What's your favorite episode of This American Life?
I wish I had one favorite because it would make it easier to answer this question. I have lots. My favorites tend to be the same as everyone's - when we started a favorites page we ended up with five pages and dozens of shows.
I like the episodes where we try stuff that's new, stuff that's hard. This Week, 20 Acts in 60 Minutes, the episode on an aircraft carrier (which along with our Habeas are arguably the two funniest hours of broadcasting about the War on Terror; Habeas our goal was to make a show about the writ of Habeas Corpus that a normal person would be able not just to tolerate but actually ENJOY). Testosterone's another I love. And - the hardest episode of all - not a listener favorite I think but definitely one of mine, is Stories Our Parents Pitch where every act was pitched by a staffer's parents.
On that note, who has been your favorite person to interview?
Definitely Myron Jones, from our Babysitting show. He tells the story of an imaginery family his sister would babysit for, named the McCrearies, but at some point it becomes clear that the story is really about what it's like to have a crazy mom who doesn't show much love.
The grace he has about the terrible things she did to him and his sister is amazing. (She put him into an orphanage!) A model for how you'd hope any of us can feel about our parents as we age and learn to forgive the things they could've handled better.
And he was the rare interviewee who could go anywhere I'd point him. Like: I'd throw him some leading or speculative question like "I wonder where the McCreary kids would be today and what they'd grow up into" and he'd have a thoughtful, funny, utterly broadcastable answer, an interesting answer.
I throw out these questions in lots of interviews. In the good interviews, the people field them and throw them back. In the bad ones, not so much.
He was the best ever. What a sweet, great guy. Passed away a few years ago now.
What about the least favorite? An episode you felt didn't work out.
Heh. Too many to name. Death to Wacky. Secret Life of Daytime. Million Bubbles. In those we aimed high and failed. The Adventure stories in Adventure! Julie Snyder and I just got into a conversation disagreeing about 2010 which aimed high and I swear hit the mark and she says sucks. Idea of that one was to do a show at the start of the year, not looking back at the previous year like everyone else does, but predicting actual things that would happen in the coming year. I love Shalom's story in that.
Typed out like his voice, it would look like this:
I read this in your voice.
Speaking of voice, my niece can't pronounce her L's either and I used to have her listen to your shows on podcast whenever she felt down about it. Knowing there was someone out there with the same condition made it no big deal. Just thank you, Ira, for such a great show!
If I can just comfort one child who cannot pronounce her L's, I feel my years in broadcasting have been worth it.
A follow up to the Drug Court episode would be fantastic. As well as the Turncoat episode with Brandon Darby.
I'm not up to date on Brandon. As for Judge Williams, she stepped down from the bench after the state agency that investigates judges looked into her actions.
During your live show this past summer (which was excellent) did Tig have any idea that Taylor Dayne was going to be there, or was it a complete surprise for her?
It wasn't a surprise but could you guys kind of keep that to yourselves? I've tried not to tell many people. Tig is a really good actress.
Do you have Carl Kasell's voice on your home answering machine?
Heh. No. I think it's actually a little cheesy that that's the prize on Wait Wait. I think they should give out a copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica or something if you win.
PS I'm dressing up as you for Halloween.
I love the following quote from you:
"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit."
I love your show and want to be able to share stories in a similar medium. Any advice on how to just get started collecting interviews and producing crap so I can be good in a few years?
Thanks. This and the videos this came from are weirdly way more popular than my actual work, at least on the Internet.
Hi Ira, big fan.
How is the music chosen for each This American Life broadcast? Is that something you personally do? I'm always impressed by how well the tiny snippets of music during the stories fit the overall theme.
The songs that come between the stories are found by two amazing people, Damian Graef and Rob Geddis. The scoring music underneath the stories is chosen by all of us. Basically one producer takes each story on Thursday and adds any music. Then Julie Snyder or I listen and give any notes or suggestions. It's all very last minute, in the day before and the day of broadcast (which is Friday). We could probably do a better job finding new scoring music more often. We reuse a lot of stuff more than is probably best.
sometimes I like the recurring music, it's comforting in a way. Makes it feel like all the stories are connected somehow...like we're all working together here, on this planet, just living our lives day to day.
