Ira Glass Discusses 'This American Life' (Updated)

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Ira Glass
Host of the radio and television program 'This American Life'
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; 2:00 PM

"This American Life" host Ira Glass took your questions and discusses the upcoming live version of the popular radio show, which will be performed onstage in New York on April 23, and broadcast live in movie theaters around the country.

Participants in This American Life - Live! will include Dan Savage, Mike Birbiglia, David Rakoff and a "very special appearance" by Joss Whedon.

Editor's Note: Several of Ira's answers didn't get published live at the time of the discussion, but are now available. You can skip to them here.

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Heidelberg, Germany: Hi there. I'm an American ex-pat and a loyal listener of TAL. I wonder whether you think there is in fact something distinctly American about it and the kinds of stories you tell, or whether its just the result of having to limit the themes and their (geographic, if not temporal) reach in some way. Thanks!

Ira Glass: If there is, I'm not sure it's something I and my co-producers are aware of. Generally we see the stories as being universal. The title "This American Life" gives it all a useful veneer of documentary seriousness but not much more.

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not going : Did you have any control over where the show would play? Here in D.C. it's only at one metro-accessible theater way up in Bethesda, and that place sold out weeks ago. Bigger theaters in more-populated areas won't be showing it. It would seem like you have a lot of fans here, but that fact isn't played out in the number of screens showing the event.

That makes me sad.

Ira Glass: We've requested extra theaters here and there but we don't have a lot of control. Part of the problem is the theaters need special gear to get the satellite feed. Part of the problem is that some theater owners don't know our show, so they don't understand the demand a lot of them are now seeing.

It makes me sad too.

We are doing an "encore" show, in over 200 cities where we're selling out, two weeks later on May 7th. Details etc at the This American Life website.

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New York, N.Y.: Are you a liberal propaganda machine posing as a radio show?

Ira Glass: I wished I believed strongly enough in some sort of agenda for that to be true.

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Atlanta: Why do so many shows get re-broadcast? For listeners that have been tuning in for years, it seems that new shows are becoming fewer and farther between.

Ira Glass: We run between 26 and 30 new shows a year, same as Prairie Home Companion and a few other weekly public radio shows. We'd love to make more but it's labor intensive and we're a small staff. It's been this many per year for over a decade, though I think it feels like more reruns to people who really listen carefully, because there in the first year of our TV show, we were so swamped with TV work that we we boosted the radio reruns count way higher.

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Los Angeles: Your recent shows on the U.S. economy, the war in Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay have been fantastic, and they seem to be extremely popular and well received. Have TAL producers made a conscious decision to air a greater percentage of stories about news and current events? How are you balancing the choice to produce these kinds of stories versus more traditional TAL stories that are not as directly connected to current world events?

Ira Glass: Yes, we did decide to do more news-related stories. In all these areas it seemed like there were gaps in the coverage that could be filled by narrative stories, like we do on our show. And I feel like the two guys who do the economics stuff - Alex Blumberg and NPR's Adam Davidson - invented a chatty, listener-friendly way to talk about the current crisis in normal language, with funny moments and interesting characters. The more we have those guys on the air, the better.

At the same time, as you infer, we ARE trying to balance that stuff with more personal stories and stuff that's straight up funny or fun. This weekend's show, for instance, and the movie theater event, are squarely on the side of greater fun.

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Medford, Mass.: The Live show via satellite was SO entertaining - even if you were sitting in a movie theater in Revere, Mass. (which I was). How did you decide what things might work in that particular format? What ideas did you think of, but decided to ditch?

Ira Glass: This time we're doing an actual episode of the radio show, onstage, with cameras. (Last time we mostly showed clips from our TV show.) So we have regular contributors who've written these great, funny stories they're going to read onstage. I have a documentary story where I went out and interviewed people and I'll sit at an audio mixing console and narrate and mix the story live.

But we've been very conscious of the visual component. We don't want it to just be a show where you see people reading on a stage. So there's all kinds of visual stuff in there too. Images that accompany some of the stories. Little movies and cartoons between the stories.

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Podcasts: Have you found that podcasting has changed TAL? I'm incredibly grateful to the podcasts, which give me access to TAL for my subway commute or running errands. I would imagine that there are lots of people like me, and that TAL's exposure has grown as a result of podcasts. But are there other ways in which the podcasting has changed the show?

Ira Glass: Interestingly, it's pulled in a much younger audience. The radio audience has stayed the same size - 1.8 million people a week - but now there's this extra half million people and they're much much younger than the public radio audience. Which is fantastic, of course. I know meet lots of people in their teens and twenties at our live events, and some of them aren't public radio listeners at all. They simply know us as a podcast.

In terms of content this hasn't changed the show but in terms of reach, it's really nice.

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Portland, Ore.: Do you think TAL provides a model for the future of journalism? In an age where more traditional newspapers are struggling, it seems like narrative journalism--for lack of a better term--is still going strong. Do you agree?

