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The Profile Dossier: Ira Glass, the King of Storytelling
Ira Glass began his career in public radio as a 19-year-old intern at NPR in 1978. There, he held nearly every possible job — tape-cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer, reporter, and substitute host.
Seventeen years after joining NPR, he pitched an idea for a show that would become This American Life, a weekly program featuring a single theme that’s explored in several "acts.” It’s journalism but with novelistic techniques used to develop characters, scenes, and a plot. Fast forward 25 years, Glass has inspired hundreds of podcasts and podcasters with the type of longform nonfiction audio format he pioneered in 1995.
“When you don’t see someone, but you hear them talking—and, uh, that is what radio is all about—it’s like when someone is talking from the heart,” he said. “Everything about it conspires to take you into somebody else’s world.”
This American Life is the wildly popular public radio program and podcast. Each week, the show is broadcast to 2.2 million listeners across 500 public radio stations in the country, with another 3.6 million people downloading each episode as a podcast.
I have many favorite episodes, but I really enjoy one called No Coincidence, No Story. Sarah Koenig (who later did Serial) made a whole episode about some crazy coincidences people have experienced in their lives. It includes everything from a chance encounter at a bus station to a romantic dollar bill to a baffling apparition in a college shower stall.
All that to say, This American Life has become a cultural staple, and it covers topics ranging from racial politics to school shootings to immigration in a way told through the eyes of everyday people. The stories, Glass says, “make it possible to imagine, if this happened to you, this is what it might feel like.”
But creating something that was a roaring success wasn’t easy. Here’s something I re-read every so often about bridging the creative gap and why you shouldn’t give up on a passion you can feel has promise.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it's like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you're making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you're going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you're going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.
(Photo credit: Sandy Honig)
On what makes a compelling story: Stories on This American Life follow a narrative journalism structure that includes two elements: a forward-moving plot, and varying ideas. The plot is made up of a series of consecutive actions (X led to Y, which led to Z), and that creates the suspense. Then, you overlay the suspense with feelings and ideas. Finally, you structure it in a way that leads the listener to a “special moment” that helps them understand or empathize with the character’s predicament on an intimate level. This Q&A is a masterclass on the power of storytelling.
On telling stories to a divided country: This American Life produced an episode with Republican Senator Jeff Flake. A woman who doesn’t agree with his politics told Glass that as she was listening, she kept thinking, “No! Don’t make me LIKE him!” She added, “I didn’t want it to happen, but you humanized him.” And that’s the point of stories, Glass says. It’s to document a human being — with all their ideals, quirks, and flaws — and allow the listener to form an opinion about the person on their own.
On managing the anxiety of perfection: In his decades of producing high-quality shows, Glass has learned something disturbing about success: Fear is inherently present in the creative process. He says he’s constantly worried that “things will be bad, all the time,” and that he’s constantly at the limits of his ability. “My real fear is that the episode won’t be that special, you know,” he says. “That it’ll just be in that kind of mediocre, grey, ‘nyeeeeaaaahhh OK, got it’ sort of range.” Here’s how he manages the pressure to ensure each show is better than the last.
On fighting complacency: Glass says he’s been able to continue to produce shows week after week since 1995 because he’s organized his life around things that give him pleasure. He enjoys every aspect of running a radio show business — editing, mixing, reporting, selling, and budgeting. “As you get better at something, if you don’t want to get bored, you just make it harder for yourself.” The more challenging it gets, the more interesting it becomes.
On shaping the podcasting industry: In this episode, Gimlet’s Alex Blumberg interviews his old boss, Ira Glass. Blumberg worked for Glass on and off for 20 years, and then left This American Life to launch the massive success that became Gimlet. “[Ira] taught me practically everything I know about audio,” Blumberg says. Here’s how Ira helped shape hundreds of emerging podcasts and podcasters—including Blumberg.
On developing confidence: It took Glass a decade to become good at his craft. At first, he was an awkward interviewer but he was good at connecting with people and highlighting their humanity on tape. Over time, Glass grew to become very confident about his work, but never about himself. “The bad self-image doesn’t go away,” he says. “I’m just not a person who’s been able to turn and say, ‘Oh I’m really awesome.’”
On building a sustainable business: The more off-center and weird your company’s mission, Glass says, the more cunning you have to be about the business side. For the first two years, the show’s entire business model was to run “pledge drives,” audio spots in which Glass tells listeners why they should donate to public radio. Pledge drives were notoriously bad, but Glass did something revolutionary: He made them funny. In one, he called listeners whose memberships had lapsed and argued with them about why they should renew. In another, he stood outside a Starbucks and asked listeners why they were willing to pay for a coffee but not for public radio. In this talk, Glass lays out all the creative ways he used to make money to get his fledgling show off the ground.
On his most (and least) favorite episodes: In this Google Talk, Glass talks about some of his favorite episodes, and he explains how his vision for journalism is one at odds with the media at large. With This American Life, Glass was able to discuss big topics like immigration, crime, and climate change through the eyes of a regular person. Here’s why that’s so impactful.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Lure someone into telling you a story: If you want to get a This American Life-type of story out of someone, Glass swears by these two questions: “How did you think the situation was going to work out before it happened? And then how did it really work out?” The reason it works so well is because you get told two disjointed stories, and the person has to build a bridge to connect them. It also forces the narrator to reflect on both scenarios by comparing them and describing why their imagined reality didn’t come to fruition but another one did. “The jump between the two is just kind of interesting,” he says.
Make an assumption: One thing you’re taught in journalism school is that you always need to get everyone’s side of the story. Here’s how Glass summarizes this philosophy: “Anything shitty we’re going to say about somebody, we say it to their face.” For example, let’s say a reporter says, “It strikes me that you feel mistreated by your family.” The source will either agree with it or bat it away to correct the narrative. This is not just a good technique to use in journalism, but also in everyday life. Calmly state an observation (ie: “It seems like …” or “It strikes me that…”) and allow the other person to respond. They will feel heard, appreciate that you gave them a chance to tell their side, and as a result, give you a more nuanced explanation of the story.
Ask the same question more than once: Glass believes in asking the same question “over and over and over and over again.” It’s not for effect. Rather, it’s because oftentimes the other person doesn’t hear and interpret the inquiry exactly the way you meant it. Glass says he re-phrases the same question four or five times before the person gives him an answer. “That’s the actual answer to that question,” he says.
Do things for your own amusement: The best way to figure out what to do as a career is to first find out what gives you pleasure. Glass defines pleasure as the thing you’re actually interested in and curious about. Once you find what obsesses you, make your life’s work about that. “Don’t wait,” he says. “Make the stuff you want to make now. No excuses. Don’t wait for the perfect job or whatever. Don’t wait. Don’t wait. Don’t wait.”
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
“We live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing.”
“You'll hit gold more often if you simply try out a lot of things.”
“Most everybody I know who does interesting creative work went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be.”
“Perfectionism: the need to be right instead of being right.”
“Force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that's the hardest phase; I feel like your problem is that you're trying to judge all things in abstract before you do them. That is your tragic mistake.”
“If you’re a three-dimensional person, it gives the other person the opportunity to be three-dimensional back.”
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