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How broadcasting icon Ira Glass learned to tell stories that aren't 'terrible'

Credit: Sandy Honig

When it comes to audio storytelling in the 21st century, few figures loom as large as Ira Glass. Since 1995, his hour-long public radio show This American Life has captivated millions of listeners each week with riveting tales of regular people — packaging themed works of memoir, reportage, interviews and essays with cozy production and a thumping heart beneath it all. From a month at a Long Island car dealership to insight on the thorniest political issues of the moment, the time-tested program has built a sterling reputation by elevating the everyday with style and substance.   

Nearly three decades after hitting the airwaves, this distinctly human-sized scale of narrative broadcast journalism has earned a constellation of awards and distinctions for Glass and his production team at their home station of WBEZ in Chicago. In 2021, This American Life became the first podcast preserved by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress for its episode unpacking the 2008 global financial crisis, roughly one year after becoming the first radio show to win a Pulitzer Prize for a story on asylum seekers caught in the gears of the draconian U.S. immigration system.  

But Glass hasn’t always been the storytelling powerhouse listeners know today. The path to becoming the most recognizable voice in public radio was rife with its fair share of false starts and failures. Since he tells it better, Boulder Weekly called up the broadcasting icon ahead of his upcoming stop at Chautauqua Auditorium on July 29 — for a freewheeling multimedia presentation entitled Seven Things I’ve Learned, which he calls “mostly just really fun stories to tell in front of a crowd”to talk about the people and ideas who helped carve his path to car stereos and earbuds around the world. 

This interview will appear in our education issue, which feels appropriate given the subject of your talk [Seven Things I’ve Learned]. When it comes to the work you do today, and the things you’ve learned along the way, what would you say has been your most meaningful education?

The most significant thing I learned in my work life was just figuring out how to do a good job making radio stories, which I know sounds ridiculous. But really, I spent my entire 20s not very good at making stories, and I really had to think through how to do them and what makes a good story. For a long time, it was really unclear how it would come out. 

In this speech I’ll be giving in Boulder, I’ll play a story — not from the first year, second year or the third year, but from year eight of my time in radio — and it’s awful. One of our producers, Alix Spiegel, in the early days [of This American Life] pitched a story for a show about chickens we were doing. And I was like, “Oh my god, I did a version of that story in my 20s! Why don’t I dig up the tape and see if there’s anything in there we could salvage?” And she listened to it and said, “Wow. There’s no sign that you have any talent for radio. There’s nothing in here that indicates you will ever be any good. Every part of this is horrible: the blending, the structure, the interviews, the concept. It’s terrible.” 

It was a huge drama in my life, figuring out how to actually make something that was good. And it was a lot of trial and error.

Ira Glass comes to Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on July 29 for a freewheeling multimedia presentation, ‘Seven Things I’ve Learned,’ which he calls “mostly just really fun stories to tell in front of a crowd.” Photo by Sandra Sonik

What kind of mistakes were you making in your 20s?

I mean, even to say the word “mistakes” dignifies it with greater skill than I was achieving. Every part of it was wrong. I really just didn’t know how to think about stories in the proper way: to be able to move semi-efficiently from, “I think I want to do a story on that,” to making something decent. I would interview somebody for an hour, and I would just get completely flummoxed about which quotes I should choose, and in what order: Should I put the quote in script, or should I do it in tape? I would go back and forth on that endlessly. If you listen to the stories, they’re written in a very tedious sort of way, and then performed horribly. I sound like somebody badly imitating someone on All Things Considered. So every part of it is bad. It lacks the power of a person’s original observation. It lacks insight; it lacks humor and feeling — basically everything you would want in a story.

When did you realize you were getting good at it?

I was 29. I finally had done enough good stories that I felt like, “OK, I’m getting the swing of this. I actually know what I’m doing.” It was a combination of taking things I learned in college about narrative theory and trying to apply it in interviews, and doing interviews in a way where people are laying out stories with a plot. And somehow in doing it that way I was able to make something that was good, and made sense, and was appealing to an audience. 

That was the science experiment of my 20s. I was interested in doing stories about everyday people, but it wasn’t clear how to do that in a way that was compelling. You know, if you think about old-school audio documentary, it’s people like Studs Terkel, who I love. He wrote the books Working and Division Street and The Good War. Basically he was trying to document all of America by doing these in-depth interviews with everyday people where they would talk about their lives. And the problem with that as radio is that if you get lucky and the person is an amazing talker, then obviously that’s fun to listen to. But it could also be kind of tedious if you’re just working through the details of a person’s life. 

