a long talk

Ira Glass Just Wants to Make a Decent Show

Photo: Sandy Honig

As rough a year as it has been for media and entertainment in general, the mood in podcasting has been positively apocalyptic. The medium’s rapid ascent over the past decade, fueled by a mix of genuine excitement and no shortage of speculative investment, came to a screeching halt this year as the same economic turbulence that has rocked other media sectors trickled down onto the relatively young podcast ecosystem. Where gobs of new podcasts and studios once launched on the regular, layoffs are now the more frequent phenomenon. The big question is, Where do we go from here? Today, the continued existence of podcasts is no longer in doubt, but the downcycle has brought deep shifts in the shape of the medium. Narrative podcasts, once a hallmark format, have been particularly hard hit, and their future is now uncertain.

Amid these uncertainties, This American Life continues to stand firm. Created by Ira Glass and Torey Malatia as a public radio show in 1995, the program was among the very first to cross over into podcasting and reach new audiences in a meaningful way. Today, the show is a dual-track audio institution hitting over 2.6 million listeners as a podcast, plus another 1.6 million through distribution via public radio stations.

It also occupies a unique and uniquely strong place in the cultural firmament. This American Life began as an experiment in form and tone; the idea was to produce a distinct narrative style of radio storytelling. (The show’s website describes its episodes as “little movies for radio.”) When it debuted in the mid-’90s, vanishingly few others were making shows like that for the airwaves, so it became a pioneer of the narrative audio form here in the United States, which many now take for granted as having always existed. Through Glass’s hosting, the show also helped define what is known as the “NPR voice” (despite not actually being a part of NPR), and it’s a testament to This American Life’s impact and ubiquity that its chatty style of narration now looms over audio producers everywhere. Then, of course, there’s Serial, the show’s podcast spinoff whose unexpected attainment of global-phenomenon status played an outsize role in the expansion of the medium — and of true crime’s place in it.

This American Life recently crossed the 800-episode mark, and Serial Productions, its sister studio formed in the wake of Serial’s success and acquired in 2020 by the New York Times, is rolling out its latest project, The Retrievals. In an era when so much about the podcast and audio world seems to be on shaky ground, I was curious to speak with Glass about his experience building an institution that lasts.

Do milestones like the 800-episode mark mean anything to you?

No. If anything, we come out of public radio, which has an annoying fetish for celebrating the anniversaries of its shows. I just feel like listeners don’t care how many years All Things Considered or Fresh Air has been on the air. There’s a part of me where I feel like I rebel against it.

We’ve done a few anniversary shows. We had a party in Chicago when we were on the air for a year, but that’s more out of amazement that we survived. We did a tour for our fifth anniversary; that was the first time I was on TV. We hired a publicist for that, and I got onto Letterman. My mom, who since my early 20s had been telling me it’s not too late to go to med school, called me after Letterman and said sort of jokingly, “Okay, you win.”

Did the med-school stuff bother you?

Oh, I completely ignored it. I always understood what I wanted to do. But to get very real about it, the unhealthy part was that I shut her and my dad out for like a decade. I can just shut other people out sometimes in a very single-minded way, which is not ideal.

If I remember the lore correctly, This American Life started out as an experiment. Nobody made this kind of radio in 1995, and your voice was considered unconventional for broadcast back then. Now, there’s an entire generation of producers who either sound like This American Life or are actively trying not to. I’m wondering if you can recall the moment you realized you were the Establishment. 

That’s an interesting question. I think it took a long time before anyone really started to imitate us. There was a show Dean Olsher did on WNYC called The Next Big Thing. I don’t know if it ever went national, but Dean had heard what we were doing and was taking certain lessons from it. And Jad Abumrad over at Radiolab clearly heard what we were doing and was like, I’m gonna do my own version of this — in particular, the very chatty way of narration, which was very new for public radio when we went on the air. Of course, Jad’s use of music is so much more sophisticated than ours. He really invented his own aesthetic after having heard our show.

