Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 27, 1999
Head: Ira Glass
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When anyone asks who my favorite interviewers are, I always mention Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life." But interviewing is just one part of what he does, and just part of what has made his show a public radio phenomenon.
Each week, the staff of "This American Life" picks a theme and invites writers and performers to come up with related stories. The results are sometimes incredibly funny, other times very moving. As journalist Bill McKibben (ph) has said, "what you hear are stories in the old sense of more or less true tales you tell one another to spread insight, meaning, pleasure."
There's a new double CD of the show's greatest hits on Rhino Records. Let's start with an excerpt of Ira Glass' story, "Get Over It" about that uncomfortable transition when a relationship goes from lovers to just friends.
In this case, Ira and his girlfriend Danielle had broken up about six months before but still spoke frequently on the phone. And somehow they ended up going shopping together at Saks Fifth Avenue.
In this part of the story she's been walking ahead of Ira not meeting his eye or talking to him.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "GET OVER IT," NARRATED BY "THIS AMERICAN LIFE" HOST IRA GLASS)
IRA GLASS, HOST, CREATOR, "THIS AMERICAN LIFE": "You know, Valentine's Day is coming up this week, and in each of our histories of love who has not played both parts in this drama? You know, both parts? Who hasn't been both people in this picture at one time or another?
"The person walking a little briskly ahead, not meeting the eye of the other person. And the person walking behind, you know, a little over eager, a little extra edge of anxiousness wanting to make the connection. A little bit like that eager puppy.
"The other person ahead a little bit put off by the yapping of this puppy, no matter how subtle and dignified and interesting. That yapping happens to be just kind of not wanting to just deal with this, not wanting to face this situation; walking ahead about three paces.
"Who has not -- who among us -- has not been -- besides that.
SOUND OF ROMANTIC MUSIC
"So she's looking for clothes, and she has this new guy she's seeing. And she's carrying the clothes and we're looking for a dressing room. We find a dressing room, and we stand outside the dressing room. And it's an automatic setup situation.
"Do -- do I come into this dressing room and watch you try -- she's like, `I want you to see these clothes, OK.' Do I come into the dressing room? There's something inherently odd and awkward about not coming in because, I mean, what is in there that I have not seen before?
"But there's something inherently awkward about coming in as well. You know, because things have changed. Either way there's a problem. So we stood there in the door on the door of this dressing room and composed the orbits that were riding against each other, right?
"We looked at the two little orbits and decided, OK, I'll go in.
SOUND OF ROMANTIC MUSIC
"And she takes off her clothes and tries on these clothes. And the clothes she's gotten are the following: there's a little lacy, clingy sort of stretch top of black. Kind of like a black lace thing, you know, that you would wear maybe a jacket over to cover your nipples.
"And so, she's got that on, and she's got this little mini skirt -- and while we've been walking around Saks she's been saying, you know, `I've got to find a mini skirt. I really need a black mini skirt.' She just switched jobs.
"And so she's trying on this mini skirt, and it's -- it's -- she's looking very cute. She's looking adorable, you know. And suddenly she's trying on the mini skirt, and I say `honey, you know, you have a mini skirt. You have that black pleated mini skirt. I've seen you in that mini skirt a million times.
"She says, `no, no, no. No, I don't -- that mini skirt comes down to here.' She indicates a spot maybe an inch above her knee. `I need a mini skirt that's a lot shorter. I need it to come to here. She indicates a spot maybe, I don't know, six inches, eight inches above her knee. Six inches -- a lot higher.
"And there's a pause, and she looks at me and says, `well, I wouldn't wear this to work.'
SOUND OF ROMANTIC MUSIC
"So I start to think myself, what am I doing here? Who are these clothes for? And I picture the guy who she's going out with..."
GROSS: That's an excerpt of Ira Glass' story, "Get Over It" from the new double CD of stories from "This American Life" on Rhino Records.
I'd like to know when you realized that this was not just an incident in your life, but a story for your radio show.
GLASS: Oh, as it happened.
GROSS: Did that affect your behavior when you realized oh, this is a radio story -- did you start behaving any differently?
GLASS: No. No. I wasn't working at the level of sophistication.
There's a moment which comes up after the little part that you played, which was such a dramatic little moment that literally Danielle looked at me and said "You're going to talk about this on the radio, aren't you?" And we both knew at that moment that it was just -- it just sort of had to be, yeah.
GROSS: Did you have to change the story to make it work as a "This American Life" story?
GLASS: Well, this story -- all the facts in this story are all true as stated. However, to tell the story I actually left out completely the context of the story, which was -- one of the reasons that Danielle was a little cool to me was because I had been the one to split up with her -- in fact, more than once.
