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NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Public radio listeners know Ira Glass as the host of the weekly program "This American Life." Last month the show rebroadcast its first-ever program, which originally aired 10 years ago. The premise of "This American Life" remains as simple today as it was a decade ago. Ira Glass strings together documentary-style stories around themes as hazy as "Tales of the Prom" or "Pen Pals," but the topics are often beyond the point. It's really about the stories--newsworthy or not--and the singular characters they bring to life. Those characters include now famous voices like David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, but they're often regular people who normally don't get a lot of airtime. In that "Pen Pals" show, to use an earlier example, a young girl from Michigan who corresponded with Manuel Noriega. The popularity of "This American Life" has created a host of devotees who borrow from the show's chatty storytelling style, and it's transformed Ira Glass into a celebrity of sorts. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times described him as the king of all public radio, which is pretty funny for those of us at NPR who knew him as an intern, a production assistant, associate producer or as a budding host.
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IRA GLASS (Host): From National Public Radio in Washington, DC, I'm Ira Glass with TALK OF THE NATION.
CONAN: In addition to embarrassing Ira Glass, we want to explore the art of telling stories today. If you have questions about how he does it and how he make it sound so easy, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
And with us now is Ira Glass, host of "This American Life." He joins us from member station in Chicago WBEZ.
And, Ira, I'm sorry about that.
GLASS: Oh, I was expecting it. Hi there, Neal.
CONAN: Hi there, Ira. How are you?
CONAN: I guess we should do a little full disclosure here. Ira used to work for me.
CONAN: Ira was an associate producer on "All Things Considered" when I was executive producer of that program, and, Ira, I always thought in a lot of ways--well, I guess we tend to get sentimental about these things, but that was the best "ATC" ever.
GLASS: Oh, of course it was.
CONAN: Of course it was.
GLASS: Yes, it's been all downhill since you and I left it.
CONAN: Absolutely. The rule on "ATC"--Art Silverman came up on this is--When was the best "AT"--When was the golden age of NPR? And the answer is, `Six months before you got here.'
GLASS: Yeah. Yeah. No, you were my boss and actually a really wonderful boss.
CONAN: Oh, well, thank you.
GLASS: I had a tremendous freedom, and I feel like we did a really fun little show.
CONAN: I think we did the fun little show, and it's good thing we've both gotten out of management, Ira.
GLASS: Yes. Yes.
CONAN: How--I was interesting just in listening to that clip of that billboard, finding your voice. For a broadcaster, this is not so easy.
GLASS: No. And I feel like I took longer than most people do. I was sort of behind the scenes at NPR. For the first 10 years I was in broadcasting. I started NPR in the late '70s and, you know, I worked at "All Things Considered" when you were my boss like towards the tail end of that. And I was, like, terrible on the air just for a really long time. And longer, honestly, than anybody who I've ever met who actually like worked it out. And I was always, like, a decent tape cutter, but actually learning how to be on the air took me awhile.
And when I was hosting TALK OF THE NATION, which I did for six months, like, you know, by that point, like, I was a decent reporter and, like, you know, I a certain thing going on the air and all that, and sounded not too different in my reporting as I do in the documentary stories that we do on "This American Life." There were funny moments, emotional moments and all this sort of stuff in the reporting I was doing for "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." But I had never, like, hosted a daily talk show. And I got to say, like, hosting TALK OF THE NATION did not play to my strengths. Really. Like, I feel like what I love is talking to somebody for a really long time and, like, digressing, you know, and as you all know, Neal, like the live talk format is not one designed for digression.
CONAN: Digression is not one our major rules here at TALK OF THE NATION.
CONAN: But to say that you were a pretty decent tape cutter is not giving yourself proper credit, Ira. I'm not going to let you get away with that.
GLASS: Well, that's nice, Neal. Thanks.
CONAN: Ira's a great tape cutter. Not the best ever; I'm the best ever. But anyway, Ira was pretty good.
GLASS: Neal's management style as the head of "All Things Considered" was that he believed that he could do every single person's job better than they could, and simply would let us do our best.
CONAN: Well, that was--it was actually a conceit that was necessary to be able to go to people as talented as Ira Glass and Michael Sullivan was on that staff--there were a lot of good people on that staff. Robert Siegel--and have the effrontery to say, `No, that's wrong; do it this way,' and, `My way or the highway'--if you didn't believe...
CONAN: ...somehow, you know, at least for the length of the day that your judgment was right, you couldn't make those sorts of decisions.
GLASS: Yeah, it was a bunch of very strong-willed people that you're working with; I give you that.
CONAN: One of the things that you've done--and this has been throughout. It was interesting; we were talking with David Gergen, the former White House counsel, on this program I guess just last week. And I was remembering that David Gergen owes Ira Glass a big one because when David Gergen left the Reagan White House and decided to go into broadcast journalism of one form or another, he was a commentator on "All Things Considered" and went to work with Ira Glass to develop his voice, which now sounds great. But, Ira, when you started to develop somebody like David Gergen, who does not know how to read copy or answer questions, how do you work with somebody like that to develop a voice?
GLASS: Well, with him I remember--like he had been on TV a bunch, but he--the thing that he had to adjust to in working on radio is that radio is must more intimate. On TV you tend to shout a little bit because you're talking to somebody who I guess is watching from across the room, whereas in radio, you want to talk in your actual voice. The closer you get to your real speaking voice, the better you're going to sound and the more it's going to come across. And so that was part of it, and then you have to kind of write to adjust to that. On TV I think that you can get away with a little bit more stentorian sort of a feeling, whereas on the radio you really want to use the words you would really use if you were just talking to somebody. So a lot of it was just honestly like scaling him to radio size, which is bringing him to exact human scale.