I don’t know when we started to feel like the Establishment. There was a moment before Serial when it was clear other people were hearing what we were doing and deciding that this way of telling radio stories, where there would be plot and characters and emotional moments, was a good way to do it. By that point, it was already widespread, and the main way we felt it at the show was that, at the beginning in 1995, whenever we hired somebody, we had to train them in how to make stories like this because nobody knew how to do it. It usually took a year before new hires were totally up to speed and operating at the full level you expect from a radio producer. Whereas there came a point, maybe 15 years in, when enough shows were out there making stuff, and we could just hire somebody and they would come knowing how to do narrative and get the right tape and edit to this style.

It’s interesting, the way you worded the question. Because you’re asking, Do we see ourselves as the Establishment? Nobody ever sees themselves as the Man, you know? The way it felt from inside our office was, We’re a model that other people are imitating, which was totally fine with all of us.

Does that imitation give you any agita?

No, no agita at all. It feels weirdly impersonal. It just seemed obvious to me that this kind of story makes for better radio, and it’s affirming that other people agree. I also feel very aware of what a weird ground war it’s been. We have to be on every week. It’s been a daily slog for so long.

How would you describe the way the show has evolved over time, and what makes a good era of This American Life?

A good era is one when the show gets to exercise all of its feelings. It can be serious some weeks, silly in others, sometimes both at the same time. Right now, we’re doing a very satisfying mix of funny and serious. I feel if we’re too serious, the audience notices and complains — and rightly so. The show should be entertainment. You should be listening not because you think it’ll make you a better person but because it’ll be fun to hear. Even on the episodes that are very serious, we go out of our way to make sure the opening four minutes are really fun so there’s the illusion there might be more fun later.

We’re in a good run right now. The recent episode about rats, for example: That was a perfect one where it’s funny at the beginning with clips of Mayor Adams talking about his war on rats. We sort of pick a fight with him by saying, “Well, you know, we’re not hearing the rats’ point of view on the mayor’s war on rats,” and we brought in actors to improv rats giving their perspective. Then you have Elna Baker’s story, where she finds this guy who really loves rats, which is a tricky story to keep him sympathetic and not where you just feel like he’s a weirdo. There’s also the story by Ike Sriskandarajah, who came to us from Reveal as an investigative reporter, exploring how New York City’s trash bags are basically the reason we have so many rats. And then we have the thing I did in Calgary, which is just a series of moments I thought were interesting.

So that’s a show completely out for fun. We thought the subject would be fun to do, and it’s clearly designed as entertainment. But the week before was this story Miki Meek had been working on for over a year, about this teenager in Idaho who had been raped by a state representative. It seemed like the state did everything right in response. He gets kicked out of the legislature and goes to prison, but the untold story, which Miki got, was how it actually went really badly from the woman’s point of view. It took a long time before she was willing to talk to Miki. It’s a very delicate story to do, the kind of story we would not have been able to do in the first ten years of the show.

Ira Glass circa 2000. Photo: Keith Torrie/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images

At the beginning, we were just a staff of four or five people. Then we were eight people for a very long time. That’s barely enough to get a weekly show on the air. What you want is enough people so people can go off, like Miki did, and spend months on one story. Now we’re in an era where, because the show has been so popular for so long, it brings in a lot of money we can spend on a bigger staff. Right now, the staff is 36 people. The luxury of that is we can really dig into a story; we can try stuff and fail.

There’s another thing that’s different about the show these days: It’s less white. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of our producers are people of color, and the show is so much better because of it. The nuance to our stories about people who aren’t white is where it should have been all along. It just wasn’t there for much too long.

How much do you think about This American Life as a business?

I run the business. I think about it a lot. You know, one of the things people never really interview me about is the business of it, which I always feel is a shame because I really love running the business and have a lot of thoughts about it.

How did it all start?

When I started the show with Torey Malatia, we both felt it’s really normal to hear about somebody who has a nice show that just can’t do enough business to stay on the air. I didn’t want that to happen if our show turned out to be good. I’ve always felt that the more idealistic your project is, the more cunning you have to be about the business side because the world doesn’t want you.

At the beginning, we were working for WBEZ, which didn’t have excess money to throw into the show. So my deal was that if we could raise the money from foundations, we could get on the air. And we did — we raised like three or five thousand dollars to make pilots on my own, and I lived off my savings for a summer doing that. In our first year, we got around $220,000 from foundations, which we used to pay the salaries for four people, marketing, building a studio, and satellite time. We weren’t making a lot of money as a staff.

