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Interview with Ira Glass, The Sun Magazine (1999)

Interview with Ira Glass, The Sun Magazine (1999)

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Published by Renee Aron Lertzman

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Published by: Renee Aron Lertzman on Oct 25, 2011
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AConversationWithIraGlass,HostOf
ThisAmericanLife
R
ENEE
lERTZMAN
firstheardIra
Ghss's
voiceovermycarradioasIcareenedalongthefog-shroudedcurvesofthePacificCoastHigh'way.Scanningthedial,Icameupona/Jrogramthatwasdifferent
from
anyother
on
theradio:intelligent,sharp,
intimate.
Ifoundmyselfconcentratingintently
on
thestorybeingtold.1laterdiscoveredthat1hadtuned
in
tooneofthefirstbroadcastsof
ThisAmericanLife,
Glass'sweeklydocumentaryprogramabouttheunexpecied,hilarious,andsometimesdarkdetailsofeverydaylife.
We
arenotaccustomed
to
beingmovedbywhatwehear
on
theradio.It'swhereweturn
for
news,fortop-fortymusic,forsilly
morning
shows.1
t
isnotaplacewelookforrich,compellingnarrativesthattakeusintolandscapesandlivesfarfromourown.
As
creatorandhostof
ThisAmericanLife,
Glassisanaccomplishedarchitectofnanative.Heunderstandswhatmakesitwork,how
it
formsaInidgebetweennarratorandlis-tener.Evenhisownlifestorydoesnotescapehisexactingrequirements.Askedhowhe
8THESUN·JUNE1999
 
Peopleoftenlistentopublicradiobecausetheythinkit'sgoodforthem,likemedicine.
I
hatethat.Forme,it'simportantthatradiobepleasurable.
cametoradio,hecomplainsthathistaleistoo~undane:"Itdoesn'thavewhatyouneedinagoodstory,whichisatransformingmoment."GlassbeganhisradiocareerasaninternforNationalPublicRadiowithouteverhavinglistened
to
NPR.Heworkedbehindthescenesfortenyears,includingastintwritingcopyfor
MorningEdition
andasaproducer
onAllThingsConsidered.
Finally,hebecameanon-airreporterandfill-inhost.
In
1990
hewasassigned
to
documentracerelations
in
aChicagohighschool.
It
washisfirstopportunitytopracticethestyleofreportingthatwouldlaterbecomehistrademark.Followingtheadviceofadocumentaryfilmmakerheknew,he"wentintotheschoolandtreateditlike
I
asatabigcoclaailparty,justnoticingwho
I
asdrawnto."Glass'srulewassimply
to
letthepeoplewhoapproachedhimspeakaslongastheywanted."When
I'm
interviewingsomeone,"hesays,"andtheyopenthemselvesup,
I
allcompletely
in
lovewiththem."Initiallypickedupbyonlyninestations
in
I996,
ThisAmericanLifeis
now
JUNE1999THESUN9
--"-'--
-----
 