CONAN: That's interesting. I always thought on TV to some degree it was the psychological factor of working with a microphone you couldn't see, so you didn't know who you were addressing. In radio it's right there, so you know you're having a one-to-one conversation--a one-to-one conversation with, we're hoping--a couple of million people. But nevertheless, it's one-to-one.
GLASS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CONAN: One of the--probably the best known voice that you've helped to develop is that of David Sedaris. And here's a clip. This is a brand-new David Sedaris story about barnyard animals and a secret Santa gift exchange that's set to air on this week's "This American Life."
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DAVID SEDARIS: `You'll never in a million years guess what I got you,' she said to him a day after the names were drawn. `Is it a bath mat?' the turkey asked. He'd seen one hanging on the clothesline and was obsessed with it for some reason. `It's a towel for the floor,' he kept telling everyone. `I mean, really, isn't that just the greatest idea you ever heard in your life?'
CONAN: David Sedaris, from one of his stories that's going to be on this week's "This American Life."
Ira, when you first started to produce David Sedaris, what did you hear in that voice?
GLASS: I mean, before he was on the radio, I saw him--I originally saw him read in a club off of Clark Street here in Chicago. And at the time, like, David wasn't--he hadn't written any books, he'd barely published anything. And if you remember, when we first put him on the air, it wasn't on "This American Life"; it was on "Morning Edition." And at the time he was cleaning apartments for a living. And in that first reading, when I saw him read--like, literally he was a fully formed writer with a fully formed point of view and one that you could get, like, in three sentences. You know, you understood you were in the presence of somebody...
CONAN: His literary voice was there.
GLASS: Yeah, all there. And then he was just a great reader. Like, that was something else, you know, which sounds like it shouldn't matter, but it matters in a big way for radio. And then, you know, he was funny and he was utterly original and he was a great reader, and then there's something that's really sort of particular to radio broadcasting that if you produce a lot of radio stories, you know that sort of like the plot points have to hit kind of quick. And in his stories, literally like the stories would make their turns every minute or minute and a half. And so it was--the stories were quick enough that they could make their points and still exist in a "Morning Edition" segment, which is eight minutes or less. And so that the pacing of it worked, and then--and like--which sounds like a sort of technical thing, but if you think about it there's lots of great writers who just aren't going to work on the radio 'cause it takes too long for the things to lay out.
CONAN: Hard to figure how Dickens could be a good radio commentator.
GLASS: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
CONAN: Let's get some--we wanted to give you guys a chance to talk with Ira Glass and ask him questions about how to structure stories and how to structure stories for radio. (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with Larry. Larry, calling us from Fremont in California.
LARRY (Caller): Hi. I hope this isn't off-topic, but--'cause I didn't hear what the topic was when I called in. I just heard Ira's voice. Ira, I'm sure you don't remember this, but I'm someone that calls a lot of radio talk shows and you're responsible for the most humiliating experience I ever had calling a radio talk show. You were the host of TALK OF THE NATION; your screener said it was about 14 years ago. I can't believe it was so long...
GLASS: It wasn't quite--I don't know, actually.
LARRY: And you were asking for ideas for future TALK OF THE NATION segments. And I called in with what I thought was a brilliant idea and something that is literally never talked about on the radio and something I thought was just fascinating, and you immediately dismissed it and said, `The boss won't let me do it,' and hung up. You didn't let me defend it, you didn't let me say why it was interesting. My idea, by the way, was to talk about the subculture in America and around the world that uses psychedelics or hallucinogenic drugs and plants as--to--for self-improvement, for spiritual experiences and so on. And...
CONAN: Ira, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I'm just apologizing for...
GLASS: Well, no, and let me apologize. Like, yeah, it was a long time ago and I wasn't necessarily the most experienced talk-show host.
LARRY: Well, why did you just dismiss it? Why didn't you at least toss it around with me a little bit?
CONAN: Let me--at this point, I'm sure...
LARRY: Did it ...(unintelligible)...
CONAN: At this point, I'm not sure Ira's memory is going to go back far enough, but...
GLASS: I don't remember. I'm so sorry. I'm very, very sorry.
CONAN: Let me just speculate that Ira may have been within 20 seconds of a post, by which time he had to get off the radio to allow stations...
LARRY: No. No. It wasn't anything like that.
CONAN: It wasn't anything like that. Well, anyway, Larry, thanks very much for the call. We're sorry that happened and maybe we'll do that show another time.
GLASS: Yeah, I'm very sorry.
CONAN: That's all right, Ira. They're not all like that. They're not all going to be like that. Ira Glass is our guest today. He's the host of the public radio program "This American Life," which originates from our member station in Chicago, WBEZ. He's at their studios today. If you'd like to get in on the conversation here, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the talk of the nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
We're talking today with Ira Glass, producer and host of "This American Life." The program is celebrating 10 years on the air. We got this e-mail from Jessica in Kenai, Alaska. `Ira Glass is the reason I'm an avid public radio listener. Our local station bounced the time slot of the show around and I adjust my schedule accordingly. As a busy stay-at-home mother, I've actually put the kids in the car and gone for a drive for an hour just to I can listen to the show with relative quiet. Thanks for the great stories.
