Why Ira Glass Loves Buffy

The host of This American Life on what radio shows, television programs, movies, and books are worth the time

| March-April 2000

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.

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