American Life" host and producer Ira Glass started working in public radio when he was 19
and has since worked on nearly every NPR news show, and done almost every production job out
"This American Life" went on the air in 1995. Each week
the staff chooses a theme and invites writers and performers to contribute items on the theme. The
mission is to document everyday life in this country. Glass says to think of it as a documentary
show for people who normally hate documentaries, a public radio show for those who don't necessarily
care for public radio.
(text adapted from
So of all the things you could do in
life, why is radio the most worthwhile? If you couldn't be in radio, what else would you
Um, I'm not sure radio would be the most worthwhile, but I stumbled
into it when I was 19. I talked my way into an internship at NPR headquarters in Washington even
though, like most teenagers, I had never heard of public radio. I didn't come from the kind of
family who would listen to it, but the people were really young and funny and smart, and they
had these really cool studios and I thought, well, this would be a really fun thing to do. I was an
unpaid intern, and the following summer got a job there. It wasn't a plan, and I'm not really sure
how deeply worthwhile it is, but I just got lucky.
were in Chicago, you talked to a lot of kids. Do you think popular or unpopular kids have more
pressure on them?
Wow, I mean, I think all kids have a lot of pressure
on them. It's hard to feel bad for the popular kids. My heart goes out way more to unpopular kids; I
wasn't especially popular in high school so I felt like I understood them immediately, and also their
stories tend to be more dramatic. It's harder to do a story on somebody who is on top. It's more
interesting to find somebody who is sort of in the middle or at the bottom, and most of us can
relate to them more.
Yeah, there are more advantages to being
You think there are advantages to being an
Yeah, I actually think there is less pressure. I'm
pretty solitary, and I see other people constantly surrounded by friends, always having to put on a
Oh, I definitely see that, yeah
How much attention do you pay to the opinions of the
public on your work?
I pay attention. Sometimes I'll be at the
office and a listener will write something that just makes me so mad that I'll take half an hour and
write back because I think they completely misunderstand.
Generally the people
who hear the show like it so we don't have any huge problems. The main group we've gotten into
trouble with are animal-rights people. A couple of years ago we did a fictional story where at
one point two brothers take an armadillo and dump it in the water, and animal-rights people wrote us
saying, "How can you do that?" and we were like, "It's made up! It's
make-believe, it's pretend. "
As a writer there are
times when I just can't think of anything inspirational. Have you had the same problem? What do you
do to get over it?
Yes. That's a really hard thing. A lot of people
want to do creative work and it's hard to know what to do the creative work about. Part of how to
make something is not just how you edit it so it has a beginning, middle and end. Part of creating
is figuring out how to find something that you want to work on. It's hard because when you are taught
how to do creative work, nobody ever tells you how to find an idea, and it's a huge
There are a couple of ways to think about it. One is you kind of look in
every direction, and you make it part of your job to actively look for
When I was working by myself, I would set aside time, and money, and go to
bookstores thinking, I'm going to buy magazines, I'm going to wander around, I'm just going to spend
time looking for a thought that is interesting enough to look into more.
there is this game that you're taught where you go through the newspaper and in every story you try
to figure out some question you like, some little moment.
When I first moved to
Chicago, there was a weird series of people getting hit by lightning. Normally one person a year
gets hit, but for some reason people would be outside when it wasn't raining, and lightning would
strike. Thirteen or 17 people got hit in one month. The papers had headlines saying how not to get
hit and I'm thinking, God, I've moved to a city of morons. The papers are publishing stories on how
not to get hit by lightning.
There were the normal boring stories, but in
every story there would be one interesting quote - always from the person who got hit, because all of
them survived (except one), and the person would say, "We were standing out on the golf
course, and Mike turns to me and starts to say something, and then everything went white, and I
heard this kind of buzzing sound faraway, and Mike is still talking to me, but I can't tell what
he's saying, and there's that buzzing sound, and then we're falling to the ground but in slow motion
and I don't hear any sound at all, and it's just like, wow. "
was so much more interesting than everything else in the paper. I thought, Well, what do I want to
know? I want to know more about that, and so I just basically talked to them
about the moment when the lightning hit.
