Ira Glass on choosing where to point the microphone

There’s a Q&A with Ira Glass in today’s Courier-Journal (Glass is coming to Louisville on Saturday with a live show called “Reinventing Radio” about the making of “This American Life.”)
As with all Q&As, it’s a highly condensed version of a much longer conversation. One interesting part of the conversation that didn’t make it into the published interview had to do with what makes his show so different from everything else on radio—even 17 highly successful years after “This American Life” started.
Two things about his answers surprised me, as an avid public radio listener and practicing reporter. First, he said he thought telling stories in this style of “TAL” wasn’t inherently more difficult or time consuming than doing them the standard, straight, daily-news way.
Second, Glass said he didn’t think his show—with an audience of 2 million listeners, among them very many public radio reporters and aspiring radio journalists—had changed the way radio gets done on other shows.
Here’s more from that part of the interview:

Matt Frassica: You’ve talked a lot about the intimacy of radio and the goose-bump inducing effect that your show is particularly good at provoking. You feel very close to the person being interviewed even though you can’t see their face and you’ve known them for a couple of minutes. I despair of print being able to do that.

Ira Glass: There’s a print reporter, a feature reporter, who won the Pulitzer prize at the Sun papers, who basically made the switch over to radio and had to learn radio to join our staff because she felt that. She felt there was something in the feeling you could get into a radio story that was just much harder to make work in a newspaper. She’s been on the staff for years, Lisa Pollock.

MF: Was that part of your original conception for the show? Or was that just a happy accident?

IG: No, that’s the only part of the original conception of the show that has stayed constant from the beginning. A lot of other things have changed about the show.
The thing that was at the heart of what I thought this could be as a radio show was that I thought there was a feeling that you could create in a certain kind of radio story that would pop up now and then on the daily news shows that public radio does, but I thought you could just create a whole show with that stuff. Why not just take the thing that’s everybody’s favorite part of the daily news shows and just do a whole show out of that?
Truthfully I was scared when I put the show on the air that someone was going to beat me to it. It seemed like such an obvious idea for a show. It’s like taking the most popular character from a sitcom and spinning them out to their own show. This was the most popular thing that public radio did on those big shows, well of course that’s the thing that would be logical as its own program.

MF: But they’re also the hardest parts to get at, right?

IG: I don’t know if they’re harder. I would argue, no, they’re not any harder. Regular journalism is hard enough. This is also not so super easy, but no I think it’s not harder at all. I think it’s choosing where you point the microphone. You still just point it at their mouths, if you want to get literal about it. But it’s just choosing what angle you want, and what you’re interested in and what the shape of the story is. I think once you get into the habit of doing them this way, that’s what you do.

MF: But still, your show is legendary for taking thousands of hours of tape for each piece and I’m sure it must be pretty merciless editing to get it down.

IG: No, I wouldn’t—I worked in daily news, and I don’t think most of it is much different from what you do on a daily news show. That is, I would say, half the stories are simply some interview that I did with somebody, so I talk to somebody for an hour, an hour and a half, and we cut it down to 15 minutes. That’s pretty much exactly the amount of work it would take to do that as a feature in a newspaper—you talk to somebody for a while, you cut it down, you write some stuff around it. It’s basically turning out a piece of reporting around one interview in a day or a half a day. That’s super-standard reporting time stuff.
Where it gets more time-consuming are the bigger, more reported pieces, where you have many voices. Yeah, those are definitely more labor-intensive than most of what appears on a daily news broadcast or even in a daily paper, but they’re no different than the big features that would exist on a daily news broadcast or a daily newspaper. Every newspaper you’ll have one story or two on each day where somebody went out and talked to a lot of sources and spent a week or two figuring out how to summarize it in a compelling way. We organize more of the show around it. I don’t think it’s that different.
The one place where it is different is that, because we’re on once a week, we have the luxury of being able to go through a lot of stories and killing a lot of them on their way to air, which is a luxury that if you’re working in daily journalism you just don’t have. You can’t develop stuff and throw it out as often.
So for us to come up with three or four stories for a given show, we’ll go through 15 or 20 ideas and look into them some and then go into production on seven or eight of those ideas, and then  different stories will die at different points. Some die after one interview, some die after all the interviews are done and we do a draft, some go very far in the process before we kill it. That’s the one luxury we have. And that’s the one thing that’s different.
To state the thing that’s underlying what I’m saying, I think more journalism could be like what we do if it simply chose to be like what we do.

MF: If it were more selective?

IG: No, I don’t think we’re more selective. I think it’s an aesthetic pick. I think it depends on what you think is interesting to people and what’s interesting to you. And I think partly a lot of journalism just gets done a certain way out of habit, and super smart people who are great reporters just do it the way that they’re used to doing it.
What’s interesting for me is the number of reporters who come to us as a show and say, I’m doing great as a reporter  but there’s something in the style of what you’re doing that seems like just seems fun to do and it’s getting across more feeling about something than in a straighter way to do it. We collaborate with people like that all the time. I think when they go back to their regular gigs, I would like to believe that it’s easy for them to use the moves that we make them do for us. Because it’s not that fancy, it really is not that hard.

MF: You’ve been around long enough that you’ve probably seen quite a bit of your influence spread throughout radio.

IG: That’s funny that you say that, because I don’t feel like my influence has spread throughout radio. I think there are a couple of people you can tell they’ve heard the radio show. There’s a public radio show called “Radiolab.” You can tell that those guys heard what we did and they’re like, Let’s do that but go even further. They definitely heard a way of structuring a show, structuring a story, and then took it in their own way afterwards. and “Snap Judgment,” similarly, another public radio show. And there’s certain reporters who are on NPR who have heard the way that we do stories. But that’s probably fewer than a dozen reporters.
I don’t know, I don’t hear everything, but that’s my impression. But when you look at most radio, most radio is not at all like what we do. I don’t feel like our influence has changed radio. At all. Most radio is talk radio, right wing talk, and on public radio most of it is news and interview shows, which in no way sound anything like what we do. Or they do—they sound like a cousin to what we do, but they don’t seem very influenced by what we do.