This is my new official response to the question "why do you reuse the same music on every show?"
So much better than my old response: we're lazy.
What was the most compelling segment that never made it to air?
Sometimes the person just refuses to talk. Just a couple weeks ago there was a story about a kid who stole a Lamborghini that we could not get the kid or anyone who knew him.
There was a guy who keeps a blog about amusement park accidents who had an amazing story and we couldn't get him to talk to us. That was disappointing.
Lots of people have the good sense not to talk on the radio.
A couple of years ago, I was watching an episode of the TV version of This American Life with my (now) wife and (now) mother-in-law. My MIL was not familiar with the TV or radio show, but when she first saw you on screen, she said "Oh, that's Ira." And my wife and I were like "yes, he hosts the show." And she said "No, that's Ira Glass, I used to babysit him." A little research on on end told me you grew up in Baltimore, so it is totally possible. Do you remember a babysitter named Ann?
Not offhand but I did have babysitters and did grow up in the Baltimore suburbs.
The journalistic integrity This American Life presented when it retracted ‘Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory’ is absolutely astounding. Has there been any change in policy since then?
We used to fact check the way they do on the daily NPR news shows (where I worked before doing this show): editors and reporters consult about questionable facts, rundown stuff in an ad hoc way.
Now we have professional fact checkers for everything, including the personal essays.
Still a question is what to do about David Sedaris. He doesn't pretend the stories are true. He says to everyone they're "true enough for you." I assume the audience can tell, he's a funny writer, there may be exaggerations for comic effect. We have three choices: 1) assume the audience is smart enough to tell; 2) label his stuff on the air as possibly non-factual (hard to figure out a way to do that which doesn't kill the fun but there probably is one); 3) fact check him the way the New Yorker does. I honestly don't know where I stand on this one. When I pose the Q to public radio audiences, at speeches and events, they overwhelmingly vote #1, with a vociferous tiny minority who feel strongly in favor of #2.
I remember that! I had to remind myself that it was fiction, I found myself thinking about it while trying to get to sleep.
People get so mad at us that we hold that information to the end though. Furious. I think when we reran the show, we started saying it at the top too. Because we're pussies.
I actually have listened to that episode. It's hilarious and was rather shocking the first time I listened to it.
We're doing that again. I loved that.
Surely you don't think of female genitalia as weak, or representative of undesirable "feminine" attributes like cowardice!?
Quite the opposite, thanks for asking.
It's 2012 and I'm in journalism school. Am I an idiot?
Short answer: no. There'll be journalism somewhere. There'll be jobs.
Longer answer: depends on which school.
Scumbag Ira Glass: Longer answer is actually shorter then the short answer.
Oh! Right. Good point.
This may seem overly broad, but what do you think about sites like Reddit?
Reddit isn't a "journalistic" site in the traditional sense, but what do you think about the format? It's different than a lot of other sites out there.
I wish I had time to read on the Internet or do anything much on the Internet. I basically work and walk the dog and hang out with my wife. Even simple plans like finish Season Three of Louis CK's show fail.
I agree with this. I'm working in marketing even though I studied and interned in journalism. Take some marketing classes.
Or ... be ambitious! Start doing journalism right now! One great thing about being a writer at this moment in history is that you don't need permission to start making your work. Just ... start! Tavi Gevinson it up!
Was there ever an interview you did for This American Life that you had to stop because it was so emotional for you or the interviewee?
We'll pause sometimes if it's hard for an interviewee to continue, sure. That's incredibly rare. Almost never happens.
And though I feel emotionally invested in the stories I'm doing, I've never come close to getting so emotional that I couldn't continue an interview. That's a very romantic idea of what it means to be a reporter. For one thing, it's not that hard to keep asking questions. Also: you're there to do a job.
I'd guess that interview with the Hmong girl about yellow rain was pretty tough. She got pretty upset. I remember you'd mentioned you weren't including the whole interview in the episode. How did that end?