And so it is this exercise where you
look for one little thing that gets your blood going. I think it is hard to do any kind of work
unless you are excited. A lot of us, when we're starting off, think there is an official way to
write a poem, an official way to write a story, and we feel like we've got to sound like other
people. Generally it is more important that you are excited about it than to do it the official way.
What can radio offer people that TV
Radio is really, really intimate in away that is hard for TV.
A really good TV show will have moments where your heart goes out to the people, but it's rare, and
it's hard to pull off. On the radio if we just have somebody talking about something in a heartfelt
way, there is something about the emotion that just gets to you.
The other thing
is, when you don't see the person, you don't write them off. When I was doing gang stories, I thought
it was a real advantage that the teenagers in the story couldn't be seen. A girl gang member - black
lipstick, baggy clothes - they'd just think she's a punk, whereas when she starts talking, she's
really smart and funny. You don't have to get around the way she looks to love her a
Every intern we have could make a tape that is really,
really beautiful and moving, which would be hard to do in print where you have to be a really skilled
writer to pull it off.
And this would be hard to do in film just because there is
so much about making something look in a way that has feeling to it, and in radio you can sidestep
Fortunately there are a bunch of places now, for example, transum. org,
designed to say, here's how you doit. They have these old-timers who've done it over and over,
chatting up people who are just beginning, saying, yeah, here's the equipment you buy, here's
the free software you can download.
The thing I like about
radio is that it sounds like the person is actually in the room with you. And an important theme in
your show is opening your eyes to see what is outside your own community. I think teenagers tend to
be very within their own worlds.
Well, because teenagers are at war,
How do you think teenagers can learn to
supercede their own communities and see something else?
It would be
really pretentious for me, a 44-year-old man, to say how teenagers should be acting or what they
should be doing or how they could achieve this ...
you've survived it...
... or even if it is worthwhile to try. I'm not
sure I have anything smart at all to say. You've asked a question that is so much smarter than
my answer. [laughter]. I will try to live up to your
Okay, okay. Are you ever tempted to add your
opinion to the stories you do?
Yes, not only am I tempted, but I add
it. I feel like part of a certain style of journalism is that you don't want to be a news
robot, pretending to be above it all. If something is surprising, or moving, or funny, our show makes
that clear. You can tell that your staff is really interested in the people in the stories. You can
tell there is a lot of feeling happening, which I think makes things more interesting, and is just
as fair as other journalism.
Okay, here's a different
Alright. You know, I've thought about the first question you
asked, about who has more pressure on them, the popular or unpopular people. I feel I was more like
you. I always had a little project going on, and that is exactly the adult I turned into. I spend so
much time editing stuff. Just sitting at the computer, and one thing and another, I feel like it is
not that different from when I was in high school. I've managed to recreate my high school
experience in the adult world.
Most people probably think you
are out talking to all these interesting people all day long. They don't realize the majority of
time is editing. But you don't get that sense, listening to the
I'm on the radio one hour a week. But for 60 hours a week it's a
bunch of us sitting down and saying things like, "If you move this sentence over here, but
then, pause, and then say this sentence ... " It's all that.
Do you find that
That's the most interesting part. Editing always came easily
to me. For me, writing came really hard. You guys, you're good writers. It took me until I was 28 to
be a competent writer, so you could listen to it and it didn't seem stupid.
And fortunately I worked in a medium where I could just edit tape and have a job. But then
everything else came, like performing on the radio ... there are tapes that I play when I gave
speeches, when I was 26, 27years old, and I'm horrible. I play them and people laugh.
The media has a huge effect on teenagers. We are the main
target, really. How can we avoid being robots to the media?
know, I don't feel like there are that many people who are robots to the media
Well, I think so...