And so, in a way this was like her moment finally of seizing power, and rightly so. And at the time that I did this, which was five or six years ago, originally, before "This American Life" started. I actually did it for a local show first and then we imported it for "This American Life."
When I did it I actually didn't understand that I could have actually included that fact. And at that time I sort of told myself well, if I would include the fact that I had broken with her all sympathy would go toward her and it would sort of kill the story.
It's hard on the radio if the person telling the story is unlikable -- if you don't side with them. And I think also in a sort of more profound way that I wasn't admitting to myself I just didn't want to look bad.
And in retrospect, if the whole thing had happened to me now I would have probably kept the story the way it was up until the point where, you know, up until right about the point where you hear it. And then at some point I would reveal sort of her side of it, and then sympathy would go from me to her. But I wasn't sort of working at that level of craft quite yet.
GROSS: By the way the story is told now listeners think that you were the one who was pining and who was being rejected. So, you seem like the vulnerable one when you were actually the one who had held the power.
GLASS: Yes. Though at the time the story happened, I mean, I was pining. But it was the sort of pining that one does sort of wrongly and after the fact.
GROSS: Now, your reading in the story we just heard is really great. It's like you're actually telling this and like your even telling it maybe for the first time. Part of your gift, I think, is knowing how to write in a way that sounds extemporaneous, like real talk.
Yet it's carefully controlled and edited so that every word is there for a reason and every sentence has an economy. So the story keeps moving and listeners don't get restless or board because it's just jammed packed.
Can you discuss a little bit your approach to writing that script or just scripts in general so that it has that excitement of extemporaneousness and yet all the benefits of being well edited?
GLASS: Well, first, I mean, philosophically it comes out of my experience -- I was a tape cutter for years before I ever went on the radio. And I would often notice that in reporter's stories the interviewees sounded way more interesting than the reporters, and it wasn't because the reporters were bad writers or anything. It's because the interviewees were talking the way that people normally talk. Whereas the reporters were simply reading from a script.
And when I would notice that people on the radio whose words got through to my heart most easily, it was always the people who sounded the most like they're talking. Which is to say the thing we respond to on the radio most readily is the sound of a real person talking actually really.
And so I decided that I should try to do that, in the writing I was doing as a reporter and later as the host of this show. And really a lot of it was trying -- a lot of the trick of it, especially when I was her reporter, was figuring out how to handle all of the actual reporting in a voice that you could actually say as a normal person.
Now, for "This American Life" in a way it's simpler because most of the stories we do are actually stories that you can tell somebody in a normal human situation. Versus, you know, if you're out on the Clinton campaign, which I was out on in '92, and trying to sound like a normal human being speaking normal sentences as your describing, you know, some latest turn of political something.
GROSS: What advice do you give the contributors to your show about how they can read better, because you obviously give them really good advice?
GLASS: Well, I and my three producers, you know, when we direct them, I mean, we just direct them within an inch of my life. And many of the people, you know, we'll have them just do it over and over again.
And it's a tricky thing because if you actually give somebody too much direction it turns out that they just completely freak out and they get a lot worse. And often I think like they're take on it is completely mysterious.
David Sedaris (ph), who is on our show a lot, has described me directing him as he'll read a sentence and then I'll say, "just take a deep breath and just read that just a little more relaxed." And he'll read it again, and I'll say, "that was great. That was so much better."
And he'll say that to his -- in his point of view there was literally nothing different. He can't tell any difference between the first one and the second one. And it just seems like we're living in a dream.
GROSS: I'm glad you brought up David Sedaris. David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to "This American Life," and you discovered him and brought him to radio back in the days when he was still cleaning houses for a living.
And the piece that he first became famous for that you produced for him was on -- was "The Santaland Diaries" about being an elf in Macy's Santaland, and that was on "Morning Edition." How did you first hear him, and what did you hear in him that excited you and made you think this guy belongs on radio and I want to produce him?
GLASS: I heard him a couple of times in a club here in Chicago that did a lot of spoken word and a lot of performance. A club called Lower Links, which was on Newport off of Clark (ph) Street. This kind of dank place in a basement.
And both times I heard him read I thought he would be perfect for radio, specifically for public radio, for a couple of reasons. Number one, his point of view in his writing is completely original. There's nobody like him. He's really funny, which is good.
And he's funny it while you can feel the serious undercurrent that's happening in the writing, which I think makes something way more compelling. And also he's a really great reader, just he sounds different than everybody else. And he reads really beautifully.