That was Radiolab, bro.
you have a great voice but did you ever try to fake a "Radio Voice" when you were younger? i did that when i was in j-school and i cringe at the sound of it today.
Yes! Absolutely! There are samples of it online. I was horrible for a long time.
I think that's not unusual. Once I got to interview the poet Billy Collins, who has this incredibly funny, conversational voice in all his writing. He told me that when he started, he wrote like other people, imitating what he thought real poets should sound like. I think he said he wrote like a beat poet.
My favorite poem by him. I think about this one all the time since I don't believe in god or afterlife and this poem makes me worry that my belief will make it so.
His chatty style, most famously on display in this great poem:
You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine. You are the dew on the morning grass and the burning wheel of the sun. You are the white apron of the baker, and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard, the plums on the counter, or the house of cards. And you are certainly not the pine-scented air. There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge, maybe even the pigeon on the general's head, but you are not even close to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show that you are neither the boots in the corner nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It continues ...
Which radio personality has the ideal height to weight to body fat ratio in your opinion?
Howard! Okay he's manorexic, sure. But I respect the initiative.
Peter Sagal started running years ago and became shamefully fit. It's hard to understand how someone so physically fit could still be funny, but he's managed it.
My friend and I have always wondered how awesome family reunions are, with you and Mr. Philip Glass.
Wish we had family reunions.
I am a huge fan of This American Life, and I've always wondered how the story selection process works? Could you give us a little insight behind the scenes of the show? Also, Sleepwalk with Me is awesome!
In general, the story process is kind of messy. I suppose that's inevitable. At any given point, we have three or four shows we're actively preparing, and another two or three kind of burbling up slowly in the background. (There are nine of us on staff. It's a lot of people. For years, it was just four.)
If we find a story that we love that doesn't fit with any of those episodes, we invent a theme that could include it.
Then we go looking for other stories that could fill out the theme.
We do this by brainstorming what MIGHT work and then go looking for it. We do this by sending out emails to contributors and asking "have you got anything that goes with this?" We have a doc we send now and then to an email list of hundreds. Occasionally we crowdsource an idea on Facebook and our show's blog. It's messy.
What we're looking for: someone to relate to, a plot that's surprising that leads to some idea about the world that's also new or interesting or surprising. Those are the basic elements. Extra points for humor, charm or memorable details that you can't get out of your head. A great story is like a great melody: it announces its inevitable greatness and you recognize it the first time you hear it. Most stories aren't that. They do not announce their obvious greatness. 60% are in the limbo region where they might GET great or they might flop, and the only way to figure it out is to start making the story. So you launch in, hoping for that winning combination of great moments, charm, funny, and X factor.
As a result, we go through tons of stories on our way to the few that end up on the air. It's like harnessing luck as an industrial product. You want to get hit by lightning, so you have to wander around for a long time in the rain.
Here's the list of story ideas we looked into for the show we did Sept 28th. In addition to the stories that ended up on the air, we collected tape on another three stories I know of. Might be more. The knee defender story I recorded on a plane to MN. Hopefullly that'll show up in a future episode.
This is pasted in from our staff story list for that week. They are in decreasing order of likelihood of ending up on the air, which is how we always list them. Often the final lineup isn't determined till the day of the show. Often on the day we broadcast the show we have to decide: will we cut a few minutes from each story to fit in more stories, or will we kill a story?
Send a Message (Jonathan)
Dave Hill: homeless man throws pee on him 10
Great-grandmother predicts baby genders from beyond the grave Melissa Salpietra (Brian) 8-9
Sonari Glinton: Black Jesus (Jonathan) 10
Josh Bearman: Galileo sends coded messages to Kepler (Robyn) 7-10
Bill Lahey: dad’s phone calls to kids about divorce (Nancy) 12-15
Lisa: knee defender for planes
PJ Vogt: Craig Schergold gets greeting cards after tumor is removed
Brian: Thai chef punks restaurant w/ wrong name
Starlee & EG: talk to authors of coming out book (Robyn) 10-12
Andrea: getting harrassed by jealous uncle
AZ & HI emails about Obama’s birth certificate
Rob: $15 collect calls from Cook County jail
Jonathan: ABC/CBS Dancing on the Stars
Ruthie: Tourettes guy (Jonathan)
x-Matt: jr high boycotts lunch; gets salad
x-Sam: couple gets divorced to protest gay marriage laws (not until July)
x-Robyn: 13 y.o. writes essay comparing school to slavery
x- Nancy: Nazi reference in Librarian training manuals
x- Bruce: same speech for 19 years about genocide treaty (Lisa)
x- Ben: Iraq war vet flipping off Scott Walker*
If you could revisit the Melissa Salpietra story, I found that story a little disturbing.
