Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, is probably the closest thing public radio has to a rock star. We asked Toronto’s own reigning nerd of the airwaves, Matt Galloway, to pick Glass’s brain about why the antiquated medium is not just alive, but thriving.
It’s the closest I can get to whispering in your ear.
Speaking into a microphone from five inches away, radio is, at its heart, an incredibly intimate medium, and if you’re lucky, you can steal someone’s attention for a few minutes and tell them a story.
When it clicks—when we make you late for work because of the story you’re hearing, or when we do a show from Thorncliffe Park and someone learns that within and between those towers they see on their commute are layers and layers of community— it is, I think, the most powerful medium we have.
We live in a city that’s very polarized right now, and there are a lot of people making assumptions—you know, “This is what people in Scarborough think,” or “Here’s how Etobicoke approaches things.” We can try to challenge those assumptions by talking to people in different places, or, better yet, actually going to those places and letting them tell their stories.
Certainly, you can do that on television; you can do that in print. But to actually, intimately hear the voices of the people who live in the places you’re talking about, telling their own stories, speaking in their own voices with inflections, accents…maybe laughing, or sounding a bit nervous, or confident—that’s very powerful. And yet, radio is still basically just two tin cans and a piece of wire. It’s old school but changing constantly. An app like TuneIn lets me hear radio from around the world wherever I happen to be, and lets people find Metro Morning wherever they are, whether it’s as they open their eyes in the morning, while they rattle across town on a streetcar, or sail in the Virgin Islands.
Through Twitter and Facebook, the conversation that used to exist (me speaking into a microphone, coming through your speaker) now becomes a multidirectional discussion. We talk about a dispute over development on Ossington, and someone tweets about a similar issue in The Beach. Someone else chimes in with a sharp comment from Rexdale, and the discussion grows and grows.
The radio shows I listen to most —from Radiolab, This American Life, and Planet Money to the BBC’s brilliant end-of-day show, PM, the Paris station Radio Nova, globetrotting DJ Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide, and our own Q— reinvent radio without thinking about it. They tell stories in innovative but still intensely personal ways. They speak to one listener at a time but find a universal appeal. And in the end, after all the fancy edits and artful crafting, it’s still someone in a box of a studio whispering into a microphone from half a foot away.
LISTEN: Matt Galloway interviews Ira Glass, part 1
Matt Galloway: Ira Glass is the host of This American Life and he joins me now, Ira good morning.
Ira Glass: Good morning.
MG: One of the things that I hear all the time, from listeners to our program, is that they’re surprised about how much radio they actually listen to. These are people who are in their thirties and forties, and they’re surrounded by technology and yet somehow, radio places this central role in their lives and their kind of taken aback by that. Based on that, and on what you hear, what do you see as the place of radio in our world?
IG: People have cars and they need to commute, and most of us are too lazy to program every second of everything we’re going to listen to in our cars. So as long as human laziness exists and cars exist, I think that radio will continue to be a part of our lives. And then the other thing that’s happening is that a tremendous amount of material is being made as podcasts, or some version of podcasts, where people are downloading stuff. It turns out there are all these situations where it’s handy to listen to a show like ours, or to a show like Radiolab, or any of the many, many shows [that exist]. Like, I listen to Q on podcast, I never hear it on the radio—it’s just very convenient to have something you can listen to without looking at it, and as it turns out it’s still a form with a lot of potency.
MG: Are you surprised by that potency? Again, this is the thing that we hear from people, that they are really surprised that it means so much to them. That they have all these other things, they have all these other ways to communicate, to gather information, and yet they’re still stuck on radio, in whatever form it’s coming out as.
