‘This American Life’ star Ira Glass on favorite podcasts and ‘the power of narrative’
Ira Glass, host of the hit public radio show “This American Life,” is a founding father of the modern podcast movement. His signature storytelling approach — candid, narrative, sometimes startlingly intimate — inspired a generation of podcasters working across genres and styles.
Since launching “This American Life” in 1995, Glass, 60, also took to hosting events outside the studio, putting a face to voice and building on the program’s cult following. His “7 Things I’ve Learned” solo show is currently on tour, featuring what Glass called “a bunch of stories I tell for people’s amusement.”
We caught up with the public radio star to ask what podcasts he’s listening to and where the medium’s future lies. The conversation has been lightly edited for length.
Q: Whenever something gets big quickly, people start using the word “bubble.” Do you believe there’s a podcast bubble about to burst?
A: It depends on what you mean by “bubble.” I think there are two things: the business side and in people’s hearts. And on the business side, do I think people will get to a saturation point and feel sick of it? Yes, I do. I think that’s very possible. As happens with everything. There’s, what, 600,000-700,000 podcasts on iTunes right now?
Still, I don’t think it’s a thing where in a year or two the bubble will burst. Partly because not enough people have even heard a podcast.
Q: What do you say to those people who aren’t listening to podcasts?
A: If you aren’t listening to podcasts, you shouldn’t feel uncool; you are the solid majority. But I’m not finding people who are like, “I hate stories.” I think a lot of people who aren’t into podcasts have a technological aversion to it. They don’t realize there’s this app and you just click a button and it pulls up 10 podcasts.
Q: Do you see that changing?
A: I do think that’s changing. The majority of the “This American Life” audience is listening via podcast. We crossed over two years ago and now we have 3 million people listening to each episode as podcast, and 2.2 million listening as radio. The radio has stayed steady, but the podcast audience, which started off as nothing, sort of overtook it.
Q: What makes a good podcast? Can any story be molded into quality radio or podcast material?
A: Oh, no, of course not. My workweek is a testament to the fact that most things aren’t interesting enough to be on the radio. We’re constantly running up things and killing them. I do think everyone has a story to tell but everyone does not have a story to tell on the radio. You need forward motion of a plot and someone who you want to hear what happens to them.
Q: Is that what all great radio shows share, that forward momentum?
A: It’s something all stories share. If your 3-year-old tells you a story it has momentum. Often they’re not very gifted storytellers, no offense.
In a good or great story there will be somebody who you can have feelings about. Some stories just have a nice — I don’t really know how to say it — it’s like how a song can have a great melody. You just know this is a good one.
Q: Do you have an example?
A: One of my favorites is a Valentine’s Day episode (from “This American Life”) about this couple. They’d been together since the first week of college. It’s 10 or 11 or 12 years in, and they still weren’t married and they start talking about it. She reveals to him that “Oh, I just kind of thought before we’d get married I would sleep with more people.” And he’s like, “Me too!” And so they decide to just sleep with as many people as they can for a month — and one month turns into two months. It doesn’t go well for their relationship, as you would expect.
But what makes this story so interesting as a radio piece is the guy is very frank and vulnerable in explaining what an idiot he was when they started sleeping with other people. She did the more traditional guy’s thing where she’d, like, find some German tourist and take him to bed. He was just falling in love left and right and breaking people’s hearts and he didn’t know how to handle himself.
There’s something in his telling that’s very sweet. In the hands of a different interviewee, we might hate them both and have to kill it. If he had the wrong attitude about it and was kind of a jerk, you wouldn’t want to hear it anyway. If he didn’t have the kind of grace about telling the story and wisdom about who he was when he was younger, it wouldn’t work as a radio story.
Q: What podcasts do you listen to?
A: Lately, “The Daily,” the New York Times podcast which is an experiment of doing daily news as narrative. I think it’s spectacularly great. Every morning I listen to it at 1½ times speed while I brush my teeth. It’s interesting how different the stories are on the podcast than they are in the New York Times. In the newspaper, they have to lead with “here’s the latest thing that happened.” But in the podcast, they can take you back to the beginning. Here’s where we were two years ago that got us to this point. Here are the characters involved. It really proves the power of narrative.
I’m also listening to “Reply All,” this little gem about the culture of the internet, which I normally have no interest in at all. But in their hands I do.
And then I just started listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast (“Revisionist History”) and it’s been such a pleasure. So many of the stories are about things he’s genuinely angry about and it really motivates the writing and the reporting. It totally plays to Gladwell’s incredible strength as a great enjoyer of things; he takes pleasure in character and detail. And he’s a really great on-air performer. It’s been interesting to see him become a master broadcaster in two years.
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