I was waiting for Melissa to visit someone...anyone...a statistician, a mathematician, someone who could explain why Nona was able to "guess" the sex of the baby so many times correctly. Obviously it isn't that surprising when you're basically playing heads or tails, however, I was little disturbed by this family's superstitious culture, and how apparently they seemed to look down at the "weak links".
Basically what I'm saying is do you feel like the family was possibly "fudging the facts" at best or even lying at worst of Nona's track record?
Edit: Sorry, I meant to say Brian. (Still a great story Brian!) By the way, I hope you didn't think I was criticising your reporting. It was a great story! Its just the unlikely odds plus the 'weak link' pressure made me feel more critical towards the family than the story itself.
We checked all that! And Brian reports that she was wrong twice. And we went to mathematicians who told Brian (it was in his story) the statistical likelihood of it happening by chance.
They put outa comic/graphic novel a few years ago that focuses on the production of a show. Maybe eBay has some?
For sale here
Is there a question you wish someone had asked that no one has? If so, what?
Heh. When David Sedaris was asked that, his answer was "How much money did you make last year?" He was proud.
I wish someone were interested in the business side of the radio show. I'm incredibly proud of the fact that we got up and running and it's a thriving business that reaches lots of people, and I personally always want to tell people the million details that go into that because it's been such an interesting kind of thing to figure out. But nobody gives a fuck. Nobody should.
My friend, who idolizes you to some degree, claims to have met you in Chicago and lost to you at pool. Are you a pool shark, or is he a liar?
I wish I could say I made my way through college by scamming people in pool games. I did not.
I may have beat your friend in Chicago but that only means that your friend sucks at pool.
I've operated a fan-based feed for TAL on twitter: @NPRAmericanLife for several years, since before you guys had an official twitter feed, it basically posts the episode alerts from your site's RSS to twitter.
I've been trying to find someone that works for your show that would like to take over this user because it has 25,000 of your fans following it and i'm not really the guy who probably should be in charge of it. Is there anyone you could set me up with to arrange for me to give you guys this twitter account?
Thanks! Dan (a big fan of the show)
Hi there! Thanks so much for doing this and we'd love to take it over. Email Seth Lind at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hey Ira, you did an episode a while back on a camp in Decatur, MI called Lake of the woods. I worked there and they have a plaque up there in memorial of your visit. I'm sure it was just another episode for you but the place means a lot to me and I always wondered if you had any lasting memories from your visit.
I mainly remember how fun it was to be at camp. Like: doing the story effectively gave me the feeling I had as a kid at camp, but better. Since I was doing an activity I actually enjoyed - making a radio story - instead of pretending to like sports.
What a nice camp that is.
One of my favorite teachers at my school is a former contributor, or current, I don't know. He loves radio and sometimes we'd sit and just listen to his stuff in his class. He's a great guy and I was wondering if you remembered him, or had any thoughts about him you might like to share. Scott Carrier is his name.
I love Scott Carrier! He's utterly original in the way he writes and voices his stories.
He should do more on the radio. Glad to hear he's one of your favorite teachers and I say this with love but what kind of BS is that that he has you listen to his stories in class??? Do you LOOK at him while you listen to these haunting stories? Isn't that weird? Can't he just give you the links and you do that on your own? Tell him to show up to class more prepared!
First off all: I love you and I love the show.
Secondly: Who are your personal radio heroes? Both past and/or present, alive or dead.
For a generation of us who worked at NPR in the 80's and 90's, there's no better writer for radio than Alex Chadwick. I don't even know how many people outside NPR know his name. I wish I could write as well for radio as he does.