And then finally, this is sort of a technical thing, but I have to say if you're producing commentaries for "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered," which is essentially one of the things I was doing at the time. Like some writers are really great writers and very good readers. But their anecdotes don't happen quick enough for the rhythm of say "Morning Edition."
And David, just by sheer coincidence, the anecdotes that he would tell would come to completion in like 45 seconds or a minute and a half. And if you listen to public radio and if you start to notice pretty much every 45 seconds or a minute someone will complete some thought. And I don't know why that is, but that's the base rhythm of the way that the news information shows on public radio tend to work.
And, for example, on "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" in the reporter pieces during the programs and in the interviews, if you time it how long it takes for people to complete a thought. If you sit there with stopwatch, which said to say I have, it completes.
For example, in a reporter's story, a typical reporter's story, there will be two or three sentences of script and then to illustrate the point or expand the point there will be two or three sentences in a quote. And together that will be like 20 seconds of script, 25 seconds of quote, you know, or the other way around. And we're just used to that rhythm.
Well, by sheer coincidence, David's stories work in that rhythm, and I knew that they would fit in with the rhythm of "Morning Edition" in a way that would be unproblematic. I wouldn't have to try to figure out how to edit it down or how to excerpt it or anything. It would just work.
GROSS: I want to play an excerpt of a David Sedaris story that's on the new "This American Life" CD. This is an excerpt of "Drama Bug," which is basically the story of how he fell in love with theater. And he fell in love with theater after a mime visited his school, and then in the story he starts speaking to his mother in this like Shakespearean language and behaving in general like a character in a bad pretentious play.
And this is the ending in which his mother is realizing that he's been bitten by the drama bug and he's realizing it too. So this is David Sedaris.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "DRAMA BUG" NARRATED BY "THIS AMERICAN LIFE" CONTRIBUTOR DAVID SEDARIS)
DAVID SEDARIS, CONTRIBUTOR, "THIS AMERICAN LIFE": "This had become her answer to everything. She'd done some asking around and concluded that I'd been bitten by what her sister called `the drama bug.' My mother was convinced this was just a phase like all the others. A few weeks of prancing and I'd drop show business just like I had the guitar and my private detective agency.
"I hated having my lives ambition reduced to the level of a common cold. This wasn't bug, but a full-fledged virus. It might lay low for a year or two, but this little term would never go away. It had nothing to do with talent, rejection wouldn't leak in it and no amount of success could ever satisfy it.
"The drama bug strikes hardest with Jews, homosexuals and plump women who wear their hair in bangs. These are people who, for one reason or another, desperately crave attention. I would later learn that it's a bad idea to gather more than two of these people in an enclosed area for any amount of time.
"`Stage' is not an actual place but rather a state of mind related to one's whereabouts during the time you're not asleep. `Audience' defines anyone pausing long enough for you to interrupt. We were a string of light bulbs left burning 24 hours a day, and as a result our exhausted public soon stopped wondering what all the fuss was about."
GLASS: See, he actually made two big points.
Actually, it was two related points, each one 45 seconds long.
GROSS: Were you timing it?
GLASS: I was.
GROSS: Now that's obsessiveness.
Do you relate to the message in that? You know, that the sense of life is theater and friends as audience?
GLASS: No. I have to say no. I mean, the performing part of being on the radio for me is the smallest and in a certain way the most uncomfortable part. For me, what it means to work on a radio show is to talk to people about stories and edit and re-edit and write and re-write.
And, you know, on stories that I go out and report it's just like the pleasure, like the sheer human pleasure of being out and meeting people and getting the odd human permission to ask people anything that comes into your head and they tend to answer.
And to actually like wanting to be this person on the radio, I meet people like that sometimes and I feel like I don't have a lot of sympathy for it. I don't know. To me, being on the radio isn't a big part of it.
GROSS: My guest is Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life." There's a new CD of the show's greatest hits. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Ira Glass, the host of the public radio program, "This American Life."
Do you feel, nevertheless, that Ira Glass has become like a character in the radio show called "This American Life," and that that character is slightly different from who you are?
GLASS: Yes. And I don't even know what to do with that thought. And I feel like it's still knew enough that it's like this -- it's a new thought that manifests itself all the time in various ways. And I meet people and it's like there's some special something.
It's like you have a special shininess to them that I don't even -- it's hard for me to assimilate into my picture of myself.
GROSS: Speaking of your picture of yourself, several of the pictures of yourself have something obscuring your face.
GROSS: Because you're a radio person and you're not anxious to have people see who you are. So there's one photo where there's "On Air" sign obscuring your face and another photo where there's a microphone obscuring your face. Probably, you've had other objects obscuring your face over the years.
