I became completely obsessed with This American Life during the worst internship of my life.
It was 2014 and my job was to digitize 6,000 to 10,000-word archival interviews from print for a magazine in suburban Chicago. This is terribly dull work. I am not a quick typist. The basement I worked from had no natural light.
To stave off boredom, I listened to five, six, seven, or eight episodes of This American Life a day as my fingers plodded out the words from the magazine I wasn’t really reading. At the end of that miserable summer, I’d heard every hour—from episode 1: New Beginnings in 1995 to the then-current episode 512: Magic Words. That’s a little more than 21 days of radio. So it's fair to say Ira Glass’s voice is very familiar to me, and listening to so many hours of his show that summer changed my life (I spent four and a half years at NPR stations).
On May 20, he’ll be in Seattle for the first time in more than five years for a live show at Benaroya Hall, Seven Things I Learned: An Evening with Ira Glass.
We talked ahead of the show about storytelling and how we’ll probably all be fine if the podcast industry implodes.
Do you like being interviewed? As the person usually doing it, I’ve found I don't like it very much.
I don't hate it, but I don't enjoy it—and it's for the reason that you're saying—like, I'm so used to being an interviewer, and an editor of interviews, that it's hard for me not backseat drive the interview in my head and also edit the interview, which is really uncomfortable if you're the person being interviewed. Even as I'm saying these words, I'm trying to figure out, “Okay, is this a good quote to start the interview or would this be good to bury later in the interview?” At some point, I just start writing your story in my head, which is so distracting if you're actually trying to answer a question.
At your show [on May 20], you're going to talk a lot about what makes a good radio story. I don't want to ask you to spoil it, but … what makes a good radio story?
It needs the basics of a story to start, right? There has to be a plot; things have to happen. Even if it's the most everyday kind of story, someone at least has to have some new thought at the end of it that they didn't have at the beginning. Somebody has to at least change that much; obviously, in a story with greater stakes, people can change a lot over the course of it. But for it to be really great, it has to be surprising in some way. That can be somebody going through an ordinary experience, but they are extraordinary in the way that they think about it and talk about it. That's very rare, and hard to pull off. More commonly, it'll just be somebody in some unusually interesting situation or somebody that something surprising happens to, or somebody in some situation that characterizes something going on all over the country.
We did a story trying to cover what's going on with all the people who believe that the last election was stolen; we found this one election supervisor in a county in Texas who was so extraordinary in the way that he would deal with the election deniers in his district. It was watching somebody in a situation handling it with extraordinary skill in a way that sheds light on what all these election administrators have to deal with—just the flood of complaints. They would ask for stuff and he would absolutely hear them out and try to explain like, “If you were suspicious of the machines, these machines aren't even connected to the internet. Here, we'll raise them up on top of tables, you know, and put them where everyone can see. That is just not a thing that happens.” Like on election day, he gets a call from one of the election doubters who says that, you know, there's this map on the internet which seems to show that there was some problem with election machines at some places and he's like, “No, no, no, no. That's just the map that tells you what the wait times are”—before a massive internet rumor started. It’s hard to do a radio story if the interviewee isn’t a great talker. That's one way our medium is different from print and TV. In TV, you can kind of get away with the images, telling the story and narration. In print, if the writer is a gifted writer, they really don't need great quotes. But radio is really built around the quotes. You want somebody who's funny. You want something you wanna hang out with for, you know, for a little while, you know, because you're gonna ask the audience to hang out with them.
There's been a real emphasis on cinematic storytelling and audio journalism over the last few years, but I've always thought what makes a really good nonfiction story isn't necessarily what's gonna make compelling fiction.
I definitely think that's true—but in two specific ways. Number one, you get a lot of juice out of the fact that something is true. So stories that might not be extraordinary if somebody did them as pieces of fiction take on a tremendous power. The smallness of a story is [also] something that's very different between what you can do in fiction and what you can do as a nonfiction radio piece … that has to be eight minutes long. It doesn't need that many plot twists to be satisfying, which makes it very different from what you have to like gin up for the length of an hour-and-a-half-long film—or half an hour of TV, even.
What’s an example of that?
So a couple of weeks ago we ran this story when The Phantom of the Opera closed, it was the longest-running show I think maybe on Broadway ever. We did a story about the musicians who work in the pit, which had a huge orchestra, unusually large for a Broadway show. There are people who are in the pit who were there just every night, doing like eight shows a week. These are really talented musicians. It's a hard score to play, and they're lucky to have these jobs; they make decent money, but it's so boring playing the exact same thing every night for 15, 20, 25 years. So, it's a radio story but because it's only 26 minutes long, you know, you can just hear a series of anecdotes about, like, what that experience is like and the little rivalries between people and things like that. And not enough happens in terms of plot for it to be a movie. Really, one of them would have to murder another one of them for it to be a movie. You know what I mean [laughs]? All it is is documenting kind of a phenomenon. The reporter Jay Caspian Kang is a really funny, smart, perceptive reporter who does really funny, wonderful interviews with people and kind of loves these musicians. They really open up to him and they really do tell some funny stories, but all of that said, you couldn't do a half hour of TV out of it.
There's something special about these kinds of stories where the story really can be: Well, this thing happens and then this thing happens and then this thing happens and then you wouldn't believe it, this thing happens, too. And for some reason, even these sort of like very small stories, people want to stick around for.
That's a story, which I have to say, is way more plotless than most of our stories. Most of our stories really do have a plot! The other story in that episode is one of our producer's, Elna Baker, and she did a show on stage, like a kind of variety show that she called the “drunk show,” where all the performers got on stage and got drunk and did a kind of live Drunk History kind of thing, but not Drunk History—a super funny, fun show with a bunch of comedians. What she discovered is that her mom was trolling the show online in the comments. And so the plot of it is: Woman puts on show. Mom trolls daughter hoping to get a message across, through anonymous comments. She fails to get the message across. Daughter discovers her and kind of both makes fun of her and she is just like, 'What the hell?' And then mom and daughter have a kind of reckoning and then reconciliation actually! So that has a very traditional plot, right? Like stuff happens. There's a secret; the secret gets discovered. It's completely ridiculous. The stuff her mom actually trolls her with is really, really funny to read because it's not very believable. And then Elna calling her out is really fun to listen to. That's just like, good drama to hear somebody call somebody out like that. But not enough happens in it that you can make a movie out of that. The action literally happens with somebody reading the comments on a computer bulletin board or reading the comments on a Facebook post.
You know, you sound just like very joyful, like even recounting these. What do you like about small stories?
I want to be amused, like everybody else who's listening to the radio. I feel like when our show is working, even when we take on something serious, it's fun to listen to. I feel like, from the beginning, when we first went on the air, we kind of differentiated ourselves from everything else that was on public radio because we were unashamedly out for fun. Like, that was the premise of the show. That's what I'm looking for in interviews. That's what I'm looking for in stories I edit. In the next two weeks, we're doing an episode about rats. And so I'm getting to go to Alberta, Canada, where—did you know that there are no rats there? It's the largest area of human habitation where there are no rats because they've kept them from ever entering the province. Twice a year teams go out to the borders of this province to eradicate rats within a five-mile zone all along the border of this province! I'm gonna go out with the rat hunters. Come on! If you can't enjoy that, who are you? Two mornings from now, I'm going out with this woman who in front of her apartment on trash days, there's a river of rats on her street in New York. Like a river that she says she has to have her husband come with her to help her cross, to get to the subway, to go to work.
It’s incredible that you mentioned the Alberta story because my girlfriend is obsessed with that. Her and her brother, they have these weekly calls, and they were just talking about that and how if they had gone to Alberta and released rats maybe they would be arrested for domestic terrorism.
I think that something would happen to them. I don't know what—but I'm gonna find out.
I think that sort of storytelling really came from you and your show and all of your producers and storytellers and it's become a lot more common. But the industry supporting narrative audio storytelling is kind of in shambles right now. NPR cut podcasts for ad revenue falling short. Spotify cut staff at Gimlet and you know, a few years ago, it really seemed like there was a lot of possibility. There was heavy investment, tons of new hires, but it seems a lot smaller and more uncertain these days.
Do you think that kind of storytelling is in trouble right now, or do you think there's a way out?
I think, absolutely, it's more expensive to do these kinds of stories because they take more time. They're just way more labor intensive than making, you know, Armchair Expert with Dax Sheperd—a show I like! Or any of the other interview shows that are out there. They book the guests. They talk interestingly for an hour or two and like, that's the show; that's way faster than the number of conversations we'll have about a seven-minute story on our show. We'll spend hours on that; it's hard for those things to prosper in a tough ad environment and a lot of places are stopping doing it.
That said, there are still tons of businesses where they're doing it. There's the outfit Pushkin Media that does Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis's podcast and a bunch of other podcasts. There's Pineapple Street Studios. Just this past year, we saw that incredible podcast Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong. I feel like it made news by basically doing such a beautiful job explaining what is so messed up with how we teach reading in this country and how it got that way. You can't listen to that at that show without just feeling infuriated by the end! People are making other people listen to it and bringing it up in hearings all over the country. So yes, it's harder to do these things and it's more expensive and places are going out of business, but it's still out there. It'll continue.
Do you feel optimistic about it?
I don't even think about it! Like, honestly, I feel like some people will make these kinds of stories and if people stop making these kinds of stories, everybody will do something else. We'll all be fine. Like, it's gonna be fine. You know what I mean [laughs]? I don't think it's a national tragedy if people stop doing narrative journalism on the radio. I think as a country, we will survive that. I like this kind of journalism; I like listening to it. I think these kinds of things have a lot of power. It's a really nice way to tell a story but like, whatever, there are other ways to tell a story too. Like, we'll all be fine if this goes away.
I do think that there are a ton of people in journalism who think if one thing goes away, everything is going to fall apart. There are a ton of people—and maybe journalists have to think this—that really want to believe that the right story told the right way has this incredible power to change people's minds, especially if you've really exposed something that's fucked up. But it, it sounds like you think that—
Can we—can we pause on that for a second? Like I do think occasionally that happens.
But can I say—generally it doesn't. I think not just things that we've labored to put on the air but things, you know, that are published all the time, all over the place, including in The Stranger. You just think like, “Oh, if everybody would read this, people's minds would change. I think for most of us who do journalism, like, that's just not our lived experience of what it's like to make and to put work out there.” And if you think for yourself, like, when is the last time you ever changed your opinion on anything based on something you heard in a podcast or on the radio or read online? It's so rare for anybody to change their mind about anything ever. While I believed when I was 20—that that's the reason to go into journalism—to change people's minds and make this a better world. While that can occasionally happen, that's not the rule. I don't know where your question was going!
No, that’s perfect. What keeps you in it then? Why do you stick around?
What I stick around for is a mix of just pure selfishness and some public-mindedness. The selfishness is like, I really like making things. I like making stories. I like working with the people I work with. I like being out in the world and looking around and finding things that interest me and amuse me, and putting them out there for other people to hear because I think it'll be fun. I just think like, oh this would be fun for somebody to hear and then it's fun to put it on the air because this is nice. I enjoy that, like, just in a purely selfish way. Let's not pretend I'm making the world better for anybody else. Like that's really for me. I enjoy that. That's one part of it. And then there are a lot of stories we do and shows we do where I feel like, “Okay, nobody is saying this at all and I don't know what good it does for us to say it, but we're gonna say it,” you know what I mean?
As the years have gone on and we have a bigger staff and we have more money to spend to fly people around to do things, I feel like we do a ton of stuff like that. People kind of know that the Trump administration immigration policy, like it seems messed up somehow, but to get into the actual: Here's what it's like. Here's what it's like if you're a Mexican trying to cross the border. Here's what will happen to you … I have a big mission-y sense of it. Now, did us doing this story change US policy in any way? Absolutely not! Biden's policy is the same as Trump's more or less. But, I don't know, saying what's real, if you're a reporter, that's the thing you can do.
See Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening with Ira Glass at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St, Sat May 20, 8 pm, $37-$65.
Stranger readers can get $12 off third-tier tickets with no service fees by using code STRANGER (or stranger or sTrAnGER, it's not case-sensitive) at checkout.