Ira Glass, creator of "This American Life," on other people's podcasts and all he's learned

Jul 18, 2019

Ira Glass—the creator, producer and host of the popular public radio program and podcast “This American Life”—will speak at the Chautauqua Institution on Saturday, July 20. WBFO caught up with him before his visit to Western New York.


“This American Life” airs on more than 500 public radio stations across the country (including WBFO) and is downloaded by another 2.5 million people around the world every week. It has also spun off other public radio programs and podcast series, including NPR’s “Planet Money,” “Serial” and “S-Town.”

Ira Glass is the creator, producer and host of "This American Life."
Credit Sandy Honig

But Glass said this enormous success has come as a surprise. His own father, who dabbled in radio in college and then in the Army, even tried to talk him out of going into the business.

“He was very much against me going into radio, from the beginning, like just was dead-set against it, for the reasons that he thought he shouldn’t go into it,” Glass told WBFO. “The logic still seemed valid, if anything more valid, because I was working for so little money at NPR.”

Glass started working as an intern at the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., when he was 19. After working his way through more traditional programs like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” he started “This American Life” in 1995.

“I think there’s a certain kind of old-school public radio show that a person listens to because we feel like it will make us a better person, you know? A better citizen or more informed person,” Glass said. “That is not what we’re shooting for with ‘This American Life.’ We feel like we just want the stories to be things you just kind of get caught up into and want to hear what’s going to happen.”

Glass has long described the stories he produces for “This American Life” as being like “little movies for radio.” The show chooses a different theme each week and usually features three stories that relate to that theme. It’s journalism, but with strong characters, scenes and a plot—something a lot more podcasts exist to do in 2019 than in the 1990s.

So, does Glass listen to other people’s podcasts? Yes! He said The New York Times’ “The Daily,” “Reply All” and “Radiolab” are all favorites.

“I’m glad that other people are working in this form because I feel like radio is a really satisfying way to hear stories, and to hear emotional stories,” he said. “I’m glad there’s more of it.”

The presentation Glass will give at Chautauqua Institution is called “Seven Things I’ve Learned.” He’ll discuss some of the “hard-fought” lessons he’s learned as a reporter and storyteller and, armed with an iPad, he’ll share audio and video clips—most of which have never been aired on “This American Life.”

Tickets for the talk are available at chq.org.

Tune into WBFO to hear “This American Life” every Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m.