GROSS: But, you know, you're getting out more and more and people are meeting you and now Ira Glass is also this character on "This American Life." So, what are people's reactions when they see you -- when they not only see your face, but see you as a character not on the radio? And do you feel like you're supposed to be measuring up to this thing that you're not even sure who it is?
GLASS: I mean, I do feel an obligation to measure up. I feel like I can be as good as that guy on the radio.
Even though, you know, he's scripted and edited by me and three very capable and very smart producers. You know, I feel like he will not get the best of me. Like I will be as good as him, you know.
And I don't know. I just feel like when people meet people who they hear on the radio -- I mean, you might have this too. I just feel like it's inevitably a disappointment because on the radio, you know, one is just a voice. One is just the idea of a human presence.
And in life, I'm such a specific person in compared to that. I mean, that's one of the reasons why I never wanted my picture out there. Although I had to relent on that because at some point, like, to publicize the show any time that somebody writes an article they want to take pictures because our whole culture is so visually oriented.
And my sisters both were telling me that it was just becoming too odd. Like it was becoming like an odd quark that I wouldn't allow my picture to be taken. So it just seemed like I could be a weirdo or not in any way. So, I don't know, you know, and then you get the weird random comments.
Like I met this woman who was absolutely convinced that I was like a short, bald, heavy-set Jewish man. Like with a cigar in his 50s, which I'm not.
GROSS: I don't know how she could read you that way.
GLASS: Well, then you think what am I projecting that says bald, short, you know, nothing wrong with being bald and short and Jewish. You know, but like what am I projecting that is saying that to somebody, and, you know, it just causes a lot of thinking that you don't want to be doing.
GROSS: Ira Glass is the host of the public radio program "This American Life." There's a new double CD of the show's greatest hits on Rhino Records. Ira will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with Ira Glass, the host of the public radio program, "This American Life." There's a new double CD of the program's greatest hits that's just been released by Rhino Records.
Before you hosted "This American Life" you worked as an NPR reporter and producer, and you did three different series on school life. And those pieces were really are remarkable for what the students said to you.
There are so many interviews with young people where the reporter sounds like he or she is condescending to the young people or patronizing them. But your pieces never sound it, and the students always sounded like they were talking to you in the same way that they talk to friends, which was a very surprising thing to hear on the radio.
So I wanted to play one of those pieces and then talk with you a little bit about the impact these pieces had on your approach as a reporter and producer.
GROSS: And the piece we're going to hear is from a series that you did at Lincoln Park High School, and this was a report on how African-American, white and Latino students were getting along in this integrated school. This is a piece about the junior prom.
Ira, I'm going to ask you to set up this piece for us.
GLASS: OK, this is a kid who we called "David" on the radio. And in the early scenes of this story you hear how he's one of these African-American kids who other African-American kids don't like, and in fact beat up. And they just consider him a big Oreo and, you know, too much like the white kids.
And he is in a kind of no man's land really, because the white kids don't completely accept him. And at some point during the junior prom I run into him, and he had gone to the junior prom. He had gotten a really pretty white girl to go with him to the prom, and at some point he walked up to me.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- IRA GLASS INTERVIEWING A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT)
"DAVID," AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: Record this. Ready? Are you recording this? Stay away from profanity, right? My girlfriend just got upset with her friend, and she's sitting there crying and balling and all this other good stuff. And she's upset over something stupid.
And I'm sitting there left holding myself, feeling sorry for myself. I mean, these kids don't know what the (expletive) problems are. I mean, problems are having an alcoholic parent. Problems are having to runaway, a parent that beats you. These aren't problems, man.
They're going to sit here and cry over it so they can get attention.
GLASS: What's the problem in this case?
"DAVID": Her friend said something she didn't like. She talked to someone she wasn't supposed to talk to. I'm serious, but those are not problems. You don't cry over that. Maybe you brush it off and say, all right, cool. That's fine.
I mean, in my case I came from like a broken home. My parents were separated when I was six years old, and finally just got divorced just five months ago, finally. I moved in with my dad, my dad and I get into a big fight -- I mean, a fistfight. And I end up kicking his butt and then I midnight end up having to back with my mom.
GLASS: We walk into the lobby.
And what kind of background is your date from?
"DAVID": Jewish American Princess. Strictly Jewish American Princess -- I mean, she's got everything she's ever wanted. She doesn't know the meaning of the word "no." One of my famous lines with her, "is what part of `no' don't you understand?"
GLASS: This is a culture clash, kind of -- sort of.