Ira Glass: I don't see us as a model for the future of journalism. There are lots of ways to do journalism that I assume will survive, hopefully including us.

I wonder if journalism is going to just get chattier and more opinionated. Nicholas Lemann just wrote an article in the New Yorker that gestured at that possibility, and raised the notion that this wouldn't be all bad, that I read with interest. The link: Paper Tigers

It's hard not to notice that journalism - esp. the old school TV and newspapers variety - seems to be losing its audience to opinion in all its various forms - Rachel Maddow, the Daily Show, DailyKos, TalkingPointsMemo, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, this list is getting boring in its obviousness I know.

The thing I find myself wondering is - could you do daily journalism that's not quite so opinionated, but has just as interesting a voice to it as all of those have? That's where they kick the ass of most mainstream reporting. The opinionmongers talk like normal humans, trying to make sense of the world, not like news robots with their news robot language. You feel them trying to make sense of things in a way that it's easier to relate to.

Imagine Rachel Maddow if she were less of an advocate. She could be just as curious and just as funny and just as winning - but her opinions would be a lot more provisional. She'd be more like a real journalist. That's the daily news show I'd love to watch. That's where I'd hope journalism would go.

Where it probably will go, though, will include a little of that, and a lot of crap.

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Washington, D.C.: Love the show. Now that you're expanding to live audiences and television, is there something about doing the regular radio broadcast that you have a greater appreciation for? Thanks for introducing me to NPR.

Ira Glass: We're making another episode this week! And we're hoping Emmy voters at least look at our John Smith episode, which is one of the best things we've ever put out, on radio or TV.

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Evanston, Ill.: As a senior at Northwestern who is sickened by the number of my fellow students who have had their souls consumed by the prospect of finance jobs (a trend that has softened but not disappeared in the current environment), I can understand why you left.

This American Life has expanded into new realms in the past few years (TV, live tours, etc.). Where do you see it five years from now?

Ira Glass: This week there's a lot of enthusiasm on the staff for a version of the show where we shoot at pirates and do swat team missions into Korea to disarm their nuclear weapons.

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Austin, Tex.: I'm really looking forward to the live show, even though I'll be seeing it on the big screen and not in person. I'll take what I can get. So, my question is: how much of the show will be scripted and how much will be ad lib?

Ira Glass: It'll be better on the big screen than in person! It's designed for the big screen.

To answer your question - it's mostly scripted - these are pretty precisely-made stories with plot points you want to hit pretty cleanly, not to mention music cues and picture cues. But there are always adlibs. Somehow when we do it, it feels starkly, disturbingly live.

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Sadness sells, but...: would it be completely impossible to do a cheerful, funny episode of T.A.L.? I've been listening for years, and love the show, but sometimes the subject matter is so dark that I feel like the people on your staff must need cheering up. Some segments are darkly funny, sure, but I vote for more humorous themes (like your Thanksgiving Day and Christmas celebrations that are pretty hilarious).

Ira Glass: Sometimes there are more sad shows but that's really just an accident, not a decision on our part. We seem to go through phases where the best material we can find is more serious.

Eventually, though, enough people like you wave their arms around and we make a bigger effort to have more funny stuff.

Lately, for instance.

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Las Vegas: Do you always wear a suit and tie? I don't think I've ever seen a picture in which you weren't.

Are these live shows going to become a regular thing, because they're amazing.

Ira Glass: In real life I never wear a suit and tie. When I started having to promote the show with live events, I wore a suit out of courtesy: if people were going to pay money, it seemed like I should dress up.

Now I've been told that doesn't have to mean a suit. But I don't want to go to the trouble to learn enough about clothes to figure out what else it would be.

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Valparaiso, Ind.: Hi Ira! Love you, love your show!

I will be in the audience at the Chicago show on the 19th, but I'd also like to check out the satellite broadcast on the 23rd. Do you know if these will essentially be the same shows? Or will you and the others bring fresh material to the table?

Thanks so much!

Ira Glass: The Chicago show is basically a dress rehearsal in front of 4000 people. We'll make little trims and changes before the 23rd, I'm sure, but nothing substantial. With one exception. We might add a story for the movie event I've performed once in Chicago already - about photographer Richard Nickel. Though that's increasingly unlikely.

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Oakland, Calif.: Ira,

This American Life is probably the most meticulously edited radio program on the air today, and it seems that the production and control over content are much of what make the program sound so distinctive. The tight production also seems to be a big factor in making the show feel so intimate and giving the stories such emotional impact. Do you think that performing the show live in front of an audience might somehow make the show feel less intimate?

Ira Glass: Because of the cameras and the huge movie screen, you're going to be very close, so I'm not worried about intimacy. In the movie theater, anyway.

On the radio, it's different. It's less intimate to listen to a show on radio where there's a live theater audience. No way around that. The live audience cuts into that thing you get with great radio where you feel the person on the air is just talking to you and you alone.

Thanks to everyone for the questions!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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