His American Life

Executive producer and host of “This American Life,” media icon Ira Glass, puts radio center stage

 

Ira Glass has been telling intriguing, thought-provoking stories over the airwaves of his weekly public radio show “This American Life” since 1995, and he’ll soon bring the magic of his show to a live audience during a rare event at Powell Hall on June 18. In anticipation of this singular appearance, ALIVE caught up with the radio icon to get his take on the state of public radio and to find out what it takes for a story to make the cut on his show.

ALIVE:
What can fans expect from your upcoming appearance here?
IRA GLASS: I bring quotes, music and sound from the show, and actually recreate [a version] onstage. It’s me talking about how we make the show, and I also recreate sections of stories and mix them live. Until recently, I was doing it with CDs, but now I do it all with an iPad.

ALIVE: What makes a story compelling enough to make the cut of “This American Life”?
IG: We need the story to have a surprising plot that drives to some idea of the world that’s also surprising. A story is easier to get through if there’s some character who’s funny, or at least semi-charming, or failing that, someone you can relate to. We like stories that are documenting something about the world, but are also really, really emotional.

ALIVE:
Are there still enough stories left out there for you to tell?
IG: Weirdly, yes. There was a point about four or five years into doing the show where we started to worry we were going to run out, and then we just started trying new things. An amazing amount of material comes from people just writing to our website. There’s probably one thing on every episode that is from a random person who wrote in and none of us has met.

ALIVE: Do you think you’ll do another TV show?
IG: Maybe. It would have to be something very different from what we did last time. [We produced two seasons of “This American Life” with Showtime, starting in 2007.] I found it hard to find stories that would unfold on camera in an interesting way with the kind of emotional stakes we need a story to have. If we were to do it again, we’d find a location where something amazing or interesting was happening; then go there, find our characters and watch things unfold without having to constantly, three times an episode, reinvent the question, “What’s the story going to be?”

ALIVE: There’s been a lot of talk about cutting government funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which supports entities like NPR, and some public radio stations. Why is this issue a big deal?
IG: A big public radio station is only getting 6 or 7 percent of its funding from the federal government. The problem is the tiny stations where 30 or 40 percent of their funding comes from the government. If that funding were to fall away immediately, it’d be much harder to keep those stations going because they have smaller listenerships that can’t support the programming on their own. In our initial years, we had grants from the CPB, and that was crucial for us before we got big enough to attract commercial underwriters. We probably wouldn’t have made it past the third year without that money.

ALIVE: You’ve been quoted as saying public radio should stand up for itself when it’s accused of having a liberal bias by conservatives. How can it do this?
IG: We have the facts on our side. By every measurable way you can look at the product, what we’re doing is not liberally biased; it’s objective and in-depth. Jon Stewart said recently that public radio is bringing “a tote bag to a knife fight,” and that’s true, but I don’t know what we can do about it. Traditionally, one of the things public radio isn’t good at is volume. You don’t get decent rock music on public radio, and you don’t get shouting, and where a little more shouting is called for, that’s a problem. You have to hope reason will prevail.

For more info on Ira Glass’ June 18 appearance, go to stlpublicradio.org/ira.

 

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Ira Glass, Executive producer and host of “This American Life.”

Ira Glass, Executive producer and host of “This American Life.”

 

Photo credit: Photo by Stuart Mullenberg, courtesy of “This American Life.”

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