Radio personality extraordinaire discusses life at Center For the Arts
Published: Sunday, October 27, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 27, 2013 18:10
Ira Glass spent the first 10 minutes of his show in darkness.
The audience heard the radio personality as they were used to – without a face. Using his iPad as a flashlight, Glass wandered the Center For the Arts (CFA) stage talking about radio and how it differed from other forms of media.
After he made his point, Glass introduced himself, turned on the lights and quipped, “Didn’t expect that voice to come from this form, huh?”
Glass, the host and founder of the radio talk show This American Life, spoke on Saturday at the CFA about his life, career and position as a radio show host.
His show takes everyday news and makes it comical. The show premiered in 1995 on Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ. Today, the show is broadcasted on over 500 stations; it has over 2.1 million listeners and an additional 1 million who listen on the Internet via podcast.
Since the show’s beginning, Glass has been named “best radio host” in the country by Time magazine, and the show has received “all of the major broadcasting awards,” according to the This American Life website.
Glass’ presentation took the audience through the innermost workings of This American Life using not only his voice, but also sound clips of interviews and past shows. The combination of his dynamic storytelling and well-timed sound clips created a show about how broadcast journalism is about much more than simply telling the news.
The journalist explained how his show has became so popular and why it is so different from other radio shows.
“When we’re planning a show, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What will make people listen past that first minute?’” Glass said. “What we find works best is to not tell them what the story is about for the longest time. That way, out of sheer curiosity, listeners cannot change the station.”
Avid listeners of Glass got to hear the details behind past stories, and many thought the show at the CFA was fascinating.
“I almost preferred the way [some of the news stories] were told tonight,” said Amanda Darge of Hamburg. “I remember hearing them on the radio when they occurred, but now hearing the whole backstory behind it, I enjoy it so much more.”
Glass also explained the troubles he has with censorship laws.
The journalist explained the inappropriate words that get “bleep-ed out” on the air can be essential to the story. He does this in a way that isn’t crude or offensive, but honest.
Glass gave multiple examples of times his show was forced to cut whole segments because of words they contained. He pointed out that sometimes editors would make a mistake and “bleep out” the wrong word.
“It’s important in journalism to tell a story,” Glass said. “No matter how big or small it is, it should be the most interesting story someone has heard all day.”
This American Life experimented with covering both worldwide news and small stories. What he found is that following these smaller stories was much more interesting and impactful than the major news every other media source seemed to be covering.
Another important aspect of Glass’ show is the background music that fans say seems to be perfectly timed and appropriate for the situation.
Glass explained that isn’t an easy feat.
Their goal in the studio is to create a melody to fill space, not just elevator music or humming.
“We have a deep need for music with forward motion that doesn’t say a lot,” Glass said. “We want to be able to talk during the parts of songs where you could imagine people singing.”
Glass also talked about how his life led him to his current position as a radio show host. Although his parents hoped he would become a doctor, when they saw his passion for radio journalism, they supported him in all of his endeavors.
At 19 years old, Glass became an intern at the National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters in Washington, D.C. He hosted and reported for many different programs, including Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered.
In the early ’90s, Glass spent two years reporting on the Chicago Public School system, and he wrote a big piece about how class size affects a student’s ability to learn. After this report, Glass was offered his own radio show, which evolved into This American Life.
“I never expected to be working for NPR at 19, or to have reported in the Chicago schools, or to be here today with my own show,” Glass said. “Sometimes, things just happen that way – unexpected but wonderful.”
Many members of the audience were followers of Glass and had been listening to his show for years. When the opportunity arose to ask the host questions, he found himself overwhelmed by the amount of hands that flew into the air.
He patiently answered questions about the type of equipment he uses and where he finds his stories. He left the audience with advice about their own dreams: “If you want to do creative work, just do it. Don’t wait; start now. The time is now, where the tools are so easily available to begin new projects. If you just try stuff, just put in the effort, luck will kick in.”