GLASS: Thank you. Boy, I'm going to have something to answer to, to those kids someday. Can you imagine? Being like six years old and you mom is, like, listening to our show?
CONAN: Well, I raised two kids with my wife, who had to listen to their parents, both of them, on the radio just about their whole lives, and their instinctual reaction is, whenever we turn on public radio, `Do we have to listen to that?'
CONAN: Yeah. Stories, though, is what we wanted to talk about with our listeners today. (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I wanted to ask you about narrative structure, Ira. One of the rules of thumb I always had as a reporter was that you could depart from chronological order, but you better have a really good reason.
GLASS: Oh, I totally agree with that actually, and most of our stories--they happen in chronological order. The thing about our stories that's different, you know, than a lot of the reporting one hears on public radio is that we're so far in the world of feature stories that, honestly, like the structure of the stories comes out to be a little different where what we'll have is like--basically we plot it so there'll be, like, action, and you know, like one thing that leads to the next thing leads to the next thing. Like there'll be the action, the actual plot of the story, with all the little plot twists. And then periodically, somebody has to sort of jump out of the story and then have some thought about the action. And when you're doing the news, you don't necessarily need the moments of reflection to hit in the same way, because it is the news. Do you know what I mean?
GLASS: Like its importance is self-apparent. And yeah.
CONAN: It's interesting. So what is your organizing principle? Again, when you're doing a news program, the organizing principle of which stories go in which order is pretty simple. The most important story--how you can disagree about that--but what you think is the most important story goes first.
GLASS: I mean, with us--I mean, different shows lay out different ways. Like, often literally the way we choose the first story will be the best story, and it's not more sophisticated than that. Like, we've got a bunch of stories that are on different topics and we want to be sure people will stay listening so we put the very best one first and that's that. Though sometimes, you know, you want the one with the most action or the one with the quickest plot.
In terms of, like, the interior of the stories, you know, like there's a whole bunch of things that like when you're this far into the world of features you have to think about, which is like the characters have to be characters who anybody can relate to. And you know, since we're doing journalism about things that most people don't go journalism about, still applying the tools of journalism to everyday life, it really is important that the events in the stories are surprising and that they lead to some new thought. Like, there's a huge burden on the stories. And honestly we end up killing a lot of stuff. We probably kill and half to two-thirds of everything we sort of go out on and get tape on because once it's executed it sort of doesn't snap right. Like, the story's--like the plot isn't surprising enough or it doesn't lead to a surprising enough idea, in a way that you don't have as much of a burden on you if you're reacting to the day's events.
CONAN: Let me play an example of a clip from an example of where I think that works. This is an excerpt from a story about a pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and here he--the pastor--is explaining the relentlessness nature of his line of work.
(Soundbite of "This American Life")
Unidentified Pastor: I get on an airplane, having preached my brains out, stayed up all night, worked the altar, then ate with the preachers and got up early in the morning to get a flight. I get on the plane. I need to go to sleep. But I should witness to the guy next to me. Somehow I gotta figure out a way to open up a conversation so I either need to put my Bible on my lap so he can ask me about the Lord or wear my cross, you know, or something to open up the door--either I have to basically confront him and say, `Well, how are you doing, sir? Do you know where you're going to spend eternity? You're probably going to hell, but I can help you.' You know, and then I got to talk for two hours on a plane and either tick the person off or be insulted by the person or insult the person. It's horrible, guys.
CONAN: And that's interesting until he says, `It's horrible, guys,' when it gets really interesting.
GLASS: I mean, I feel like, you know, with this kind of reporting, like, the thing you want to do is you want to make it possible for anyone to imagine what it would be like to be that person, and I feel like radio is so good at that kind of thing. You know, you just hear somebody's voice and you just go to your heart. And if they're talking from the heart, you know, it's just so easy to imagine being them. And so a lot of what we try to do is take people, you know, who honestly like--like one of the reasons why we tend to cover a lot of religion on the show is I feel like in general in the media it's so badly covered, you know, just to get across. You know, like here is what it's like to be that person. And I don't know. I feel like being able to take people into somebody else's life that deep, like you're so deep inside his head and his experience, and it feels so like--I remember, like, when that reporter, Russell Cobb, like, played that tape in one of our edits, I just went, like, `God, we're so far inside this world.' You know what I mean? And like, that's the sort of conversation you'd want to have with that guy...
GLASS: ...with that minister if you were to meet him, and be able to like talk to him, and you just want to say, like, isn't a kind of a drag sometimes. And like the thought that he would like both admit it and such an eloquent guy.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Joel. Joel's calling from Hillsboro, Oregon.
JOEL (Caller): Hi, guys. I love the show. Congrats on 10 years.
JOEL: My question is about the music. Do you think that the music clips are integral to sort of the telling of the story and setting the mood, and do you tend to use some of the same music over and over in the different stories?
GLASS: We do tend to use the same music over and over, and that's just because we're lazy. Like I really wish there were, like, a better reason. But the music is totally--I'm sitting actually in the studio where we do our show from--I'm going to queue up something here. (Background music begins) Like, the music is totally like--it changes the feeling of everything. Like, even this. Like you hear this music underneath me right now. And like, honestly, like, I feel like I sound actually smarter. You know what I mean? Like, the music is sort of--if what we're trying to do is make these stories that are like little movies for radio, it's like the music is the scoring. The music is the sound track. The music is like the frame that puts the whole thing in perspective. The music--it's like--makes it grander and more like a fable.