Our first business problem was, How are we going to stay alive when the foundation money runs out? Because the foundations made clear, We’ll give you money in the beginning, but we expect you to come up with income and replace us with business.

We had an advantage that people making podcasts today don’t have. We existed within a clear infrastructure where we could get on public radio stations and then, once we were on public radio stations, we could get revenue two ways. One is that stations — not at the beginning but after a year or two — will start to pay us to carry the show. Then once you’re on radio stations, you’ll start to build audience numbers just because you’re on those radio stations, and once you get to a certain number, advertisers will pay to reach that audience. So by four or five years in, basically we were at a point where we were completely independent of foundations.

But the trick you had to pull off was, How do you get onto the stations? We were seen as a very weird show. We were also seen as risky content, where some weeks felt a little too adult for a lot of the public radio stations. That dogged us for like 20 years, stations not feeling great about us because of the content. The other thing is the stations don’t need you. One of the rules about a radio station — again, this is so different from the world of podcasting — was that if you were trying to get on a station, you had to talk them into taking something off the air. And any show, no matter how bad it is, has fans who are gonna yell if they take it off.

There was no real reason for them to pick us up. So Torey and I came up with this strategy that turned out to be really smart. We basically looked for what the stations wanted — Torey was a program director, so he knew what a public radio station wanted. And what they wanted and needed, but didn’t have, were pledge-drive materials that would bring in money and be entertaining to listen to. I had a very, uh, macho response to that. I was like, “That’s great because what I am is a really great radio producer, and what you’re saying is this is an assignment, and so my assignment is to make a pledge spot that’ll bring in a ton of money and be really entertaining and that is actually within my skill set.” I actually took a lot of pride in it because, to me, the pledge drive is the hardest assignment in radio.

And nobody wants to do it.

Nobody wants to do it because, from the moment you open your mouth, the listener doesn’t want to hear it. They know you’re gonna ask them for money, and they don’t wanna give you money. Everything you did has to completely upset that expectation. So we just made a series of really funny pledge spots that stations still run to this day all over the country.

We saw an opportunity that if we could get them to pick us up because of the pledge drive, then they’ll pick us up eventually. That was our pitch for the first year, and this is before we had a distributor. I remember Andrea Defotis, who was our person we hired half-time to send out cassettes to stations, saying half the stations were picking us up for the pledge drive because the idea was the pledge modules were short and designed for you to run during drive time. They were putting us on at really weird times — late night, times when people wouldn’t yell at them. They weren’t putting us on when there were a lot of listeners. That’s how we got our first 112 stations or something.

We got a distributor, and we won a Peabody Award in our first year, which really helped us. The distributor, which at the time was Public Radio International, doubled our carriage in three months, and that’s when we felt we were on our way. By year five, it felt like a stable business. Until then, it really seemed like every year we might not have enough money to exist the next year.

Do you think it would’ve been possible to launch the show today?

I mean, telling you this story, I feel so aware of all the advantages I had. There was infrastructure, there were public radio stations, there was a clear path to revenue. I knew if we did these steps, there was revenue at the end. When I talk to people who are starting podcasts, it seems so much harder on two scores: No. 1, figuring out how you’re going to get any advertisers, and No. 2, which probably should really be No. 1, is how you get listeners. How are you gonna let anybody know?

Speaking of which, how did you feel about the podcast boom?

It was exciting! It was amazing.

But I imagine you must’ve viewed the past nine years with some sense of oddness. There was so much money going around. Was it weird?

I mean, it was weird to see other people making so much more money off of podcasts than we were.

Did you all ever grumble about that in the office?

It wasn’t grumbling, and it wouldn’t come up that often, but it was definitely one of the motivations for selling Serial to the New York Times. It was like, “Wait, everybody else is gonna make money off this thing that we were sort of an important factor as a part of?”

Serial was a real surprise. I feel like people forget the thing that was innovative about Serial — that we really didn’t know was gonna work and now everybody kinda takes for granted — was just like, Will people stick around for a serialized story? That’s why it’s called Serial, ’cause that was the thing that was new. As somebody who’d made a radio show for almost 20 years at that point, I knew we knew how to make stories that finished in one sitting, but we never made one that extends beyond one or two weeks.

