From creativity to creative struggles and what makes or breaks a “This American Life” story, Ira Glass reflects on a career in the airwaves.

Design Matters From the Archive: Ira Glass

BROADCASTER / JOURNALIST

2021

Ira Glass / This American Life / Serial / NPR / radio / podcasting

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

OK. I discovered a 1991 article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Take It Off,” with the following description: “After deciding to shed his long hair look, a brave dude tries a variety of cuts on the way up.” I’d like to show you this image from the paper and ask if it is indeed you: the brave dude.


Ira Glass:

Yes. I can confirm that that is me.


Debbie Millman:

Share the backstory with us if you can, just for a few minutes.


Ira Glass:

It was a really long time ago, and for a while I had a ponytail, which at the time seemed cool.


Debbie Millman:

So that one up there? Or was that one …


Ira Glass:

It didn’t look like that. It was longer than that.


Debbie Millman:

Very Steven Seagal.


Ira Glass:

It wasn’t quite Steven Seagal. It was a little messier.


Ira Glass:

It’s not a very dramatic story, but at some point I decided I wanted to change how I looked because I wanted to change my life at that point. There’s some old saying that when a woman cuts her hair, she changes her life.


Debbie Millman:

Really?


Ira Glass:

I heard it in a movie, anyway. I didn’t know the saying at the time, but it was true. And then somehow somebody knew somebody who’s like, “We could take pictures of that for the newspaper.” That’s something that had never happened to me before. I had never been photographed for a newspaper. At the time, I was a freelance reporter for NPR, and I thought, OK, that’ll be a new experience. I’ll try that. That’s how it ended up in the paper. It’s not very dramatic, I’m afraid.


Debbie Millman:

I think the one right above you is rather dapper.


Ira Glass:

That short hair like that, it did look like that for a while when I was working at NPR in Washington. Through my 20s … I started at NPR when I was 19 and did kind of all the low-level jobs on “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” but I looked very young and I was younger than most of the staff. In my early 20s, I thought, I need to figure out a tactic to seem like an adult. So I wore a tie every day and it sort of worked. Like, I looked so young for so long. I remember when I was in my early 30s I was reporting at Lincoln Park High School and I would get stopped for a hall pass. Like, “No, I’m an adult.”


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that you don’t like interviewing famous people mostly because they arrive at an interview with a mask that might be hard to penetrate. When that happens do you have any surefire way to get them to lower the mask?


Ira Glass:

Honestly, I’ve interviewed so few famous people that I haven’t really had to think my way through that problem. I know you interview lots of famous people. I think that, in general, finding an anecdote or a way in that people haven’t talked about before … for example, an article from 1991 that a person hasn’t thought about in a long time. Totally, I respect the technique.


Ira Glass:

I don’t know. I think the people who are so good at that—Terry Gross, or there’s a print reporter in Los Angeles who used to write a lot for the LA Times but also for Entertainment Weekly and stuff named [inaudible]. She and I used to talk about this, because she would interview like Nicole Kidman and people like that, and I’d just be like, “What do you do?” And she would tell a lot of stories about herself that would relate to things inside them and was just enormously empathetic as a person. They would just get lost in a conversation with her, as lost as somebody can get who’s in that kind of position. She would get all sorts of things from them that were very personal and very real. I think in general … I’ve said this a million times, but an interview is a party that you are throwing, and if you are a three-dimensional person, it gives the other person the opportunity to be a three-dimensional person back. That’s just an enormous force.


Ira Glass:

I remember when I was interviewed by Marc Maron for the WTF podcast. He is so emotionally present and so bare that you feel like you have to rise to the occasion as the interviewee.


Debbie Millman:

You were born in Baltimore. You recently had a birthday. Happy birthday.


Ira Glass:

Sure.


Debbie Millman:

Your parents met at a swimming pool when they were teenagers. They were married for nearly 50 years. Your mom was a clinical psychologist. Your dad started out as a radio announcer but then eventually became a certified public accountant. Have you heard any of his early radio announcements?


Ira Glass:

I have. He stopped being on the radio when he was in his early 20s. He did it in college and when he was in the Army as well. He gave it up actually when my mom became pregnant with me, and I didn’t really know about that part of his life when I went into radio. It’s like one of those things that had been mentioned but it wasn’t a part of his identity that was ever discussed. And I have heard the recordings. In fact, we did a story on a Father’s Day episode where I played some of the recordings and talked to him about it. He’s very smooth. He’s very much like it’s the ’50s when he’s doing this. Like, I’m old. And he’s a DJ. He’s a 1950s-era DJ and doing the ads and doing the news, and decent. A much better voice than mine, actually, and totally solid.