And then because of just the kind of show we're doing--like you can use the music to do all sorts of tricks with people's attention and keep them listening and signal things to people. You know, like for example, if anybody is talking on the radio and the music is playing like it's playing right now, and then, you know, they're talking and talking and talking, and at some point the music starts to slowly go away, (music has stopped) at the point the music's gone whatever they say here sounds really, really important.
GLASS: And then at the point where, you know, the music comes back, (music begins) it sounds like, hey, we're on to another subject. You know what? We're moving on. You know, we're moving on. And on our show, like, one of the reasons honestly at the beginning of the show, like, when we began the show 10 years ago, they would use a lot of music, it's partly just 'cause it makes everything sort of bigger. But the other reason is that most of the people who are reporters on our show are people who are print reporters, people who aren't trained at reading on the radio and so the music just made their readings go down a little easier. You know, it's like a little easier to listen to somebody who's sort of an amateur reader. Like, it's such a peculiar thing to sit in a completely silent room and read a script you've written to a microphone. It's hard to do well the first couple times. And that was actually like one of the big considerations in using a lot of music in the show.
CONAN: Do you ever give any consideration to doing a show with a live band?
GLASS: We've done that once, and it was really, really fun and it came about--we did--we had They Might Be Giants play one--we did a live show and town hall in New York, and They Might Be Giants, they agreed to be the band. And we thought when they said it they were just going to play songs in between the stories. And John Flansburgh, one of the two guys in the band, he's like, `No, no, no, we want to learn all of those songs that you guys play underneath.'
CONAN: The incidental music.
GLASS: `We will learn all of them, and we will blow your audience's mind by playing all those songs live as you perform it.' And it totally--he was totally right. It totally blew people's minds.
CONAN: Joel, I hope we answered your question.
JOEL: That was a great answer. Thanks.
CONAN: All right, Joel. Thanks very much for the phone call.
I wonder--interesting examples you gave on music--I used to listen to Alistair Cooke do his "Letter From America" when I lived in England, and I always thought that he had come upon a great principle. You and I are both fast talkers. He proved the principle that the more slowly that you talk, the more authority you have.
GLASS: Oh, is that true?
CONAN: I think so.
GLASS: I think that that is true, actually.
CONAN: Yeah. Both of us, though, are from the East Coast, and we just talk a mile a minute.
CONAN: Can't help it. Anyway, let's get another caller on the line. This is Lynn, Lynn calling from Vancouver in Washington.
LYNN (Caller): Oh, a huge fan. I love you. I want--my question is: How did you find the gentleman who did the radio talk show about the prison system in Texas? And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Lynn.
GLASS: I have to say that that show was so long ago that I'm not totally sure I remember. But this was a guy who did a show over the community radio station; I think KUHF, I want to say, is the name of it, but I could have that wrong. And basically he did a show that broadcast specifically to prisoners who were in a nearby prison. And I think we heard about it from people at that radio station.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Jason in Columbus. `Mr. Glass, I'm a new teacher, and I think I want to have my students answer this question through various lenses. Among them is a "This American Life"-styled unit on personal narrative. And the question is: Why do we humans tell stories?'
GLASS: I mean, I think we have no choice but to tell stories. You know, I mean, I think that we're built to tell stories. You know, I think--you know, at the end of your day, you know, you come home and you talk to your loved one and, like, `What happened today?' And you just--you have no choice. Like, we talk in narrative. And sometimes I feel like, you know, you'll see articles where people will sort of, you know, say, like, you know, `There's a problem, you know, like storytelling is going out of, you know--like people aren't learning to tell stories. They're watching too much TV.' Like, it's impossible. It's built into us.
CONAN: I had a friend, Heywood Hale Broun, Woody Broun, and he used to--he wrote once that the fundamental question that humans have--and this goes back to, you know, the cave--the fundamental question that humans have is `And then?'
GLASS: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there's a thing that happens in a certain kind of interview when you just start to interview somebody where if you stumble upon the thing that they haven't totally worked out in their heads, like some issue, some thing that's going on in their life that they don't know exactly what to think about, suddenly--it's like suddenly they change and everything comes out of them in perfect story form, with scenes and characters and images, and they totally deliver the goods. And I think it's just like when you're trying to resolve something in your head, just that's what you do.
And if you think about, like, in a way--my mom was a psychologist, and if you've read Freud, like, what happens in Freud is that he discovers that on the therapist's couch, like, that suddenly people are talking in images and narrative. And I think it's because that he was always getting to these, you know, huge, like--whatever the question was in their life at that time, he would get to. And I just think naturally, when confronted with some thing that is unresolved in our head or we're just barely sort of putting together `Here's what I think about this,' that's what happens, and no way around it.
CONAN: There's another part to Jason's e-mail. `Second question: Does "This American Life" offer any support for educators? If not, why not? I'm intensely interested in composing in multimedia in the English classroom, and I want to emphasize audio, the oft-overlooked medium in multimedia.'
GLASS: I mean, I would send him to two places. One is that on "This American Life" Web site, which is thisamericanlife.org, we do have a place where people who use our stories in the classroom have all sort of e-mailed in, like, little tips and ways that they've used it and things like that. So there's that resource.
And then the other place is that there's a Web site designed for people to learn how to do documentary stories like we do on our show, like you hear on the other public radio shows, the sort of intense, personal documentary stories. And that site is called Transom.org. And that's kind of an amazing little project where they have the most experienced people in this kind of work--myself and Joe Richman and David Isay and Studs Terkel and Sarah Vowell--like, mixing it up with the very beginners of it, listening to their stories and talking about it and explaining where you can download free software to do editing and what equipment you want to buy and all that stuff, and also structure, how you structure a story. So yeah.
CONAN: One other name to throw in there and that's Jay Allison, who I think is a big--plays a big part in Transom.org and...
GLASS: He runs it.
CONAN: Yeah, that's a big part. And a lot of other public radio projects, including--we had him on New Year's Day on this program to talk about This I Believe.
CONAN: In any case, you're--we're talking to Ira Glass, the host and producer of "This American Life."
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get another caller on the line.
Ira, do you miss the floating cutaways? I suspect not. Anyway...
CONAN: ...here's Dee(ph).
DEE (Caller): Hi.
GLASS: No, literally I was experiencing a flashback as you were doing that. I was like, `Oh, my God! Look, we're cutting away. We're cutting away.'
CONAN: Floating cutaway. Dee is on the road in Michigan. Go ahead, Dee. I'm sorry.
DEE: Yeah, hi, I'm a truck driver. Actually, I talked to you on Thanksgiving Day.
CONAN: Oh, thank you for calling again.
DEE: Let's see, what did I say? You're exactly where you're supposed to be, otherwise you'd be someplace else?
CONAN: I think I remember that call, Dee.
DEE: I--thank you, Ira, for being on the air. You're my entertainment at 4 AM...
GLASS: Oh, that's nice.
DEE: I'm just getting ready to hit the road. So I appreciate that a lot. The stories are great. I have a proposition. Perhaps someone from there would like to go for a truck ride.
DEE: For a week.
GLASS: That actually could be a really interesting story. If somebody at TALK OF THE NATION could get your phone number so we can call you back.
DEE: I think David Sedaris would have a riot. Just his sense of humor and the stuff that happens. And, you know, some of it's fun, some of it's not much fun, but it's an interesting slice of American life. I'm sitting here on the highway and there's, oh, probably 200 trucks have gone by, so...
GLASS: And then--yeah, I mean, we've done little projects where we just basically just sort of, like, hang out in a place, and it's like this would be like that.
GLASS: Yeah, that would be totally--yeah, let's get your information.
CONAN: OK. Dee, I'm...
CONAN: ...going to put you on hold. Do you have e-mail in the truck?
DEE: I don't.
CONAN: All right, well, I'm going to put you on hold then and somebody will pick up the line and get your phone number and we'll send it on to Ira.
DEE: OK, great. Thanks.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much.
DEE: Uh-huh. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. That's Dee calling.
Here's another e-mail, this from Melissa in Indiana: `I listen to NPR all the time and there's some interesting stories that air. However, I wonder for Ira, what has been the most difficult story for you to air, and have you ever refused to do a story?'
GLASS: I mean, we don't refuse to do stories. There's certain stories that don't seem like they work out. And there--you know, just like with any kind of reporting. And sometimes we'll get into a story where the material is so incredibly personal that it's hard for us to predict how the audience will take it. I think in particular there was one story that a mom did about her own teen-age daughters who both ran away. They were both runaways and, actually, like, came to great danger over the course of running away. And sort of as the whole experience was winding down, she interviewed the daughters and she talked herself and, like, you know, I feel like there's certain stories like that where it's just not--where she's being so honest about what's happened and everybody's being so honest you just worry that--you just wonder, like, `What are people going to make of it?' There's that.
CONAN: In those circumstances, would you bring people in, just regular people to listen to it to see--to gauge their reaction?
GLASS: We play it for each other, and everything gets listened to. I mean, we have the luxury of being on once a week, so we have the time to actually--basically, we'll have people who don't hear the stories while other people are putting it together on the staff, and then we'll sort of swap off. You know, if I've heard the story a million times, I'll play it for my senior producer Julie or Alex or Jane. You know, just like there's always people on the staff who haven't heard the story that we can play it for and get fresh ears.
CONAN: And you can also edit it in different ways. Editing--let me ask you about that. I mean, you listen to the show, it all sounds seamless. Very good editors, let me tell you that. But the fact of the matter is there's a lot of stuff that wasn't used for any number of reasons. What is your editing ratio? I mean, how much material that you record actually gets on the air.
GLASS: I mean, in a big documentary story we'll record, you know, 30 or 40 hours to come up with, you know, the 20 or 30 minutes that'll end up on the air. On a more workaday story where it's just somebody who comes in and talks to me about something that happened to them, like, I'll talk to them for an hour, an hour and a half, and that'll turn into 10 or 12 minutes on the air.
CONAN: Really? That much?
GLASS: I mean, because, like, we're going into it--it's not like a news interview. Like, part of the pleasure of it is kind of like figuring out, like, what else there is to say about it and what else they have to say about it and kind of talking it through, in addition to kind of getting them to hit their plot points, like, `Then what happened? Then what happened? What did you say?' So, yeah, like, it'll be that much.
CONAN: It's time for another break, then more Ira Glass and more of your calls when we come back. You can hear some of Ira's early stories from "All Things Considered," if you'd like to, at our Web site, npr.org, or you can go to his Web site, thisamericanlife.org, and listen to some of his more recent stories. I'm Neal Conan. (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us. E-mail us: email@example.com. Back after the break.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. New York City's three-day transit strike is over. Union leaders, facing mounting fines, possible jail terms and the wrath of millions of stranded commuters, voted today to return their members to work without a new contract. Negotiations will continue. And the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, says he may block an extension of the Patriot Act. The Senate passed a six-month renewal of the controversial anti-terror law last night. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
Tomorrow it's "Science Friday," and Ira Flatow will be here with a conversation with Ray Kurzweil about technological change and its effects on everything from your health to artificial intelligence. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION/"Science Friday."