And then I realized, “Oh, to make something compelling, what you want to do is — if they get into something whether there’s a plot and things are unfolding — you just want to find out what happens in the story. Understanding that and experimenting and implementing it actually turned out to have the power I wanted something to have. So I started to do the things that are now kind of the style of our show. You know: adding music and giving it a sense of pace and style, and letting in the funny and emotional parts of the interview, trying to hit all those kinds of notes.

So you learned by doing, but it sounds like your formal education was important too. Can you talk more about how your training in semiotics informed what you do now?

Semiotics is this very pretentious body of literary theory that had a kind of heyday in the ’80s when I was in college. It’s interesting because a lot of the theory I read was a critique of narrative. It was saying, “Here’s how oppressive and terrible narrative is.” And frankly, I don’t see it that way. I don’t think the fact that stories have plots is keeping us all down — we’ve got many other problems besides that. But what I got from this theory was a toolbox to analyze how a story works. 

Published in 1970, ‘S/Z’ by Roland Barthes is a landmark work of structural analysis.

Was there a single text or theory that was especially instructive
for you?

There’s this one book that changed everything for me, and it was by a French writer named Roland Barthes. It’s called S/Z, but pretentious semiotic students would call it Ess Zed. What Barthes does in this book is he takes apart a short story by Balzac, this classic French writer — a beautiful, perfect story — phrase by phrase and paragraph by paragraph. And what he’s interested in is not the stuff you remember from high school literature class, like the author’s intention or the themes of the work. He’s interested in something much more primal and interesting: How does the story give pleasure? Which is really an interesting question. How does it pull us in? Why do we keep reading? 

You know that satisfying feeling at the end of a great episode of TV or movie or book? He says that’s produced by machinery. What is the machinery that produces that? And when it fails to happen, what has failed to happen? Honestly, I still think about it all the time when I’m making and structuring stories. Today I’m going to start writing the opening of this show, and it’s 100 percent going to be along the lines of things I’ve learned from Roland Barthes. 

Was there a teacher who was particularly formative at any point in your education, and what did you learn from them?

I mean, I had so many teachers like that. There was a teacher named David Spinney when I was in sixth grade — it wasn’t a particular thing he taught, but it was his attitude about learning that was powerful. I had other good teachers in elementary school before that, but there was just something special, enthusiastic and inspiring about him. And this is a digression, but his dad [Caroll Spinney] was the original actor who played Big Bird. 

I also had an English teacher in high school, Allan Lipsitz. He was the yearbook advisor, and I learned a lot about writing from him. I had another writing teacher in eighth grade, Mr. Walt Hudson, who was also a local magician at a time when I was performing magic tricks at kids’ parties around Baltimore. It’s from Walt Hudson that I learned how to write a paragraph properly. He was the person who explained topic sentences. He was a really wonderful man to talk to, and a really good magician. 

‘This American Life’ is the first radio show to win a Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting, and the first podcast to be preserved by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

If you could time travel back to 1995 at the start of This American Life and give yourself one note of guidance based on what you’ve learned since, what would it be?

I have an emotional and non-practical answer, and it would be to hand off more of the show to others — to do less of it myself. But honestly, in 1995, that wouldn’t have been possible. I was still training everybody to make the show. 

It’s funny, because I’m not sure there’s any advice that would have come through, just in terms of making programming and also in terms of the business of the show. I feel like we did about as well as you could do, given how few of us there were, and how little money we had. It was very rocky for the first five years, at least. Now we have a staff of like 30 and it’s a big operation with people who are so incredibly skilled. I work with people who are just as experienced as me at this point. So that’s an incredible thing.

You say that people who do creative work start out with only their good taste, and the task is to try and make something as good as the stuff you like — but most people give up somewhere in the middle. Can you talk about what happens in the gap between those two points?

For me, that describes a decade of my life. I know that gap very, very well. And it’s confusing, you know? It’s hard to be running at a goal and know that you’re not any good — to be in a race where you’re like the fifteen hundredth person and not the first five. That’s just a very hard thing to go through. My parents were definitely saying to me for that entire period, “There’s still time to go to med school.”

All you can do in that situation is fight your way through it. At that point, your task is to just force yourself to make a lot of work. And even that’s hard, because if you’re not doing it well, everything’s taking longer than it should and you feel unmotivated because the stuff isn’t that good. So you have this extra burden on top of the normal burden of making anything. You just have to make work after work after work, and show it to people and get notes and try to figure out what works and what doesn’t. You just have to be a soldier. It’s the only way out. 

ON THE AIR: Ira Glass – Seven Things I’ve Learned. 8 p.m. Saturday, July 29, Chautauqua Auditorium, 198 Morning Glory Drive, Boulder. Tickets here.


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