Ira Glass:

For me hearing the recordings, the thing about it that was emotional was hearing him do something that I know so well, and hearing him be so much younger than me doing it and not as … I hope this isn’t a hurtful thing to say … good, you know what I mean? Like hearing him read really bad ad copy and having to perform it as if he’s really saying the words and meaning it, and knowing exactly what that’s like … to have a script in front of you but try to talk as if it’s a thing you’re really saying … and hearing him sometimes really pulling it off, but sometimes not totally. I don’t know. It’s like a different way in on your own parents.


Debbie Millman:

Your sister Brandy has described you as a nosy introvert.


Ira Glass:

Yes. Noisy. Noisy. Noisy.


Debbie Millman:

Noisy.


Ira Glass:

But nosy is also true. Nosy is very much …


Debbie Millman:

I see. I thought noisy was … nosy was actually really cool, because that would make sense given your curiosity, but I misread it. It’s noisy.


Ira Glass:

Noisy. But nosy is just as true, for sure. Very nosy introvert, yes. Yeah. Noisy introvert is this category that Brandy came up with to describe herself where she can be very social but actually she prefers to be alone, and once she said it I realized I know so many people like that, especially, I think, writers. So many writers I think have the personality type of … they can manage in a social setting and they’re OK for a couple of hours, but really where they’d rather be is alone, and that’s a lot of my personality too.


Debbie Millman:

When my fiancé Roxane and I first got together … she’s very quiet and can be very shy and I’m not. I would want to try to get more out of her to really understand her emotionality and that inner dialogue. I remember talking to my therapist about it, and saying, “She’s such a good writer and she talks so much about her emotions while she’s writing,” and she very abruptly said, “That’s why she’s a writer.” That really helped me understand the different ways that people prefer to communicate.


Ira Glass:

Yes. I’m very aware of those tendencies in myself.


Debbie Millman:

You sound like that is something that is concerning to you.


Ira Glass:

What a therapist-like response.


Debbie Millman:

Couldn’t help myself.


Ira Glass:

No, I understand the ways in which in public I’m able to do things that can be harder for me in a personal relationship, for sure.


Debbie Millman:

You wanted to be both an astronaut and a magician when you were a kid.


Ira Glass:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

But both of your parents grew up really poor and they wanted you to be a doctor.


Ira Glass:

Yes. I wouldn’t say poor, but they were people without a lot of spare money, for sure.


Debbie Millman:

I believe you were quite a talented amateur magician, and became well-known in your neighborhood for being able to make a very credible Snoopy out of balloons.


Ira Glass:

Yes. I gigged as a kid magician when I was a teenager and did children’s parties and did magic tricks. I have to say, in terms of just sheer craft, I’m not very good.


Debbie Millman:

Oh really? Because I was kind of hoping that maybe …


Ira Glass:

Oh, I can totally do balloons still.


Debbie Millman:

Would you?


Ira Glass:

Totally.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. There’s a variety of colors and …


Ira Glass:

Oh wait, but these are …


Debbie Millman:

No, those are the kind for balloons … for animals. Do you want me to hold the microphone?


Ira Glass:

Hold on, I’ll put it down.


Debbie Millman:

How good is this? OK, let’s just acknowledge that this is a classic radio moment.


Ira Glass:

These are not the right kind of … what you need are ones that are like long and thin, but if—


Debbie Millman:

Aren’t those long and thin?


Ira Glass:

No, these are actually sort of stubby. You need a 245 or a 260, which means two inches long … two inches wide, and 45 inches long, for 260s. But—


Debbie Millman:

My point is made.


Ira Glass:

But I have my bag. If somebody could grab my bag from back there …


Debbie Millman:

We did not plan this.


Ira Glass:

I do carry around usually a couple of balloons because sometimes you’re in a situation … a reporting situation … or just you’re with a friend’s kid and it’s appropriate to pull out an animal balloon. I can make a coin disappear while we wait for the bag.


Debbie Millman:

Really? I hear things happening back there. Can you still make a Snoopy?


Ira Glass:

That’s my bag. I could make a Snoopy, yeah. For sure I could. Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you.


Ira Glass:

OK. Oh my. This has been a weird afternoon.


Debbie Millman:

I take that as a compliment. Oh, wow.


Ira Glass:

OK. Snoopy. Not a poodle, but a Snoopy. OK, hold on.


Debbie Millman:

Please can someone tape this? Video tape?


Ira Glass:

Do you want to mic the sound of this? It’s funny, I don’t buy these balloons very often. I can feel that this one is kind of old, so it actually might pop. Just a warning in advance. Now, doing the body and the back legs. This is actually the part that’s sort of every animal you make out of balloons. I learned this from a book called Roger’s Rubber Art. OK. Viola. Can you see it’s Snoopy?


Debbie Millman:

Oh, Snoopy. Snoopy. My very own Snoopy, made by Ira Glass.


Ira Glass:

You mean …


Debbie Millman:

Let’s do the rest of our interview like that.