distributed
to
nearly
350
stationsbyPublicRadio
International.
(Programsarcalsoavailable
on
thewebatwww.thislrfe.org.)Aboutamillionpeuplelisteneveryweek
to
findoutwhomIrahasfalleninlovewiththistime.Thestoriesrangefromthedeeplysad
to
thesurreaL,buttheyarealwaysvital.Overthe
lJast
fewyears,
G
lasshasdoneshm,usaboutforbiddenlove,NiagaraFalls,trav-elingcross-countrybyGreyhound,andNew
Yorkers
whoneverleavetheir
rooms.In
arecentshowaboutdetectives,Glassaccompaniedaprivateinvestigatorasheobservedhisclient'swifehavingdinnerwithanotherman.
"1
wassuddenlyawareofthehumantragedyofwhatwasabout
to
happen,"Glass
said
to
theaudience."\'Vhethershewas
cheatingon
herhusband
or
not,herlifewasabout
to
beturnedcomJJlccelyupsidedown."
It
was,
to
borrowhisphrase,a"transforming
moment."
Lertzman:
HowdidyoumovefromMorning
Edition
and
AllThings
Consideredtoashowlike
ThisAmericanLife?
Glass:
Forfiveyearspriortodoing
ThisAmericanLife,
I'dbeenhostingafree-formFriday-nightshowinChicagocalled
TheWildRoom.
Wewouldfollowsomebodyaroundinanoddsituationandcreateanarrative,completewithcharacters,scenes,humor.Itwasmuchmorepleasure-orientedthanthedocumentariesyoutraditionallyhearontheradio.Theshowwasoftenquiteterrible,butaboutonceamonthitwouldbekindofgreat.Iwasabletotryoutnewthings,andIstartedimaginingwhatIcoulddowithabiggershow.
Lertzman:
Whatwasityouwantedtodo!
Glass:
I'dbeennoticingwhatgrabbedmyheartontheradio:themomentsthatgotmyattention,themomentswhenIcouldnorstoplistening.Onaprogramlike
AllThingsConsidered,
forexample,thereisusuallyonemomentlikethatinanhour,ifyou'relucky.IthoughtIcouldcreateashowthatwas
just
thosemoments.Partofwhatmakesthosemomentsworkistiming.Inradio,whatyoucontrolmorethananythingelseistime.Youneedtopauseaftereachmoment,sotheaudiencecanfeelit.Wedothatmorethanmostradioshows.Whensome-thinghappens,webringthemusicupandholdyouthere.Manyofourstoriesareorganizedaroundasinglemoment.
Lertzman:
When1firstheardyourshow,Icouldn'tbelieveitwasonNationalPublicRadio.
It
wassointimateand"pleasure-oriented."
Glass:
Peopleoftenlisten
to
publicradiobecausetheythinkit'sgoodforthem,likemedicine.Ihatethat.Forme,it'simportantthatradiobepleasurable.I'minterested
111
creatinganarrativethatdrawsyouin,engagesyou,andgivesyousomething-somethingreallydeepandsatisfying-andthenletsyouoff.There'sthisnotionthatweshouldlistentoorwatchdocumentariesbecauseitmakesusbetterpeople;ithelpsustounderstandourselvesandothersbetter,and
to
under-standmoreaboutourcountry.Ithinkthat'salltrue,butitleavesoutthemostimportantthing:thatashowgeneratepleasure.Everythingelsecanfollow.Andifyouareonamission-asweare-tobroadcastvoicesandstoriesthat
10THESUN.JUNE
1999
aren'tbeingbroadcastanywhereelse,thenthere'sevenmoreofaburdentobepleasure-orientedandsavvy,tonotjusttelltheaudience:"Here,takethismedicine;it'sgoodforyou."Iseeourprogramasdocumentinglifeinthiscountry.Butwearegoingtoamuseourselveseachweek,too.
Lertzman:
Howareyourstoriesdifferentfrommostradioreporting?
Glass:
Atraditionalnewsstoryisstructuredaroundastrictrhythm:everyforty-fiveseconds,youhaveacouple
of
sentencesofscriptfollowedbyaquote.
Jf
it'sastoryabout,say,welfarereform,youhavesorneoneforandanotherpersonagainstthereform,andyougohackandforthbetweenthem.It'sapredictablerhythm,andaratherdullone,Iwouldargue.Westructureourstoriesthewaymostgoodnonfictionnarrativeswork:wepresentananecdote,andthenwestepbackfromtheanecdoteandreflectonwhatitmeans,overandover,throughoutthecourseofashow.Istudiedsemioticsincollege.ThemainIdeaofsemioticsisthatanynarrativeortextthatgivesuspleasureisbad,andthatwehavetobeonguardagainstit.Idon'tbelievethat,ofcourse.ButwhatIfoundusefulaboutsemioticswastheanalysisofwhatitisaboutatextthatgivesuspleasure.Forexample,narrativemotion:"Shegetsoutofbed.There'snosoundinthehouse.Shewalksdownstairs,andstillthereisnosound.Shewalksout
to
theporch...."Aquestion
IS
implicitlybeingraisedbythenarrative,andyouwanttoknowtheanswer.Inconstructingtheshow,weconsciouslyraisethesequestions,andthenweanswerthem.\Y..Jesetanarrativeinmotionfromthemomenttheshowbegins.That'swhytheshowdoesn'tbeginwithatraditionalannouncementof"what'scommgupinthishour."Wedogivelistenersavagueideaofwhat'sgoingtohappen,becauseyouneedsomethingbeforetheshowstartstobelikethecandy-storewindow.Butwedon'tlayitalloutforthem.Asaresult,alotoflistenersdon'tknowwhattomakeoftheshowwhenitcomeson;there'ssomethinginthetoneofitthatdoesn'tfeelfamiliar.Ofcourse,it'snotnarrativealonethatmakes
ThisAmericanLife
different.Afterall,wearebombardedwithnarrative.Mostcommercialsusenarrativetosellussome-thing.Mostmediaarebusysellingthemselvestouswithnarrative.Wearesaturatedwithit.Butwhenwehearabarevoicetellingarealstory,itfeelsliketheuncutcocaine,withnoadditives:therealdeal.
Lertzman:
Yourshowoftenhasanelementofsurprisetoit.Isthisbydesign,ordoesitjusthappen?
Glass:
Therarestthingthatyoucanexperiencewhenyouturnontheradioorthetelevisionistobesurprised.Ifsomethingonourshowissurprising,thatautomaticallyputsusinourownseparatecategory.Soit'sveryimportanttousthattheshowbeunexpected.
\Y..J
ekillstories-goodstories-becausetheyarenotsurprisingenough.
A
differentversionofthisintervietupreviouslyappeared
in
Speak.

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