INTERVIEW : IRA GLASS : PART II
Joe Franklin had mentioned that your voice has a certain sparkliness to it, and Terry Gross has also talked about her own voice changing over the years as she’s evolved as an interviewer. How do you feel that your voice has changed over the years of being on radio, and how long did it take you to find your natural radio voice — what was that process like?
That’s a really good question. It took me a long time before I performed comfortably on the radio. At the time that I started This American Life I was 36 or 37 and I’d been doing radio since I was a teenager, really. It took me until I was probably 28 or 29 before I sounded okay on the radio, before I was presentable. Then it took another four or five years before I sounded like myself really, and I did all kinds of things to make that happen. I did not sit idly. One is just trying, on the stories that I was filing for the daily news shows on public radio, to sound like myself and not like some news robot, news reader person.
Another thing was that for five years before I did American Life I did a local show with a friend in Chicago that was on late-night Fridays. One of the reasons I did it was because I wanted to train myself to perform so I would sound like myself, like so I sounded live on the radio and un-train myself from the way that I was used to sounding as an NPR reporter where I sounded like the other NPR reporters. That was a big project. That was a goal of mine to try to sound okay on the radio. By the time I started the radio show, I had been at that for years. Once I started the radio show I do think that my performance on the air evolved and I think mainly I would go through periods of sending more performy or more like I was just talking. I prefer it to sound like I’m just talking, but I think I just go in and out of a groove with that in a way that I think actually listeners wouldn’t notice or care but that I notice and care about.
It is such a distinct thing… After listening to so many episodes you can almost hear where the pauses are going to be or where you come in strong. Does it differ too much from day-to-day life, like a conversation with friends, and when you get on the air do you feel like you’re performing? What do you make of “sincerity” amidst all of that?
Well, I am performing. It would be appropriate to think I’m performing because I am performing. I’m standing in front of a million and a half people or something, or more than that, and that is the classic performing situation. The goal in radio — people sound best on the radio if they talk just the way they really talk, like the greatest radio performers are like that. When it’s working, I do sound like I sound in real life. It’s not so different from when I really talk.
You sometimes come across soft with emotion, and sometimes really strong… On the episode called “Our Friend David” where there’s a couplet at the end where he talks about there being a lesson on how to be friends — I think what it means is something essential to living. It was a very powerful piece and when you come back, your voice is very strong and you just talk about how he reworked it. How much do you allow emotion to affect your voice or how do you use that as a way to convey the power of a story?
As a story is playing, I’m listening to the sound of it and listening to the feeling of it and that naturally infects how I’m going to speak at the end of the story. In recent years the way we do the show is that we’re putting it together in the computer, often, in order to record those voice tracks. I’ll have to listen to the last minute or two of the story so my tone matches the rest of the story. Having said that, even talking about it this much is almost like over analyzing what happens. It’s not that hard or that complicated. Like something’s playing and you don’t want to be out of step with it and you just try to get in the right frame of mind. It sounds like you’re living in the same world as the mood of the story and the mood that anybody listening to it would be in. it’s pretty easy. I think even a middling performer like me can pull that off.
Do you have a ritual that you go through before you put a final show together once you have all the pieces together?
No, I have no rituals. I have nothing in that way. It’s funny because sometimes you’ll read about writers’ rituals and the things they have to do to write, and I’ve got none of that. I think in that way I’m more of a hack daily journalist person where I feel like this isn’t that precious what we’re doing. We’re just trying to make something that will be appealing and I’m not very neurotic when it comes to any of that stuff. I really, really like editing and I like writing, and I don’t especially like performing on the radio but I’m okay with it. I feel like we’re here to make a thing and that’s our job and it’s all very straight forward.
You don’t particularly like performing on the radio except it seems like you’ve done it for so much of your life. Do you find that it’s a necessary tool to get across what you want to say or present stories the way you want to present them?
For the first 10 years that I worked on the radio I was really a behind the scenes person. I was a producer. I was tape editor and did those kinds of jobs. I was a writer. At some point I realized for the stories to live the way I thought they should live it was inefficient to try to convince other performers to do the lines the way that I was hearing them in my head or to write the lines the way that I felt they should be written. At some point it was just like, I should just do this myself. Honestly, the performing part on the radio is the only part that doesn’t come naturally. At this point, all the rest of it comes very naturally and has for a long time, the editing and the writing and the structuring of the story. All that’s the part that I do without thinking, but the performing of it I really do have to think through like, “Wait, what do I sound like again? How do I do this?”
Haven’t you passed the 10,000-hour mark by now for this?
Yes, oh my god. I passed the 10,000-hour mark when I was in my 30s or 20s even probably. I started when I was 19 in radio, but I was a slow learner.
Many, many people respect you and your work so much — even idolize you in some ways. We’re all going through the growing phases of our own careers and creative paths. It’s easy to look at Ira Glass and This American Life and feel like you have it all figured out — yet you are very humble and even self-effacing in reflecting on your own work. You have that great quote talking about beginners and things that you had wished you had learned sooner — but now that you’re well into an established career, are you saying that it doesn’t eventually just come easy? Is it still a lot of work all the time? Are there still things that trip you up or advice that you wish someone in their 70s would give someone in their 50s?
