This American Life's Ira Glass talks about what makes a good interview or a bad interview

This American Life's Ira Glass talks about what makes a good interview or a bad interview
Stuart Mullenberg

With This American Life, Ira Glass and his band of writers and reporters have been creating radio narratives that spotlight slices of American culture in an original, thought-provoking way, one that captures a worldwide audience. Now with his latest in-person production, Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass, the radio reporter, editor and producer gets to share what's just underneath the surface of the show's weekly broadcasts.

Explaining the origins of stories and how they are created, this live, one-man show reveals the work that goes into each episode of This American Life by sharing anecdotes, the production process and even unaired interviews. In advance of his appearance this Saturday, September 21 at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Glass spoke with Westword about the radio show's interview process and how stories get chosen for broadcast -- or killed forever.

See also: Colorado Public Radio's arts initiative -- and the rival proposal it beat to the funding punch

Westword: How do you choose the stories that end up on This American Life?

Ira Glass: It's the same chaotic mix of any reporter or show -- the way we find stories is as disturbingly chaotic as the way anybody finds a story for anything. It's a mix -- one of us will stumble upon something, or we'll go looking for a way to cover something.

Like, guns in Chicago -- we went looking for a way to cover all of the shootings that were happening in Chicago. We tried one thing and another and finally ended up doing episodes at this one high school, Harper High School. We found a location for a place to do this story.

To figure out whether or not something can be a story, the truth is, we run at a lot of stuff that can't be stories -- that's what we discover over the course of making the stories. So for us to find three or four stories, we'll look often at fifteen or twenty different stories and go into production and really start to report out the stories. We'll assign writers on seven or eight stories and then only three or four will survive the process.

What we're looking for along the way is the plot of the thing has to be surprising -- we need stories to have a real plot. That's one of the things that makes what we're doing different from more traditional kinds of journalism; we want the stories to be narrative stories with suspense (where) things happen and unfold. We need there to be at least one character you can relate to and feel what they're going through and have feelings about. In that way, it's super-traditional.

Sometimes there will be a good plot, but the person at the center of it is not a good talker or not in touch with their own feelings. In that kind of situation, you struggle and you interview the people around that person and maybe one of them can express some things that they can't. Sometimes those stories get killed. We kill a tremendous amount of material and that is a big part of the show being good -- we have the luxury, being a weekly show, of being to kill stuff that isn't measuring up.

The best part about This American Life, to me, is that the stories are often so pedestrian seeming at first -- I often wondered how you came upon them in the first place.

Sometimes the facts of the story aren't any good and we'll just do the interview, anyway. I mean, that's rare. But there was one that we did with this guy named Benny -- I remember this because the act ended up being called "Benny Takes a Jet" -- and it was one that our then-intern, Miki, pitched. She's like, she knows this guy and he's a Mormon and he was gay but he wasn't out, even to himself. He got a crush on this boy -- though he wouldn't admit to himself that he had a crush on this boy because he was Mormon and didn't want to admit that he was gay -- and basically, the kid was nineteen and he was his boss.

The kid left to go on his mission trip and the guy flew to a South American country to follow him there and confess his feelings. I was like, wow. Every part of this is a cliché. Do you know what I mean? Especially on a show like ours -- we've done so many stories of gay people coming out. Everybody's tired of that story, there's nothing new in there.

But I sort of did the interview because she was our intern and she insisted he was a good talker and he was funny. I thought, well, we'll try this and you know, 95 percent chance this won't work and it will show her, look, these things can't work. Then, the guy was amazing.

It's funny. The problem with that story is that he was a crazy person. He shouldn't have followed this boy on his mission trip. That's what a crazy person does. I was like, unless he can overcome that, he's not going to be relatable or likeable. So we sat down, and the first thing the guy said was, look, I know that when I was going through all of this, I wasn't out, even to myself. So I was a crazy person. Everything I did was the act of a crazy person -- let me explain it to you.

He was totally in front of that, so it made it relatable. He was actually able to explain what it's like to be that sort of crazy person. He kind of transcended the facts of his own story.  

I know it happened post-production and post-broadcast with "Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory," but have you ever gotten deep into a story and realized the person wasn't telling the truth?

It's rare. The thing that's more common is that people remember something wrong. I find it is much less common that people are actually out to deceive us. In a way, the stakes are so low -- what do they get out of getting to tell a false story on the radio?

Especially with people who tell monologues on stage -- one of us will go to a storytelling show and hear something that someone performs and [we'll say] that's so funny. And then we contact them, and we put them through a fact-checking process and find sometimes -- it's not like they intended to lie, but -- that when you dig into it a little deeper, their sister would tell this very differently. (Laughs.)

