Interview: Ira Glass on being interviewed and making a good story

Authored By Maggie Behringer

It would be repetitive to comment on Ira Glass’ boyish charm or detail the success of “This American Life,” the NPR show he hosts.

What’s far more interesting is that after more than 20 years on the air and countless stage shows and talks with the media, the consummate interviewer can find himself nervously and constantly critiquing his own performance as an interviewee. Or that some of his proudest moments emerge in the show’s idiosyncratic but ultimately brilliant takes on stories like the mortgage crisis or Guantanamo Bay, treatments that humanize the subjects and recast the news as a story.

If you go

What: Reinventing Radio

When: Sunday, April 7, 4 p.m.

Where: 709 Broad St.

How much: Free

“This American Life” is broadcast weekly on WUTC 88.1 Sunday nights at 7 p.m.

Glass speaks this Sunday, April 7, at the Tivoli Theatre as part of the George T. Hunter Lecture Series, which is produced in partnership by the Benwood Foundation and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

In the midst of editing scripts and writing promos for upcoming shows and in his warm and exciting cadence that allows those on the other end of the phone to momentarily forget he or she is talking to someone whose show has been hailed as “a vanguard of a journalistic revolution,” Glass talked “This American Life,” how to create a story and Guantanamo Bay.

What will the talk this Sunday include?

Basically, I stand on stage, and I have an iPad that has clips from the radio show and quotes and music that we use on the radio show and the ambient sound from the show. What it means is that as I’m standing there on stage, I can kind of create the radio show around me.

The talk [titled Reinventing Radio] is a combination of me talking about the radio show, how we make it and why it’s made the way it is, and clips from the radio show, memorable moments-essentially a lot of funny clips.

I feel like, like a lot of people, when I get in front of an audience, I get nervous if people are not laughing a lot, so partly it’s just an excuse to play really funny stuff to a roomful of people.

The show is coming up on 20 years. What are you thinking about the show’s evolution from here? Are you thinking it will go on as is for eternity?

I think we’re not shooting for eternity or to even through the end of the life of the solar system. Our goals are really modest as a staff. We have done so some many different things over the years-we did a TV show for a few years and then asked to be taken off TV, and then we have movies in development. We have a half-dozen films in development. One of them came out last year, “Sleepwalk with Me,” and we have cinema events where we do our show on stage with dancers and animation and all sorts of visual. And we’ve talked about doing a musical.

Truthfully, a lot of what making the show is about is us out to amuse ourselves. So, I feel like the thing that seems healthy is that we don’t exactly know where it’s going. I suspect that where we’ll go in the next few years is to continue the thing we’ve been doing of trying to do stories that are in the news but in our style. We’ll take on the mortgage crisis or kids getting shot, but do it the way we did it where there are characters and scenes and funny moments and emotional moments.

There’s an interview that you did with the Oberlin Review in which they asked you the creative process of making a story, and one of the things you said was that no one really talks about where the ideas come from in the context of what makes a good story. How have you and the staff gone about making stories, and what makes a good story?

It’s funny because sometimes it’s really hard to decide about a given story if it’s going to be interesting enough, and often, we just have to get into making the story to see if it’s going to work out. The things that we need are the things that are the basics of any good story: You need the character to relate to. It helps if they’re funny. It helps if they’re good at expressing their feelings. If it’s just a story that’s from someone’s personal life, it has to be interesting enough to show up on the radio. Things have to happen that you feel like you haven’t heard before.

It has to be like a story we did about a year ago about a couple who was trying to decide whether they should get married. The girl tells the guy, “Yeah, I did kind of assume we were going to get married, but we’ve been together since sort of the third week of college, and I’ve always thought that in my 20s, I would sleep with more people, so let’s just take a break for a month and sleep with as many people as we can and then move forward.”

So, they decide they’re going to take a one-month break and sleep with as many people as they can and then get back together. That’s just a fantastic plot to a story that you’ve just never heard before, and you want to know what happens. From the moment you hear what’s going to happen, you suspect you do know what happens, which is that this can’t possibly work.

Can you talk more about taking the news and filtering it through your style, breaking it down in a way that becomes more of a storytelling piece and not just a straight news story?

The first thing you have to do is you have to find your characters with a conflict, because without a conflict, there’s no plot, and the whole thing has to be plot-driven. That is often the most time-consuming part of it.

Sometimes, it takes a lot of ingenuity to find the people where there will be a plot. We did the story a couple of years ago on the Tea Party movement. We needed to find a Tea Party chapter where it wouldn’t just be the kind of story other reporters were doing-they would explain, “Here are the demographics of this group. They tend to be white people in their 50s, and here’s what they believe”-but you wouldn’t hear characters.

One of our producers just called around until he found this one Tea Party chapter that was started by two best friends. The politics had changed in a way that although they were best friends-talked for hours a day when it began-after two years of it, they didn’t speak to each other and were enemies. We could trace the whole thing, the growth of the Tea Party through their relationship, which made it so much more emotional and also made them so much more relatable.

A lot of the Tea Party stories that the more traditional reporters would do were beautifully done stories, but they were always outside, sort of [like] anthropologists looking at it, whereas in ours, you got to feel their excitement at succeeding, like you were rooting for them to lower taxes and change the government. It was hard not to.

Do you have any favorite stories or experiences or interviews from the show’s run?

For the kind of show that we’re making, there’s not really a reason to do a lot of the stories we do unless you kind of have a crush on them. So I have many, many favorites.

I think my most favorite shows are the ones that go somewhere that I never would have known anything about, like when we did a show explaining, “Here’s how the economy came down because of home mortgages.” We got to meet the people who gave out all those bad home loans and [ask] why they gave out the loans to people who they knew would never pay them back. They actually explained it. These are basically the people that brought down the economy, and they got to explain themselves-I felt very grateful for that.

One of my very favorite shows we’ve ever done was in the early days of Guantanamo [Bay]. We wanted to just explain, “Here’s the issues and here’s why we should care.” We felt like the broadcasting challenge in this was an A-level challenge, which is as soon as anybody hears the word “Guantanamo” they just think, “I don’t want to listen to this,” and they turn off the radio.

It sounds automatically boring and automatically heavy, and you automatically know you’re for it or against it. It’s like saying “abortion” or any big political thing where everybody knows where they stand. You’re not going to convince anybody, so what is there to say? I feel like we tried to create a show that was diabolically funny, [that] you’d be listening to it and caught up in it before you realized, “Oh, wait a second-I’m listening to an hour about Guantanamo.”

I feel a tremendous affection and sense of pride for having produced the funniest show ever produced about Guantanamo. I feel like there are a lot of subjects that we’ve taken on like that, where the subject is always a bore, and if we heard someone on the radio do it, we would turn it off, but there must be a way to do it, and we try to do it interestingly.

You’ve done so many interviews and been interviewed so many times-is it ever odd for you to be on the other side of the questions? When you’re interviewing, do you ever ask yourself, “Why does anyone ever talk to me-this is so funny!”

Yes! I’ve had that from both sides. 

But I feel like I understand why people [talk to me], especially for the kinds of stories we’re doing. We’re asking people about stuff that happened to them that means something … and the thought that someone would be super-interested, that’s nice.

In terms of being the interviewee, I’m really used to being interviewed in an interview like we’re doing right now.

But the first few times I was interviewed, it was very, very strange. As someone who basically spends all day, every day editing and doing interviews, it was hard for me to experience the interview without thinking about the interviewer’s point of view. When I was first being interviewed, I experienced the interview way more as you, as the interviewer, than as me, the interviewee.

The entire interview I would spend thinking, “OK, what’s my lead?” as if I was going to have to put together the thing for publication. Then, [I’d] also be structuring the entire interview in my head, like, “I’m going to change this, and really the lead should be this one, and then this one should come later.” This answer I’m giving you now-I’ve been editing your interview the entire time, and this either has to end the interview or it’s the beginning of the article.

I do it because I’m compulsive, and I feel a real obligation. I have so often experienced the thing where the interview is bad and I’m asking good questions, so when someone asks good questions and I don’t rise to the occasion, I don’t even feel bad like I’m letting the interviewer down-primarily, I feel like, “Oh, no, I’m one of those jerks. I’m one of those people who can’t come up with a good answer to a good question. I’m the problem, part of the force of entropy that is making journalism bad because someone is asking good questions, and I am not coming up with a good answer!”