INTERVIEW : IRA GLASS : PART I
Hi, Ira. How are you?
Hey, it’s Ira.
Hi, just to let you know this has already started recording.
Noted, we’re on the record. I’m prepared with my important answers to the national security and other public policy questions that will be presented.
Pretty much, have you ever been associated with a member of the Communist Party?
Have I been with the Communist Party? Not the Communist Party, no.
Thank you for making time to do this. We are all really big fans over here. First off, since you recently crossed the 500th episode mark, how has your selection process for topics evolved from the beginning and how do you search out new material for the show?
In the beginning, the premise of the show was that we we were going to apply the tools of journalism to things so small and personal that journalists don’t normally bother with them. We’re trying to have compelling characters and emotional moments and funny moments and, after doing that for a number of years, myself and the producers on the staff became very interested in trying that same kind of story but doing it for the news. More and more, I think, we’ve been tackling things that are in the news — things that other people try to cover in other ways but we do it with stories that are gripping and emotional and more narrative in a very traditional way and less like news features in that newsy news way.
One that strikes my mind is the Giant Pool of Money episode where it really went from a massive topic that confused a lot of people and you broke it down in a way that people could understand. Do you feel like that episode was a turning point — did it do that for the show?
I think it did that. Up until then, we had done a ton of stories about things like the war on terror in Guantanamo and Iraq and guns and things and domestic politics. I think that show just got so many people’s attention because at the point that it appeared in 2008, even before the final parts of the crash, it was before the Lehman brothers fell. It stepped back and was explaining phrases that I think all of us were hearing in the news but didn’t quite know what they meant, like mortgage-backed securities.
I remember that I really didn’t know what that even referred to, before we started working on that episode. I think in time, everybody came to learn from the news. A mortgage-backed security is basically just where somebody buys a bunch of mortgages and bundles them up in a pile and then sells them all at once to somebody else. That’s all that is. It’s a fancy phrase for that.
I think that was a really early piece of reporting — explaining it and explaining exactly what was going on in the economy. In that case specifically, the advantage that we had as non-experts was that we could ask the dumb questions that real beat reporters covering economics never would ask. The whole thing came about because one of our producers, Alex Bloomberg, became very interested in answering the question, “Why are banks doing something that banks have never done since the beginning of the history of capitalism: giving out loans to people and not bothering to check if they were able to pay them back?”
There was a standard loan product called a NINA Loan, a No Interest No Asset Loan. The idea of a NINA Loan was that you didn’t have to prove that you had a job or anything. You didn’t have to do anything to show that you could pay back the loan. We opened our show with this guy who had two part-time jobs, made $30,000 or $40,000 a year, who got a $400,000 loan from a bank, and he said, “I wouldn’t have lent me this money. This is too much money.” We were just like, “Why would a bank do that?”
The answer is the bank did that because it wasn’t going to hold on to the loan. It didn’t matter to the bank if anybody ever paid it back. The bank was going to sell the loan. The bank was going to make the loan and then just sell it to these bundlers who were going to bundle it together into these so-called mortgage-backed securities and all the bank cared about was they had this product that they could sell upstream to these other guys.
That show let us do this thing that reporters weren’t doing quite yet which was to go around to all the people in that business, the bankers, the people selling the mortgage-backed securities, everybody trading in these commodities and say to them, “You guys knew this stuff was crap, right? You knew these people couldn’t pay it back. Since they all did know, what did you think was going to happen? How was this going to work out okay?” You got to hear from the people who brought down the world economy, many of them lovely people.
You just said that you approached that from the outside and that’s why you could ask these questions, but now a few years later I think that you’ve done some really big pieces…
Can I say one more thing? Yes, the thing that we can do is we can use the thing which is the unique power of radio which is that radio works best when you’re telling… it lets you get in there and hear from an actual person. You can get to know a person. It’s a very friendly, person-focused medium, unlike a lot of abstract economics reporting and the kind of talking heads reporting that you get when it comes to a lot of public policy issues. The fact that it’s radio lets us, first of all, spend a lot of time trying to figure out who would be a good talker and then basically let the audience meet the actual people. There are certain things that the medium is just particularly good for.
Do you think that this story changed the level of candidness or openness that your interviewees might have, knowing that their answers might implicate them? Has it caused potential interview subjects to be more guarded?
Our influence isn’t quite so big, I think, that the people we are interviewing have much of an awareness usually of who we are. I think among the people who do, if anything, they’ve seen that we treat people pretty fairly. Even in these newsy stories, people get to say their side. We’re not out to get people. We didn’t want to make the people in the mortgage business look like mobsters because they weren’t mobsters. They just messed something up, but they were perfectly nice people in other ways.
You obviously have a viewpoint as a person, but how much do your own opinions or emotions influence a story? I would say from the economic crisis, you knew that it was bad and people got screwed over, but do you just present the story or does your bias come into it, through editing, tone, music and maybe even just energetically?
I think when the show is working well and when journalists work well, it’s really about trying to understand people. You know what I mean? That requires a suspension of judgment, and really, that’s not very hard because generally I feel really curious about why people do the things they do and especially things in a climate with these sorts of consequences…it’s interesting.
Obviously, I think it was terrible what happened with the economy and I think these were greedy people who were out to make a buck and weren’t being careful about what it could do to the rest of us. As they said in the interviews, they were up against competitors and if they didn’t do it somebody else would just do it, and they were just working a job that they ended up in for whatever reason. I don’t know. In general, just even outside of my journalistic job, I don’t feel such a harsh sense of judgment about people.
From my standpoint, it’s so easy to be like “Screw the banks!” but do you feel because you’ve shared some level of candidness and closeness with the people you’ve interviewed, it’s not quite as easy to point fingers and say “Shame on you”?
No, I think there definitely are people who you can say shame on you about. There definitely are. There are things the banks have done that are really selfish and we tax payers ended up holding the bag for it. There’s no question about that. There’re people in that business who are just dicks, but that’s different. That’s a case-by-case basis kind of judgment. I definitely notice when somebody’s a total dick and when the banks do something that just seems ill-advised.
For example, before the mortgage crisis hit, one of the things the banks did is that they went to the federal government and they lobbied to get leverage requirements lifted or raised and what those are…it’s a technical thing, but basically what it refers to is something really simple, which is how much money do they have to have on hand to cover all the loans that you’re putting out?
The banks were saying these new financial instruments were so sophisticated in the way that we monitored them and so on, so we don’t need to keep as much money lying around as the federal regulations currently require, and they got them raised. That was a huge problem. That really was a problem and the federal government eventually had to step in as part of the bailout and save them.
One of the things that put them in such bad straits was that the leverage requirements were raised. Obviously, I think that was just greed. There’s just no two ways about that, greed made them want to do that. They wanted to lend out more money and make more money and obviously they were completely wrong. They were wrong.
That’s a dick move that we ended up paying for. I don’t have a problem saying that either to you or on the radio.
Stay tuned for part two of three, coming soon to an Ace Hotel blog near you. And have a look at our Desert Gold schedule during Coachella for more from NPR deep in the desert in the next couple weeks at Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs.