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An Interview with Ira Glass, Host of 'This American Life'

Photo by Stuart Mullenberg, courtesy of WBEZ

If you know public radio, then you most certainly know Ira Glass, host and creator of NPR’s “This American Life.” Glass recently spoke with KNAU's "Morning Edition" host Aaron Granillo from the WBEZ studios in Chicago.

Glass will present “Reinventing Radio,” a multimedia show that goes behind the scenes of “This American Life,” Sat, Jan. 25 at Ardrey Auditorium on the campus of Northern Arizona University. For more info, see

Aaron Granillo: The show you’re performing is called, “Reinventing Radio.” Tell us about it.

Ira Glass: Basically, I stand on stage. I have an iPad with clips and a little mixer — it’s built into the IPad.  And, as I speak I can recreate the sound of our radio show as I talk with music and sound from the show and quotes from the show, and partly it’s me explaining why I and my colleagues at “This American Life” are making a show that’s so different from most things on radio or television. And then a lot of it is just an excuse to play incredibly funny clips or very emotional clips from over the years.

Can you give us a preview of some (clips) that you plan on playing?

It’s a mix of serious stuff and funny stuff. So, lately when I’ve been going out and giving talks about the radio show I’ve been playing things from the two episodes that we did when we went into a high school in Chicago — a high school where they had had 29 shootings in the previous school year, and I just talk about the making of that story, and stuff that we really couldn’t put on the radio. And, then I play really funny stuff, like a few weeks ago we did this show — it was like one of my favorite things we’ve ever done. We followed a car dealership in Long Island as they tried to make their monthly quota of car sales. They had to sell 129 cars. And again, I play some stuff that we couldn’t play on the radio and couldn’t fit into the show and talk about the making of that show.

They are such unique stories, the ones you just mentioned right there. What story makes it to “This American Life”? What do you look for in these story ideas?

The things we are looking for, you know, there has to be somebody to relate to, I think, in any story for it to be emotionally affecting.  There has to be somebody who you can think, “OK, I can imagine if that were me.” We’re doing stories in such a traditional story-ish way that we need there to be a surprising plotline. We need there to be plot twists. We need there to be funny moments and emotional moments. And generally for the radio you need something to drive at some idea about the world that you haven’t heard before.

I want to get back to the show, because it’s called “Reinventing Radio.”  What does that mean? How does NPR reinvent radio? How is “This American Life” changing the platform of the medium?

What’s interesting right now is that I think that there are a number of shows that are consciously trying to reinvent what you can do on the air. I mean, when we came on the air — we’re a pretty old show. We started in 1995, like we’ve been around for a really long time. What was new about our show were a couple of things. One is that we just decided that show should be really fun. That fun wouldn’t be an afterthought, but that the show was conceived from the ground up as an entertainment. That was new. And then the tone of it is different. That is, that we try to write our scripts and perform our stories  so it’s more like people talking. It’s a much more conversational tone. In a way, like, all broadcasting is moving in that direction of people talking in a more conversational way.  And I think that we are on the kind of extreme end of that. And then, the fact that we’re consciously out to amuse ourselves even in very serious stories is something that I think is different. It’s unusual in traditional broadcast journalism that in the middle of a very serious story about Guantanamo or Afghanistan or anything else that’s kind of serious or important, that there will be really, really funny moments too. And truthfully I don’t understand why more broadcasting doesn’t do that. I think that’s something that makes stories so much more fun to listen to and so much more interesting, and more accurately depicting of the world. Like in the middle of very serious things, very funny things happen.

You’ve done over 500 episodes of “This American Life.” When you set out on this venture, did you ever think it would come this far? Did you ever think you’d have this kind of following?

No. No, definitely not. No. When I started it, I and my partner in starting the show, Torey Malatia, who runs WBEZ … We thought, like, this will be a nice show that we will like personally. This is to our taste, like it was my taste and it was his taste. And our business plan was to be on 60 stations by the end of two years, and we just thought, well, this is a thing and maybe people will like it. And from the very beginning we were relay embraced by the public radio audience. And, we got on a lot of stations. We were on 200 stations by the end of our year-and-a-half or something. It happened much, much more quickly — and I think just because at its heart the stories that we’re looking for in this kind of format are so relatable. They’re stories that anybody can get in to. I meet a lot of kids who hear the show. You know, there’s nothing hard or complicated about these stories.

You talk about the advantages and why the show works. What about the flipside? What are the disadvantages? What are some of the challenges that your show faces when trying to produce an hour-long show that people will listen to?

That’s a really good question. I mean, once you’ve been on the air for, you know, 10 or 15 years, your biggest challenge is doing things that are different and new and seem alive and fresh. And I feel like one of the things that I and the rest of the staff are proudest of is that the last two or three years of shows, we try more new things than we have ever tried. We’re constantly experimenting with the form of the show and just trying things that we’ve never heard anybody do on the radio. We did an entire episode that was just stories that our parents pitched. Or, we’re putting together, right now, a musical for the spring. It will be a true story done as a Broadway musical. We have a Broadway composer working with us. But, it will be a documentary story done as a musical.

Now Ira, will you be singing?

No, I will not be singing. No, no, no. I feel like some other public radio hosts when they come to town. I am not someone who should be singing.