Today we're talking about radio and storytelling with Ira Glass, host and producer for 10 years running of "This American Life." If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's go to Martha. Martha calling us from Huachuca in Arizona.
MARTHA (Caller): Hi.
MARTHA: I'm a World War II veteran. I was a truck driver in the Women's Army Corps, and I have some yarns to tell. And I am a writer, but I need help. I'm also a writing student. How many words, how many minutes?
CONAN: You're coming up with really good questions, Martha.
GLASS: Yeah. How many words, how many minutes isn't--it could be anything depending on what the story is. Like, to actually answer this question would require talking to you for quite a while. Maybe you're also somebody else who we should get your information and I should talk to you off the air.
MARTHA: Oh, wonderful.
GLASS: I think there's no sort of easy answer. It really depends on what the story you're telling is. I mean, you know, for the purposes of the kind of radio show that we do at "This American Life," but I think for any kind of radio story, for those stories, you know, you want it to be focused around one incident or one turning point.
GLASS: Like, it's not a story if there's not a chance for somebody to learn something or change. And so you'd want to choose some incident where something big happened that made you realize something or think about something. And then when...
MARTHA: What if it is something funny?
GLASS: It could--or is something funny. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So that's what I could tell you in brief.
CONAN: What do you want to use the stories for, Martha?
MARTHA: Well, I publish in a couple of newsletters. I've been published, but I haven't been paid. And I want to leave a record of, you know, what it was like when I was a truck driver in World War II.
CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. All right. Martha, we'll put you on hold. We'll get your information. We'll pass it along to Ira.
CONAN: All right.
CONAN: Thanks very much. And, Martha, I hit the wrong button. I apologize. Martha, if you're listening, I hung up on you. Call back. We'll get your number. We'll pass it along to Ira. Or send us an e-mail: email@example.com; just identify yourself as Martha and tell Mr. Klever to send your information to Ira Glass. I apologize for that.
Let me go to another caller...
GLASS: I can't believe it, Neal. You hung up on a vet. I can't believe it.
CONAN: A woman vet.
GLASS: An aging vet calls the show and you hang up on her.
GLASS: Ten, 14 years from now, that lady is going to be calling back.
CONAN: And she's still going to be--anyway, let's get Freddy on the line. Freddy's with us from McCall, Idaho.
FREDDY (Caller): Hi, guys.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Freddy.
FREDDY: Hey, love both your shows. I appreciate you having me on.
CONAN: Well, thanks.
FREDDY: I have two parts to this. At the risk of sounding cliche, I'm a volunteer fireman and EMT in a rural mountain town, so, Ira, if you ever have a chance, come visit us. It's a compelling story every time we take a ride.
GLASS: Thank you.
FREDDY: The question that I have is I think what strikes me most in the stories--and not just yours, but stories in general--is the pauses, the use of pause and punctuation in a story, and how that--it affects me and it drives a point home and it gives me that time to kind of visualize and set my feet in that person's shoes. Is this something that you're doing on purpose? And if so, how do you use that? And I'll take my comments off the air.
CONAN: Thanks, Freddy.
GLASS Yeah, very much, like, I think about the pauses a lot. I mean, partly if you're somebody who talks as quickly as I do--(pauses)--you want to be pausing now and then just to let people catch up. But then also, you know, it's radio. We only have two tools. You got your sound and you got your silence, and you want to be using both of them all the time. And I've listened to people on the radio who really would just, like, milk a pause.
There's a guy named Harry Shearer who does all sorts of stuff, but among the stuff he does is he hosts a weekend show on KCRW that gets heard around the country on some stations called "Le Show." I mean, there was a period when I was working for Neal, actually, at "All Things Considered" where every week, part of my job was I would listen to the satellite feed of Harry's show. And I was always so aware of, like, how he was using the pauses, and I would just totally, like, just try to absorb, like, how--like, what is that doing and how is he doing it? And I think he does it without thinking; he just--that's the way he performs it. But there's something about--(pauses)--just holding the space with the pause, like, that you can do all sorts of things.
CONAN: Well, silence is the most compelling thing on the radio. If you hear silence, suddenly you're riveted. `What happened?'
GLASS: Yeah. I mean, honestly, like, the other thing we use is that we use the music for that kind of thing, too. Like, often, you know, somebody will say something and the music will come up for four or five seconds, and that also is a kind of pause to, like, let a person absorb what just happened before you go on to the next thought.
CONAN: Let's talk with Lola. Lola's calling us from San Francisco.
LOLA (Caller): Hi. I just have two questions.
CONAN: Go ahead.
LOLA: Ira, what do you think of the fact that shows like yours and "The Daily Show" have become kind of more reliable and credible to people than hard news?
GLASS: I don't know, like, if you're getting news from us and "The Daily Show." I mean...
LOLA: But a lot--I think that in terms of--I think a lot of people are. I mean, you know, I'm an NPR addict, but I think a lot of people really do get their news from that kind of--those kind of sources. And I think your show also is people who don't necessarily like news will listen to your show.
GLASS: No, I know. And we do a lot of--you know, we'll tackle a lot of stories that are in the news. I mean, I think in general it's easier to take on our show because we'll be telling stories in our style where the characters are three-dimensional and we have time to flesh out the whole thing and it's pretty dramatic and, you know, we have all the luxuries of being on once a week, so we can actually, like, make the characters seem like real people and really, you know, do something that can--I don't know--like they can just, like, hold a person with a plot.