And now there are serialized narrative podcasts everywhere. But at the same time, it feels as if this format has been hardest hit by the industry downturn. What do you feel looking around the podcast industry today?

I still feel encouraged because there are still things that seem great to me. Like Emily Hanford’s Sold a Story, for example. It’s not just great reporting; it’s also really fun to listen to. She finds the right characters to tell the story and then you just get so mad listening to it. The fact that it’s had real political impact in a way no podcast ever has is very exciting to see happen, you know?

In general, it’s really hard to make one of these things any good. As somebody who edits many, many episodes and shows that Serial Productions has put out, it’s hard to do well. It’s hard to make something that feels new, and a lot of the ones that you hear, you just feel like, Okay, fine. I’m not somebody who has any interest in true crime; I get that some people are into that, but that’s not interesting to me.

They’re also expensive. It just takes more time to do other interviews and to figure out how to shape it and to go through the edits and figure out how to make it work. They’re very expensive to make compared to any talk show. So it’s understandable they’re in danger.

I don’t know. I’m hopeful that the best ideas still find a place. But I don’t know. I don’t have much to say about it. You probably know more about it than I do.

I don’t know if I do. I feel like I only really know more about how shitty things seem to be right now. 

It seems shitty to me, too. I know a couple people who are trying to start shows, and I really feel like they’re up against odds that are more difficult than the odds we were up against.

It’s just crazy to me that people are having a hard time earning money making something so many other people clearly want.

Well, part of the problem is that people aren’t paying for it, right?

Right. They’re accustomed to getting it for free.

That’s the hole in the business model.

Do you ever think about stuff like legacy?

I really don’t care about that. At one point on the show, I talked very sincerely about something I believe, which is “Fuck the people of the future, fuck the people who are gonna be around, like, having lunch and going to movies after we’re all dead.” I don’t need to impress anybody. So in that sense, no. I just want the show to be decent. That’s hard enough.

I feel the way in which the show has a legacy is in how there’s a lot of people who come through here and learn how to do stuff, and they’re off making stuff. I don’t know if this is a publishable anecdote, but last night I ran into this restaurateur named Andrew Tarlow, who’s kind of this notorious figure in the New York restaurant world because he had the first of the schmancy restaurants in Brooklyn back in the day. He had a place called Diner, then Marlow & Sons, and all these people came through and went on to run other restaurants. So if you’re in the restaurant world, you’re constantly meeting people who trained with Tarlow because he was at the time doing the, like, We can do this thing, we’ll have very high standards, it’s gonna innovate, that’s the experience I’m going to sell. Apparently, Chez Panisse is the same thing on the West Coast, probably at a much bigger level. I don’t know enough about restaurants.

And I feel like, well, that’s what we are. We were the first ones to do this thing in such a visible way, and so many people came through and went on to do other stuff — Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, you know, there’s a long list. That’s nice, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to make a decent show that people could stand.

Is there a succession plan for This American Life

Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.

So what’s the plan?

The plan is, basically, at this point, so many people have been here for so many years and are so experienced; people are so much more experienced who work here than I was when I started the show. We have a number of people who could easily host it. At least two of them could definitely do it better than I do. I’ve been encouraging people to do lots of guest-hosting. My thought is that if I decide I wanna stop doing it, if somebody else wants to host or a bunch of people want to host, then they’ll just do it. They’ll step in, and I step away.

Is there someone first in line right now? Like if you had to go to prison for a year or something and someone had to step in right now, who’s that person?

Wait, what’s the question?

You know, like if you had to suddenly disappear for a year.

There’s no first in line, no. It’s funny thinking about it. They might all prefer to split it and just alternate weeks between them. Doing it every week takes a ton of time. Though, of course, from an audience point of view, that’d be awful if no one were the main host. You kind of need one person to be the central voice of any show.

Last question: Are you content with where you are? Is life good?

It’s basically good. For the last few years, I’ve had this project of trying to work less. That goes well, then it doesn’t go so well. But in general, um, you know, I’m mostly fine.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ira Glass Just Wants to Make a Decent Show