“Each week on our program we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme,” Ira Glass announces to his listeners at the beginning of This American Life before revealing the week’s topic. It’s a formula that has made This American Life one of the most popular programs on public radio.
Like any good radio program, it seems to come together effortlessly, but it’s not a simple as it sounds. To start with, there is no set system for assembling each week’s episode. Consider the shows basic structure. Many listeners over the years have probably wondered if the theme or the stories come first.
“It’s neither one,” says Glass from his apartment in New York City. “Generally what will happen is there will be one story that we know we like, but it doesn’t fit with any of the shows we’re doing. At any given point we’ll have five or six we’re working on for the coming weeks. Actually, more than that.”
Often one of the show’s producers will stumble onto a story and bring it to the rest of the staff. “We’ll all say, ‘This is an amazing story, but it doesn’t fit into any of our current shows or solve any of our problem filling those shows.’”
Another completely different show must then be built around that story. “Basically, once we have that story as an anchor, we start looking for other things that we can glue to it. And then we begin a process where we will make up some theme and start looking for things to fill out that theme based on that story.”
Ideas are pitched, but sometimes more loosely than they might be on other radio or TV programs, or at a newspaper or magazine. “It’s a much slower process,” Glass says of developing the stories. “Generally, it takes us a month to fill out a show. So it doesn’t even happen in the meeting. It happens with people going off and looking at their computers and calling friends. We’ll brainstorm in a meeting and ask things like, ‘What could go with this story?’ If it’s a big sad story, we know we need something funny. How are we going to find it?”
An amazing story doesn’t always work out either, even with the most promising beginnings. “Making stuff in this format means you run at a lot of material and half of it falls apart and doesn’t work.”
Glass recalls the time a woman in Northern California contacted him with an intriguing story idea. “She owned a vineyard,” he explains, “and she suspected that some of the workers in the vineyard might have been trafficked. Not just illegals, but actually trafficked from Mexico.”
The woman began investigating it herself, but Glass thought it was too good to be true, at least from a usable story aspect. “She only had eight people working in her fields, and it turns out they weren’t trafficked. But that happens every other day that a story falls a part like that.”
Week after week though, it all comes together, and This American Life remains one of the most popular radio programs in America and is also regularly one of the most downloaded podcasts in iTunes.
While the podcasting audience is growing, Glass isn’t totally convinced of radio’s demise. "Weirdly podcasts are just not catching on,” he notes. “They’ve been around for years, but it’s like soccer. Everyone thinks it’s going to be the next big thing, but it never becomes the next big thing.”
While the podcast audience of This American Life continues to grow steadily, the radio audience is still much bigger, with four-million listeners over the air and an additional one million downloading the show.
“I’m no expert,” he insists, “but as long as there are cars and people are lazy, there’s going to be a useful function for people to be able to get in their cars, turn on the radio, and have something there that they didn’t have to download and all that.”
Ironically, Glass doesn’t even own a radio. “All my radio listening is over the internet. It’s so handy.”
IF YOU GO:
Ira Glass: Reinventing Radio
8 p.m. Saturday, April 9
Historic State Theatre