IG: I mean radio is a direct and—how do I say this?—radio is like a machine for empathy and intimacy, in a way that is hard for almost every other mass medium to recreate. Like, radio is closer to a Tumblr, or a blog, or Twitter, than it is to television, I think. There is a feeling, when you listen to radio, that it’s one person, and they’re talking to you, and you really feel their presence as one person. In the same way that when you look at their Tumblr, or you look at their blog or something, you go: “Oh, it’s one person and they’re talking to me.” That’s really different than reading something in a newspaper or seeing something on television. There’s just an intimacy to it that has a tremendous amount of force. And for somebody like me, who’s doing reporting, it’s a tremendous tool to be able to hear the sound of somebody’s voice, which carries so much information. It allows a reporter to create moments and effects that you’d have to be a stunningly good print reporter to do. You can do it on television—like, we did a TV show for a couple years—but it’s almost like, to do it on television, you’d have to create a sort of scaffolding, an architecture of moments, to get the same effect that you get on radio, simply by just turning on the microphone.
MG: How do you use that intimacy in the stories that you tell? That’s the obvious thing about radio: You’re six inches away from a microphone, it’s like whispering into somebody’s ear, and you have that one-to-one kind of conversation. How do you use that specifically to try and shape the stories that you’re telling?
IG: The first thing is that, you know, when you aren’t distracted by what everything looks like, it makes you more open to hearing what people are saying. That sounds like a moronic thing to say, but it’s really true. I remember when I was doing stories on gang kids in the Chicago public schools before I did This American Life, and I remember thinking, “It’s such a blessing that the audience can’t see these kids.” If they’d been able to see the kids, I couldn’t make them love them, but just hearing their voices, I felt like I could make the audience understand these kids the way that the parents of the kids understand them—the way that I felt I was getting to understand them. And then how else do we use the force of that? I feel like I don’t even have a smart answer to that because it’s so built into every single part of what we’re doing. Like, if you just have sound, you can control pacing in such a direct way. When we edit audio, we can edit out a phrase in the middle of a sentence if we feel like it’s dragging, you know? And you can’t hear it. We control time in a way that’s way different from how you can [do the same thing] on TV.
MG: Do you think about the idea of forward listening, of close listening, in the way that people are listening to your program? I mean, we always are thinking that people have to engage in what it is that we are doing. Hopefully, it’s foreground listening. Do you think about that in putting the show together?
IG: I don’t think of it in that way. I’ve literally never thought about that construction of foreground listening versus background listening at all.
IG: I’ve literally never thought about it, no. I’m working from a much more “golden rule” sort of premise, which is: I want to make something that I myself could stand to listen to. That’s really all I’m thinking about. And I guess when you do that, it necessitates a kind of close listening, to put it in your terms—you know what I mean? I’m just assuming that people are turning on the radio because they want to hear something, and so I’m just going to give them something that I would want to hear if I were listening.
MG: But in the best-case scenario they’re not just sort of listening while they’re doing other things. The great thing about your show is that you can be doing those other things and those other things just kind of drift away, because what you’re saying, and the content you guys are providing, is so compelling and the stories are so overwhelming.
IG: That is really nice of you to say. I mean, I think with anything good, you know, you won’t be focusing on driving a car or cooking dinner or something. If it’s good you just keep listening.
LISTEN: Matt Galloway interviews Ira Glass, part 2
MG: Given the fact that you are broadcasting to such a wide audience—I mean people across the country, but around the world as well—one of the things that radio does is try and create community. Do you think about that? Do you think about using an individual story to try and build something that’s larger than just that individual story?
IG: I don’t know what it says about me but the thought we would try and create community or even use the phrase “create community” just makes me want to puke. [Both chuckle.] No, we don’t think of it that way. I don’t think of it that way. I’ve never thought of it that way. But maybe it’s just a semantic difference. Generally, like I said, all I’m thinking about, and all the staff is thinking about, is: “How can we make something that we would find arresting?” Something that would really just pop out of the radio for us, as a staff, and that we would want to listen to. We don’t think about who else is going to listen. We don’t think about how people around the world are listening; we don’t think about how there are people of all ages listening—except, you know, when there’s content that we’d worry about a little kid hearing. But there is a whole class of stories that we do because we feel confused about something going on in the world, and we want to look into it so we understand it. And there’s a whole class of stories that we do where we hear about something, and we find it outrageous and horrible and we feel like we want people to see it or hear it. We want to get the word out [because] we feel like people should be talking about it. Or we’re just talking about it anyway, and we feel like we should give the audience the courtesy of bringing them in on the thing that’s so interesting to us.