Debbie Millman:

So, the Peanuts Treasury was one of your favorite books growing up. You’ve stated that it defined the emotional climate of your elementary years. In what way?


Ira Glass:

Yes, very much. I connected very strongly with Charlie Brown. I think one of the things—I’ve written about this—that’s interesting about Peanuts is that it was art that’s for kids, and yet it’s so movingly sad. I, like a lot of kids—and a lot of people who I’ve gotten to know as an adult—just connected to that sadness.


Debbie Millman:

To the melancholy.


Ira Glass:

Yeah. It’s funny. I don’t remember ever laughing at Peanuts. To me it never seemed funny. It just seemed very real. I remember my mom … I identified so strongly … saying to me, “You’re not Charlie Brown.” Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Did that surprise you?


Ira Glass:

That I wasn’t Charlie Brown? I mean, it is how I saw myself. I saw myself as very much like Charlie Brown. I had friends and stuff, but yeah, there’s something about the aloneness of that character that I connected to.


Debbie Millman:

How do you think Charlie Brown grew up?


Ira Glass:

That’s really an interesting question. I don’t know. I’ve never thought about that. Like, who would he be?


Debbie Millman:

I think he would be Chris Ware.


Ira Glass:

It’s so funny because I know Chris Ware. Chris Ware is this cartoonist who does these very melancholic comic strips, and then became kind of an expert on Charles Schulz and has written about him. In fact, he’s visited his house and met his widow. I know because I know Chris. But interestingly, Chris, while he has the part of him that is very much connected to Charlie Brown and is just as melancholic as that—have you met him? Have you interviewed him?


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Ira Glass:

I feel like actually in real life he’s so much better put together and more successful, and he just invented this aesthetic for doing comic stories but just also is a completely successful parent and husband and is a functioning adult who is actually much sturdier. Very sturdy and happier, I think, than his public persona, though I think it would make him wince to hear me say that.


Debbie Millman:

Yes, I think so.


Ira Glass:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

You loved to put on plays and shows when you were a kid, and you made these plays with your siblings. I understand you knew every line and joke from the play The Fiddler on the Roof.


Ira Glass:

Yes. My mom took us to plays when I was a kid. It’s funny … in retrospect, I only came to understand this … that I think that those old Broadway musicals … like, I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, and I didn’t listen to rock music. I listened to the musicals, and those were the records that we had in the house. My mom would take us to shows growing up in Baltimore County. There’s a lot of Jews in Baltimore County and so Fiddler on the Roof would come through every year or two. I remember seeing it so many times as a kid and then I stopped seeing it when I was 18. I just didn’t see it. I was a grown person. Then a couple of years ago I went and saw a production on Broadway—not the Yiddish one that’s up now, but there was one in English—and I went with a friend, and honestly I realized like I knew every single line before it was said. People would come on with tertiary roles and I would know what they were going to say before they said it. I had seen it so many times and it imprinted itself so hard.


Ira Glass:

I think in retrospect, after I started making This American Life there came a point where I realized that the aesthetics of Fiddler on the Roof … like, if you’ve seen it, it starts off as a comedy and it’s really about a father with three girls who wants to get them married off and there’s the matchmaker who’s going to fix them up, and they don’t want her to fix her up, but they’re the wrong person and there’s a whole early scene where he’s going to promise his oldest daughter to the butcher, and he’s very rich so he wants that as a dad, or rather the butcher wants to marry his oldest daughter but he thinks the butcher wants to buy his milk cow and they have a conversation where they don’t … he thinks he wants to buy the milk cow and the butcher wants to marry his daughter.


Ira Glass:

It’s like a comedy at first, and then as it goes on what it’s about are two things. One, each of the daughters does something that is different than the way the parents think it should be done. The first daughter does one thing and another thing. Finally, the third daughter wants to marry a non-Jew, and he has to disown her. It’s really about this thing that’s so fundamentally profound. Really, one of the most profound about … like, what do you do as a parent when your children do something that you don’t agree with or approve of? And the girls do it increasingly … extreme things. Then the other thing that it’s about as it goes on is the Jews getting expelled from Russia and the pogroms and being made into a people who are in diaspora always.


Ira Glass:

But that structure of pulling you in with comedy at the beginning and then gradually it gets more and more serious, and in fact by the end is quite sad … just that structure … I think when I was coming up in my 20s and working at NPR in Washington and I was a production assistant, an associate producer, and all of those kind of support jobs doing stories and just trying to invent a way to do radio, I feel like once I understood the basics of how to do journalism, there was a feeling I was looking for in the stories that I wouldn’t have named. I didn’t name it to myself, it was just like I want it to feel like more. At some point I just started to make stories that had exactly the structure of Fiddler on the Roof, where they would be funny at the beginning and pull you in with something very light and then you get invested in the characters and then it gets more and more serious and it turns out to be about a bigger something.