I love Howard Stern, as an interviewer, as someone who's fun to listen to. The design of his show - the architecture of it - is genius.
Terry Gross, of course. Lately, Mark Maron. The Radiolab guys, who kick our ass on a regular basis with their excellence.
I have no old time radio heroes. I don't even know much about radio before the 70's, when I got into it. The kind of radio I like is made today. Older stuff to me seems boring.
If you weren't doing This American Life, what do you think you would be doing as a career?
Either teacher or doctor. When I was a reporter in the public schools, I thought a lot about switching. Worried I wouldn't be able to handle the discipline issues. But that seems like a great, interesting, hard hard hard job, which is what I like.
Will you ever go on tour. Like say David Sedaris does?
I give a talk about the show - usually for some public radio station - every two or three weeks. A list is here
How is your dog doing, and what exotic meat are you feeding him now?
Thanks so much for asking! We are transitioning from venison to ostrich.
Every six or nine months his body develops an allergy to each new food and he can't eat it. We made a choice to try to keep him alive, even if it's ridiculous and expensive. Feel free to criticize.
We've already gone through tuna, chick peas, pork, kangaroo, rabbit and some others I can't remember right now.
It's only a matter of time before - like some characters in a Twilight Zone episode - the only meat that's left is human flesh, and my wife and I feed ourselves to the dog.
I'm getting a cat soon. What should I name him?
Stamps. I like that because it's like a name a kid would give a pet. If we ever get another dog, that's what I'm lobbying for.
Is there any awkwardness or standoff when you come across Ira Flatow in the hallway?
Holy christ yes. I'm glad you mentioned it. He and I each believe - fiercely, heatedly and to our dying breaths - that there is only room in public radio for one Ira.
Do you have a personal issue with Adam Carolla? I know he can be brash and rude, but you seemed very spiteful on his show a few months back.
That is a sad statement about my ability to perform graciously as a guest on a podcast. I think Adam's a genius and I was simply not very good on his show. I have no spiteful feelings about him at all. He's awesome. Sitting a few feet from him watching him spin out ideas and jokes is like watching Charlie Parker.
My strengths are different. I'm a good editor. I'm good if I can sit and write something. I am not good on my feet that way.
I came here to mention that same video. I work with high school students and show that to every new class.
Question for Mr. Glass: is there any way you could convince the creator to upload the hi-res original?
Thank you for the years of amazing radio you've given us.
That was made by Current TV - Al Gore's outfit. I bet they don't even HAVE the original any more. If you can reach someone there, they have the rights to do whatever they want with it.
What was the most uplifting story you've done, or even better what was the most uplifting story you've had to cut?
I guess it shows that I don't care about things being uplifting that I don't even have a list in my head of stories like that.
I loved seeing Sleepwalk With Me when it premiered in Rochester. It seems to have touched something very real and very human in everyone who sees it. That being said, are you going to get on the Nerdist podcast any time soon? Birbiglia was just on it recently. I know you did an interview but, come on, that involves reading.
Wait - what's the connection between the first and second sentence in your question?
Did you ever find out what happened the night you got black out drunk on stage at Anaheed's direction?
Also is there video? Please tell me there's video.
I think there is video but I don't want to see it. I think it's best not to know.
What was it like working with Chris Ware?
It's incredible, because anything he takes on, he does with a thoroughness that leaves nothing untouched. Every detail is in place and thought through.
That's a lot of "ough" words in one paragraph.
As a favor, he agreed at the last minute to do a backdrop for our recent cinema event. The idea is that each performer came out on stage and a backdrop was projected behind them. The performer, Ryan Knighton, had told a story about getting lost in a hotel room (he's blind) and up till this point in the show we'd seen overhead maps of the room. I asked Chris if he could look at the maps, and draw what it would look like to stand in the room. Maybe do a daytime and nighttime drawing.
One day later, he handed in this gorgeous little film, which goes, as you'll see, a step further. Because of your question, we just posted it on Youtube:
What is your favorite cereal?
