to have a period when things might not come too easily. For some people, that’s just a year. For others, like me, it’s eight years. You might feel completely alone and lost during this period—God knows I did—and I hope it’s reassuring in some small way to hear that what you’re going through is completely normal. Most people go through it. And there are things you can do during this period of mediocrity that will get you to the next step, that will drive you toward skill and competence.”
Glass had a goal: to document regular people’s lives. It would take him a month to do a story that would take another reporter three days, but still, he worked. And in his work, he began to bring new means of storytelling to the fore, such as when he broke down a dense federal spending bill for listeners via singing pie chart—every second of audio translated to $5 billion. He experimented with sound and imagination. With each story he turned in, he made sure it had a moment that would personally amuse him, an original observation that no reporter could replicate. He made sure that every story featured an interaction, an authentic human emotional connection.
And then, he won a MacArthur grant in 1995 to start a new show called “Your Radio Playhouse,” which would eventually become “This American Life.”
Program directors were thrown by the program at first: Some episodes were somber and serious. Others were light and airy. Though it’s synonymous with NPR today, Glass and his crew framed the show as the opposite of the “proper,” “stuffy” NPR model at the time— “We talked about it as a public radio show for people who didn’t necessarily like public radio,” he told The New York Times.
As the Peabody they won soon enough—not to mention an audience in the millions—proved, their brand of innovative journalism and storytelling was a revelation to listeners. And through it all, including the spinoff hit "Serial," Glass has continued to show us not what radio is, but what it could be.
It's a statement Glass would likely hate. But all told, Hermione would be proud.
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman