Ira Glass: The host of a revolutionary radio show that brings you the news, only without the really boring bits...

'This American Life' is getting huge audiences – and makes its UK debut this morning

Susie Mesure@susiemesure
Sunday 04 May 2014 07:31
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The radio show This American Life (TAL), created and hosted by Ira Glass, lives to tell stories – and along the way it is revolutionising broadcast news. Its huge audiences may be unaware that they are informed just as much as entertained. Glass explains his goal: "To apply tools of journalism to stories so small and personal that journalists would never touch them", which TAL has done so well that it has started tackling conventional "news" stories, such as Guantanamo and climate change. Only Glass won't necessarily tell listeners that they've signed up for a big, weighty topic until he's got them hooked.

"As soon as we hear stories like that begin, all of us want to turn off the radio, like all of us feel instinctively like we're almost pre-bored because we know where we stand. We just try to draw you in with scenes and characters and a story and something funny, and use all the tools of entertainment and only then do we reveal what it's going to be about."

In the United States, TAL is listened to by 2.2 million weekly, plus another 1.1 million who download the podcast (including 32,000 in the UK). The show's cult following is about to get bigger: today it makes its British debut on Radio 4 Extra.

"This is a beach-head from which to proceed," Glass says of his UK plans, his familiar nasal tones coming through loud and clear down the phone from New York. The BBC has cherry-picked 13 episodes from TAL's 524-strong archives; the first, which is classic TAL, featuring a heart-tugging story about the Holocaust, airs at 11am today. And the stories are not just American.

"We do stories everywhere. The name is just the name we gave it to seem big and important and grand," he says. "It felt like a huge marketing problem. When we started, we never thought we'd be successful enough to want to get distribution in another country, so I don't think we would have called the show that if we'd had that intention in mind!

"I feel the BBC is easing the audience into getting used to us by choosing things that are more traditional. The Holocaust is serious and important. A proper documentary subject." Here, the catch – there is always a catch with a TAL show – is that the survivors' interviews were conducted "Before It Had A Name", the title of the show, with "It" being the Holocaust. "We try to do stories with themes and characters that are surprising. That's the key, it has to be surprising."

Stand-out shows on "serious" topics range from "Harper High School", parts 1 and 2, about the Chicago school where 29 students were shot, and "Somewhere in the Arabian Sea", recorded aboard a warship in January 2002, to "When Patents Attack!", which deals with "patent trolling", and "Continental Breakup", about the European debt crisis.

In these, like every other TAL episode, "we're on the far end of having a conversational tone", Glass admits; but he thinks stories, even serious ones, work better with "more emotion"; "I find stories get through to me more. It feels less corny and more contemporary," he says. This goes against received wisdom that the news has to be kept very straight.

"I feel like in the context of broadcast news, excellent journalists often leave out a kind of showmanship and a kind of dedication to entertainment values. I think they think it's beneath them to think of the work that way, whereas we really embrace the idea that something should be entertaining. Most of us don't want to feel like we're in school!"

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His unconventional views stretch to not worrying about the future of radio. And this from a man whose show is broadcast on more than 500 US public radio stations. "Young people, yeah, they don't listen to the radio, they download stuff, so you need to be in the business of making stuff for people to download. I feel like that's fine. Who cares? Who cares if radio dies?"

For anyone hoping to emulate Glass, who doesn't expect his voice to go down very well with UK listeners, his top tip for a great interview is surprisingly simple: "Being actually interested is weirdly your greatest superpower. An interview is a party that you're throwing so however you act, the other person will act. Often in interviews I will tell people stories because I want them to tell me stories."

One other piece of advice: however much you love what you hear this morning, don't bother joining the 48,300 who follow him on Twitter. Those zero people he follows? Those zero tweets he's posted? That's not going to change. "I don't need another creative outlet. I'm busy and I feel like anything I want to say, I have my own radio show! So I don't need another way to reach an audience, which I know sounds like the most bratty thing a person can say, but I'm totally good."

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