GLASS: Eight couples had rented two rooms at another hotel downtown for $30 a couple, and David and I headed over. In one bathtub was ice, a half-gallon of Southern Comfort, a lot of old-style beer and some peppermint schnapps.
I asked a tall underage guy how they got it.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: How'd I get it? It's so easy. I'm six-foot three, weigh about 230 pounds, I can have a beard if I want. It's no problem getting alcohol. Plus, all these people who are Oriental own liquor places so they don't know how old we are. They just don't understand.
SOUND OF DRINK BEING POURED
GLASS: Prom party favors with tall drinking glasses, and they got a chance to use these now.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Say when, Succotash (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: To the top. That's cool.
UBIDENTIFIED STUDENT: You hooked up.
GLASS: "David" asked me to come along with him while he got cigarettes and told me more about this prom date. It was the culmination of three years of trying to fit in with a cool, mostly white crowd. In this project of his race was just one factor "David" had to take into account.
Hipness, appearance and reputation were also involved.
"DAVID": Since I was a freshman -- when I first came to Lincoln Park I was a total nerd, a geeko (ph), right? So, (unintelligible) Lincoln Park the most gorgeous girl in the school, I asked her to the prom. She says yes. I say well, Goddamn. You know, I changed a lot since; sophomore year I got into this crowd and stuff.
I changed my speech, my dress and all that stuff. I'm still the same person. I just changed -- I'm just -- this is a popular crowd. I'm the most popular now.
So I end up going, right? And I know she has a history of being like incredibly moody. She's so gorgeous I'll take her anyway. I mean, if I go with her this year, she's so gorgeous then all the other girls will say, "damn, I have to go with him now. If he's good enough for her he's definitely good enough for me."
(Unintelligible) it might boost my rep a little bit. I'll tell you this, I wanted something physical. I wanted to just fool around with her and kiss her, feel her up or whatever, even more, you know, go all the way or whatever. But I wasn't counting on that, I was ready to have fun.
And that would be like a nice future to it, that would be a bonus, you know. I wasn't pushing anything. (Unintelligible) and her alleged best friend get into a fight, and here I am alone drinking my rum and Coke.
GROSS: That's a piece by Ira Glass that was produced for "Morning Edition" and was part of a series on Lincoln High School in Chicago, an integrated high school. Ira is now the host of "This American Life."
How did those series' affect your style of reporting?
GLASS: It completely changed it. It completely radicalized it. Like most reporters, the most I had ever worked on a story as a reporter or as a producer, was like, you know, you gather the tape all in like a week.
And this was the first time where I was told OK, spend a month in this school -- with the first series -- spend a month in the school and tell us what is the state of race relations at a typical where things aren't too horrible and aren't too great. And I had a month there, and I had never had that much time to report.
And I wasn't exactly sure how to handle it, and also how to get to the heart of it. Since it was a really complicated school racially in terms of the racial mix and the class mix, and it was hard to know how to focus it and how to make it happen. And before I started the reporting, I called these filmmakers who had made this documentary about a high school that I loved and just thought was amazing and got incredible footage.
And I remember there was two them, the woman was named Joel Demod (ph). And I don't remember the guy's name. And she talked to me, and she said basically you go into the situation, you go into the school, and you will find you're attracted to certain kids and certain teachers more than others.
And she said just follow that instinct. She said just treat it in a certain way like a big cocktail party. There is something that is making them seem interesting to you, and then just follow them until they don't seem quite as interesting anymore. And just keep following the thread of what instinct is pushing you, and then wait for luck to happen.
I say this actually -- it sounds all very New Agey, and a little more than I really feel it. But I would go in -- and luck is a part of any kind of reporting, you know, you go out talking to people and you're waiting for something to kind of kick in that you never could have predicted. And somebody will do something that, you know, you couldn't have predicted when you went out.
But up until this point I hadn't actually given over my entire reporting process to it, and in the series, I mean, I had a whole set of rules that I set up for myself about that.
GROSS: What were the rules?
GLASS: Well, if a kid would see me carrying my tape recorder and would walk up to me to talk I would assume that they are waiting for me to ask them a question on tape. And I would just start rolling tape, and I would talk to them until I found a story.
And in fact, there are a couple of stories that I get exactly like that. And one of the things that's nice about it actually in the on-air versions is that there's a transparency to the reporting. I mean, my editor, Deborah George (ph), and I kind of agreed that it was just really nice to just create this feeling of like I'm just hanging around, kids are walking up to me, they talk to me.