Grape Nuts. Walnuts and milk. I never ever eat this anymore.
I was just discussing the relationship of PRI and NPR in another thread! I am coming to understand that my customary NPR donations during "panhandle week" don't necessarily translate into additional funding for your show. For those of us who greatly respect and appreciate This American Life, what is the most useful way of supporting the work you do?
When you donate to your local public radio station, that gives them the money to pay us for the show. So giving to your local station is effective! Most of our money comes from stations paying for the right to broadcast the program. Bigger stations pay more, smaller ones less.
We always try to do extra great in the pledge drives so that we bring in tons more money for stations than they ever have to pay for our show.
The most awkward family car ride of my life was when my brother put on a random TAL episode, which turned out to be the original one on Penn State.
My siblings and I were all in college or just out, and we listened in horror as my very proper schoolteacher mother gasped at the stories of drunk coeds, public urination, used condoms in left in yards. We were all too petrified to turn it off.
Did she enjoy the line when the man who lived next door to the frats said that he's learned that if you find a used tampon in your yard, you'll usually find a condom as well?
Grossest thing ever on the show. Till we had that lady talk about swallowing sharp objects this weekend.
David Rakoff, whats up with him? Any chance he could do an AMA?
Oh honey, he died a few weeks ago.
Given your experience on Sleepwalk With Me, would you ever produce a movie again? If so, what things would you do different?
We have a few movies in the works, with some great directors: Tim Robbins, Errol Morris, Mark Forster. But with those, I'm just reading scripts and giving notes about the story - something I'm actually qualified for. No more going to the set or sitting for weeks in the edit room or weeks of promotion. That was fun - but I enjoy making the radio show way way more. And the radio show reaches so many more people. And it's always more pleasant doing something you're actually good at, than something you're struggling to learn to do.
That said .... I'm so proud of our film. Mike's so great in it. Someone here asked about my favorite memory of making the film. It was on the first day of shooting. The scene where Mike's parents in the film come to the apartment for dinner. So it's Mike and these super-experienced actors, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, Jim Rebhorn (who's been in a million movies). And he's completely calm, doing his part, acting really well. I remember looking in the monitor and realizing that we'd been working on the film for two years and at no point did I stop to wonder if he'd be a good actor. Literally to that moment it hadn't occurred to me that I didn't know if he'd be any good. And he was SO good. Whew for that.
I hope you guys see the film. It really is as good as any of the best episodes of the radio show. It's more fun to see it in a theater of course, because it's more fun to see any comedy with a crowd of people laughing with you. But you can watch it tonight on Video on Demand, almost anywhere. Okay, there's my second and only other plug. Yes, it's crass. But also 100% heartfelt. Our film is good.
Signing off now. If ever you guys want to do this again, I'd be happy to visit back. And now that I've been on Reddit, I'm going to look around. Hope I see you in other discussions ...
Ira, I just wanted to let you know I am a long time listener of your work and I feel like you are one of the greatest journalists of our time. That being said I saw Sleep Walk with Me with my wife, it's our first marriage, we are young and I haven't been very happy. Towards the end of the film when BurBigs asks Abby why she didn't leave him really made me realize that I didn't love my wife the way she needed to be loved. I ended our marriage that night. This may sound awful, but we are both at peace with this now and realize it is for the best. I just wanted to say thanks for giving her a chance to get the love she deserves.
I know this sounds crazy but you are not the only person to report this to us. Birbiglia says lots of people have let him know that they broke up after seeing the film. Most were just boyfriend/girlfriend though. Dunno if there were any other marriages.
My best wishes to both of you.
Why isn't this as good as Mike Birbiglia's AMA?
Obviously: I am not as talented or interesting!
He told me to... https://twitter.com/birbigs/status/256039575800135681
Oh, I see. I stand by my reply.
Here's a question: why does the This American Life podcast feed only include the most recent episode? There are times when I start an episode, need to finish it later, and its gone...which makes me sad.
Download it! Then it won't be gone.
"Each week, of course, we pick a theme..." I dwell on that "of course" more than I should. What is its origin and purpose?
"Of course" because I say the same thing every week.