Ira Glass Promises 110 Percent for Cal Perf Visit

The host of radio show ‘This American Life’ will be telling fun stories at a Cal Performances appearance this month.


Photo by Sandy Honig

Long before everybody and his grandmother took over the world with podcasts, host Ira Glass and his team of intrepid producers re-invented the magazine-style radio show with the debut of This American Life back in 1995. Each weekly show has an often quirky theme—like putting a band together from local musicians’ classified ads or a show where every story had to be pitched by the producers’ parents. But whether serious or fun, it always puts an emphasis on telling stories in an entertaining way. And that could account for its success. This American Life is heard by 2.2 million on over 500 public radio stations nationwide. And another 2.5 download each episode. Holy smokes! No wonder Glass is kind of a big deal. Today he also makes movies and even has time to trot out a one-man show about the making of his radio show and other stuff called Seven Things I’ve Learned. Because he’s bringing the show to Cal Performances this month, I was able to wrangle some phone time with the host. Who knows? It could lead to an episode.

Paul Kilduff: Have any special Berkeley material planned for your Cal performance?

Ira Glass: Special like free speech, Anita content?

PK: Exactly. As I’m sure you’re aware, there have been some issues with people speaking at Cal of late.

IG: I guess I could pander in some way, but I don’t have any plans to do anything other than what I normally do, which is to try and bring 110 percent to every talk.

PK: You’re like a prizefighter. OK, I like that.

IG: Yes, very much so. Obviously, I’ll be in the gym in the weeks leading up to the talk getting in shape. And I’ll be in peak physical condition.

PK: It’d probably be better for the box office if there were protests, though, don’t you think?

IG: Perhaps. To me the trade-off wouldn’t be worth it. If you’re doing a public radio show and you can’t sell tickets in Berkeley, you’re doing something wrong. If I don’t have an audience in Berkeley, what hope is there for anybody?

PK: Is Seven Things I’ve Learned about how the This American Life sausage is made, so to speak?

IG: That isn’t the real goal of the show. The show is much more straight-up entertainment. I call it Seven Things I Learned online, but really it’s just an excuse to tell a bunch of stories that seem fun. Some of them are actual things I have learned about doing journalism and making the show. But some of them are just really wonderful stories that are really fun to present to people in a room. There’s video and there’s a thing where I have sound clips and music and I basically score and mix the thing as if it were an episode of the radio show standing in front of you, mixing stuff with an iPad. It’s a really fun show to do.

PK: You’ve been greatly influenced by musicals. Is it time for Ira Glass, The Musical?

IG: It’s not a good enough story. For a good musical, you want it to be funny at the beginning to pull you in and then tragic towards the end. I feel like until I head into my alcoholic/drug-addicted phase, I really don’t present decent material to anybody who wants to write a musical. Like basically, a musical about somebody who starts to work in a job when he’s 19 and then basically 40 years later is still doing the same job—there is a reason why you don’t write a musical about that.

PK: That’s true, but it isn’t because you’re also producing movies now. Are you always going to do This American Life?

IG: It’s not like I have any other skills, you know what I mean? If I were a really great dancer or director or something, I’d have a B-plan. There are other things that I like to do, but I feel like this is one I have the most special talent for. So I think I will just stick with it.

PK: What’s an information source that isn’t biased these days? CNN? NPR?

IG: I don’t think about it that way. You’re asking me what people should turn to for their news?

PK: Yeah.

IG: I don’t know. I’m a reader of The New York Times. I think everybody is on their own for that. Myself, I prefer journalism that is holding up to the standard of everything must be absolutely true.

PK: A lot of politicians believe that the media is completely liberal and biased. And a lot of people who voted for them believe that, too. Do you ever think about that? Like how that impacts how people view their sources of information.

IG: I think about that all the time.

PK: What’s your response to that perception of the media?

IG: I would say people should look at what we’ve done. Browse through the website. Look at the coverage we do. Look at our attempts to be equally fair to partisans on all sides, but also hold them all up to the same tests of accuracy when they make a claim. Some of the criticism we’ve gotten in the last two years since President Trump took office is from liberals who don’t like the fact that we’re reporting equally on liberals and on conservatives. I was at a fundraiser for a public radio station in the home of a very nice lady who was raising money for the station and we had just aired an hour that Zoe Chace did back when Senator Jeff Flake was trying to make a deal on the Dreamers. He spent months trying to make that deal happen going to the White House and getting close, but obviously it didn’t happen. And in that show he comes off as idealistic but flawed. A champion of certain ideas about immigration and the Dreamers. I remember this public radio listener was saying to me, “I felt sympathetic to him, and I didn’t like it.” And she said to me, “You humanized him.” And I was like we didn’t humanize him. He is a human. We are just documenting the truth.

PK: What makes for a good public radio incentive during pledge drives? A coffee mug? T-shirt? Both?

IG: Neither. If you are going to give something away, it has to be something that people have never heard of. I feel like some of the more successful ones were public radio temporary tattoos. They look like biker tattoos. You can find them online. I think we still sell them in our store. Bleeding hearts and things like that. A dagger and a skull and it says pressure. They’re very much like heavy metal tattoos, but with public radio content. People like that. I remember in our first year on the air, we had matchbooks and they said, “I listen to public radio and I smoke.” We were told, “Don’t do that again.” I think you play against type as much as you can.

For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.

Ira Glass Vital Stats

Age: 60

Birthplace: Baltimore

Astrological sign: Pisces

Favorite Sandwich: “I haven’t had a sandwich in years—mostly I try to avoid bread.”

Currently reading on Kindle: The Fifth Risk


This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.