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Is 'This American Life' host Ira Glass jealous of the CBC?

09/26/2014 11:15 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST
Ira Glass, host of NPR's wildly popular program This American Life, will be stepping out from behind the studio mic and onto the stage at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver on Saturday. The show is calledReinventing Radio. 

"Basically I wander around stage with an iPad, and I can play clips and music and sound, and recreate the radio show around me as I speak," says Glass. "And partly it's just an excuse to play a lot funny clips."

Glass made the comments earlier this week in a CBC Radio interview with On The Coast's Stephen Quinn. The conversation ranged from Glass's earliest vision for This American Life, to the changing landscape in public media. 

On the stories he wanted to tell

"There was a kind of story that I really loved. And it's the kind of feature story that you would hear on the daily news shows, where there were characters and scenes and feelings, and there was just space for things to happen, and for the characters to feel three-dimensional.

On public radio in the States, there would be one story like that every day or two, and I just thought, well, these are the stories that everybody remembers and loves, and you could just do a whole show out of those.

These kind of driveway-moment stories, that keep you in your driveway. Sometimes people achieve it with a really beautiful interview. Like on As It Happens sometimes, you hear an interview and you just cannot believe the way the person's character unfolds.

It will be funny and it will have feeling and you feel it's just documenting some aspect of what it's like to be a person, in addition to covering the news, that's the thing I'm talking about.

And then I thought there was a style of presentation on public radio that was more formal, and even maybe a little corny, that it seemed like somebody could change.

On trying to sell This American Life

I didn't have trouble at the radio station I was at. They saw it the way I did. But when we tried to sell it to other radio stations, then there [were] problems. The way the American system works, there's not a network boss the way there is at the CBC.

The way we do it here, you have to talk each program director into picking up your show. And it's a lot of stations, it's a big country. And so one of the comments we would get back at the beginning was, people knew me.

I had been a reporter on national programs here in the States, and they'd say, well, Ira's a very good reporter, a good producer, but like, when's the adult going to show up to produce the show? 

You know, like, Ira should definitely contribute, and obviously he has a very good vision for this, but who's the host really going to be? And honestly, I couldn't have afforded anybody who could have done it, so I was stuck with myself. 

On NPR's 2011 response to accusations of liberal bias from the right 

I felt like they should come out punching. And instead NPR gave a rather tepid defence. And also here's the other thing about it: public radio in the States is not organized to fight a fight.

There was kind of a right-wing, organized campaign, where it was a talking point of the right in a lot of different venues—on television, in Congress, and a bunch of other places—where people were attacking public radio at a time when our funding was up for grabs.

Public radio is a multi-million dollar business, 500 radio stations, you know, millions and millions of dollars worth of shows.

If it were a broadcast television network, a commercial network, there would be a very expensive firm organizing a response, getting spokespeople on the air, getting people who were friends of the network going on the air, and there would be a pushback.

And the whole thing was being done in a kind of amateur-hour kind of way, where it lacked the scale, and it lacked the ferocity of the kind of response that it should have.

On being jealous of the CBC 

As an American, I can say, I spent most of my time in public broadcasting feeling so jealous of the CBC. The reach that it has with people, and the size of it, and the fact that it is a big network, and somebody can just say 'I like this show' and then a million dollars goes out and you have a new show.

[Note to Ira: It doesn't really work that way.]

That just doesn't happen here in the States. And also the training is just so much better at the CBC, and there's organized training, and it really is seen as an institution that the country valued.

And now? 

Now, I feel like the advantage of our system, where if you start a show, it's like you're a wolf out in the wild and you have to collect, like, scraps of food wherever you can.

That has proved to be a really helpful thing because a show like ours, we get no government funding at all, zero. 

We charge the stations, not that much, and the stations go on the radio and ask their listeners for the money, and I record those spots, and listeners give the station so much money, and we end up taking just a little part of it during the hour we're on the air, and then a huge chunk of it comes from the podcast.

We ask people to donate, like, 10 bucks by typing a thing into an app.

We're living in an era of prosperity down here. We're able to do things like send three reporters into a high school for five months, you know a high school with 29 shootings. Three reporters for five months, on and off. That's something that you have to be a very big newsroom to do, to throw that kind of resource at.

I think what I'm saying is, 15 years ago, CBC looked like it was in way better shape, and somebody like you, with a show up there, looked like you had way better prospects.

But now, simply the fact that we've been thrown into the free market has meant that we've had to come up with all these solutions that are now, especially because of the Internet, paying off in ways that we're able to plow those resources back into programming.

On bringing the intimacy of the radio onto the stage

It's a different kind of intimacy, standing there in a room with people. Basically, I wander around stage with an iPad, and I can play clips and music and sound and recreate the radio show around me as I speak. So as I'm describing the stories, I can have the stories float up around me and produce it, do a live mix.

When I used to do speeches, they would have to give me a mixing console, a whole mixing rig. But now I have a little mixer in the iPad and I can hit the quotes, and mix it just live, like that.

On 'This American Life's' first spin-off serial

The idea is that every week it's exactly the same theme as the week before. In fact, it's exactly the same story, and we give you the next chapter, and it's a true story that's going to unfold over 10 or 12 episodes.

We're trying to compete with, like, HBO and Netflix, and basically the way that people watch TV, which is, you get hooked on Game of Thrones or House of Cards or whatever show it is, and then you just want to hear every episode, or see every episode.

And this will basically allow you to do that, but you can do it while you're driving. And I have to say the story is so good, it's so exciting, so yeah, I really hope people like it.

It's an experiment, and doing a different kind of broadcast, and a different kind of storytelling, and we're super excited about it.

And yeah, I'm very curious to see how it goes. 

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