MG: And does that not—I mean, maybe the word is wrong—but does that not create something that’s larger than just that individual conversation?
IG: No, I don’t think so [more chuckles]. I think people flatter themselves to think that they’re creating a community. Like I think that the role of journalism, and the role of radio, is just to make entertainment, and I think for it to create a community requires organizing and people getting together in real space and real time. Do the media really affect social change? I don’t think so much. What the media can do is get information out there, and then if people want to do actual political organizing—the hard work of political organizing—you know with things they might learn on the radio, or in the newspaper, then that can happen. But I don’t think that we in the media should congratulate ourselves by thinking we create community. I think only people getting together creates community. People [sitting] separately, listening alone to the same thing, that is not a community in any meaningful sense of the word “community.”
MG: It’s an audience.
IG: Yeah, and nothing’s wrong with that. I think that’s a great thing. You know, I make stories on the radio because I think it’s nice to hear decent stuff on the radio. I’m glad I get to do it, but I don’t think I’m affecting politics. If anything, the history on our show is of doing stories that are political stories but affect nothing in any way. The number of stories we’ve done about the writ of habeas corpus, and United States government actions, and the War on Terror, is just huge—beautiful, funny, emotional stories that affect nothing and change nothing.
Photo: Andrew B. Myers/The Grid
MG: Do you know when a story really connects with people? How would you have that sense that, yes, it’s interesting and entertaining to listen to but [beyond that,] it’s that kind of story that, as you said, arrests people, the kind that grabs people?
IG: I mean the ones that really jump out, enough people will write us that we feel like: “Oh, that was kind of a good one, huh?” And there have definitely been standouts. Especially the stories we do that explain things in the news that got attention. The biggest was probably one we did in 2008, kind of at the beginning of the collapse of the world economy. We did an episode called “The Giant Pool of Money,” and this was in the spring or summer of 2008, so it was even before like, Wall Street started to collapse, before Lehman Brothers collapsed—
MG: Yeah, that’s fantastic.
IG: And basically, it was a really good example of us just not understanding something that was happening, and trying to get an answer. The thing we didn’t understand was: Why were banks giving out mortgages to people who couldn’t pay them back? If you think about the financial crisis, it really all came out of these mortgage-backed securities, which were these securities which were made up of tens of thousands of individual mortgages that got bundled together and were bought and sold as commodities in and of themselves: financial instruments. And the reason the whole thing fell apart was because the mortgages themselves were built on such shaky premises. One of our producers, Alex Blumberg, was observing this happening, that basically anybody in America—and I don’t know if it was like this in Canada too—could go into a bank and get something called an “No Interest, No Asset” (NINA) loan. It was just a standard product, and basically, you didn’t have to prove you could pay it back.
We started our show with somebody who got…I can’t remember if it was a $300,000 or $400,000 loan. He didn’t even have a full-time job, he had a couple part-time jobs, he made $35,000 a year, and as he said, nobody should have lent him that money. It was just like, “Why are banks acting differently than they ever acted in the history of banking?” And the answer, fascinatingly, was because they didn’t care if you paid it back. They were just going to sell your loan to somebody above them who was going to package it in one of these mortgage-backed securities, so nobody cared. Over the course of that hour, we got to meet people at every stage of the chain—the people who issued the loans to the mortgage buyers, the people who packaged them together, all that—and they turned out to be lovely people who brought down the world economy. And we got to ask them, “What were you thinking? Why did you think this was going to work? Couldn’t you just see this was all going to fall apart eventually? You wanted to make money off this, [but] you must have known it was incredibly risky if you’re smart enough to look at what these things were.”
