Ira Glass on the most frequent questions people ask him
Ira Glass is well aware that he does not possess the most traditional "radio voice."
Thin-but-confident, enthusiastic-but-self-deprecating, aggressive-but-comforting, Glass' iconic voice is heard by 1.8 million listeners each week on National Public Radio.
As host and producer of NPR's "This American Life" - and its television companion on Showtime - Glass is responsible for a weekly foray into "mostly true stories of everyday people." The Peabody Award-winning program is considered the benchmark for entertaining, substantive reporting on a personal level.
"For journalism to survive, one of the things that can help is if all of it were done in a more human voice," he says.
Glass is leaving the confines of his studio for a tour that takes him to Kansas University for the first time. ("I have good friends who went to school in Lawrence because I know a lot of drama people," Glass says.) He'll be presenting "Radio Stories and Other Stories," an evening that weaves monologues, interviews and music into a journalistic/storytelling experience.
Calling from his office in New York City, Glass spoke to the Journal-World about his upcoming performance.
Q: Is it odd for people to actually see your voice coming out of your head during public appearances?
A: It definitely is. It weirdly gives the live shows that I do a little bit of undeserved oomph. It's almost like I get to ride on the novelty of people seeing me actually speak and seeing what it looks like when my voice comes outside my head.
Are your live appearances completely planned out, or do you allow room for improvisation?
I allow room for improvisation. And, truthfully, I'm in a constant state of remaking the live appearances, just to throw out new stuff all the time to make it interesting to do. I am not a solid enough performer to perform the same thing over and over.
How has life in America fundamentally changed since "This American Life" first aired 15 years ago?
I don't even think about it that way. ... That would be a really good thing for me to think about, as a documentary maker who does stories about this country. Even answering that question would get me into the bloviating talking-head response that I despise in the media. I feel like it's a totally legitimate question that for me to answer in a way that I wouldn't feel ashamed of, I'd have to do a real study. I'd have to research and interview and think about it.
As journalists we're dealing with print, radio and television being consumed by the Internet. What will be the eventual role of journalism in this era of new media?
All the people who are looking at where journalism is going, they basically break down into the optimists and the pessimists. I am 100 percent on the side of the optimists. Part of that is because I have the luxury that I'm not in one of the media that is getting phased out. I don't work for a daily newspaper or a network television newscast. I still work in a part of the media where there's a viable business model. Public radio is really doing fine in the current media environment. Our show is doing fine. We have to go out and raise money, but we have a huge listener base. ... In the end, I think there are enough of us who want real journalism and real reporting, and we'll pay for it. Most of us who are consuming it are happy to pay for it. We are legion. There are millions of us.
What's the best story you worked on during the last year?
We've done a lot of incredibly substantive stuff this last year. We did two hours on the health care system trying to explain what went wrong - these super-substantive, investigative, hour-long documentary things. We've done a lot on the financial crisis as it unfolded last year. But I've got to say some of the favorite stuff we've done is like the hour we did on the number one party school. It was basically an hour about heavy drinking. This year it was Penn State. What was great about it as a documentary story is it had a lot of amazingly funny scenes of watching drunk college kids, but it also had a kind of gravitas because the campus we were on was one where a freshman died from drinking.
What's the best description of your speaking voice you've ever heard?
I've never heard somebody describe it and thought, "Yes, that really nails it." I feel like I don't have an answer as good as the question you're asking. I would describe it as nasal and young-sounding. It's much younger-sounding than I actually am. I could pass on the radio for somebody in his 20s, but in fact I'm 50.
How did you celebrate your 50th birthday?
I went to dinner with my wife. It's funny, at one point we talked about having a big party.
But I told her, "I feel like I get enough attention." I thought doing something quiet would be lovely.
Has producing the television show helped improve the radio show?
No. If anything it's just the opposite. And we're not doing television right now. We basically asked for a hiatus because it was too much work to do the television show and the radio show at the same time. When we were doing both, it really had a terrible effect on the radio show. I feel like the ones we did were decent, totally solid shows. But there were very few that were super-sparkly "now-let's-try-something-inventive-and-new" kind of shows. In a normal run, there will be one every five or six shows where we're trying something we never tried before. Now we just don't have the energy for it. All our inventing energy was going into TV.
Do you have a dream project?
I don't have a dream project. I feel like I'm somebody who's doing exactly what he wanted. I wanted to make this show, and I got to make it. I don't need another dream project. And it's not like I have some secret other skill that is waiting to get out. The one skill I have is making this show.