Ira Glass:

Obviously this is a structure lots of people use in lots of different sorts of storytelling. While I was doing it I don’t think I had a conscious thought that that’s what I was doing, I just like … I just have a drive to make journalism have this feeling that I know a piece of work can have. But in retrospect, I do think that’s what it’s about. It’s about that feeling that I would get from those old musicals.


Debbie Millman:

You cried throughout the entire revival when you saw it.


Ira Glass:

Yes. I’ve talked about this publicly, you’re not intuiting that from the look on my face. Yes, I did for a couple of reasons. One, it was my mom who would take me to those shows, and my mom died, now, I don’t know, 2003, 2004, whatever. Now I can’t even … as I’m sitting …


Debbie Millman:

2003.


Ira Glass:

2003. Thank you. I think she would be so pleased that I would’ve gone to Fiddler on the Roofon my own without her taking me, and also that I would go to … I live in New York City now. We moved our show to New York to do television years ago and then quit TV, and sort of we all stayed here. So I go to tons and tons of shows. I think that when you’re a parent, you just kind of throw a lot of stuff at your kids that you like, hoping that it will be meaningful to them. I think it would mean something to her that that thing that meant so much to her would mean so much to me, but that also we’ve put on shows. We’ve worked with some people who make musicals: with Bobby Lopez, who did Book of Mormon, and with Lin-Manuel Miranda before he did Hamilton. Just that I’ve been in that world, I think, would be very moving to my mom.


Debbie Millman:

The American Life producer Julie [inaudible] has said that you love performing on stage in a way that is sincere and mystifying. I’m wondering if that all comes from that early experience of Fiddler.


Ira Glass:

Maybe. There’s something about me—like, the fact that I would just decide to go on stage—just, I think that there was something in me as a person. In other ways there are other things in my personality that seem like they don’t combine with that, like the fact that I started doing magic on stage, because literally I knew nothing about it. I went to the Baltimore County Public Library on Liberty Road and took out books on magic. I was just like, “Oh, I’m going to do that,” and then just took out ads in the Baltimore Jewish Times, just like, “OK, pay me five dollars and I’ll come do magic tricks at your kid’s birthday.” I didn’t know anybody who had done magic, I literally just—at the age of 11—was like, “I could do that.” It’s just a very similar impulse that got me my own radio show, like, “I think I can do that.” Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

What was it about magic that was so intriguing to you? Was it going from one state of reality to another?


Ira Glass:

I think all of us who came to love magic, the actual mechanics of it are kind of cool. It’s not, in a way, more sophisticated than that. And then the fact that it also was a way to be funny in front of a group of people, because I wasn’t a very skilled magician but I could hold a room of children. Very confident about that. I could connect with them and I could tell a story and I could be very funny. Somehow I just felt like I would be able to do that. It combined a bunch of things that I liked in the same way that doing the radio combines a bunch of things that I like. I like interviewing people. I actually enjoy it. And I’m nosy. I like figuring things out and I love the editing part of it.


Ira Glass:

Weirdly, the part of it that I like the least—and I feel like I can do it competently but I’ve never been fond of it—is the actual performing on the radio part. It always feels to me like at that point I have a script and if I perform the script perfectly, it’ll sound like I’m talking, and the plot points will hit properly and the thing will just feel effortless. But there’s so many times where I’d feel tense and it just feels a little fake and a little off and it doesn’t hit quite as well. It’s sort of like one of those games you get into where if you do it perfectly nobody notices and it just sells, and then there’s all these ways for it to go badly.


Debbie Millman:

Have you always been this hard on yourself?


Ira Glass:

I used to not be as skilled at it, so I was harder. I was really not … it’s funny: When I give speeches now, often I’ll play things from like not even the first or second year, like the eighth year I was doing radio, and it’s horrible.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve actually said that it took you longer than anyone you know in radio—and you know a lot of people in radio—to actually get to finally be good. It took you longer than anyone else.


Ira Glass:

In the years since I’ve said that I have still never met anybody who took like a decade to get decent. In fact, I feel so aware … when we’ve hired interns and production fellows on our show, like, I wouldn’t have been able to get an internship on my own show when I was in my 20s. I was not good enough.


Debbie Millman:

Why do you think you kept persevering? What kept you trying for eight years? That’s a long time.


Ira Glass:

Yeah, I know. There’s something about it that attracted me to it and it did have to do with the interviewing and the editing. Those parts … I was a very awkward interviewer at first, but I could get material out of people. I could get people to say stuff and I could figure stuff out about material, about people, and have emotional moments on tape with people in a way that was very exciting to me. I feel like I was able to get certain stuff on tape even though I was stammery and awkward. Then on the editing part, for whatever reason from the moment I started working at NPR, as soon as they showed me how to use a … in fact, I knew how to use a reel-to-reel tape recorder before then. I was doing college radio. But as soon as I was editing real interviews, I just had an instinctive feeling for how to do it.