How do you mean, describe what you are talking about.
Okay. I go to an all-girls school and every one just has to have a Tiffany's silver heart-shaped
[Rosie] Ugh, at my school, too.
that's not because of the media. What in the media has made
It's the name of Tiffany's. It's
But that's not because of the
Well, yes it is. It's be-cause ... Have you looked at a
But is it advertising or is it
They are advertised.
work so hard to be just like what they see on TV and what they see in magazines. I don't know if
that's changed since ... Give me another example.
of the midriff shirt. On every magazine cover there is a skinny girl with a midriff shirt, and it's
not even allowed at my school, but it happens
Yeah, my school's public, but ... You
know, it's not practical when it's cold, but people do it anyway because it's the cool thing. So how
do you think people can avoid doing that?
I think it's much harder for
girls than boys, just straight up. How can they avoid it? I think most people pick and choose. Well,
you guys hang around teenagers, so you know if they are acting like robots, but don't you feel like
most of your friends pick and choose what they like? What's your favorite TV show, what do
I love "Seinfeld. " Actually, I am
the biggest"X-Files" nerd.
Really. So are you
watching "American Idol, " or
No, no, never, no. Please!
Oh, I like Buffy.
sorry, my heart goes out to you.
I don't need your pity, Buffy's
great. I watch a lot of Buffy. My girlfriend got me watching. I could sing you the songs from the
Buffy music. That's how deep I am. [Laughter]
I think kids
feel they are being bombarded with messages from magazines, TV, everywhere, that say here's how
you should look, act, think ... They've got the largest corporations, the most brilliant marketing
minds in America trying to exploit them.
Yeah, but I think that's the
same situation adults are in, but in a very intense way. Stuff is being marketed to you, and most of
it is crap, and so you have to choose, but I've got to say that a lot of the stuff supposedly
marketed as crap is kind of great, too. And I feel like you shouldn't just shrug off records that
you feel like ... you know, just because Britney Spears is Britney Spears doesn't mean that that
first song wasn't great. You know, just because the White Stripes are in every magazine this month
doesn't mean they aren't fantastic. They have a great
The White Stripes are amazing.
Yeah. I don't feel like it is quite as dire as you say. And yeah, you've got to
pick and choose, but there is so much great stuff right now. We are living in a really great cultural
moment. "The Simpsons" are still on TV. Someday we'll look back on this period of
TV and think there were a bunch of shows that were really good.
I've lived in six states and I'm only 16. I've come to the
conclusion that people everywhere are incredibly different. You've gotten to know so many people, do
you think the same thing?
I think that people are really, really
different. Thank God. Yeah, I mean, that's the great thing about having a job where you can ask
anybody any question you want.
Six states? But it's so similar, right, it doesn't
take very long to adjust, does it?
I'm still adjusting to
Really? Where did you live
was your hair there?
I think it was light
Do you notice the differences between states, like can you
identify a California identity versus an Oklahoma identity?
Yeah, actually, yeah. Seriously though, most children are
allowed to be creative, but it seems like many lose that as they get older because of
self-consciousness, partially, I think. What kept you in a
I just got lucky, and ended up in a situation where I'm
able to express my-self. A lot of people want to do creative work but never get a job where somebody
lets them do it. I got really lucky, and then I was very aggressive about trying to make the most of
I feel like a lot of the people I'm closest to have so much of their
kid-self still alive in them. What you want is somebody who is partly adult and responsible, and
partly like a kid and just goofing around.
What's been your
biggest disappointment in life, and how have you dealt with it? For me, it's moving around so much,
I think moving here ...
Wow. I don't think I ever went through anything as
traumatic as that. You must have had to get very strong.
... I think so. I hope so.