Like sometimes in these sort of reports there's a tendency to make the reporter invisible, and while never characters in the stories, Deborah and I felt like I shouldn't be invisible. I should just be like exactly what the situation really is. I'm there, I've got a tape recorder, they talk to me, they don't.
GROSS: What were your other rules?
GLASS: Let me think. A lot of it was just waiting it out. Like I would force myself to just wait stuff out and go -- like, kids would walk up to me -- like once I had interviewed -- basically the way that the whole technique came down to is once I met a kid and interviewed them once for half an hour, 45 minutes. Like we really felt like we knew each other.
Like I had said enough about myself and they had said enough about themselves that there was a kind of trust. And then all sorts of things would happen were they would just walk up to me in the hall and say, OK, we're cutting school come with us.
Which, kind of like as an adult in that situation, you don't really know; am I supposed to go cut school with them? Like isn't that condoning it? I would just go.
Another thing is that any -- another rule I had was that any question that they asked me I would answer as honestly as I was requiring them to answer my questions. Just as an act of faith. And as I hung around with them more and more, I mean, they would ask more and more personal questions which I would absolutely answer.
And the only one that ever caused any trouble is the very problematic question, "how old are you?" There would always come a point, if I hung around with them long enough, where eventually some kid -- it would occur to some kid -- like at the time I was doing this first series I was in my early 30s and could kind of pass for like the mid 20's.
And I was in that sort of vague, kind of like you can't really tell is he 24? Is he -- you know, my age was read sort of vague. And there would come a point where suddenly it would occur to one of the kids, like, he isn't a kid. You know, like he has a job and a car and his own apartment.
And they would say, well, how old are you? And then, you know, I would say, you know, I'm 35. And like the next hour of tape would just be shot. It was just like -- it was like saying like I -- I mean, it was saying I am more like your parents than I am like you.
Up until that point I had existed in a sort of vague, kind of older friend, like you can't really tell. I'm clearly an adult, but not as adult -- 35 is really old if you're 17.
GROSS: My guest is Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life." There's a new CD of the show's greatest hits. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Ira Glass, the host of the public radio program, "This American Life."
Now, I don't know how many of our listeners will remember this, but there was a period when you were cast in a very different role than you are now as the host of "This American Life." And I'm thinking of the time you hosted "Talk of the Nation," which is NPR's afternoon interview and phone-in program.
And after John Hockenberry left as host of that program and NPR was casting about for a new full-time host, several people from NPR did long stints as the fill in host, and you were one of the people who did one of those long stints.
And, you know, it's very often a very issue oriented program.
GROSS: And you ended up being the host on Inauguration Day, the first time President Clinton was inaugurated. In fact, I thought I'd play the billboard from that Inauguration Day show. Let's listen to this. This is Ira Glass hosting "Talk of the Nation."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- IRA GLASS HOSTING NPR'S "TALK OF THE NATION")
GLASS: Coming up after the news we're joined by Chris Hitchens of "Vanity Fair" and "The Nation;" Kevin Phillips of "American Political Report;" and Michael Kinsley (ph) of "The New Republic." The challenges that await Mr. Clinton and his administration, next on "Talk of the Nation." Stay tuned.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GLASS: Horrifying, isn't it?
GROSS: It sounds fine. It's just a very different role for you than talking about fiascoes and sissies and poultry slams.
GLASS: No, exactly. I am clearly trying to sound authoritative. It is, you know, it is the network news broadcast, and it is Clinton's inaugural and I'm the anchor for I -- it was the middle of this like five-hour - four-hour like inaugural thing.
And, you know how you like you get into human situations where you're not exactly sure -- how do you even say this? Were you basically try on a new personality to see if in fact it might be you?
GLASS: That's what those six months were like. And I feel like I just -- everything that makes make good at the job I have makes me a terrible call-in radio host.
GROSS: Elaborate on that.
GLASS: Well, which is to say like I'm really interested in a kind of digressiveness that you cannot allow in live radio. And, you know, like often the most interesting moments that we get -- that I get to in the interviews that I do, you know they come in at minute 40 of the interview.
Like I've hung out for a long time, and like I've been driving to that moment for like 15 minutes. Like you can't do that. And so once that is taken from you, and what you're doing is kind of moving people through their ideas very quickly, it's just a completely different form. And requires a different sense of rhythm.
And also I have to say that people who tend to be good at it are people who have opinions in a way that I find that I don't. Like Ray Suarez actually is a really interesting man with interesting opinions on many of the issues of the day. For me, like I feel like so much more of like a reporter where I just go out there and kind of like really -- like I don't have strong opinions about like the federal budget.