Ira Glass:

So there was a part of it that just came so easily and I felt so confident in, and that sort of carried the rest. I just felt like this could go somewhere, and I couldn’t tell where, and I had nothing else that I wanted to do. And I wasn’t ambitious enough or didn’t think enough of myself to want to be like a filmmaker or a real writer. I didn’t have a good enough self-image to aspire to something like that, but the notion of being … I don’t know. Just quietly doing my little stories and sitting in an edit room, that seemed doable.


Debbie Millman:

Has your self-image changed at all?


Ira Glass:

I mean, it’s weird. In my experience it has, for sure, but a bad self-image doesn’t go away in my experience. You just kind of pile other things you learn about yourself on top of it. So like of course now I’m enormously confident as somebody making radio stories and running a business and all of those things.


Debbie Millman:

What aren’t you confident about?


Ira Glass:

What am I not confident about? I’m often having to think my way through delicate management things and dealing with people, but that’s normal, I think, for anybody who’s a boss of lots of people. That always takes thought. Then, I don’t know. I think I would’ve pictured—having done so many shows and having done a show for so long—somehow it would change some essential part of my picture of myself at my core, and I don’t think it has. I don’t know. There’s something where I still think … I don’t know … where I still just don’t think that much of it all, if that makes sense.


Debbie Millman:

What’s the it? You don’t think that much of it all. Is that you or your work or the combination?


Ira Glass:

No, I feel like the work speaks for itself. I feel very confident about the work. But I’m not a person who’s able to turn that into building up a sense of like, “I’m really awesome,” you know? But I feel like that’s OK. I feel like I don’t think I need that, and people who do feel that way sometimes just seem ridiculous, though I do people who have a healthy sense of self-confidence and whatever.


Debbie Millman:

I think those are the people who are really well-parented. Not that I want to make assumptions about how you were parented …


Ira Glass:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

But I do find that people that come from happier families tend to feel just OK about themselves. That is something I’ve never felt, ever. Never once a day in my life, so I’m really curious about how people get to that place.


Ira Glass:

Yeah. Do you think people can go from one to the other? From the—


Debbie Millman:

Ping pong back and forth, or to evolve to a place where they feel better about themselves?


Ira Glass:

To evolve to a place where they feel better about themselves.


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Ira Glass:

You do?


Debbie Millman:

Yes, I do.


Ira Glass:

Do you?


Debbie Millman:

I definitely feel better than where I started, but where I started was particularly grim.


Ira Glass:

But you do you feel like that old personality—oh my god, I’m totally blanking on the name of the writer, this super famous writer, who says … where she’s talking about that, she talks about, “it’s sort of like in a down moment, it’s like a ghost that can tap you on the shoulder.”


Debbie Millman:

Absolutely.


Ira Glass:

You do feel that?


Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. You too?


Ira Glass:

Of course, yeah.


Debbie Millman:

What do you do when you feel like an interview isn’t going well?


Ira Glass:

I do a million things. Oh my god, so many things.


Debbie Millman:

Give me two or three.


Ira Glass:

I mean, it’s so situational. There are different ways an interview can go badly, but the most common one is the person is just not in touch with their feelings and their feelings about the experience you’re trying to get them to talk about, and then you just have to try to bait them into remembering what the experience was. One of the tricks to do is to just say, “So if I was in this situation, I think I would feel this. What was this like for you?” Sometimes you just have to suggest your way into it. What else? A lot of it is so situational of trying to nudge them on this point or that point or this point or that point.


Debbie Millman:

You kill a lot shows that … you kill, from what I understand, a lot of stories.


Ira Glass:

A lot of stories. A ton.


Debbie Millman:

About three quarters, is that right?


Ira Glass:

We don’t kill three quarters. Well, it depends on what stage you’re talking about. Like, we look into a lot of stuff and then don’t go ahead with it because it’s clear it can’t be done well or the people aren’t good talkers or we won’t be able to get the information we want. That’s a lot. But of the stuff that we actually start to produce, where people report things out and get interviews on tape and fly around, I would say we kill easily a fourth. Maybe it’s more like a half.


Debbie Millman:

Does that often involve the people that you feel like you can’t get something from that aren’t really self-reflective?


Ira Glass:

Yeah. Like often when somebody pitches a story, we’ll say back, “This person has to be able to talk about this part of it in an interesting way, and if they can’t it might be a story but it’s not a radio story. Radio is so peculiarly dependent on the quotes. You can make a story about that person but it shouldn’t be a radio story if they can’t actually talk about it. I mean, I’ve joked about this a lot on stage. There’s just a class of people who something amazing happens to them and they can’t talk about it. I just feel like it’s hard to make a story with them.