I never had anything that harsh; my parents
didn't get divorced. I came from a very normal family and my biggest problem was that we lived in
a place that was really, really boring. But you can't break anyone's heart with that
I've had my normal share of disappointments, but I have to say things have
gone pretty well. I didn't get into the college I wanted, and all sorts of things always go wrong,
but not in a way that I've been scarred.
What are some books
every teenager should read before graduating?
I wasn't such a big
reader when I was in high school, but books I really like ...
Among The Thugs by
Bill Buford is a piece of journalism. A lot of people don't want to read journalism because they
think it will be like the newspaper, but Buford is really funny, and what he's writing about is
amazing - there was a period in England when all the fans would riot after every soccer
I heard about that.
Yeah, the soccer hooligans. And he
read about it and wondered What is going through their heads?Then he started to hang out with them,
and get drunk with them, and it is just really funny. It unfolds like a little movie and you meet
really amazing people.
And there's Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat by Ryszard
Kapuscinski, who's from Poland. He's writing about Haile Selassie, the emperor in Ethiopia but he did
it totally old school where his feet never touched the ground. It's written from the point of view
of all the people who waited on Selassie and served in his court. It's like a fairy tale, they
never say his name. They just refer to him as the Emperor, it's really beautiful.
Ah! I have to ask my favorite question. Do you have any
suggestions for my senior class prank?
Yes, I absolutely can help you
with this. You've come to the right man!
Our ideas were first
to steal the Ronald McDonald, but that's illegal, Or, we were going to take three chickens and label
them one, two and four, and let them loose in the school, and then forever be looking for the
third chicken. What are your suggestions?
Wow, those are both pretty good.
Was there one last year? What's been done?
There haven't been
any good ones for years. Last year they stole the Buddha from my vice principal's
Wow. Well, the class could hold a press conference and announce
that you are all going to join the Army. [Laughter]
And then, in the middle of the press conference somebody
has to break in and either show a short video, or read a poem or do something so that the whole class
decides, Ahh, forget it. [Laughter]
That is phenomenal. One
last serious question ... What is your first priority when making a show - are you a writer, or a
journalist, or just trying to entertain?
That's a very good question
and I actually have an answer to this one. The way our show is different from others that are
hard-core journalism - we apply the tools of journalism to everyday life. It's actually
documentary journalism, and generally when people do that, it's really boring. Our mission is to get
people's voices out that normally wouldn't be heard. Just like Teen Ink, the stories in there
wouldn't get out any other way. And it can be really fun, funny and engaging.
want our segments to be like little movies for radio, and if you hear the first minute you can't
help but stay. With public broadcasting, people often feel like it's medicine, that "Yes,
this will be good for me, but I'm not sure I can sit through it. " And we feel like,
okay, public radio has been around for years, and it's time for it to be more than that. It should be
doing all the high-minded things and also be as entertaining as anything out there. So it's really
fun. I don't think you should have to choose between seriousness and entertainment. We are
unashamedly about show business; are putting on a show and we want people to listen. Show business
One of the things we know about our show is that every week a million
and a half people listen and the average listening time is 48 minutes, which includes the people who
turn it on part way through. It means that if someone turns it on at any point, they stay with us to
the end, and the reason why is because we try to make it as fun as we can.
now I know the answer to your question about my greatest disappointment.
biggest trauma for me was that I spent a decade in radio being lousy. It seemed like I could get good
at it, but I just wasn't. A lot of us who want to make creative work, we've got good taste, right,
that's why you want to do creative work. When you look at your own work, you can tell that it's bad.
I was in that state, and I feel there should be a name for that state, because every single person
goes through it and no one ever talks about it. You know what good is. You know what you are shooting
for, and you also know that you are not there.
Most of the people I know who do
creative work went through this. For me it took so long. I had to do story after story after story
and yeah, it was very painful. And I just feel like you gotta stick with it. You should find people
to work with you admire and work for free and get a temp job on the side. Anybody who has a
job that's any good at some point worked for free, and made their money somewhere else.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.