This American Life's Ira Glass talks about what makes a good interview or a bad interview
With This American Life, Ira Glass and his band of writers and reporters have been creating radio narratives that spotlight slices of American culture in an original, thought-provoking way, one that captures a worldwide audience. Now with his latest in-person production, Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass, the radio reporter, editor and producer gets to share what's just underneath the surface of the show's weekly broadcasts.
Explaining the origins of stories and how they are created, this live, one-man show reveals the work that goes into each episode of This American Life by sharing anecdotes, the production process and even unaired interviews. In advance of his appearance this Saturday, September 21 at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Glass spoke with Westword about the radio show's interview process and how stories get chosen for broadcast -- or killed forever.
Westword: How do you choose the stories that end up on This American Life?
Ira Glass: It's the same chaotic mix of any reporter or show -- the way we find stories is as disturbingly chaotic as the way anybody finds a story for anything. It's a mix -- one of us will stumble upon something, or we'll go looking for a way to cover something.
Like, guns in Chicago -- we went looking for a way to cover all of the shootings that were happening in Chicago. We tried one thing and another and finally ended up doing episodes at this one high school, Harper High School. We found a location for a place to do this story.
To figure out whether or not something can be a story, the truth is, we run at a lot of stuff that can't be stories -- that's what we discover over the course of making the stories. So for us to find three or four stories, we'll look often at fifteen or twenty different stories and go into production and really start to report out the stories. We'll assign writers on seven or eight stories and then only three or four will survive the process.
What we're looking for along the way is the plot of the thing has to be surprising -- we need stories to have a real plot. That's one of the things that makes what we're doing different from more traditional kinds of journalism; we want the stories to be narrative stories with suspense (where) things happen and unfold. We need there to be at least one character you can relate to and feel what they're going through and have feelings about. In that way, it's super-traditional.
Sometimes there will be a good plot, but the person at the center of it is not a good talker or not in touch with their own feelings. In that kind of situation, you struggle and you interview the people around that person and maybe one of them can express some things that they can't. Sometimes those stories get killed. We kill a tremendous amount of material and that is a big part of the show being good -- we have the luxury, being a weekly show, of being to kill stuff that isn't measuring up.
The best part about This American Life, to me, is that the stories are often so pedestrian seeming at first -- I often wondered how you came upon them in the first place.
Sometimes the facts of the story aren't any good and we'll just do the interview, anyway. I mean, that's rare. But there was one that we did with this guy named Benny -- I remember this because the act ended up being called "Benny Takes a Jet" -- and it was one that our then-intern, Miki, pitched. She's like, she knows this guy and he's a Mormon and he was gay but he wasn't out, even to himself. He got a crush on this boy -- though he wouldn't admit to himself that he had a crush on this boy because he was Mormon and didn't want to admit that he was gay -- and basically, the kid was nineteen and he was his boss.
The kid left to go on his mission trip and the guy flew to a South American country to follow him there and confess his feelings. I was like, wow. Every part of this is a cliché. Do you know what I mean? Especially on a show like ours -- we've done so many stories of gay people coming out. Everybody's tired of that story, there's nothing new in there.
But I sort of did the interview because she was our intern and she insisted he was a good talker and he was funny. I thought, well, we'll try this and you know, 95 percent chance this won't work and it will show her, look, these things can't work. Then, the guy was amazing.
It's funny. The problem with that story is that he was a crazy person. He shouldn't have followed this boy on his mission trip. That's what a crazy person does. I was like, unless he can overcome that, he's not going to be relatable or likeable. So we sat down, and the first thing the guy said was, look, I know that when I was going through all of this, I wasn't out, even to myself. So I was a crazy person. Everything I did was the act of a crazy person -- let me explain it to you.
He was totally in front of that, so it made it relatable. He was actually able to explain what it's like to be that sort of crazy person. He kind of transcended the facts of his own story.