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The Trouble With Birthdays: Ira Glass

RK: No, it's not that, I don't think. What you're really talking about is learning to relax.

IG: And how to trust your own judgment. When I think about it now, I think one thing that made that Oreo cookie story possible was that for seven years, while I was trying to make my way in radio, I had been living in New York with this woman who didn't think I was smart enough for her or in general. She doubted I was good enough for her, and I doubted it too. Finally that summer she went away to Texas for a few weeks, for work. And without her presence, without her voice in my head, suddenly I was just actually able to be myself and not worry about how stupid I was coming off. I didn't have to worry that my opinions weren't good enough — and essentially that was what had been wrong with my writing at the start, that I didn't think that my opinions were good enough. For her it was very important that things be very serious and deal with serious issues. She had worked for Ralph Nader, she was a public-interest attorney. And I always felt like the things that were interesting to me were fluff compared to the big things that were on her mind. I felt like I should be interested in the big important issues of the day like she was, and my interests in nobody people and their funny little stories and the feelings they have seemed shameful and bourgeois and unserious silliness. We broke up by the end of that summer.

RK: But when you finally fell into the right cadence, post-Oreos, did you feel suddenly very good at it?

IG: Yeah. That was a huge thing. Everybody's got their little drama of their life, and for me those years were really hard, because there was something that I thought I could do, but I was not good at it for a really long time — longer than I've ever seen anybody be bad at anything.

RK: You think you're a really different person than you were when you were 23, as a storyteller. Not just better but different.

IG: My god, of course.

RK: I don't feel that way at all. I feel I'm just an extension of that former person. If you were to go back 15, 16 years, would that Ira seem like a completely different beast?

IG: No. The part of it that I had even when I was 20 was that I always had a feeling for how to edit the tape. But everything else I had to learn, including the overall attitude of, like, What am I doing as a reporter? What's my job? How do I talk to people? I had no confidence to make my own judgments about what I was seeing in front of me. I think about the things that I will just take for granted that our reporters will do now for the show — like a couple weeks ago Sarah Koenig, one of the producers on the show, was down in Mississippi after Katrina, and it was a really hard story to do, because basically the story's been completely covered, you understand the story before she utters a word, which is that everything got destroyed. Like, why even go into the details? It's boring, almost. And so it's all going to be in the execution. How do you give a human feeling to it? One of the ways that she does that is literally that she is like so shocked about what sees! She has the tape rolling as she's driving into town, and there are coffins strewn all over the side of the road that have washed up out of the earth in the flooding and just got carried across this highway, and are sitting on the edges of the highway — just coffins, all over the place. You just hear it in her voice, how shocked she is. And you're in minute one of the story. Everything about that makes it great for radio, right? The details are shocking. It's something you haven't heard before. And then literally the fact of hearing the sound of her voice is so important. Like, what can you do on the radio that is so powerful? Part of it is hearing the emotion in someone's voice. At 23 I would have been completely incapable of every part of that. I might have seen the detail, but I would have just written it like a straight person, you know what I mean? Or I would have avoided it like a beginning NPR reporter might — like somebody trying to sound like somebody on the news. I wouldn't have had the confidence to say, “This is really extraordinary.” When I was in my 20s, I didn't have the confidence as a person to do that.

RK: It's funny that you have to learn to react like an ingénue — to react like a three-year-old you have to be 33.

IG: Yeah, exactly. And in a way the story I'm telling you is a really corny one. I totally learned to be an adult and to have adult opinions by making these stories. It happened in the reverse order for me. I mean, there's still the other part in my personality. It's still there, like a childish robot that wants to wake up and come to life all the time. But now the part with the opinions sort of took over, you know?

RK: It's some kind of thing like maturity.

IG: It's something like maturity, yes. [Laughs]

RK: “This American Life” is one of those inventions that's such a good invention that as soon as it's invented it becomes so terribly obvious, you can't understand why someone else didn't think of it 10 minutes earlier.

IG: I'm so surprised at this line of questioning, because honestly it's been a long time since I've thought of the form of “This American Life” as something that I invented.

RK: Well, I'll tell you what seemed new to me. Most people think that what reporting is, is you go to powerful people or really fascinating people and you say, “Whassup?” You know? You go to their press conferences, you follow them around, you ask them for formal interviews. A story gathers around a public figure or someone whom the public already has identified, and tries to notice them well — tries to explain them, understand them, explicate them, celebrate them, something. You start in a well-lit space, and you use whatever your talent is to examine it. But your version of it is sort of upside-down. It's more like “Let's go to spaces where we all are, all the time, by ourselves. Let's go to jealousy, let's go to growing up, let's go to my love of my gun, let's go to the little vanities that take place between one person and another — let's just go to where people spend 96 percent of their lives and turn on the lights.”

IG: There are a few advantages to reporting from the places I choose to report from, and one is there's no competition at all, which suits me just fine. It's easy to sound original.

RK: But did you seek that territory out because other people weren't there, or did you just find yourself standing there and there was no one else around?

IG: It's more like I knew nothing about politics, or anything else, and so I found myself intimidated by powerful people. Really, for my whole early reporting career I found myself intimidated by a lot of people. But I was comfortable talking to regular people. So by default that became a comfortable thing to do.

RK: It's amazing to me that no one had thought of that before.

IG: But in a way other people have. There's a deep tradition in public broadcasting that you'd hear individual voices —

RK: Dibbing and dabbing, yeah, but no one had ever made a circle around it and said, Here I stand — where no one in particular is doing nothing in particular, and yet it's very particular, because we all know what it's like to be in love, to be scared or to try something stupid.

IG: I guess, though I feel like there's so many ways to do that that wouldn't be interesting to listen to. There's a very soft-headed way to do it that would be horrible. I feel like in public radio there was a certain amount of that in the early years.

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