What would radio and podcasting be without Ira Glass? It’s difficult to imagine a mediascape without the deeply intelligent, shrewd, and sympathetic contributions of Glass, who spearheads This American Life and an assortment of other programs and projects. With his live show Seven Things I’ve Learned at the Granada Theatre on Saturday, October 7, the celebrated, syndicated personality will share stories and insights from his life in media. I recently spoke with Glass about This American Life, work anxiety, and the future.
What is up ahead in the fall for This American Life? We’re working on a bunch of new podcasts, and on Serial, Season Three, and getting out the radio show — we’ve got a bunch of political stuff about this one town in Alabama that I’m super-excited about.
This American Life does a great job of being balanced and compassionate, but has it been hard to be so with a president and political climate that have been antagonistic to public radio? Whatever the politics are, we do that exactly the same now as we’ve done the whole time we’ve done it. … We’re living through a historic change in our country’s politics, so it’s been really interesting to report on. Very early on in the primary process, the media were super interested in the rise of Donald Trump, and there was a ton of reporting on this. In the mainstream media, there was an anthropological feeling to it: Look at these specimens, like this man; what could it be all about; what are their income characteristics … very anthropological. For our show, that isn’t what we try to do. We do stories about people where there’s a plot, and we connect to them, relate to them. We’ve done stories about people on the right where politics aren’t part of the story, and it was really interesting — from those stories, our listeners got a very thorough and vivid sense of why people who love Trump love Trump.
From the show’s beginning until now, is there anything that was true then that has totally reversed, or would have felt unprecedented back then? Without going into a bunch of clichés of what’s happened in America, I will say, when the show started, it was a different kind of show. Our mission at the time was that we were applying tools of journalism to stories that were very small and personal. … We still do a lot of that, but there’s a limit to the kind of memoir-ish personal story people want to hear. There are certain stories we would never want today. Memoirs have become this phenomenon. There’s a whole world of memoir writing, and all of us have a much tighter threshold for what kind of personal story would hold our interest now. And after 9/11, there was a huge shift — the entire culture got really interested in the news, and news became very threatening and dramatic, so we tried to take on things in the news with narrative journalism, scenes with character and plot. That’s a lot of what we’re doing now.
So your show is called Seven Things I’ve Learned … Will you be recounting lessons you’ve learned from stories you’ve told? I mean, it’s a very grand title for a thing. It’s a container for any seven things that might be fun to talk about. Some things are stories for the show that might be fun to retell. There’s a bunch of video stuff most people have never seen that we’ve made, plus stuff I actually have learned — a mishmash of things that are funny or fun for an audience to hear on any given night.
Have you learned any new things since taking this show on the road? Sadly, no; I wish I had. I’ve done a lot of talks onstage over the years. I’ve learned to work with video onstage; that was new.
Are there any stories wherein you’ve gone back and retold it in a different way? There’s one story we did 10 years ago where I do a follow-up onstage — and that’s super fun, to go back to the people in the story a decade ago — about a 14-year-old boy who had a whole theory about how the world works. I went and shot a video with him about what he believes now.
If you could go back to your NPR intern version of yourself, what kind of questions would you ask him now, or what would he ask you? I think that, honestly, my intern version of myself was kind of clueless about journalism or how to make something well, and went through a decade feeling [I was] never going to learn. The first thing I would probably do is reassure him that it’s going to be okay; that would be one thing. And honestly, I would be curious to explain how 18-year-old me would want to stay in radio, since, at the time, I didn’t have any particularly great aptitude for it. I was staring in the face of my own lack of talent for a long time.
What kept you in radio, then? There was one part of the whole thing I enjoyed and I was good at, and that was editing. Editing was enough of a pull.
When it comes to editing, do you worry about misrepresenting your subjects?
Yeah, of course; all the time. We have to be careful how to represent somebody or how to truthfully tell the story, not just the facts but the sense of what’s really happened, in a way that’s respectful of the whole, three-dimensional people involved. That’s a super-delicate thing to do.
Do you have any stories that haunt you? I wish I had a good answer; it’s such a good question; but no, I don’t have stories that haunt me; none where I think, ‘We really messed that one up’ … For me, a story that would affect me so much I would feel so bad about it would have to be something we got horribly wrong, and that’s been rare enough.
I meant as in, any that linger in your memory or really stick with you … I don’t have many stories like that. I don’t feel haunted by the past stories. If anything, what keeps me up at night is finishing a show this week, several nights a week. I have anxiety dreams that we’re not finishing the show. But I don’t think about the past shows that much; I really don’t. I’m not about the past. I don’t feel a nostalgia for the early days. I like making stuff; it’s fun to make stuff; it’s fun to interview people and get out in the world. So that’s what I’m about. I feel unsentimental.
How do you quell your work anxiety? The only way out of that is just more work. The only way that solves that problem is diving in deeper, talking to my coworkers of how we’re making the study and rewriting the thing. It’s a grind, in the end.
How does Ira Glass relax? Drinking; out with friends.
You’ve had such an impact on radio, narrative journalism, podcasts … What do you hope your legacy will be? I’m so glad you asked. I really don’t give a fuck about the people of the future after I’m dead. I don’t believe there’s an afterlife. I feel sad and resentful about the people that are alive after I’m dead. What they think of me doesn’t matter at all. As far as I’m concerned, those people can fuck themselves. I just don’t care. Those people of the future, having snacks, going to movies, and making out in the cab, I don’t care; fuck you; fuck all of you. What I make is something for people to consume today, this week. It’s not supposed to outlive me at all. It’s not intended for that purpose. It’s reporting, you know; like when I’m dead, that’s fine for things to just go away. One of the few disagreements I’ve had with WBEZ public radio station only is, I tried to get it written into a contract that when I’m dead, take the show off the air. I think a radio show shouldn’t be in reruns into perpetuity. Like the Car Talk guys, one of those guys died two or three years ago. In public broadcasting, our mission is excellence. We’re not Nick at Nite; it’s not ambitious enough to rerun old shows into perpetuity. … If anybody’s reading this article, please don’t pledge for This American Life. Pledge during Morning Edition, not our show. It’s not for the future; fuck the future.
If you could swap lives with anyone you’ve interviewed on This American Life, whose would it be? I’m not trading [lives with] anybody. I don’t think I’m suited for anything but this.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents An Evening with Ira Glass: Seven Things I’ve Learned Saturday, October 7, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.