And, you know, the future of public housing. And, you know, a variety of other issues like that. Like I just, I don't. I'm more interested in other people. And a good call-in host, you know, will like play their opinion against the other people a lot.
And it creates more friction and more like drama. It creates a stage where drama can happen, because one of the players has an opinion and isn't just soliciting opinions. And it's just like I am not comfortable in that.
GROSS: You've been working in radio since the age of 19 when you were an intern at NPR. Did you know when even younger than that that you wanted to be in radio? Did you hear anything on radio when you were in your early teens that made you think, yeah, that's what I want to do?
GLASS: No. No, I had no feeling at all about radio. There was -- you know, like most people of my generation my medium of choice was television. And I never gave radio second thought, and never would have imagined the future that has unfolded.
GROSS: How did you end up doing it?
GLASS: It was a fluke. I was looking for a summer internship after my freshman year of college, and I grew up in Baltimore and went to all the places in Baltimore where you could get a job in the media. I just thought I'd go to do something in the media.
And so I went to all the ad agencies and all the TV stations and all the radio stations, and somebody at one of the radio stations knew someone at the then fledgling National Public Radio network over in Washington. So I drove down to Washington and met the friend, and I had never heard of NPR on the radio. And I had never listened to it and didn't know the first thing about it.
But the people seemed really nice, and the studios were really cool. And I talked my way into an internship in the promos department, and then I was good at making promos. And so I was invited by -- they had a producer on staff who did documentaries -- his job was literally to invent new ways to do the documentary form. His name was Keith Talbot (ph).
And he hired me as his assistant the following summer, and I worked with him on and off for years. And really like had like almost a kind of medieval apprenticeship with him. Like he would let me do everything he did, and really did beautiful work.
I mean, half of everything I know about radio I know from him. I would not be doing radio if not for him.
GROSS: Now, I read that you were going to study medicine. Even though you were falling in love with radio did you feel this obligation to do something else professionally?
GLASS: You mean besides radio?
GLASS: I mean, that first summer where I was an intern at NPR I was also an intern at the shock trauma unit at the University of Maryland hospital. And then it was like one of these things where at the end of the summer I got to decide which future would I choose.
GROSS: They're two really different futures.
GLASS: Yes. Yes. One high-paying, one not high-paying. Both very sort of fast-paced. I have to say that. And -- I mean, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, and they were -- and were -- I have to say just a few years ago against the whole radio thing.
I mean, even as recently as like the show -- "This American Life" had been on the air for like a year and a half, and I had been -- you know, I was like at that point like 38 and had been doing it for like 19 years, you know.
Like they still were kind of waiting for the phase to end. Because they just felt like there's no money in it -- my dad has a more psychological relationship to it because he did college radio and then gave it up because it didn't pay any money -- radio didn't pay any money -- to become an accountant.
And I think for him, it's like he felt like he didn't grab for the brass ring, and he feels like he sees me in radio and he feels like -- and he tells me like I could do anything. He thinks I could do anything. And he feels like by staying in radio I'm not grabbing for the brass ring either. Like I should be doing television and I should be doing something so much bigger.
GROSS: My guest is Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life." There's a new double CD of the show's greatest hits. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Ira Glass, and he's the host and producer of "This American Life." Which now has a new double CD on Rhino Records.
Ira, I want to ask you about your parents. Your mother is a psychologist. Do you think that there are aspects of her work that have affected your interest in personal narratives?
GLASS: She does.
GROSS: Does she take credit for "This American Life?"
GLASS: In some small way, yeah. I mean, she became a psychologist kind of late in -- I was a teenager when she really became a psychologist. And I was out of college when she started practicing.
GROSS: Oh. Oh. Oh. So you were already a full-fledged person?
GLASS: Yeah. I mean, the thing that was actually good though is that when I was like 13 and 14 years old she was going to graduate school getting are Master's, and so she would come home and explain -- oh, God, what were some of the big concepts?
Passive-aggressive, really important concept for a 13-year-old to grasp. Or, you know, just all the normal -- denial. And what's the one - there's one phrase that only came up in that context and I've never heard since, reaction formation.
GROSS: Gee, what is that?
GLASS: Now, I'm not even sure I remember what it is. I don't remember what it is, actually. But I have to say as like a 13 and 14-year-old -- like it was really interesting to talk to her about what she was studying. And she was really excited about it because she was learning it.
And to carry that information into conversations as like a teenager I think is part of what set me on the path that I'm on. Like the way that I talk to people in interviews is the way I feel like I've talked to people since I was that age. And I'm sure it was partly shaped by her.
