Ode to Ira
Several milestones have snuck by me this past year. Among them was the 25th anniversary of the first broadcast of This American Life. In the scheme of things, given all we’ve been through, it was a modest oversight. But I should have noticed, since the program and its creative genius, Ira Glass, have made such an indelible imprint on public radio.
Ira Glass is a master storyteller. We have a photo of Ira hanging in the lobby of our studios here at JPR punctuated with his quote: “The story is a machine for empathy.” It’s a reminder of our own aspirations as we set out each day to tell the stories of the people, places and regional issues that are important to our listeners.
At its core, public radio is a creative enterprise — and Ira Glass is one of our most creative forces.
Ira’s stories grab us, make us care, help us feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes — and ultimately reveal some kind of truth. Jay Allison, host and producer of The Moth Radio Hour put it this way on transom.org: “Ira is a radio hero because of the way he listens, and the way his listening summons stories you remember. He is a champion for the Many Voices that public radio’s mission says it values. This American Life is not the voice of record, but a record of the voices around us. The stories are as fully strange and hopeful and funny and harsh and romantic as America itself...and occasionally all at the same time. They sprawl outside the usual standard-issue broadcast confines, telling about the way it actually was, what it felt like, what really happened. Ira is their shepherd, their piper.”
Over the years, Ira has written a great deal about his craft. He describes his work as “an entertaining kind of journalism that’s built around plot … Like little movies for radio.” He says that This American Life continues to embrace experimentation: “We try things. There was the show where we taped for 24 hours in an all-night restaurant. And the show where we put a band together from musicians’ classified ads. And the show where every story had been pitched by our own parents, who — wonderful as they are — are not very talented at spotting good radio stories …”
In a recent email I received from Ira, he reflected on This American Life’s success and its vision for the future:
“This was our 25th year on the air … When I started the show, I thought we’d survive three years … maybe. NPR passed on it. Program directors wondered when we’d hire a host who sounded like, you know, a traditional NPR host. But here we are … We always try to push things forward. In our 25th year we won the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a radio show, for an episode about President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. The topic was getting a lot of coverage, but we never felt like the stories quite got at the actual human experience of what the policy meant. So we ran at it in our own way, hoping to contribute something new.
I’m proud that over the years we’ve transformed This American Life into something that keeps the personal, emotional feeling of (our) early shows while tackling the biggest and hardest stories we can think of ... (The show) works toward the bedrock ideals of public radio — telling stories you won’t hear anywhere else, in ways they’re not told anywhere else, with deep reporting and feeling and curiosity.”
Back in 1999, the American Journalism Review declared that the program was “in the vanguard of a journalistic revolution.” While that revolution has taken time to gain a foothold, the narrative journalism style pioneered by This American Life has spawned a new generation of audio storytelling with radio shows and podcasts like Radiolab, Invisibilia, StartUp, Reply All, Snap Judgment, Love + Radio, and Heavyweight. In 2014, the podcast Serial was launched as the first spin-off from This American Life. Created by This American Life producers Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig along with Ira, Serial Season One told the story of a 1999 murder case and investigation in Baltimore, setting podcast records and establishing itself as the most listened-to podcast in the world, with more than 300 million downloads.
At its core, public radio is a creative enterprise — and Ira Glass is one of our most creative forces. I’d venture to say you can hear his influence in most every spoken word program public radio produces today, from hard news to weekend entertainment. As one listener put it: “(Ira Glass) has created a completely new genre of telling personal stories. This American Life was the first time that everyday people’s everyday lives were considered compelling enough to be put on the radio.”