by Zack Smith
Those familiar with Ira Glass' wry, quizzical voice as the host of public radio's This American Life will get to experience his unique brand of storytelling in person when he appears at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 23. The appearance comes after a week in which This American Life made headlines when a piece involving monologist Mike Daisey's trip to a factory creating Apple computer products was revealed to be mostly fabricated. We were able to get Glass on the phone in New York to talk about his appearance at DPAC, and while we were told by his representative in advance that he wouldn't go on the record about the Daisey incident, he surprisingly made a short statement at the interview's end—after we'd discussed everything from his new style of presentation to his surprising history with North Carolina and more.
Independent Weekly: Tell us about your appearance at DPAC.
Ira Glass: Basically, I stand onstage with an iPad. With the iPad, I can run music and clips and audio from various things. And I can re-create the sound of the radio show this way. It's basically me talking about how we make the show, what we do in making the show, and just kind of an excuse to play funny, memorable clips from the show.
How has using the iPad changed the way you do these live performances?
I mean, at a gig like this—it used to be any time I was onstage, I had to have CD players and a mixing console, but now I can run all that from the iPad. I have a mixer for all my clips—it's amazing, and it's something I can do onstage. It's much better than just sitting behind a desk, which is very unnatural, for me anyway.
It's sort of like how high schools will do musicals with these devices that can re-create an entire orchestra.
I should steal that! I should get that on my iPad and cue the orchestra and sing songs from The Music Man.
It'd be appropriate for your venue.
I'm always so bad at venues like that, where people are used to seeing Broadway road shows, and there are these massive flies behind the curtain to move scenery, and then it's just me onstage with an iPad. But I do believe I will deliver an evening of entertainment for people.
How did you enjoy your last trip to Durham?
I love North Carolina. When I was reporter based in D.C., I did a bunch of reporting in North Carolina, and vacationed in North Carolina, and I just fell in love with the area. It's like Maryland, where I'm from, only better in every aspect.
My only understanding of Maryland comes from The Wire, so I'll take your word for it.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, I didn't have to grow up in the housing projects or anything. I felt perfectly safe. I mean, seriously, when I was coming up, the only TV or film existence Baltimore had was the films of John Waters, and you could feel good about that.
But I don't know what happened that made Baltimore, you know, the single most fucked-up place in America—like if you have a crime drama, and New York and Los Angeles are just not dangerous enough, then the place you locate it is Baltimore. I don't know when we made that transition.
You mentioned doing some news stories in North Carolina. What were those about?
I did a bunch of stories on poultry production. I went out to various poultry producers around the state, and—it's funny, this is so long ago, it was the 1980s, and I have to look up my notes now. I remember I went up into the mountains to a poultry-processing plant, and I think it was Tyson Foods I was reporting on. And I also talked to a lot of growers, and got around a lot of the state that way.
What's the biggest difference in doing a live discussion compared to a tightly constructed radio broadcast?
The main difference is I get audience feedback. On the radio show, the staff and I can spend a week putting together a show and knocking ourselves out. And when it's done, we can just look at each other and go, "Well, that one was OK."
You have no idea what it's like being in front of an audience and saying something and knowing that someone's actually going to hear this. There's something very immediate and direct about it, which is very different from the radio.
On the radio, it's very much like you're talking to an imaginary friend. You're talking into a microphone, and going to yourself, "OK, I'm going to talk as though I'm talking to someone directly, and I'm going to pretend that someone's going to hear this." It's just a weird bit of acting, even though the only person I'm acting against is myself.
Would you consider doing more TV or work in other media?
Totally! We did TV for two years, and did just fine with it, but it was hard to do television and radio at the same time. Truthfully, it was a hard show to produce, difficult to make—you had to find stories in our style that could work effectively on television.
I would love to go back and do TV, but I think I would want to do something with some different format. And we have a film [Sleepwalk with Me] coming out! I produced a film last year with Alissa Shipp, one of our producers, and it stars Mike Birbiglia, who we've had on the show a bunch and who is a very sweet guy and lovely to work with. We took it to South by Southwest [in Austin, Texas] last week, and it premieres all over in the fall. So that was a very rewarding and grueling and horrifying experience [laughs]. But fascinating.
And this is a narrative film?
Yeah, with movie stars and everything.