GROSS: Your father, I believe, was an accountant. And I learned through an interview that you did with him on your show that he once worked in radio. And I'm wondering what it's like to have your parents kind of be characters on your show.
GLASS: Well, the big surprising thing -- I mean, they've each been on the show a bunch of times. And for me, one of the rewards of the show that I never would have guessed at, like one of the benefits for me personally that I would never have guessed at in a million years, is that by putting them on to the radio show they feel much closer to me now, and I feel much closer to them.
I'm just so much more comfortable with them now, and vice versa, than say four or five years ago. And I think it's because they're included in this thing which is this huge big project in my life. Like they're sort of included in the thing which is like the central project in my life right now.
And I think they like it. It's just like something fun to do together too. It's like a sort of fun thing to have them on. And they're both -- like, they're good. They're good on the air. Thank God. And it's -- I never would have guessed it
GROSS: It would be awkward if you had to kill an interview with your own mother. Mom, it didn't measure up.
GLASS: Oh, I have.
GROSS: You killed an interview with your mother?
GROSS: How did you explain to her that it wasn't good enough for the show?
GLASS: I just said -- you know, the show got so full, mom. I mean, you know, we just got so full. Like I had no choice. It just seemed and -- no, I killed her. I've killed by mother's interviews, yeah, a bunch of times.
I'm sure there's a special like much smaller circle of hell involved in that kind of -- killed an interview, you know.
GROSS: Ira, you are very obsessive about your show and making it as good as possible. Which means that you don't have a lot of time outside of the show for the rest of life. What do you most miss about what you consider to be the kind of life that you no longer have, or that maybe you never had?
I mean, like when you look at other people who don't have to work as many hours as many days a week as you do what do you envy that they have?
GLASS: Nights off.
GLASS: I mean, just like literally -- like I'll see people who have taken time to like, you know, choose nicer dishes or, you know, like learn to cook a meal that's different than a meal they've cooked for the last 20 years, or have really beautiful shoes. And I just think like when did they find the time to go and get shoes?
Like people give thought to, you know, like changing their hairstyle and changing the way they look and they make resolutions about themselves and they rearrange the things in their lives. And it's just like I can't even imagine having enough time like to even get to that point, to like even -- for those thoughts to even float into my head.
I feel like they're people from another culture. Like the things that go through their head are completely different.
GROSS: Ira, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you.
GLASS: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Ira Glass is the host of the public radio program "This American Life." The new "This American Life" double CD collection is on Rhino Records.
Let's end with more of the story we started with from the CD, Ira's story "Get Over It." About the awkward transition from being lovers to being just friends. When we left off Ira was in the Saks Fifth Avenue dressing room with his ex-girlfriend Danielle as she was trying on mini skirts.
Ira was getting increasingly uncomfortable as he wondered who are these mini skirts for. Let's pick up the story where Ira starts asking questions about Danielle's new boyfriend.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "GET OVER IT," NARRATED BY "THIS AMERICAN LIFE" HOST IRA GLASS)
GLASS: "How old is he? He's 28? Okay, that one made sense. Kind of the age difference between Danielle and I had been kind of a big issue, and so I was trying to gauge kind of where this new guy fit into the geography of that old familiar landscape.
"See, that's part of what this is about. You know, you have this map of an emotional city that you've built with another person and you want to figure out where are they on the map now, you know.
"So, my second question was going to be: `so, what's he do?' What's he do for a living?' Like, you know, but you know how every now and then you'll read an article or somebody at a party will say, you know, `isn't it shallow' -- they'll say, `isn't it shadow - isn't it shallow that when people want to know about other people the first question they ask is what do they do for a living? Isn't that so shallow? Doesn't that indicate what a shallow group of people we are?'
And I thought, you know, I don't want to fall into that trap. You know, I don't want to fall into that trap of just equating people with their jobs. You know, you don't think want to think we are our jobs as just a shallow sort of thing.
"So I sidestepped that question and came up with another question. The question I found myself asking, I don't know where this came from, was, `is he a Jew?'
SOUND OF ROMANTIC MUSIC
"I've been to services, what, once in the last 15 years? `Is he a Jew?'"
GROSS: Ira Glass, from the new CD "This American Life" on Rhino Records.
I'm Terry Gross.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Ira Glass
High: The host and creator of "This American Life" Ira Glass. The show can be heard on 350 public radio stations nationwide. There's a new Rhino double CD, "Lies, Sissies & Fiascos: The Best of This American Life." This Friday, May 28, Ira is a guest on "The David Letterman Show."
Spec: Entertainment; lifestyle; Culture; Ira Glass
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ira Glass
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.