To this, I would just say that as you grow older the parts of your personality that were a problem for you and that caused all sorts of grief when you were in your 20s — it’s not like those ever completely go away. It’s more like you just figure out how to manage them so they don’t give you grief anymore and don’t give grief to those around you.
It’s like you don’t change into another person but you learn to manage the person you are in a way that’s just more satisfying to you, if you’re lucky enough to figure it out. At work it’s the same thing, where there are certain things that what used to be really hard for me that got enormously easier. Like I didn’t know how to structure a radio story for a long time. I didn’t know how to write one. I was a terrible writer for a long time. There are samples of work on Transom that I did in my sixth or seventh year in radio and it’s terrible. I’m just terrible.
There’s a manifesto that I wrote and some mp3s of me when I’m 26 or 27 and I suck, terrible writing, terrible reading. It’s terrible. Those things, certain things like the writing and the editing and figuring out what a story is and how to find a story and how to move efficiently to a good version of the story if it can be made into a good story, all that stuff I feel like I didn’t know how to do and I then I learned how to do it and there’s no undoing it. It’s not hard for me now because I learned it.
All that stuff is now easy, actually. Stories can be hard to figure out but the mechanics of how do I do this and am I going to be able to do this and can I get do it quickly? — I know that I can do it and I can do it quickly and it’s going to be fine. Other parts like the performing, I’m not a natural performer in that way, and that’s just not in me in the same way and so I will always be playing catch-up with that and every time I sit down to the microphone I do have to collect myself and think, “Great. How do I do this again? Okay, good. I can do this.”
I think that that’s normal. I think for most people they are parts of the job that they then come to master and then there are the parts where it’s like, “Oh right, I got to do this again.” They’re perfectly competent at those parts, but there’s always a little bit of having to consciously handle oneself.
I’m sure that with modern technology, many a budding storyteller and journalist with an iPhone out in the world tries to make their own type of This American Life podcast. I’m sure you get hit up for advice all the time which I think leads back to that big quote about how you will get better at what you do with practice…
Well, not just that quote but truthfully like going out of my way to say okay, here’s how I think about how to make these stories, how to find them, how to structure them, how to put them together — and as I mentioned there’s the manifesto I put up at Transom. We put out a comic book years ago. I talked about it in lectures. I’ll do classes with journalism students. There’s a bunch of basic principles for somebody making this stuff — it’s just handy to hear how someone else does it…
Have you ever faced the situation where you are like, “This is not for you.” You tried everything and you tried to guide someone, but you must just hand off what you have as far as advice and say, “Here are the tools and the things that I’ve learned — good luck”?
Wait, you mean, “This is not for you,” like I find somebody who’s such a lame ass that I don’t think they’ll pull it off?
Yes, like it’s just not good work. Do you help guide them away from years of just banging their head against the wall and not putting out a good product, or do you focus mostly on just encouragement and hope that they figure it out one day?
It’s funny, I just saw an edit of this movie that’s coming out called Adult World which is entirely about that premise and it’s by this director called Scott Coffee who I really love. The premise is, it’s a young poet who’s just out of college and she’s horrible. Her parents aren’t poets. They don’t know how to tell her, and her friends, they don’t know anything about poetry. They don’t know how tell her. She’s just horrible and she latches on to an older poet played by John Cusack.
He plays it like one of the latter career Bill Murray roles and he’s completely a grump and he’s fantastic. There’s scene after scene where he’s restraining himself from saying, “Just stop being a poet. You suck.” It’s that so much of the pleasure of that film, which I guess is weird to be talking about in a blog because it’s not out yet, but it will be out in a couple of months so keep your eyes open for that: Adult World… Anyway, usually, I’m not working with people so intensely that I get to that point where I feel like should I tell them, “Just get out of radio.” I did become aware when I started to give reporters seminars and things that my view of it had shifted. I had always believed that not everybody was as far along, but we were all going off the mountain together and everybody was going to make it and then at some point in teaching people it occurred to me some people really aren’t going to make it.
The problem is you can’t predict which ones are going to be. I myself, if you hear the work that I did when I was 26 and 27, there was no sign that I’m ever going to be good. In fact, there was a story on the show in the first years that I did when I was in my 20s about chickens, and we were doing a poultry show. We were doing every year back then. The story idea came up, and I was like, “I did this story. I actually did this story that you’re pitching. I did this story when I was in my 20s.” They sent one of the producers, Elise Spiegel, to go listen to the story, and she listened to it, and she was just like, “Wow, there is no sign that you’re ever going to make it. There’s no sign that you have any talent for this at all.”
I think you just can’t predict who’s going to come through, and if you’re the person who’s trying to make work and you’re not as good as you wish you were, the only thing you can do is just make more work and try to look for things that will amuse you to make, like things that are actually exciting to you to make because that will speed you towards solving problems and making the work good, and then do the thing that people do when they’re learning which is show it to lots of people who know better than you how stuff is made and get their advice, which I did too.
One of the things that nobody tells you when you’re starting off is, right: you can just pay people to look at stuff for you. I used to just pay the NPR reporters who I respected to just look at drafts of things and tell me what I was doing wrong and it was much cheaper than grad school. You give them $50 bucks for half an hour of their time or an hour of their time to just look at a script and tell you where you’re making boneheaded mistakes. I learned an enormous amount that way. You can just give people money and get the advice you need.
See Part I of our Ira Glass interview, and stay tuned for Part III.