Ira Glass: The host of the influential radio program and podcast on the success of his show – and competing with Joe Rogan.
Harry Clarke-Ezzidio in The New Stateman: Ira Glass worked through and missed our scheduled Zoom interview. “It’s really just been like a normal work week, but I just didn’t manage it as ideally as I could have,” he told me, apologetically, when we chat a few days later. He missed the call because that week’s episode of This American Life, the podcast and radio show he founded in 1995 and still hosts today, had to be completely re-edited and recorded. “Stuff just has to get done… it gets very complicated.”
Glass seems to be spinning a number of plates at any given time. This American Life has a wide remit and, despite its name, a global focus; telling stories in “acts” centered around a weekly theme, the show covers everything from the most inane and granular aspects of life to more existential issues including elections and protests. The program attracts around four million listeners every week.
We spoke a few weeks after Glass, who lives in New York, came to London’s Southbank Center in March to perform Seven Things I’ve Learned, his one-man show, delayed due to the pandemic. “I have Covid that I got in London,” he declared at the beginning of the call. “Nobody here wears a mask at all!” he previously joked to the London audience. “A British friend and I talked about this before my girlfriend and I came, and I was like, ‘OK, so what are our chances of me getting some mild case of Covid? Are they 100 per cent or 90 per cent?’”
Maryland-born Glass, 63, has slick black and silver hair, and wore a white shirt and navy hoodie in addition to his trademark square glasses. He was in good spirits, despite coughing through answers, and happily discussed This American Life, which is largely credited for starting today’s podcasting obsession. The conventions and structures of podcasts, in which a suave-sounding, conversational host (likely reading from a carefully crafted script) is accompanied by music fit for a film score, began with Glass and his show. What’s the secret behind the show’s success? “It’s a totally good question, but I worry that the answer is kinda dumb.
“At the beginning, I think it seemed very new to be telling stories like this,” Glass said. “I think the thing that listeners liked was the thing that we liked as producers, which was just thinking: ‘Oh, these are really good stories – I wanna hear what’s gonna happen.’” Shows on This American Life are like a pick ’n’ mix bag: episodes exploring “Kid logic” are also complemented by the trials and tribulations of a car dealership in New York’s Long Island trying to meet its monthly sales quota (“129 Cars”; Glass’s favorite episode), while more recent reporting has featured stories from the front line of the war in Ukraine.
Despite the show’s various offshoots – including a TV program, movies and live shows – Glass continues to be grounded by and enamored with radio. “The intimacy is just built into radio,” he explained, “and when you put that in the service of any story, it just gives stories such power.”