Ira Glass

Don’t worry, he’s not retiring or sick or anything. In fact, he co-wrote and produced a great new movie, and everybody should go see it. I just wanted to talk about him a bit.

His friend and contributor David Rakoff died this week, and and so this morning I  wanted to load a piece by David about his cancer onto my iPod. Couldn’t make it work for some reason, so I gave up and instead listening to a random recent “This American Life” podcast, titled Amusement Park.  Go listen to the first segment now, then come back.

Ira has gotten a lot of (deserved!) attention and praise for encouraging new talent (like Rakoff and David Sedaris and Mike Birbiglia and many others) and for doing really superb journalism about important topics, like the mortgage meltdown and a terrific hour about a runaway judge running a drug court in Georgia — a piece of investigative journalism that led to the resignation of the judge in question.

But if you really want to understand that Ira really does, think about that amusement park segment. Because it’s about… nothing. Well, nothing you’d notice or be interested in, if I described it to you — it’s about a 25 year old college drop out who runs the carnival games at a small amusement park in Kansas City.  He doesn’t have any deep secrets, he’s not a gifted poet or musician or reformed criminal,  he’s just a guy who loves his job. As Ira points out at the end, he’s not even that good at it, if measured by income to his employer… the amusement park makes more money selling food.

But Ira spends a day with him and crafts about 15 minutes of radio that is funny, fascinating and narratively gripping. It becomes a portrait of a man and his enthusiasms, about employees and employers, about motivation and fun and the reason people go to work, or may not want to. The central character becomes a Character, somebody you think you know, or at least would like to, and it left me thinking about how I approach my work and the people I work with, and how I can do both a lot better.

And here’s the thing you need to know — how incredibly hard that is. To understand that this is a person worth spending a day with in the first place, then to record hours of interviews and sound and then tease out of that raw material just the right sound bites and and add narration and music and make a great radio documentary.  To make it into a story compelling enough to make complete strangers, who couldn’t care less about topic of the story, fascinated with its essence.

Anyway, Ira (who I am pleased to call a friend and colleague) doesn’t need any praise from me, but let’s just say that I share with him an enthusiasm for people who do their job really, really well.







21 Responses to Ira Glass

  1. Kim Z Dale August 15, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    Well said. I am incredibly appreciative of great radio. Ira does excellent work. The Third Coast Festival and Radio Lab are just a few of many other standouts. I consider myself lucky to live in a city that has a station (WBEZ. Have you heard of it?) that puts so much of that great content on the air and to live in a world in which technology allows so many people to hear that content whether their local stations broadcast it or not.

    And, yes, I love that Amusement Park segment.

  2. Caroline Marin August 15, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    I have heard that segment and I also love it. It’s unreal in its amazing ability to draw you into this man’s story and have it stick with you, despite any reasoning as to why you needed to hear it in the first place. My husband was listening, too, and he was just as drawn in as I. When it finished, he asked, “But why did they do that story?” I just said, “Because Ira is amazing at finding something you don’t care about and making you care about it.” Props well deserved on this front!

  3. Mike Salkowski August 15, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Just listened to “Amusement Park” today on my run and laughed out loud several times. I love that Ira brought up the Michael Scott comparison, as he was exactly who I was thinking of as the interview progressed. I find that you can drop the needle anywhere in the T.A.L. archive and find a really great segment.

  4. Nathaniel Senff August 15, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    I’ve gotta say. I’m a huge fan of Ira and the work his team does.

    I spend hours telling pretty much anyone who’ll listen to me that they need to listen to This American Life.

  5. David Rodgers August 15, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly, Peter. Tuning into “This American Life” is much like that refreshing autumn breeze the day after a cold front crowds (and occasionally bashes) its way through an area whose antecedent airmass had been so stifling and humid. It is a celebration of the extraordinary inside the everyday lives of the masses.

    You are fortunate to know him and to have him as a friend. He and his work are nothing short of true, unfettered genius for the medium in which he labors. I hope that he is recognized more widely in the years to come.

  6. Rebecca Young August 15, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    That amusement park segment was terrific. I’m a lover of stories. I especially love it when I’m transfixed by something I had no clue I was interested in. I have spent many a long car ride lost in This American Life.

    Plus, it has to be said: Ira has the best laugh. Ever. If he wasn’t already taken, I’d marry him based on that laugh alone.

  7. Karen August 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    I’m from a small East Texas town. The first time I heard of TAL and Ira Glass (or any public radio) was when I moved to Dallas in 1996 to go to school. TAL and Ira educated me on people, places and lives of others I never knew existed. I can say Mr. Glass and his contributors added more to my knowledge and expanded my American and world view more than any other media. I absorbed the stories and people and it changed my life. I still have not traveled much, but my mind has been everywhere and with everyone TAL has. Thank you for your wonderful note about Ira Glass.