"The Daily Show" I feel like at this point actually, like, I turn to it as an actual news source, too. And I think there's something in just--there's something that they're doing on "The Daily Show" which I feel like the rest of the news hasn't caught up with, where you feel like they are actual people talking about the news the way that people really talk about it, vs.--you know, there's a kind of like--you know, like, a news-speak, like the people on the news are like news robots talking to each other in news language.
LOLA: Yeah. There's a respon--you guys have that, too, a reaction.
GLASS: Yeah. And I feel very much like the aesthetics of our show and there's something in the aesthetics of their show, like, give this feeling of, like, OK, no, this is actually like normal people talking about the news the way we talk about it. And I feel like actually on TV, I keep telling my friends who work in TV, if somebody would just make a news show which has a normal conversational tone, where people actually talk the way they really talk, in sort of that weird, like, shouting-at-you sort of hypey talk they do.
CONAN: Well, it's...
GLASS: It's like that would be a real hit.
CONAN: Well, it's interesting, Ira, 'cause you look at "The Daily Show," and one of the things they do is work timing with the audience.
GLASS: Totally, yeah.
CONAN: And a lot of radio shows that do comedy have sidekicks of one form or another that in the studio because obviously in radio, you can't wait for the laugh.
GLASS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CONAN: But there's an example of a story you did about something that, for example, is in the news very much right now, the FISA court. Here's a snippet of an ACLU lawyer explaining the challenges of filing a brief with a secret court.
(Soundbite of "This American Life")
Unidentified Woman: Normally in any other case, there are actually rules and very specific deadlines for when you can file this kind of brief. The court's address and the clerk's name and everything is right there on the Internet. In this case, nobody knows where it physically exists, even. Nobody knew. And therefore we had to, like, go take this radical step of actually calling one of the judges directly, which is normally not even really proper for lawyers to talk to judges directly, you know. So we called, and it wasn't myself, actually; it was, like, another colleague here at the ACLU, and he said, you know, `We're the ACLU and we know you're, like, one of these FISA judges and we want to file a brief. What do we do?'
CONAN: Hope everybody listened to where the music stopped there, just before she said something that sounded even more important than it was.
But that's an example of going after a pretty abstruse news story, Ira, and making a feature out of it.
GLASS: Yeah, and again, like, it's talking like a normal person would talk about it, where, you know, just like, `OK, you've got these secret courts and, like, so then how do you file a brief?' and actually just getting a normal--getting the lawyer in the case to, like, actually talk about that, sort of getting down to the, like, absurd details of it. I feel like, I don't know, it just gets you in, in a way that it's possible to relate to it as a normal person, or we can relate to it as normal people on the staff.
LOLA: And you're seeing the power of it now.
CONAN: Well, I'm not sure that Ira's story blew the lid off the FISA court, but anyway...
LOLA: (Laughs) And I have one more question. I have one more question. So what is it like to be a kind of a cult figure? Is that freaky?
GLASS: It feels like nothing. It's, like, honestly, like--it's...
LOLA: All the throngs? Come on.
GLASS: There are no throngs. It's your public radio--you know, it's public broadcasting. It's public radio. And honestly, like, the people--it's funny, it's like the show seems really big if you hear it over the radio, but I lead an entirely civilian life where, like, nobody really knows who I am. Like, people don't recognize you by voice.
LOLA: But in San Francisco, I think that you're, like, a cel--you know, you're a major--you know, you're just like their Paris Hilton.
GLASS: Paris Hilton's doing, like, perfume ads. Do you know what I mean? Like, there's no, like, perfume ads. I mean, it feels like way more--like I--a person with an office job that just happens to be a very public job. And, like, one of the things actually that's been--like when people recognize to me, they'll--public radio audience is so exactly like the people who put together public radio shows. Like, I don't know any other way to say this. Like, when I meet people who listen to our shows on the radio, they seem exactly like the people who are already in my life but I just don't happen to know them. And...
LOLA: But I think that's also weird, too, that it's like they know you so well and you're like, `I just met you.'
GLASS: That is a little weird, yeah. That is a little weird.
CONAN: Don't you find, also, that you have friends who follow--who keep up their end of the friendship by listening to you on the radio? They know what books you've been reading, what you've been thinking about more or less and a lot of the stuff you've done. You're just not hearing from them.
GLASS: Yes. Yes. There's that, too.
CONAN: Yeah, there is that, too.
LOLA: Well, I just--I want to thank you so much.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Lola.
Here's another e-mail we got, this from Molly in Traverse City in Michigan. `After the e-mail from the mom who drives around with her kids so she can listen to "This American Life," Ira mentioned how awful it must be for a six-year-old to have to listen to the show. My six-year-old boy loves listening to the show.'
CONAN: `He is mostly still and silent while listening. It's the same as when I read him a great story at bedtime. He's transported. I think a good story told well can be captivating to people of all ages.'
GLASS: Oh, well, that's nice. Thank you.
CONAN: I have to hang up on Lola, since I've done it on other people by mistake, and tell you that we're listening to Ira Glass. He's the producer and host of "This American Life." He's at the studios of our member station in Chicago, WBEZ, from which that program originates. (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Ira, let me ask you, I know you've got--radio is your big string on your violin, but you've got some other things going, including a screenplay, romantic comedy?
