Interview: Ira Glass
 “This American Life

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CUBIE KING:  First off, thanks for doing this.  Would you mind giving me a brief overview of radio and where it is now?  I know that's broad but...
IRA GLASS:  OK.  Radio is this weird medium that people are constantly predicting is going to die.  Like whenever anything new happens, they predict radio will die.  
It happened with television, it happened with the Internet and one of the things that’s interesting is that with the kind of radio that I do the Internet has only made it stronger.  One of the things that’s true for public radio is that being on the Internet has only increased our reach and the number of people consume public radio. 

Radio is the medium that will not die despite people thinking that it should die.  Talk radio’s still going strong and so is public radio.  As long as there are cars and people are too lazy to program everything they listen to themselves, radio will still have a place. 

CK:  I've heard you say that a radio host has to paint pictures for the audience.  How do you do that?

GLASS:  There are some people who work in radio who are super into lush sound and production.  I’m not into that.  There are some people who are really into making stories that are totally visual and truthfully and I’m not super dedicated to that either.  


I’m really interested in story and character and emotion and stuff that is funny and that’s what I find the most interesting.  

However, in that context, there are times when you realize like, oh, what are we looking at right now?  It’s not sophisticated and you have to be mindful of things like how tall is this person.  You want to bring the characters on in a way that there’s something visual in people’s heads at certain key moments and key scenes.  

You want to give people something to look at and it’s as clumsy as that.  It’s not more sophisticated than that.

CK:  So where actually is radio and podcasts headed? Is it evolving into something like a Radiolab model Highly produced, very intricate shows? 

GLASS:  It’s hard to say.  The problem with the Radio Lab motto is the production model, it’s so labor intensive.  Like there’s no way to do it well without spending more time on it than broadcasters usually spend on an hour of production.

And, in that way, it’s also made for the Internet, like it’s made to stick around.  It’s not made as something that you’ll just play into the air over the radio once and then it will never get played again.  

It's exciting to hear something that’s so thoroughly realized and often is so emotional.  Some of their stories are the most emotional stories I’ve ever heard on the radio.

But it makes it hard to run it as a business because if you can only make six or seven or eight hours of something a year, it’s hard to generate an audience.  

It’s hard to do all the traditional things that makes something successful in broadcasting or podcasting for that matter.  Where you want a regular delivery of product and so it's hard to say, it makes it a weirdly expensive business to run where as almost other kind of radio story is cheaper and easier.  

And truthfully there’s a lot of really exciting work being done in podcasting and on the radio in the most traditional ways, you know a person asking questions of  another person and the other person answering. 

And when it’s somebody great like Mark Maron, you know in his podcast WTF asking really introspective, smart, funny people like the comedians we interview, it’s  a great hour podcast, and the simplest tech in the world.

So I don’t think all radio is going to go in the direction of Radio Lab or podcasting go in that direction.  I think it’s possible other people will want to do it because it’s so exciting when you hear it.  

CK:  Can we talk about the "gap" video?  It has inspired so many people, myself included.

GLASS:  Honestly, that video on the Internet is more famous than I am or my actual work.

CK:  Ha!

GLASS:  Seriously my actual radio show is on the Internet and it’s smaller than that video.  That video is like the most popular thing I’ve ever done and it’s crazy to me.  It’s passed around like…

CK:  Well, it’s like Woody Allen and some of the quotes she's said he hates.

GLASS:  What’s Woody Allen quotes?

CK:  Like the one where he says "90 percent of success is showing up" or…

GLASS:  ...yes.

CK:  And he’s like, stop quoting that, I said it once on a random day…

GLASS:  ..and, yes, some random day I was in a mood.  

So, I talked about this in a video, and thankfully it's something that I still believe which is when you’re starting off nobody tells you that you’re going to be bad for a long time.  

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I mean there are few super geniuses who are great at the beginning, your Malcolm Gladwells, your Tavi Gevinsons, your Mozarts.  Those are really weird ones.  I don’t know how Malcolm and Tavi ended up in that last sentence. 

But whatever, you know like you have these weird random, people who are great from the very beginning but most creative people.  I work with a lot of really great writers and a lot of great people who do all kinds of stuff, comedians and others, and for them it’s normal.

But commonly you’re bad for a really long time and nobody talks about it.  Because in the movies when somebody is like a creative person they stand up for the and sing a song it’s like, wait a second, they start singing and then they start dancing and the whole thing.  

So we don’t have a picture in our heads of what it means to do any kind of creative work and that you’re bad for a long time.  And it’s despairing.  What do you do with yourself during that period?

And really the only thing you can do is just make work. You have to make a lot of work and just basically fight your way out of it like a soldier and be really, really  serious about it.

The only you’re going to get better is just make stuff, and also nobody tells you like where do ideas come from for stuff.  Like you think like, oh, it’ll just be sprinkled on me like fairy dust, but actually finding an idea to make your work about is a job.  

That takes time, it takes hours just looking through stuff and thinking about stuff and figuring out where ideas come from.  They come from other ideas and so you really need to take it upon yourself as a task, you’re doing it like it’s your job.  

There’s a whole decade of my life where where I thought, why did I stay in radio?  I was bad at it.  Listening to recordings of myself there’s no sign I have any talent at all and I don’t say that with false modesty.  

There were clips that I played for audiences who were like, 'it’s not good.  It’s not even you.'  I wish somebody had told me that that was normal.  People who I've admired had gone through that.  It would have been a comfort during that period.

Though I worry now that I’ve said this all so publicly that people who actually have no talent will stay in things way too long.  That’s the flip side of it and the problem is you can’t really tell what you are until you work and work and work.