For many National Public Radio listeners, his voice is a familiar one, coming across the airwaves to tell stories that explain the world to us a little more and find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, returns to his hometown in March for an appearance at Goucher College. He joined us to talk about This American Life’s two decades, the booming podcast scene, and what he listens to.
This American Life turned 20 last year. Can you believe it’s that old?
I do. And I can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing from a marketing perspective to tell people that the show is 20 years old. On the one hand, it makes it seem like an institution and, on the other hand, it seems like there’s no show that’s 20 years old. It just seems like that’s for old people then. I worry saying the show is 20 years old is a way of alienating potential listeners who are 19 and 25.
What do you think has been the most successful part of the show? Has that changed?
We’ve managed to find stories that are interesting enough that people would want to listen, that people continue to listen, and the audience continues to grow. The thing that’s changed is the kind of stories we do. If someone were to go back and listen to our archives, there were a lot more personal stories in the early years. We had a lot more writers come on the air, David Sedaris and other people like that. Now, it’s much more of a reported show, and honestly, [has] much more ambitious, investigative stories, but always with the idea that the story will be told with characters and scenes and a plot. The thing that was true of the show at the beginning was that it was a show where the stories were narratives, very traditional stories with characters, scenes, funny moments, and emotional moments. That was true when we were doing personal stories, and as we’ve taken on more serious subjects and things that are on the news, we’ve kept to that.
Do you think you’ll keep that investigative direction?
I think we’re going to keep that. We’re in the unusual situation now where because of the money we’ve made from podcasting, we have a little money to spend and it’s been nice to be able to spend that money on investigative reporting, to let a reporter or producer work on something for several months before it has to go on the air. It’s a luxury we definitely didn’t have at the beginning. We did a project a couple of years ago where we sent three reporters to a high school in Chicago over the course of five months. That’s a huge investment of time, energy and money. And that’s all because of podcasting, which brings in this new revenue we’ve never had before.
Podcasts have been such a boon, it seems like, for programs like yours. Did you foresee that any of this was going to happen?
Oh my god, just the opposite. It kind of just happened and we witnessed it gratefully, like we were the unusual recipients and holders of a winning lottery ticket. No, it’s very odd that our colleagues in newspapers and magazines, and even network TV news, are experiencing this tightening and one of the few places where journalism audiences are getting larger and where people are interested in long-form, detailed journalism is podcasting. It’s this crazy moment, and I’m grateful that it’s happening.
The business plan when we started Serial was if we could get 300,000 people to download each episode, we could sell underwriting and cover our costs. Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder just referred to it as this little thing they were doing on the side. There was very much a feeling that no one was going to hear it, and the fact that 8 million people have downloaded every episode and it became a phenomenon unto itself, I wish we could say we knew enough to know that.
Does that change This American Life at all?
It just means we can consider stories with more cursing in them. (laughs) No, the serious answer is it doesn’t change what we do on the radio at all, but it does mean there are certain stories that we come across that we realize, oh, this could be a six-episode podcast, this could be a 10-episode podcast. So we have other things planned and other shows planned that we’ll be coming out with.
Why do you think podcasts have become so popular?
Honestly, I feel like we’re in a bubble right now. It will have to burst. They’re so popular because people are just discovering them and it’s sort of cool and new still, so that’s part of it. And some of the individual shows are popular just because they’re great shows on their own merit. Like Radiolab is a great show, those guys are super engaging, it’s beautifully produced, they pick great stories. It’s built to be pleasing. With a show like ours, what we’re doing is such traditional storytelling. I feel like the reason people like it is the same reason we on the staff like the stories. It’s just fun to lose yourself in a story and what to find out what’s going to happen and the feelings that go along with it. It’s the most traditional kinds of stuff. And then I think there’s a market niche thing. There’s certain times when it’s nice to have a story when you can’t keep your eyes on a TV screen: you’re walking down the street, you’re driving, you’re cooking.
What was it like for you to have the first Serial happen in your hometown?
I grew up within 10 minutes of everything that happens in the first episode. That Best Buy parking lot, that was our Best Buy. Security Square Mall was our mall, [so was] Reisterstown Road Mall, but for a fancy mall it was Security Square Mall. Reisterstown Road Plaza, excuse me, or The Plaza as we used to call it in the northwest suburbs. [Mimics teenage voice] ‘You going to The Plaza? Where’s Karen? She’s at The Plaza.’ And Woodlawn High School was the rival to Milford Mill High School, where I went, so I knew the whole world of it. It was very surreal, it was very strange for me. Especially when Sarah would go driving around, it would be like, oh, you’re driving around my old neighborhood.
What do you listen to? Any podcasts on your list?
Right now, my number one podcast that I like that we’re not making is Reply All, made over at Gimlet, which is one of our ex-producers Alex Blumberg, who started a for-profit company to make podcasts. They’re all pretty good, but that’s my favorite. And my wife is a huge fan of various comedy podcasts. She’ll play me stuff from ones she’ll know I’ll like. And then there are the occasional random shows I’ll start listening to. [Musician] St. Vincent has a music show, it’s not a podcast though, it’s on Apple music, so it’s a little harder to get. People call her up and ask her to make a playlist for a specific person for a specific moment in their life. And then she’ll talk to them on air and play the music for them. It’s just wonderful. For a long time I was a big Marc Maron fan. My nephew just started a podcast, the Creator-Destructor Podcast. It’s about music. If the purpose of this question is to get recommendations for podcasts I feel like my list is very idiosyncratic. But honestly, I haven’t had time to listen to much, or really to see much TV.
You listen to people talk all day long. Do you ever not want to listen to anything?
I do have trouble when I’m at the gym. On the treadmill, I need music to keep going. But I don’t get sick of listening to people talk. I do have a hard time with podcasts that are just people talking, that aren’t edited. When Serial came out last year, there were a bunch of podcasts about each episode, and I listened to a few of them, and I was like, “Oh my god, these people don’t understand pacing. Like, how dare these people do a podcast critiquing a podcast, they don’t understand how to pace a podcast.” It made me so angry that I wasn’t able to listen. I was very curious about what they had to say about our show, I just couldn’t stand it. I was just like, “Pacing, pacing, obey the basic laws of pacing.” I don’t want to seem like some crazy crank. I mean, it’s the golden age of podcasting, there are many, many wonderful podcasts out there. And even some of the podcasts that are just straight up interview podcasts, like Marc Maron, are beautifully made and the pacing is good. But there’s a whole world of podcasts out there where the fact that they can be any length, people don’t completely comprehend what good pacing could do to make them better.
What’s it like for you coming back to Baltimore?
It’s nice. Honestly, I just come in and go from the train station to see my dad and hang out with him. And we’ll go see a movie or we’ll go to the symphony or something, so I basically live in his orbit. There’s a lot of the city that I don’t see very much.
Do you get recognized when you visit?
A little. It’s totally nice; people are very normal about it. Public radio listeners treat me and other people on public radio as some sort of distant friend that they haven’t met yet. People are appropriate and not weird. It’s exactly at the level that a person would want it to be.