Photo by STUART MULLENBERG
BY JONATHAN VALANIA A long time ago in a public radio galaxy far, far away called 1995, the median listener age was 87, nobody ever said um or like on the air, all stories ran just one way — front to back — and were narrated with the plummy-voiced elocution of the Founding Fathers, and semiotics was just one more thing Medicare refused to cover. Nineteen years, five Peabody Awards and 500-plus episodes of This American Life later, all that has changed, thanks to the post-post-modern vision, wry melancholia and casually precise broadcasting style of the show’s host/founder, who, back when he was still a pre-med undergrad on a summer internship at National Public Radio, dared to dream of a new vernacular for telling stories on the radio. On Saturday, The 13th Annual First Person Arts Festival will present REINVENTING RADIO: AN EVENING WITH IRA GLASS at the Merriam Theater, wherein the host/founder of public radio’s This American Life will show and tell how all that trailblazing, game-changing, award-winning sausage gets made. In advance of his Kimmel appearance, we got Mr. Glass on the horn to get a taste. DISCUSSED: The key components of good narrative; his favorite episode of This American Life; how the secret recordings of Carmen Segarra triggered a forthcoming Senate Banking Subcommittee On Economic Policy hearing on consumer protection; what is to be learned from the Mike Daisey fiasco; whether or not journalism, like art, can sometimes use a little white lie to tell a larger truth; why his parents actively dislike public radio;
and how all he ever wanted was to dance.
PHAWKER: What are the key narrative elements to a good story?
IRA GLASS: The key narrative elements to a good story, at least for our show, is there has to be a plot, things happen one after another. The plot has to be surprising, it has to lead to some thought about the world that you haven’t heard before. It has to lead to some person in the story either changing or having some new thought, something happens that changes them. And then it’s good if there’s somebody in the story you can relate to, that will have emotional depth. It’s good if it’s funny, it’s good if it’s sad, all those things.
PHAWKER: What is your favorite This American Life story, and why?a href=”http://3acts2dancers1radiohost.com/” target=”_blank”>”Three Acts, Two Dancers, and One Radio Host,” you danced on stage before a large audience, was this the fulfillment
IRA GLASS: I mean, we do, I feel like I really need to come up with a good answer to this question because I get asked this a lot. The sad fact is we do so many shows and so many stories and the whole point of the show that is we kinda have to love every single one. It’s not like a news show where what ends up on the air is dictated by the news, really it’s journalism that’s just about stuff that we ourselves the staff are interested in. So some of my favorite episodes, I’ll say one of my favorite recent ones is one we did about a year ago called “129 Cars,” where basically we followed one car dealership in Long Island as they tried to make their monthly quota of sales and it was not going well. In fact, it was going horribly and we watched these sales guys scramble to sell cars.
PHAWKER: That was a great one, that was a great one. My favorite is the one about the New York street cop who refuses to do arrest quotas and decides to start secretly recording the roll calls where the sergeant lays out the quota system, telling cops to arrest innocent people if need be to meet their daily quota, even though the official policy of the NYPD is they don’t do arrest quotas. And when he brass finds out about this they send a bunch of cops to his house to involuntarily commit him to a locked down psych ward to shut him up and he’s secretly recording the whole thing.
IRA GLASS: Yeah, that’s an amazing story.
PHAWKER: Why do you think that the secret recordings of Carmen Segarra, who came tipped as Wall Street’s Edward Snowden, never got the media attraction that many people thought it deserved?
IRA GLASS: It’s a complicated story to tell. First you have to explain what the Federal Reserve is and you have to explain bank regulation and how it works and you have to explain the problems in the way that the Fed has handled a href=”http://3acts2dancers1radiohost.com/” target=”_blank”>”Three Acts, Two Dancers, and One Radio Host,” you danced on stage before a large audience, was this the fulfillment bank regulation in the past, all before you can explain here’s what she found. I have to say I’m not sure I stand with you on the premise that it didn’t get attention. I feel like we got a certain amount of press and we just saw today in fact that there are gonna be hearings, there are gonna be hearings inspired by the story. When it came out — what committee is this? I’m just pulling it up — Senators Johnson and Brown are gonna have a hearing of Senate Banking Sub Committee on financial institutions’ consumer protection and it’s gonna be Friday November 21st. I feel like, I don’t know, as a reporter you’re not given many stories that literally lead to a Senate investigation so I feel like that’s about as good as you can easily hope for.
PHAWKER: I stand corrected on that, I guess I was just hoping that Goldman Sachs would just be smoking rubble after that story came out but maybe I was unrealistic.
IRA GLASS: I think my experience of doing journalism is that generally nothing happens when you do a story so to have anything happen at all, you know is a step up.
PHAWKER: What is to be learned if anything from the Mike Daisey incident, is it possible that like art, sometimes journalism can use a lie to tell the truth?
IRA GLASS: No I don’t think journalism can use a lie to tell the truth. No, I think the whole point of journalism is that it’s the truth. I think if Mike Daisey wanted to go on stage and tell stories about anything he wants in the theater, like, it’s totally appropriate for him to bend the truth and add and embellish, like, it’s theater, people don’t walk in expecting it’s gonna be true. But you know he came onto public radio, he came onto a show which does journalism, he knew that what was expected was that everything was gonna be true. We put it through a fact checking process that took weeks actually and the one thing that we didn’t do is we didn’t talk to his translator when he was in China and obviously in retrospect we should have spoken with the translator before we ran the story, but everything else checked out so we just figured we were okay which was a mistake. So no, I don’t think there’s any grey area. People hear journalism they expect everything to be true and they’re right to expect that.
PHAWKER: In a recent live performance titled “Three Acts, Two Dancers, and One Radio Host,” you danced on stage before a large audience, was this the fulfillment of a lifelong dream or did somebody dare you?
IRA GLASS: Oh, I don’t discuss whether I dance on stage publicly. I don’t. The truth is, if we could go off the record… [off the record discussion ensues]
PHAWKER: I see. Fair enough. Last question, if you didn’t end up being Ira Glass public radio rock star what do you think you would’ve done with your life?
IRA GLASS: Either doctor or school teacher. Those are the other two other things that sort have been in some way possibilities. And probably I would’ve been a better doctor than school teacher, and my parents very much wanted me to be a doctor. I was premed at college. Then there was a summer in college after my freshman year where I worked as an intern at NPR headquarters in Washington and I worked for free at the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore and I just strongly enjoyed and preferred working at NPR and to the dismay of my parents decided not to be a doctor, not to pursue that. My parents, they really, like, I’ve said this before and they don’t like it when I say this, my parents are the only Jews in America who don’t like public broadcasting and they were very much against the idea of getting into public radio. They didn’t understand it for years, and they came around eventually but it took a really long time for them to feel like I was not wasting my life. Like, I was in my mid 30s before my mom said to me that she thought I made the right decision.