I feel like when we put that out, I think, up until that point, a lot of people had been hearing about mortgage-backed securities and all these jargon-y things and didn’t really understand. I didn’t report any of it—I was just the editor. And I didn’t understand that stuff, but hearing it in that way, suddenly I understood the news. I actually understood what was being said to me in the mainstream news, and it totally opened my eyes to what was happening. I think a lot of people had that experience. In that kind of situation, people definitely let us know.
There have been other [stories] since, to a lesser degree, where something is especially emotional or outrageous. There was a story we did about a woman in Iraq who was a translator for the United States military. She was very, very good at it, and basically got left behind, and was in a very bad situation after putting her life at risk for the United States military. People were outraged, and they let us know.
Two weeks ago, we had a girl who got bitten by a shark. It was a story where she got bitten by a shark, and it was in a rural area [where] there wasn’t a nice hospital. They went to a local doctor who kind of stitched her up and told the parents, “Listen: She’s going to be complaining because she’s going to be in a lot of pain all night, but just know that’s normal. She might have trouble sleeping, but that’s normal.” What the doctor didn’t understand is that the shark had bitten through her internal organs and she was going into sepsis, and the contents of her bowels were spilling out inside of her body. She was dying, basically. And in the middle of the night, she kept going to her parents and saying, “I feel really bad,” and they’re just like, “No, no, that’s what the doctor said [would happen].” She was coughing up blood, and she had a fever, and nobody listened to her until she nearly died. It’s not a political story, but people definitely connected to [that story], both as the parent and as the kid.
MG: So, as you’re traveling around talking about the reinvention of radio, one of the things we’ve seen is that it used to be a conversation that was kind of one-directional: I’m talking into a microphone, you’re on the other end listening through a radio. And now through Twitter, Facebook, etc., there are all these other ways that people can communicate back, and it turns into this multi-directional kind of dialogue. What’s the most important thing for you in what you’re calling, “the reinvention of radio”?
IG: The most important part is not the two-way part of it—the two-way part is tiny. It’s really, really tiny, and if I were a better person I would pay more attention to what the audience says. I feel like it’s more important for people who make stuff to amuse themselves. The more that anyone who makes work amuses themselves, the better the work is—especially in non-fiction writing. The best non-fiction writing, I think, is done by people who are clearly out to amuse themselves, like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis and other writers who I really admire. And so the biggest part, I think, of reinventing radio, which is just so corny, is to tell a great story, and telling a great story means really being out to amuse yourself, first of all. When people talk about like what makes something relevant or important or interesting in a kind of bigger, cultural way, I think that that usually gets left out: the importance of people just out for fun.
MG: And actually telling a good story, as you said.
IG: Yeah, but I think the two are related. It’s not a good story if it’s not fun.
MG: Yeah. It’s a great pleasure to talk to you Ira, thank you.
IG: It’s a real pleasure to talk to you and I completely regret the tone of some of my comments.
MG: Why? [Both laugh.]
IG: I worried I was a little bit rude.
MG: What did you say—that it makes you puke?
IG: Yes, I think saying that a question makes me want to puke is just a little too rude, even for an American coming onto a Canadian show.
MG: I’ve never heard that before in all of the interviews I’ve ever done.
IG: Well, I just want to apologize. I’m literally sitting here blushing. We’re speaking to each other in studios in different countries, but I’m sitting here literally blushing that I said that. I’m sorry.
MG: There’s no apology necessary. I thought that was a great answer.
i: Reinventing Radio: An Evening With Ira Glass takes place at Massey Hall (178 Victoria St.) on Oct. 27. 416-872-4255, masseyhall.com.
Sidebar: Click here for a close-up view of our Toronto-radio ratings chart *
CORRECTION, OCTOBER 26, 2012: The original version of this chart—as it appeared here and in the Oct. 25, 2012, print edition of The Grid—mislabelled the 680 News bar. It has been corrected.