Ira Glass worked through and missed our scheduled Zoom interview. “It’s really just been like a normal work week, but I just didn’t manage it as ideally as I could have,” he told me, apologetically, when we chat a few days later. He missed the call because that week’s episode of This American Life, the podcast and radio show he founded in 1995 and still hosts today, had to be completely re-edited and recorded. “Stuff just has to get done… it gets very complicated.”
Glass seems to be spinning a number of plates at any given time. This American Life has a wide remit and, despite its name, a global focus; telling stories in “acts” centred around a weekly theme, the show covers everything from the most inane and granular aspects of life to more existential issues including elections and protests. The programme attracts around four million listeners every week.
We spoke a few weeks after Glass, who lives in New York, came to London’s Southbank Centre in March to perform Seven Things I’ve Learned, his one-man show, delayed due to the pandemic. “I have Covid that I got in London,” he declared at the beginning of the call. “Nobody here wears a mask at all!” he previously joked to the London audience. “A British friend and I talked about this before my girlfriend and I came, and I was like, ‘OK, so what are our chances of me getting some mild case of Covid? Are they 100 per cent or 90 per cent?’”
Maryland-born Glass, 63, has slick black and silver hair, and wore a white shirt and navy hoodie in addition to his trademark square glasses. He was in good spirits, despite coughing through answers, and happily discussed This American Life, which is largely credited for starting today’s podcasting obsession. The conventions and structures of podcasts, in which a suave-sounding, conversational host (likely reading from a carefully crafted script) is accompanied by music fit for a film score, began with Glass and his show. What’s the secret behind the show’s success? “It’s a totally good question, but I worry that the answer is kinda dumb.
“At the beginning, I think it seemed very new to be telling stories like this,” Glass said. “I think the thing that listeners liked was the thing that we liked as producers, which was just thinking: ‘Oh, these are really good stories – I wanna hear what’s gonna happen.’” Shows on This American Life are like a pick ’n’ mix bag: episodes exploring “Kid logic” are also complemented by the trials and tribulations of a car dealership in New York’s Long Island trying to meet its monthly sales quota (“129 Cars”; Glass’s favourite episode), while more recent reporting has featured stories from the front line of the war in Ukraine.
Despite the show’s various offshoots – including a TV programme, movies and live shows – Glass continues to be grounded by and enamoured with radio. “The intimacy is just built into radio,” he explained, “and when you put that in the service of any story, it just gives stories such power.”
[See also: In with the old: How radio is beating streaming at its own game]
Since the inception of This American Life, Glass and his producers “very consciously” presented the show as entertainment. (He’d never brand it as a documentary programme: “That’s like sitting down and eating your vegetables.”) “All we try to do is say: ‘This will be fun.’”
But since the pandemic, and as politics and the media have grown increasingly polarised and toxic, humour has been harder to find. Covering and trying to understand the rise of the American far right has proved particularly difficult: an interview conducted with Jason Kessler, one of the organisers of the 2017 Charlottesville rally – the white supremacist march that saw a neo-Nazi drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman – left Glass and his staff (some of whom are black) thinking: “Do we need to hear from any more people like this at all?”
Increased reporting on anti-vaxxers, the rise of Trumpism and the conspiracy theorists who believe the 2020 US presidential election was fixed has led some to criticise the show for becoming increasingly “political” in recent years. “Not just over the last few years; for our show, the transition happened in 2001,” following the 11 September attacks, Glass said, laden with irony. The US – like many other Western nations – has gone from a place “where it seemed like some sort of consensus was possible”, to a new order in which “every cultural and political moment of significance gets interpreted in two radically different ways”, with there being “very little overlap”, said Glass. Journalism’s ability to hold power to account and form consensus is, and continues to be, “limited”, he added.
What particularly angered Glass was the lack of media reaction to the podcast The Trojan Horse Affair – from the makers of smash-hit Serial; itself an offshoot of This American Life. The reporting suggested that British investigators and government officials misrepresented the legitimacy of an anonymous letter sent to Birmingham City Council, which claimed that there was an Islamist plot to take over the city’s schools. “It’s shocking to me that no journalist is going to Michael Gove,” who was implicated in the scandal (which many consider a hoax), said Glass. “I thought at least… they’d [officials] be forced to lie.”
The final section of Glass’s London show was gloomily titled: “It’s a war.” When asked whether the media is capable of healing society’s fissures, he sounded bereft. “I don’t have a smart answer to that question,” he replied, exasperated. “We’re in a war against misinformation and we’re not winning.”
[See also: What it’s like to be targeted by anti-vaxxers]
His career spans more than three decades but Glass is still eager as ever to create – and even compete with the likes of Joe Rogan, the enormously popular podcaster who flirts with conspiracy theories on his show. “Yeah. That’s fine,” he said, with a diplomatic smile: “Happy to.” But when it comes to taking credit for helping to create the blueprint for podcasts, he is more reserved. After some umming and ahhing, he finally opens up: “I think some of us are just raised… like, to not necessarily think that much of ourselves. And I’m a person like that.”
Glass’s editorial instincts are present throughout our interview; taking to his computer to fact-check and reference points he made during answers (“I’m sorry to be editing your story in my head, but I’m a crazy person”). Covid wasn’t stopping work: our call at 9am New York time on a Friday morning was occasionally interrupted by Glass receiving messages and calls from This American Life producers asking for pointers for that week’s show, which was due to go live the same day. It’s clear why Glass doesn’t have time to bask in plaudits: he’s constantly working on the thing he loves – however much it drains him. “I’m just pretty focused, really, making stuff.
“I have really hard deadlines, they’re all the time, I’m always behind. And that’s honestly what I think about,” he said, candidly. “Just getting through the week is hard, and interesting. And so I really just don’t think about that other stuff of like, the impact of the show, and this and that.”
As we wind down our chat and a few more notifications soundtrack the Zoom call, Glass giddily exclaimed: ”I’ve gotta go make a show!” The show goes on, and on – and stuff just has to get done.
[See also: The New Statesman Podcast named Best Political Podcast for second year running]