Ira Glass:

One of the tricks we do often is, if they have a significant other in their life, we’ll go to that person because sometimes that person is a wonderful talker: a partner or a brother or sister. Sometimes you’ll hear—like you can introduce a second character to the story who can carry the emotion of it. There are some really beautiful stories [that] actually we’ve done that way, where the main character isn’t carrying the feeling of it, so they’ll tell the pod and they’ll be there on stage and you have a sense of them, but then somebody else will say, “They were really feeling this and that.”


Debbie Millman:

You mentioned your interview with Marc Maron was a little while ago. You talked about his ability to sit in front of a microphone in a way that had a lot of feeling and a lot of heart. You go on to state that the easiest, most fulfilling, most intimate conversations of your day are the ones that happen in front of the microphone.


Ira Glass:

Many days. I have to say, in my personal life now, I regularly—


Debbie Millman:

Things have gotten better?


Ira Glass:

Actually, yeah. Actually, yeah. In my personal life of course I’m having conversations that are as intimate as that.


Debbie Millman:

You told Marc that he exposed himself more in the 10 minutes that you were on the air with him than you had exposed of yourself in a year. I’m wondering if—


Ira Glass:

I said that during his podcast?


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Ira Glass:

Wow. He did such a good job.


Debbie Millman:

That was a wonderful interview. You guys had a lot of fun together. But I’m wondering, do you feel like you give more intimacy to the show than you do to others or have in the past?


Ira Glass:

I mean, my mom was a therapist. My sisters and I used to joke about what her therapy sessions must be like, like how she would turn on active listening, and we had a hand gesture that we did for active listening, which was like … I just put my hands around my ears and bobbed my head from side to side. In an hour-long or two-hour–long radio interview in wherever it is, it’s easy to be really focused on another person with a goal. That kind of intimacy … it’s a situation that’s set up for that kind of intimacy versus you come home and people have different needs from each other or whatever. People come into a home situation with whatever it is that they need, and have to collide and figure out what they’re going to talk about and how they’re going to talk about it. Like in a personal relationship, the things you’re stressed out on are way more present than in an interview.


Ira Glass:

I feel like in a good day if I see the person I love, it’s just as intimate, of course, but that’s pretty new or recent. Lately, anyway. But I will say that it’s much easier in a radio situation. It always was. It’s funny: I think that it was always much easier in a radio situation and I had to learn it more in a personal situation.


Debbie Millman:

How did you go about learning that?


Ira Glass:

Practice. Being told, “No, not like that.”


Debbie Millman:

How has the idea of what an American life means changed in the 25 years you’ve been doing This American Life?


Ira Glass:

You mean how has the show changed, or has life in America changed?


Debbie Millman:

No. How has actually what an American life is … how do you feel like that has changed over the time that you’ve had the show?


Ira Glass:

I think that like as everyone hearing our voices knows, it’s just a much more divided country. I don’t know. I feel like everything I have to say about this is everything that everybody knows: that we live in a moment where every bit of reality is contested into two stories created by two different teams. There’s my team, which is the mainstream news team, and there’s the right-wing media team, and each one has its own narrative of every single event, and many cultural things as well. I think that’ll be with us for the rest of our lives.


Debbie Millman:

How do you combat fake news now, or the notion of what fake news is?


Ira Glass:

It’s been interesting trying to game out what would be valuable to do. We have a bunch of different strategies on our show. Sometimes we’ll just do origin stories, like, “Here’s how this became an issue and here’s how it became to be thought of that way.” We’ll do that sometimes. Another thing we’ll do is, sometimes we’ll feel like, “This is in the news but people don’t really … the emotional fact of it isn’t out there.”


Ira Glass:

For example, we did a show a couple months ago on the remain in Mexico policy. I feel like most informed news people know that the Trump Administration has done big changes in immigration policy and—especially in the last year—this thing that’s nicknamed “remain in Mexico.” But I think because stories came out individually, the emotional fact of what it means, which is over 50,000—depending on how you count it, more like 70,000—people who are seeking asylum, who in previous years we would’ve let into the United States after a simple screening, and said, “If you want asylum, wait here. Here’s your court date. Show up in court on this date.” They would’ve waited inside the United States, and now they’re sent back across the border to Mexico. But what that’s meant is tens of thousands of people right across the border in these what amount to refugee camps without any support from a governmental organization. You have people living in tent camps, you have people getting kidnapped.


Ira Glass:

So we did a series of stories that start off at one of the tent camps but also include somebody who met a reporter right after he was told, “Go back to Mexico.” He told the reporter, “The thing I’m really scared about is getting kidnapped,” and then sure enough within hours he was kidnapped and the reporter had recordings that she made with the guy’s sister of the cartel negotiating for his release. It was interesting. It’s like McDonald’s. It’s like a volume business. They start off by asking … I can’t remember if it was 15,000 dollars, and they just steadily realized, “This person hasn’t got any money,” so finally I think they get him out for like under a thousand, but it takes days. Also a part of that were stories with the customs agents who are quitting over it, some of them, and who just feel like sending people back to Mexico is actually a violation of U.S. law because we’re sending them back into the situation where they can be killed, kidnapped, tortured.


Ira Glass:

I feel like, again, all of these things were in the news, but without the emotional weight that you can get to through a properly told narrative, where you meet the people and you feel something for them. So we’ll do something like that.


Ira Glass:

Or we went to Hong Kong, where I feel like, again, a lot of people you see protest in Hong Kong, but we actually spent time and meet the people in their early 20s who are actually protesting, and they’re talking very movingly about how they think, no, they’re going to lose. China is not going to give them what they want, but they feel like they have to be out there. I just feel like there were things that weren’t in the excellent news coverage that I was hearing on NPR and reading in The New York Times and The Washington Postand other places. There’s just a place for a narrative in some of those things to actually make something that we all hear about feel more real, and so you can have not just an idea of it in your head but you can feel a thing for actual people. This is very traditional sort of journalism but something that radio is particularly good for.


Ira Glass:

Then what else did we do? Sometimes we’ll just kind of notice a thought or a feeling or a mood or something that we feel like we want to respond to or capture or deal with. Sometimes we’ll do something where we’ll try to move to the level of fact … like, one of the shows,  we did these two shows that I feel very proud of. It didn’t get much attention, but where early on in the Trump administration there’s this fight about immigration policy where it’s sort of like, does allowing in low-wage immigrants make for a better country or a worse country? We’re just like, “Let’s leave aside the national debate. Let’s just go to one town that got a ton of people coming in and look at, how did it affect this town?”


Ira Glass:

We chose a town … Jeff Sessions had been the spokesman for the anti-immigration political force before President Trump, and then was one of the top people in his administration making it happen, along with Stephen Miller, of course. We thought, “Why does Jeff Sessions believe this?” Jeff Sessions would talk about these towns in Alabama where people would come in from Mexico to work in the chicken processing plants. We were like, “Great. Let’s go to the No. 1 town like that.” So we found a town, which had been a completely all-white town: 98% white. Then over the course of a very fast period—depending on how you measure the numbers—became either a third or a fourth Latino. We’re just like, “What did it do to this town? Did it drive down wages? What did it do to people’s taxes? What did it do to schools?” Just all the things that people talk about. And hired economists to do a study of what did it do to people’s wages, and just tried to answer it in this one place.


Ira Glass:

I feel like being able to take this national fight and turn it into like a, “Wait, let’s go to a place where we actually measure and say yes or no,” that seemed like something nobody is doing, or people do but it’s hard to do it for months. We do it. I’m sorry that was such a long answer. I’m so sorry. With so many examples.


Debbie Millman:

No, it’s wonderful. I was actually sitting here trying to make one of those split decisions: “Do I continue with this or do we …”


Ira Glass:

I know, I know. I know that decision so well. But if I were you, the follow-up would be right on top, you see, but I feel like I’ve laid out all this data. For me as an interviewer the next move would be to be like, “So what’s the idea that comes out of that? What’s your theory that comes out of that? Does it work?” Ask me if it works.


Debbie Millman:

No, I don’t know. I know it doesn’t.


Ira Glass:

OK.


Debbie Millman:

But what do you think?


Ira Glass:

It doesn’t.


Debbie Millman:

Why not?


Ira Glass:

Or I don’t know. It works to the degree that something like that works. I feel like we’re in a situation where, weirdly, podcasts are as a little less coded as product of the mainstream media. I feel like we have a lot of conservative listeners. Weirdly, being on NPR feels very much coded as being part of the liberal media, but being a podcast … and lots of people don’t know us an NPR show. They just know us as a podcast. Right now our podcast audience is something like 3.1 million people a week, and our radio audience is 2.2 million. We’re a bigger podcast than we are a radio show. Because of that, I feel like we slip under the radar in a certain way with a certain number of people.


Ira Glass:

I remember when Zoe Chace was doing … back in the leadup to the last presidential election, Zoe Chace, one of our producers, did a ton of reporting on people in the Republican Party who loved President Trump and people in the party who were just noticing the changes in their party, and not feeling great about it, but also people who were feeling great about it. When she went to the DeploraBall in Washington—the self-named deplorables who claimed that they trolled the president into office—somebody came up to her, being like, “I love your coverage.” I feel like there’s a certain number of people who don’t identify us as part of … or I don’t know.


Debbie Millman:

The East Coast liberal.


Ira Glass:

I don’t even know what I’m talking about, but it seems like in some ways sometimes we fly under the radar that way.


Debbie Millman:

Do your radio listeners—


Ira Glass:

To some small degree.


