Ira Glass’ path into radio and journalism was not fueled by his desire to report the news. At least, not in a traditional sense.
“The show was unashamedly out for fun,” said Glass, host and executive producer of “This American Life,” a radio show produced by WBEZ 91.5 in Chicago. “We’re out to amuse ourselves.”
To about 500 Ohio State students and affiliates in two hours’ time (including a half-hour Q&A session), Glass discussed storytelling and the characteristics that distinguish his show “This American Life” from the programs of other broadcast news outlets. Glass spoke as part of an Ohio Union Activities Board-sponsored event at the Ohio Union’s Archie M. Griffin West Ballroom titled “Reinventing Radio with Ira Glass.”
Largely, “This American Life” is plot-driven, Glass said. As an undergraduate semiotics major at Brown University, he became infatuated with answering “How does the story give us pleasure?”
Over the course of his career — which began for the 55-year-old as an NPR intern at the age of 19 — Glass said he found it “was more effective to pull people in with forward motion of plot.” This, he said, was in opposition to other news programs who at the top of their segment might read a list of things that were to come on the program for its consumers.
Glass exemplified this in playing an introductory segment from an episode of the show, where a businessman related a story when he mistakenly viewed an intern, who was a midget, for a coworker’s child that was brought to the workplace earlier. This happened all because the interviewee forgot his glasses during the encounter with the intern.
Anecdotes such as that often are used to set up an episode’s story as a whole, connecting it to a universal theme or meaning by means of “alternating ideas and action,” Glass said.
It might be apparent that Glass’ preference lies in a short story rather than a topic sentence in setting the scene for a story. Topic sentences are an editorial enemy for Glass, part of his coined “topic sentence industrial complex.”
“We must stop the topic sentence. The only problem with that is that it is a topic sentence,” Glass said.
The news of “This American Life” is about capturing something a bit more naturalistic, or “human” as Glass said in an interview with The Lantern. Glass contrasted early Iraq war coverage done by his show with that of CNN; instead of interviewing major players in the war and creating intense sequences, one of “This American Life’s” reporters talked with a worker who was in charge of stocking vending machines on an aircraft carrier.
Glass said he played that interview during his lecture with the intention of representing how other news broadcasts never opt for an edge that is humorous or entertaining.
“You can’t have a funny moment in a serious story. I think (that is) really crude,” Glass said of coverage by other news outlets. Feelings of “surprise” and “discovery” are “off the table” with the majority of stories produced.
However, not having those moments might, as Glass said, craft “an inaccurate picture of the world.”
“Wolf Blitzer’s beard would just pop off his face,” Glass said. “They’re not in the business of news, they’re in the business of being important.”
Every idea “This American Life” pursues isn’t successful though, and rejection from sources or finding that a story is not present when you want it to be is part of the process. Glass said the staff spends three to six months coming up with story ideas, getting together around 15 to 25. Out of those ideas, only seven or eight go into production. It’s also not unusual, then, that one out of three stories in production are killed.
“I think when you’re starting doing reporting, nobody tells you that to find a really great story you’ll be running a lot of stories that are just going to not be good. But we kind of build that into our production process, that we know you just got to try stuff and see if it will work and some of it won’t. A lot of it won’t. Most of it won’t,” Glass said in the interview.
Glass said to The Lantern that understanding that a story might not pan out as planned is an ever-present issue as a journalist.
“Rejection is a big part of being a reporter. And failure. And frustration. And being lost for a long time where you just think, ‘I think this is good, or could be good, but it’s not good right now.’ That’s a big part of the process.”
Glass took a portion of his time at OSU to talk journalism from the point of view of students and young adults who might be pursuing their first career jobs soon. He said that while it is important to continually be making “stuff,” it does require time and effort.
“Most of us are just not good at the beginning, and you have to be more forgiving,” Glass said. “It’s OK to not know who you are.”
Though the voice of Glass might be familiar, his personality was not for 2010 OSU comparative studies alumnus Matt Umbal.
“I think it’s really interesting to see someone who is a personality be themselves, as opposed to being the person they portray themselves as,” Umbal said. “I think it’s interesting to have that candid look. This wasn’t a radio show, it was pretty loose and it had that kind of feeling of being candid and real and personal. I think that’s always excellent to have insight into someone you can only see as a public figure in a personal way.”
The character Glass showcased worked to his betterment for some “This American Life” fans, such as Brandi Harris, who graduated spring semester 2013 in fashion retail and merchandising.
“I didn’t quite have a feel for his personality before this. I knew personal things about Ira Glass, but he’s still professional as he is on the show,” Harris said. “So to see how conversational he was…and be really real with us just made me like him 100 times more.”
A career in radio was not a part of Glass’ “big plan” when he took on his first position at NPR — he said it was just something that interested him.
“I didn’t think that radio was going to be for me. I didn’t think anything, I just wanted to do something interesting for the summer, like any normal person. I didn’t have any special feelings about radio at all,” Glass said in the interview. “I didn’t have a big plan like most people. I was lost for a really long time. My entire 20s, I was just like, ‘I don’t even know if I should be doing this,’ like most normal people.”
Similarly, Glass said to attendees that he recognized work does not come with instant finesse, a complication he felt young people pursuing creative occupations might have.
“I think a lot of us feel lost for a long time,” Glass said. “You just need to forgive yourself.”