Extraordinary Lives—Ira Glass 5-17-10

A “Radio Day” at the Graduate Center
Bill Kelly in Conversation with Ira Glass

by Jackie Glasthal

For the last fifteen years, fans of the celebrated public radio program This American Life have been tuning in to hear Ira Glass, the show’s award-winning producer and host, interview an eclectic mix of characters—everyone from Steve Malarky, creator of the world’s best-selling home video for cats, to Louann Mims, a 78-year-old retiree who found herself trapped on her Stearns and Foster mattress for eight days after Hurricane Katrina hit her New Orleans home.

But on May 17 in the Graduate Center’s Proshansky Auditorium, the spotlight was on Glass himself, as he went one-on-one with GC President William P. Kelly. Their conversation was part of the “Extraordinary Lives” series of talks in which Kelly speaks with public figures who have played a major role in shaping the fields in which they work.

Introducing his guest, Kelly referred to Glass as “the Scheherazade of the American airways” and “the master of the caesura.” These are not the only accolades that Glass has received for his work on radio and TV. Dubbed Time magazine’s 2001 “Best Radio Host in America,” Glass is also a recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award and the 2009 Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Edward R. Murrow Award for outstanding contributions to public radio. At present, close to two million listeners enjoy his radio show weekly on more than 500 public radio stations across the nation. During most weeks, the podcast of the program is the most popular in America. (To hear a sampling, go to thisamericanlife.org/.)

During their conversation, Kelly tried to get at the heart of the show’s art, popularity, and staying power. While he was still in his 20s, said Glass, he worked as a tape cutter for some of National Public Radio’s daily news shows. It was there that he realized “you don’t need a body lying on the floor bleeding to create suspense.” According to Glass, his program relies on a very old-fashioned kind of story structure—one with a lot of narrative motion. At the same time, he noted, a unique aspect of storytelling on the radio is that “somebody has to have a thought about what’s occurred—you actually have a character in the story reflect on the action.”

Glass finds that his show has the most impact when it mimics the way people truly converse with one another. ”In really good interviews I feel such love for the other person,” he noted, “because both of us end up sort of vulnerable.” This approach, however, does hold some risks. As an example, Glass told of an episode a few years back in which he interviewed a group of reverse Internet scammers who spent their time retaliating against real Internet crooks. To do so, for example, they baited a Nigerian scammer into war-torn Sudan on the pretense of giving him money. “On their Web site they were pitching it as—isn’t this hilarious,” recalled Glass. “But I just thought they were monsters.”

Still, to do the story, Glass needed to sound sympathetic. That is, of course, a key to getting his subjects to talk. In hindsight, though, he worries that he may have been too easy on them. “After the story aired, I read on their Web site that they felt I had been very fair to them, which,” he admitted, “was not my meaning at all.”

By 2007 This American Life had achieved such a following that Showtime invited Glass to create a television adaptation of the program. Even in its short two-season run (2007–09) the TV version earned Emmy awards for Outstanding Nonfiction Series, Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming, and Best Editing for Nonfiction Programming. In the end, however, Glass decided that it was just too difficult to do both shows. “The radio show that meant so much to us and to the audience, and that had such a bigger audience, was suffering for this thing that not many people saw,” he said.

In summing up the show’s impact on American culture, Glass acknowledged being in the worst position of anybody to judge. “I just want people to get from it what I get,” he said. “I view it first and foremost as a kind of class entertainment. To me, that seems like a proper ambition for it, and that’s what I want it to achieve.”

Submitted on: MAY 17, 2010

Category: President's Office - Events