  8. goofy August 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Admit it got a man crush on Ira.. ;-)

  9. Jess Nielsen August 15, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Ira and the TAL contributors are more than just amazing storytellers to me – they’re also a link to home while I’m living abroad. I don’t get to listen to the show every Saturday morning like I used to but whenever I feel homesick, its a comfort to enjoy one of the podcasts about anything and everything. Financial crisis, our own worst enemies or even the mundane events of a summer job – the stories are always interesting and a way to reconnect with the stories and events from home.

    Now I just need to catch up on the “Wait, Wait..” podcasts!

  10. Alberto B August 15, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    “As Ira points out at the end, he’s not even that good at it” – I love this but just want to point out that the show never states that the manager, Cole, is not good at his job, it says the opposite over and over throughout the story. The end of your sentence is true: “the amusement park makes more money selling food”. However, it’s pointed out that, well, “everybody buys food”. Absolutely everyone must buy a ticket to enter the park so there’s your number one, food would logically be your #2 money maker with branded merchandize (souvenirs) following behind that… no matter what he does, it seems, he just can’t compete with those things.

    Add to that that Cole works at the smallest park that the company owns and you see how – although Cole is absolutely terrific at his job – what he delivers to the company just can’t compete.

    I agree that this is a terrific segment, that it is further evidence of the extraordinary talent of Ira Glass and his team, and I only wish I could do as good a job as Cole at getting more friends and family to listen to TAL, too. Oh, and I listen to TAL on KCRW in L.A.

    • peter August 15, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      My point was, more or less, that he wasn’t “good” at his job in the sense that he wasn’t breaking records for income, or changing the business model of the parks, or even (as Ira points out) inspiring his colleagues who run the games at other parks to emulate him. He was indeed being good at his job, but only — in the end — for the pure pleasure of being good at it. Which may have been the point of the piece.

  11. Michael Bailey August 15, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    I love this. Thank you.

  12. Jane Fox August 15, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    I bet Ira Glass could even make my life look interesting.

    • Dawn August 18, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

      He’s good, Jane. But he’s not a miracle worker.

  13. Bob Style August 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    You and Ira Glass are responsible for my favorite radio shows in the richness that is Minnesota Public Radio. I love the way you and your crew get me laughing, opening my psyche to the always interesting shows of This American Life. My son is still trying to figure out why a web-guy like me spend so much time around the radio on Saturday afternoons. I was sorry to hear of the passing of David Rakoff this week. Thank you.

    No I have to go over the the This American Life website and write a fan comment there. Oh, and tell Paula Poundstone to take it easy on the rest of the contestants for a couple weeks. Hate to hear professionals crying…

  14. Jenny August 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Exactly why I listen. Because there’s an amazing amount to feel, to think, to experience when listening to radio that’s ostensibly about nothing. In fact it is about everything.

  15. Andrew August 15, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    Although I love episodes like Amusement Park, too many of them start seeming like this article from The Onion: ‘This American Life’ Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence,2188/

  16. Justin Winokur August 16, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    The Amusement Park episode is one of the first that I listened to when I discovered This American Life.

    I basically had the same reaction, though with less experience by which to judge. I said to myself, “this is really interesting” when it was just about a guy! Almost all episodes are really interesting but they often have more notable characters. However some of my favorites are the behind-the-scenes types things. Another notable example is the rest stop one. You learn about what is happening behind what you are seeing.

  17. story August 16, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    Great post, Peter. I am an avid fan of TAL and WWDTM. To hear your compliments and praise merely makes you both more interesting people and makes me want to move back to Chicago (from Northern Cali, no less!).

  18. Ken Schwartz August 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    The recent “retraction” episode of TAL regarding the one-man show about Apple and Asia was some of the most captivating, uncomfortable, breathtaking radio I have ever heard in my life. I literally forgot where I was walking to while I listened to it. Ira Glass is an international treasure-not least because he is aware of his own frailty and recognizes it with empathy in others.

  19. Jill Center August 18, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Very well said. Whether we are an esteemed broadcaster or just an everyday Character, we all need individuals who will stop, look, dig down deep, and then go that extra step to speak up. We all need our witnesses. And here, there is that extra, exquisite symmetry, as you do for Ira what he does so well for others. Thank you. And thanks for all you do, in league with others… we have so enjoyed your show that we adapted for our Office Holiday party skit. Audience: very kind. Real WWDTM: actually witty!