GLASS: Yeah. Our radio show has a movie deal with Warner Bros. And as part of it, just like--it's, like, one of those things where, like, one thing led to another and it seemed like a good idea at the time and somehow I ended up co-writing a screenplay with actually a pretty accomplished writer and director named Dylan Kidd, who did this movie "Roger Dodger." And, yeah, so I've been--actually, we finished our draft of our romantic comedy a couple days ago, so I've written a romantic comedy.
And also we shot a television pilot for the Showtime network this year, and I don't know, maybe it'll be a series, maybe it won't. The key thing with the TV show that's been sort of hard to figure out is that if we were to do it as a TV series, we've insisted that we would keep the radio show on the air and just figuring out how that's possible and how to do that seems like it's a thing to really figure out.
CONAN: I was curious. After all of these years of listening to dialogue, real dialogue, what people really say, what was it like trying to write it?
GLASS: Oh, dude, it is so great! I feel like it's so much easier to, like, make stuff up than to actually do reporting. It's so crazy how much fun it is. And, like--'cause you know, like, when you're reporting a story, Neal, and you just think, like, `If only I could get them to say this,' or `If only, like, we could just get into the place--if only we were there when this thing happened.' And like, in the screenplay, literally just you totally make it up. I mean, this is like the stupidest thing you could possibly say, but coming to it from reporting, you know, it's just been completely great. I mean, there's a lot of things from doing the radio documentary show which totally carry over, and like, you know, the plot, but then you wanted periodically to have it mean something, and then you want some more plot, then you want funny moments and emotional moments. Like, all of that sort of carries over. But, like, the making up has just been a pleasure.
You know, the TV show, like, shooting the TV show, I'd have to say, was also kind of like a revelation about how hard it is to get a certain kind of feeling across with pictures.
CONAN: We'll find out how these things go. Is that scheduled to air anytime, do you know?
GLASS: I mean, if it becomes a series, it probably wouldn't be on till the following--till this coming fall, truthfully.
CONAN: OK. So let's see if we can get another caller in, Dave. Dave calling from Jackson, Michigan.
DAVE (Caller): Hi, Neal and Ira.
CONAN: Hi there.
DAVE: I'm a real big fan of public radio. My question today is having to do with podcasting. I'm a big fan of your show there, Ira, and it's very personal. And one thing I was wondering is your ideas on podcasting, because in some ways it can be even almost more personal.
GLASS: Yeah, no, like, I'm all for the podcasting. I'm all for everybody making their stories. I have to say, like, I'm so busy I haven't heard many podcasts. I'm in a situation where there's somebody on my staff, a guy named Sam Hallgren, who actually does a podcast and I have never heard it. That's, like, how--that's how, like, a little overwhelmed things are around here. So I haven't heard enough of it to say much.
CONAN: Dave, thanks.
DAVE: Thank you.
And let's go to--this is Shana(ph) (pronounced shay-na). Shana (pronounced shan-na) or Shana (pronounced shay-na)?
SHANA (Caller): Shana (pronounced shaw-na).
CONAN: Shana in El Cerrito, California. At least I got the name of the city right, I think.
SHANA: Another Bay area fan. Ira, you're totally my Paris Hilton.
GLASS: That's very nice of you. Thank you.
SHANA: But I was just calling to say that I had about eight "This American Life" CDs in my car and they were stolen, and I was so sad, but I felt good because I think maybe you got expanded to another group of people that would never listen to you.
GLASS: If only.
SHANA: (Technical difficulties)
GLASS: Yeah, if only--at NPR we've often said if only we can get the thieving demographic, then we will have locked up the whole American public.
SHANA: Right. So that's just--that's all I wanted to say.
GLASS: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call.
SHANA: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And finally an e-mail. Jane in Tallahassee: `Do you ever stay in touch with the people whose stories you share? I have often wondered what happened to them.'
GLASS: Some of them, sure, absolutely. You know, there's a high school girl named Sylvia Leemis(ph) who we did a bunch of stories on who we still stay in touch with. Like, there's a bunch of people who we stay in touch with. Honestly, though, the truth of the matter is, like, we get to know the people very, very intensely and then kind of that's it for the overwhelming majority of people. And that's most journalism, and it always actually feels a little weird, to tell you the truth, that, you know, you could be spending time with somebody so completely intensely.
I saw the writer Susan Orlean, The New Yorker writer--I saw her write about this, too, just like how strange it is that you're in somebody's life so deeply and then kind of like you shake hands and that's it.
GLASS: But then the next week there's kind of somebody else, so it feels a little weird, but that's most people.
CONAN: Did you ever think that 10 years--after 10 years, that you would still be finding new ways to tell stories?
GLASS: Honestly, like, I didn't think we were going to be on the air this long. Like, I really thought we were, like, one of those things, like, that we were going to a nice job for the people and we would be on for, like, two or three years and, like, that would be that and we would all move on to something else. Like, I never imagined it would be like this. And I never really imagined that, like, 10 years in, like, I feel like we are constantly finding new things to do that we've never done. Like, I feel like if anything, the last two or three years of the show have been some of the most exciting years.
CONAN: Ira Glass, the host and producer of "This American Life," running now for 10 years.
GLASS: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Ira Glass joined us from the studios of member station WBEZ in Chicago, and "This American Life" airs on many of these public radio stations.
Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here with "Science Friday." And next week Andrea Seabrook will be in this chair while I'm off on vacation. So merry Christmas, everybody. We'll see you in the new year.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.