My first thought was that it was a documentary, given your background.
And see, you've just honed in on a major marketing problem that we're still trying to solve.
One thing I want to ask about are podcasts. They've become an increasingly popular and prolific medium in the last few years, and obviously This American Life has done well with that format. Do you feel this medium is being used to the best of its ability, or that it's just something where a lot of amateurs are throwing a lot of things out there?
I think podcasting is at a really fantastic phase. It's like the early development of cars, when there were all kinds of little manufacturers of cars, and there were no rules, and you saw a lot of really great stuff, and you saw a lot of crap.
I think even the worst podcast is exciting—that people are deciding to make something, something that's straight audio. I'm a regular podcast listener, and there are podcasts that exist only as podcasts that I think are as good as the most ambitious programs on public radio.
And what's really exciting is that there are shows that have found an audience on podcasts, like Radiolab, which I think is the most ambitious work anyone's doing on the radio or in audio. This show, done out of New York City, is just a completely wonderful show that got its audience by podcast, and now it's on the radio in many or most places.
And so, podcasting has turned out to be great, and it's been great for us, for our show. Our [radio] audience has stayed about the same for the last eight or 10 years, but our podcast audience has grown from nothing to 750,000 people each week. It's such a huge audience for us all over the world, and it's so nice to be able to get out our work.
This American Life relies heavily on narrative and thematic structure to accomplish its effect. What's the biggest challenge in translating a journalistic story into that narrative format in a way that makes it compelling for the listener while still conveying its major points?
Well, we are journalists. We are reporters. I worked for the daily NPR news shows before I had this job, so our values are those values. So first and foremost, we make sure things are true, and then we tell the story in the most effective way. And a lot of that is just choosing stories that can be told in a way where there's a natural drama to them.
We look for stories where there are characters you can relate to, and surprising and emotional moments, and funny moments. So a lot of the work gets done in the story selection.
When we do a story on the Tea Party, we don't want to do kind of the broad anthropological sort of take that more traditional journalists would do. They would talk about the demographics of the Tea Party, and who these people vote for, and where they were before this election, and where's the money coming from, and all that kind of thing. We wouldn't do that.
What we did in one episode is we found a Tea Party chapter that was founded by two best friends who had never done politics before, and got into it out of a real idealism and zeal. And after a year or two after creating this Tea Party chapter, the two of them did not speak anymore; they were enemies.
And we walked through what happened, and our feeling was, a piece like this gets to do a lot of things that traditional journalism gets to do in asking, "Who are these people? What do they stand for? What do they believe? Why are they doing this?" But it does it in the context of a good-old-fashioned compelling narrative. So you get to learn about these guys, and as corny as it sounds, you care about them.
And that gives a person an entry into the story. It's the difference between reading about the Tea Party in the newspaper or seeing them on TV, and having someone in your family or a friend join the Tea Party and learning about it through them.
In traditional journalism, it is important to provide a different kind of perspective from what we do, but what we do has power too.
Regarding the current state of journalism and how the medium is evolving, or compressing: What do you feel is the most viable future for journalism in the post-advertising age, and what is your take on such crowdsourcing options as Kickstarter?
I'm no expert on anybody's business but the one that I run. So I don't know much about what print journalism can do or should do, except I'm rooting for it to exist. I think if print journalism goes away, if physical journalism goes away, we're still going to want to get the news, and we're going to get it from somewhere. There will always be business for journalists somewhere, and that's all I feel I'm qualified to say.
And Kickstarter is good, but you can't run a business the size of a newspaper that way. You couldn't even run an Independent Weekly paper that way. It's great for people making a movie or some sort of one-off project, but obviously there's a lot of things that it's not appropriate for. You really need to be a capitalist and figure out revenue sources and run a business.
Hey, I know you were told not to ask about this, but I assume you want to talk about Mike Daisey…
Yes, we were told you weren't going on the record about this.
Well, I'm happy to say this on the record: I feel like I said everything I need to say or can say about Mike Daisey already on the radio. I don't feel like I even have anything else to say. On the radio, we covered how this happened, and how we screwed this up. So when it comes to this, I don't know if there's anything left to say.
Ira Glass appears at Durham Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 23. Seats are still available for the show, with ticket prices ranging $20–$50. Visit www.dpacnc.com.