1. Life & Culture

Ira Glass talks podcasts, films and bringing ‘This American Life’ to life

The host of ‘This American Life’ brings stories from his years on the air to St. Petersburg on Jan. 25.
Ira Glass will appear at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Jan. 25.
Ira Glass will appear at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Jan. 25. [ Courtesy of Sandy Honig ]
Published Jan. 15, 2020

Ira Glass answers the phone in an elevator. And what unfolds sounds uncannily like a segment on This American Life.

“Can I actually call you back from my cellphone as I walk out to a cab?” he asks. “I think it’s impolite to be on a cellphone in an elevator. So as soon as this very slow-moving elevator hits the ground floor, I will pick up the phone and call you again. It’s going to be four or five minutes.”

Four or five minutes later, he’s outside in the ambience of New York City. (“This is going to be very audio verite".) He hails a cab (“If we could go West Side Highway to the tunnel, that would be great”) and is recounting an old This American Life story about Hitler’s yacht (“Apparently, Hitler had a yacht”) when there’s a commotion outside with audible cursing.

“Are you okay?” Glass asks the driver. “What’d that guy do? I didn’t see what he did? ... He did? ... Yeah, I know, and then he pulls up! I know! That was very dramatic!"

There’s action, there’s emotion, there’s a sense of place and a touch of How We Live Now — and it’s all narrated live by Ira Glass. It really is like This American Life in real time.

“It’s very true,” Glass laughs. “I wish I had some background music I could play underneath.”

This is sort of the experience Glass has sought to re-create with his new live show, which comes to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Jan. 25. Wielding an iPad, he tells some of his favorite stories from his years hosting the beloved NPR program, augmenting each with audio and video clips and music. And you, the listener, are right there in the mix.

“On the radio, performing on the radio is just like performing to nobody,” Glass says. “You’re in a soundproof room pretending that you’re talking to somebody, but you’re not really actually talking to anybody. You’re just talking into a microphone. Which is so opposite from standing on a stage in front of 1,500 people who are right there, and you talk to them. You say something funny, and they laugh. If it goes badly, you can feel it, and you have to recover. It just is an exciting live experience.”

Glass has come to Tampa Bay a few times over the years, both to speak and as a reporter. More than a decade ago, he came here for a segment for This American Life’s short-lived but well-received television version, about a Tampa man with a severe muscular disorder trying to live independently from his mother.

Even then, Glass was tinkering with new ways to bring This American Life to new audiences. The radio show had been available via streaming and paid download prior to 2006, when it launched as a podcast. Glass had no idea how much more popular that would make his show.

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“Now, so many more people hear the show by podcast than on the radio,” he says. “The radio has always been around 2.1, 2.2 people per episode. But podcasts went from nothing to, now, like, 3.6 million downloads each episode.”

The shift changed how This American Life came together — not only in small technical ways (“With people listening in headphones, you hear all the mistakes more acutely, so we became a little more precise in our mixing and editing”), but in big editorial ones, too. Had producers pitched Glass an idea for a multipart documentary investigation in 2001, it likely wouldn’t have happened, since “people don’t listen to radio that way.” In 2014, however, it became Serial, one of the most talked-about podcasts of all time.

“People forget this was a new idea, that you would start a story and you would tell it over the course of 10 or 12 episodes, but it would be a true story, a documentary,” says Glass, an editor on Serial. “They were inventing it as they were doing it, so I absolutely learned a ton about how to think through a story at that scale.”

This American Life followed Serial with S-Town, another death investigation involving John B. McLemore, an eccentric antique clock restorer in rural Alabama. S-Town was just as viral, just as praised — but it also drew some criticism for shining light on the secret personal life of a person who might not have wanted it.

Glass stands by the team that put S-Town together.

“He reached out to us,” Glass says of McLemore. “He opened his life up to us. And this harmed no one. He wanted to talk to us about his life. He actively asked for it.”

There have been talks about S-Town becoming a movie or miniseries, something that happens a lot with This American Life projects — the films Unaccompanied Minors, The Informant and Sleepwalk With Me all began life on NPR. But Glass only has so much patience for the process of bringing radio (and podcasts) to the big screen.

“It’s such a drag,” he says. “I’m sure it’s different if you’re Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg. There’s way more of the fun part. But if you’re us, 90 percent of your time is the drudgery of setting up the deal, taking meetings to set up the deal, hearing pitches. So much of it is that. So little of it is the exciting part of, ‘What’s it going to be?’

“I’d much rather be reporting,” he adds. “Especially now. What’s going on in the country is so seismic and fascinating. We’re living through such an important, historic moment. It’s not what I want to be talking to people about, is who’s going to play somebody in a movie. I want to be out reporting on what’s happening in our country. It’s just an amazing time to live in.”


$23.50 and up. 8 p.m. Jan. 25. Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 892-5767.


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