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—Photo courtesy of Jesse Michener

Q&A: Ira Glass of “This American Life”

Before his show at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, Glass sat down with us to chat about the growth of podcasting—and gave us some intel on upcoming "This American Life" and "Serial" episodes.

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Host and executive producer of “This American Life” Ira Glass will be at the Paramount Theatre this Saturday as part of his national tour “Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass.” Also the editorial advisor to “Serial”—a podcast that reached five million downloads and streams faster than any other in iTunes history—his longtime career (and passion) is currently in vogue. In his tour, Glass will discuss how he puts together a show, starting with finding a compelling story to actually mixing an episode on stage with the audience. Before he makes his way to the Centennial State, Glass took some time to chat about the recent surge in podcasts’ popularity and his current projects.

5280: Podcasts have had a surge in the past few years. Do you agree—and do you have a sense of the major forces behind their increasing popularity?

I totally feel that way. There are two big things happened in podcasting that changed it. One was that Apple—and this was only one year and three months ago—put a podcasting app onto the iPhone. Before then, there was this sense of “How do I get those?” “What are those things?” Before “Serial” went on the air, Julie Snyder, one of the producers, was at a family wedding and she was trying to explain to her relatives: “I’m working on this new show, it’s not going to be on the radio; It’s going to be a podcast.” And her relatives are like, “Wait what? What do I do? How do I get it?” We were so alarmed that we shot a video with my now 88-year-old, then 87-year-old, neighbor where she basically gets podcasts on her iPad. She explains to all the old people, here’s how you get a podcast. (Although you’re probably familiar with how to download a podcast at this point, it’s a fun video; you can find it here.)

The other thing that happened is “Serial.” And I don’t claim any credit for that. That’s entirely Sarah Koenig, the host, and Julie Snyder. It was their thing. It was their idea. And we did not expect that it would be a big deal. They were doing it for themselves to see that it could work. I don’t know what the most recent numbers are but a few months ago it was that eight million people have downloaded every episode—which is a crazy number. That’s more than almost everything that’s on television right now. I mean, really, except for big-event TV. It’s bigger than Breaking Bad and Mad Men. It’s a very large audience. They did a parody on Saturday Night Live and all these mash ups. It was a phenomenon to itself and that said to people, “Oh, podcasts are a thing.”

Is there a new medium of storytelling that you think is underrated or is going to take off?

Oh, I have no idea. I feel like podcasting is still going through a boom. It’s a bubble and we’re going to ride it until it bursts. Although it seems like I might know something because I happen to be doing the thing that’s the flavor of the month, that is really just a coincidence. In two years when something else becomes the flavor of the month, I will not be doing that. I’ll still be doing this. If you look at it, really I’ve been doing this thing for 20 years and it just happens that right now, it accidentally became fashionable.

Right—you had your 20-year-anniversary just last year.

Which is interesting, because we almost didn’t publicize it. It seems like, if you think about it, there’s nothing good about saying you’ve been on the air for 20 years. It just makes you feel old.

What’s your recording setup like for “This American Life”?

It’s a mix. For the show we’re putting together this week as you and I are talking, the opening story of the show will be this guy who just has a really hilarious story from when he was a fish and wildlife warden. There’s no reason to go see him to tell it. He and I basically talked on the telephone. I recorded my end here in New York where our studio is and then we sent somebody to record his end. Then we take those two recordings and smoosh them together, and luckily, because of computers, it sounds like we’re in the same room.

What about prepping a guest to record? How do you make your guests feel comfortable? How do the stories sound so natural and authentic?

First of all: sometimes we fail. We fail a lot. Not everybody gets comfortable. It’s not a live radio show, so probably half of all the interviews we do, we kill. That’s either because the person doesn’t get comfortable or because this story just doesn’t work. They don’t tell it well or it doesn’t turn out to be what we thought.

One of the people who taught me how to make radio said that the rule of thumb is an interview is a party that you’re throwing. The interviewee will do what you do. So, if you’re kind of formal and sort of a stiff with questions on the page—or if you’re engaging and you’re talking to them and telling stories—then they will tell you stories back. You want to be yourself in a normal way so that the person can react to you in a normal way. Honestly, a lot of what makes it work is if you’re actually interested. If you’re trying to figure out, “Wait, what happened to you?” and “What do you think of this?” It’s rare enough I think in our lives that anybody is that interested in what we have to say. It’s really just a powerful, powerful force of somebody saying, “Wait, I want to know more.”

You brought up cutting half the interviews. Has there ever been a show where all of them failed? And you don’t know what your show is going to be about?

I mean frankly I don’t know what’s going to fill the last 16 minutes of this week’s show—I really don’t. So in about 47 hours and 15 minutes from now the show will start feeding and I really have no idea what the last 16 minutes will be. We have one story that we keep trying to make work. It’s too long and not great. Then there’s an interview I did a couple weeks ago for a different show but we kind of changed the theme of this week’s show and fit this interview in and it’s beautiful. It’s so good—but it will require me to crank out two stories over the course of one workday tomorrow, which I am totally enthusiastic about, but it’s not going to be the nicest day for me.

Is that what you’re going to do?

I don’t know. I really, really don’t know. It’s weird that it’s still hard to make the show. Last week I had a night where I was here until midnight one night and then the next night until 3 a.m. I’m just like why does this still happen?

What is the atmosphere of your office?

It’s a super friendly office. It’s like working in a boutique ad agency in a way. I don’t even know what that would mean but in my mind that’s what it would be. Including the “Serial” staff, there are 20 of us in all. Everyone gets along really well. Lots of us are at the same skill level and do different versions of the same job. We’re all reporters and producers and editors. It’s very much like a bunch of peers trying to solve a bunch of problems in a super lovely way.

This week, for instance, the “Serial” staff is just crashing at this huge amount of material for reasons that I can’t discuss with you yet because it’s not public. And then we just came off this project where we investigated a piece with the New York Times, and then we had to turn around and do a new show this week.

Physically, we just doubled the size of the office because of “Serial” and because of other things we’re looking at doing in the studio. It used to be that to edit a story everyone would just come into my office and sit on the floor, but we actually got a room with a conference table, which is very classy. So now, we sit around a table and listen to drafts of stories opposed to a crowded, cramped, tiny space. That all happened in the last month.

Do you have an office retreat?

We do. Usually a retreat will just be us going to someone’s apartment, though. “Serial” came out at one of the retreats actually. We had an idea of something else to do for a second series, and Julie and Sarah sort of admitted that they weren’t into that idea anymore, but Sarah had this other idea. That she had this story that she thought might work about this murder case in Baltimore…

If you’re listening to a podcast for fun, where are you or what are you doing?

Probably at the gym on the treadmill.

Are you a runner?

I am. But to say that implies that I’m actually good at it. Instead it’s more of a maintenance program. I’m just trying to keep blood coursing through my veins.

Is there such thing as a bad radio voice?

I mean there are bad performers on the radio, for sure, but I don’t think there are bad radio voices. I think as long as someone sounds like they are themselves then you can kind of make it work. And some people with super non-traditional voices obviously are the best people on the radio.

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