Have you ever become friends with someone you've interviewed? Through research, you can really get to know someone deeply.

Occasionally. And then occasionally, I feel like well, I'm ready to be friends! And they'll not be so interested. (Laughs.) That's happens, too. It happens about as frequently as in any job situation. You think about all of the people you meet in your job and how rare it is that one of them would turn into your friends. But yeah, that happens occasionally for sure.

That said, I'm there to do a job. Even though people are telling personal things and we may have a personal conversation, most of the time it really is like, just on to the next thing. Which sounds cold. And it is cold. But that's the truth.

The truth is, I'm barely attending to the actual friends I have. So it's hard to take on another person.

It makes reporters sound like the most popular people in the world.

No, no, no. I mean like, my three friends. You know what I mean? I mean, I'm barely attending to my three friends, the three I people I actually feel close to. I'm barely holding that together, so I can't take on a bigger job.

Why do you think it is important to tell the kinds of stories that you tell through This American Life? So much of it is human interest-based, not stories necessarily rooted in newsworthy topics. I mean, I don't think I would say that those stories are important. I think that if anything, I think it is kind of a pretentious way to put it. I know you don't mean it that way at all, but I just think they are enjoyable. The stories are entertaining and when somebody goes through something that's hard or painful and it's something similar to what we've gone through or we think most listeners have gone through, it gives you a nice feeling to hear somebody's story.

I don't have a super-sophisticated take on it beyond that. I don't think it's important -- I just think it feels good to hear a story that you can relate to, and it doesn't happen that often, despite the incredible proliferation of narrative and stories in every part of our lives. All the movies, and all of the TV shows and all of the narrative happening on the Internet, you know what I mean? Like, to find something that you can actually relate to and be `amused by,' it's still not, like, a daily experience for most of us.

I like that the stories told on This American Life are something I can talk about with someone else after the fact -- instead of a TV show or a movie.

It's like a public service. That's something that, even when I was an All Things Considered producer, there were some moments in stories that we would think of like, this is a public service -- to give people something to talk about at dinner. Like, people will talk about this one.

And then there are certain stories that we have been doing now, that are more related to the news. It's interesting to try to apply this kind of storytelling to things that are in the news, and to try to go at the news in a way that has this kind of emotion and to find characters and scenes and funny moments.

I feel like we did the single funniest hour on Guantanamo -- and I feel proud of that. Most of us, we hear, like, oh, it's going to be an hour on Guantanamo. We don't like to really hear it -- we know what we think of Guantanamo. Who cares? In a way. Like, you know what's happening, you know it's messed up, what else it there to say?

I feel like through finding the right people and the right stories, you can make something that's really funny and hopefully engaging in a different way. It is a really interesting thing to try to do and it gives access to the reality of things in the news in a way that it's hard to do for a daily reporter.   And in this era of the headline-only reader -- especially with the way headlines move through Facebook and Twitter -- it is so great to be able to attract an audience for narrative radio.

It's been interesting because in a way, it creates a market and a desire for the more in-depth. In 2008, when the economy was starting to collapse and we did this hour that just explained, like, here's what's going on in mortgage-backed securities. This thing that most of us have never heard of. Here's what's going on with those, here is how they are bringing down the economy and let's meet some of the nice people who are giving out loans on houses that are never going to get paid back -- and what the hell they're thinking while they're doing it.

For me, as the editor of that (story) -- I didn't do the reporting -- and for the people who heard it, it had a real feeling of, oh, now I understand what's happening now that I got to kind of "meet the people." It gives you access to the headlines.

Then I would see, like, mortgage-backed securities in the headlines and I understood really what it meant, and not just this abstract, oh, that's where they bundle together a bunch of mortgages. It meant something to me in a way that was more real.

Do you find yourself ever being nervous or afraid to interview someone, because the story involves something really personal or painful?

Yes. I get nervous talking to people, and I get nervous doing interviews. There is a whole class of interviews that I am not so good at -- which is the super-confrontational, need to sit down with the person and really get to confront them with lies they are telling. I am not, by nature, a person who is great at confrontation -- and I don't enjoy it. There is a whole class of reporters that live for that and love that. I am not one of them.

There are some interviews that are so personal that I feel embarrassed. Or when people cry in interviews -- as a broadcaster, you're just supposed to shut up and let them cry so you have the recording of it. I find that I can never do it. I want to comfort the person -- I just don't like it.

Reinventing Radio: An Evening With Ira Glass begins at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, September 21 at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder. Tickets are $37 to $100 ($100 tickets include a pre-show meet-and-greet with Glass) and can be purchased through the venue's website.

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Chautauqua Auditorium

900 Baseline Rd.
Boulder, CO 80302


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