Silence is one of the secrets of Ira Glass’ success. It’s a strange tool for someone who makes his living talking, but on This American Life, his Peabody Award-winning National Public Radio show, Glass takes the medium to a new level by refusing to fill dead air with empty chatter. Broadcast nationally since 1996, This American Life has drawn a legion of rabid fans with its nearly indescribable mix of personal stories, pop culture analyses, and quirky reminiscences. As host of the weekly show, the Baltimore-bred Glass keeps it all together, partly by turning the pause into an art form.
Glass, who graduated from Brown University in 1982 with a degree in semiotics, makes a point of saying he never went to journalism school. He began working at NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters when he was 19 years old. After moving to the NPR Chicago bureau in 1989, he earned awards for his innovative reporting on the city’s schools. Since then, his focus has shifted away from news, but his radio presence remains inventive and utterly unique. He spoke to senior editor Andy Steiner from his office in Chicago.
Did you spend a lot of time listening to the radio as a kid?
Not in a deeply significant way. I got into radio as a fluke, not out of some deep love for the medium. In Baltimore, on WFBR-AM, there was this local guy, an early shock-jock named Johnny Walker. All the boys loved him, and all the girls were repulsed. When I was a senior in high school, I sent him some jokes I’d written, and he actually hired me. I had to write 20 jokes a day. It was hard work, not funny at all.
Was your family anything like the Glass family created by J.D. Salinger?
I was a big fan of Franny and Zooey, but maybe because Salinger’s Glasses were so utterly different from my family. They were sophisticated, witty, and they read books. I’ve said this before, and it always makes my mother mad, but there are money Jews and there are book Jews, and we were money Jews. Because my parents didn’t have much money when they were growing up, they were busy during my childhood trying to firm up their grasp on middle-class life. I was in seventh grade when I first met people who read as a way to find things that shaped how they saw themselves, rather than reading just for information. I remember being shocked by that.
So what kind of books did you have in your house?
Middlebrow literature of the ’60s and the ’70s, like James Michener novels.
What are a few of your favorite books?
I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction. One recent favorite is Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, which is about British soccer hooligans. It’s detailed and insightful and compelling—exactly what journalism should be. When I read a really good book, I sometimes think about how it would sound on the radio. For instance, while I was reading Michael Lewis’ new book, The New New Thing, I found myself counting the paragraphs in places, thinking how I could put it on the air.
What artists do you most admire?
One visual artist I adore is Jennifer Bartlett. I don’t know much about her, but she’s absolutely amazing.
Are you a moviegoer?
I like to be surprised by movies, so I never read reviews before I see them. I even hate trailers. I like to close my eyes during a trailer and just listen to the narration. They often use this crazy formula that went out of style in the 1940s. It’s the corniest thing, and I can’t believe they’re still doing it today: “She was a woman with a secret. He was the man who could find out.”
OK, but have you seen any films that you’ve liked lately?
Three Kings was inspiring. It was a piece of pure pop-adventure pleasure, but at the same time it was as profound as anything you see in the media today. When was the last time any of us have taken the time to talk about U.S. intervention overseas? This movie did that. And George Clooney was great. I also loved South
: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which is a musical so inventive and well written I still find myself singing some of the songs from memory. If I can achieve anything as good as that in this lifetime, I will have accomplished something.
What magazines do you read?
I buy Harper’s every month because I’m supposed to, but I usually find it unreadable. The one magazine where I do consistently find something I want to read is The New Republic. When I’m at the airport I sometimes buy MacWorld, which is compelling in a nerdy-boy kind of way. I hate to admit it, but I know the world of Mac magazines well enough to tell you that there are good ones and bad ones.
Where do you get your news?
My consumption of the culture-especially the news-falls somewhere between sporadic and nonexistent. I look at Salon occasionally. I sometimes look at Slate, but most of the time I can go for weeks or even months without knowing what’s going on in the world. Maybe it’s because I worked on a daily news show for a decade, but it’s just not my thing anymore.
On my way to work, I’ll flip back and forth between Morning Edition and Howard Stern. If I’m at the TV when Nightline comes on, I’ll wait and see what their topic is, because I find their news judgment so interesting. Nightline is a direct competitor to This American Life. They’re trying to win in the competitive broadcast world, and yet they have complete internal integrity and creativity. There is nothing like them.
What other television shows do you watch?
I love The Sopranos. I’m also a big fan of The Simpsons, but I really only started watching it two years ago. Lately I’ve also been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. They’re at the peak of their form.
It sounds like your taste can be pretty lowbrow.
I have no guilt about the things I like on television. Sure, they’re kind of trashy, but I feel that life is way too short, and anything that gives pleasure is good. So I freely admit that The Howard Stern Show is an intermittent pleasure. I may not agree with everything he does or says, or like it when he’s mean to someone, but I still believe that it is a well-programmed, ingeniously designed show.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Elliot Smith. I’m also pretty fond of a record called The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Volume II. As far as African music goes, though, it’s pretty basic stuff, but it’s still great. I also love Otis Redding and Hole. I went through a big Shonen Knife phase. I discovered Lauryn Hill really late, but I adore her.
Which current trends in the media most trouble you?
I know I’m supposed to feel bad about all these media mergers and consolidation, but I don’t really think about it.
Any media trends you’re heartened by?
It’s all heartening. There’s all this space to do things now that didn’t exist ten or even five years ago. Cable TV and the Internet are both new enough that people are still out there trying things. The networks are feeling pressure from cable, so television is getting more innovative. Great stuff is going on right now. This is an enormously open time.