Ira Glass will ‘Reinvent the Radio’ in Park City
February 3, 2016
For nearly 21 years, Ira Glass has hosted "This American Life," a Peabody Award-winning radio show that finds true news stories and brings them to life like an audio movie.
There’s humor. There’s emotion. There’s drama and many surprises.
When Glass comes to Park City for a presentation called "Reinventing Radio" at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, he will bring some of his favorite episodes with him, and give a behind-the-scenes look at how he and his staff put "This American Life" together.
"It would be weird if it was something else," Glass happily told The Park Record during a phone call from New York. "It is totally about my show and I’ll be the first to admit that. It’s basically a combination of ‘greatest hits’ or favorite moments of the stories and also the theory of why it’s so different from other things that were on the radio when we first started."
Glass admitted that taking an encyclopedic method to compiling the stories for "Reinventing the Radio" would have been a great way to put the program together.
"However, my approach has been far more idiosyncratic," he said, laughing. "It’s not a sweeping history at all. Honestly, I’ve chosen things that I know will get huge laughs. I’ve chosen things that mean a lot to me personally."
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In addition, he changes the material during his presentations to make things more enjoyable for himself as well.
"Overrepresented is funny material and underrepresented is deep analytic material," he said.
"This American Life" debuted in the fall of 1995 and has evolved quite a bit over the past two decades.
"At the beginning, when the show went on the air, it was way more about personal stories," Glass explained. "A lot of it was about applying the tools of journalism to stories that were so small that journalists would never bother with them."
Shortly afterwards, two things happened that impacted the show.
"One was the staff got interested in reinventing the news," Glass said. "They liked doing stories that [not only had] characters, scenes, but a plotline that had funny moments and emotional moments."
The second occurrence was the rise of personal stories in the cultural landscape.
"Memoirs took off as a genre and reality TV kicked in, so doing personal stories became passé to us," Glass said. "So, we moved away from that. Obviously we still do a ton of personal stories, but they are different than from when we first started."
The stories Glass and his staff look for must have an element of the unexpected, he said.
"The things we look for is a plot that is surprising and the story has to drive to some thought about the world," he said. "We then look to see if it’s good, if it’s funny or if it’s got a lot of feeling."
Also, since the story will be on the radio or a podcast, the anchor must be someone who is a good talker.
"[Because] when something interesting happens to someone who is not a good talker, things get ugly for people in my line of work," Glass said. "Those are stories you can tell better in print when the writer can carry more of it themselves."
In addition, the stories need to be told in a small amount of time.
"The great thing about our format is that it can go as short as four minutes and as long as an hour," he said. "But even in an hour, you don’t need as many plot twists as you would in a feature film. So, these are simpler stories, and you don’t need a third-act plot twist before you head onto the end."
Within the past 20 years, Glass and his staff have seen the popularity of podcasts rise and have utilized that medium for broadcasting as well.
"While I can’t speak to what [podcasts have] done to radio as a whole, for our show, podcasts have been an incredible boon," he said. "Using [the podcast format] has meant that we get younger listeners and listeners that don’t listen to radio at all.
"Just this past August, we crossed a line where we now have an equal number of people who listen to our show each week by podcast as on the radio," Glass said. "There are 2.2 million people who listen to our podcasts and 2.2 million people who listen to the radio show."
Many of these listeners are international.
"I gave some speeches, like the one I’m giving in Park City, to five cities in Australia three years ago," Glass said. "We’re on the air in Australia on their equivalent to Public Radio, and something like 1,500 people showed up in Melbourne." Glass asked if those in the audience listened to the show on the radio.
"A small portion of the audience clapped, but when I asked if they listen to us on podcasts, three-fourths of the audience clapped," he said. "So, podcasts have a reach and feeling to it that the radio show could never have."
Podcasting has also brought more money to the show and that has helped with producing more in-depth stories.
"Suddenly we really can take the time and throw the manpower at any story we feel needs to be on the radio," Glass said. "[Recently] we sent three reporters for five months on and off to a Chicago high school that had more than two dozen shootings in a year, which is something in the early years of the show that we couldn’t even conceive of because of the amount of money something like that takes.
"In the early years, we could only do probably one story like that a year," he said. "Now, we do one every four to six weeks."
Glass got into broadcast on a fluke. "
At 19, while looking for a summer job, I was able to talk my way into an unpaid internship at NPR (National Public Radio) headquarters in Washington," he said. "I had no special feeling of radio. I had no special interest of radio. I had never heard of Public Radio when I walked into the door at NPR."
That proved to be beneficial for both Glass and NPR.
"One of the advantages of starting when I did was that NPR had only been on the air for six years and had a tiny audience," he said. "What that meant was that there were no particular rules. You could experiment and invent what you were doing on the air."
Glass worked at NPR for 17 years before he set out to do his own thing with "This American Life."
"That’s basically a continuation of what I did for the network news shows," he said.
As Glass looks toward the future of broadcast, he doesn’t know what will happen, but he’s excited to see what does.
"It’s like the Wild West, because it’s unclear," he said. "We’re in an unusual situation of being super successful with podcasters; it’s exciting what people will want for their form."
The Park City Institute will present Ira Glass’ "Reinventing Radio" at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and they are available by calling 435-655-3114 or visiting EcclesCenter.org.
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