Debbie Millman:

Do the radio listeners respond and engage with you and the show in a different way than the podcast listeners?


Ira Glass:

No. I don’t know. No. I can’t tell who’s who. The radio listeners are, as a group, older, because the public radio audience tends to be older than the podcast audience, but I don’t have anything smart to say about that.


Debbie Millman:

This American Life won a Peabody Award in the very first year of broadcasting, which is really remarkable. You’ve won every major award there is to win in radio. You have won another award here today. Yet, you’ve stated the following, Ira, and I was really curious about this—this gets back to what we were talking about a little bit before about self-esteem, but this is really about the show. You’ve said, “Honestly, making radio is still hard. I have really hard weeks on the show where I’m really frightened and really struggling to make the show good.” In a recent interview in The Guardian, you stated that you feel scared all the time.


Ira Glass:

Well, feeling scared all the time is normal for a broadcaster, right?


Debbie Millman:

No.


Ira Glass:

Really?


Debbie Millman:

I don’t think so. Maybe they’re just not being honest with me, but not every broadcaster I know is scared all the time.


Ira Glass:

But you don’t know if the thing is going to be any good. It’s like being in the middle of preparing a thing that’s not done and you don’t know if you’re going to finish it on time and you don’t have enough time. Yeah. For me, fear is built into making things.


Debbie Millman:

But what about your track record? Do you feel like there’s …


Ira Glass:

I feel confident we’ll get it done as well as it can be done by us, you know what I mean?


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. If that’s what keeps you as good as you are, then so be it.


Ira Glass:

Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who, once said, “I am the greatest Keith Moon–style drummer in the world.” I feel like that’s so exactly how I feel. I feel like … yeah. I’m leaving here to go to work.


Debbie Millman:

But you love that, though. That’s not a—


Ira Glass:

I do not love that. But when you have a pledge—


Debbie Millman:

No?


Ira Glass:

No, but we have a pledge drive to get out …


Debbie Millman:

Then why do you do it so much?


Ira Glass:

I’m on a deadline. We have a new show next week but also it would be good if we got a pledge out this week rather than waiting a week. And so, it’s like, what, 5:30, 6 on a Sunday night. I’m going to leave here and then go work on the pledge show.


Debbie Millman:

And how will you feel while you’re working on it? Will you be wishing you were somewhere else? Will you be happy that you’re there?


Ira Glass:

I will be absolutely wishing I was not there. Yeah, I would much rather—


Debbie Millman:

Where would rather be?


Ira Glass:

I would rather be with my girlfriend getting dinner and hanging out.


Debbie Millman:

How is it being back in the dating world?


Ira Glass:

It’s been much better than being in an unhappy marriage where we trying to make it work and trying our best and not succeeding.


Debbie Millman:

How has that changed your worldview now, being in this different kind of relationship?


Ira Glass:

I just feel younger. I feel better in general because of it.


Debbie Millman:

I want to talk a bit about Serial—your podcast Serial, not the breakfast—which debuted in 2015, is the single-most popular podcast ever made. It has been downloaded over 400 million times and it established an ongoing podcast world record. It also has won every major award for broadcasting, including the Edward R. Murrow and the first ever Peabody for a podcast. Is it true that you didn’t think you were starting anything big with Serial?


Ira Glass:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

How come? What was—


Ira Glass:

It was just basically an idea that Sarah Koenig, the host, and Julie Snider, the producer—who has been the longtime senior producer at This American Life … the way they saw it was—it’s weird that this is just five years ago—but this was such a new idea: the idea of we didn’t know if you could tell a true story for more than one episode and people would come back and hear the next episode. Part of it was could we make a story that’s reporting but instead of finishing it in 60 minutes try to get people to come back next week, and the week after, and the week after, which is why so much of it is built with the structure of TV, because Julie loves TV and really understands TV. She was like, “Let’s build it like TV and structure out the story and the episodes and the hooks that pull you forward in the way that you would do for TV, and see if you can get people to listen to a piece of investigative journalism in the same way.” That was so new. Honestly, we were like, “Let’s just try this.”


Ira Glass:

I remember when they were working on it, Julie and Sarah would just say, like—we’d be at some decision point in the thing—and they would just say, “Who cares? Nobody is going to hear this thing.” Our business goal was to make back enough … basically, to get a large enough audience so that the advertising, the underwriting, that we could sell and it would cover the cost of it, which I think was $300,000.


Debbie Millman:

Mailchimp got a really good bargain that first season.


Ira Glass:

They did.


Debbie Millman:

Ira Glass, you have done more to create this industry than anybody in the world. I know you hate that kind of stuff, but it needs to be said. I just want to thank you for making this all possible for all of us that have tried to follow in your footsteps. Ladies and gentlemen, Ira Glass.


Ira Glass:

Thanks for the nice interview.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman