This American Life host Ira Glass had radio in his blood from the start — only he didn’t know it.
“I was working at NPR for a while and my parents were very much against it,” he says. “Especially working in public radio because they believed there was no money to be made.”
Having struggled to make it into the middle class, Glass’ parents couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to do something more, like be a doctor. Why would their son want a job making $17,000 a year?
“It was around that time I found out my dad had worked in radio when he was in college and shortly after college and basically gave it up so he could make enough money,” he says.
After Glass was born, Ira’s father realized he couldn’t support a family with a career in radio so he became an accountant.
“Growing up, I had a normal relationship to radio,” Glass says. “I didn’t have any special feelings about [it]. It would be on in the car or something — and public radio really wasn’t a part of my life growing up. I didn’t discover that until I went to look for a job.”
Glass’ radio career started almost accidentally as he was about to graduate from high school. Like many teens growing up in Baltimore in the late ’70s, he was a fan of one particular DJ named Johnny Walker, a proto shock jock, as Glass describes him.
“I wrote a couple of pages of jokes for him and then he called me up on the phone, which was crazy,” he says. “That someone who was on the radio would call me on the phone.”
Walker liked the jokes and sent his limo to pick up Glass.
“He basically had a limousine drive him everywhere, which I thought was incredibly fancy,” he says. “I’d never been in a limo before.”
Of course he later found out that Walker’s need for the limo was more out of necessity than ego. “I later realized he had bunch of DUIs and he couldn’t drive himself anywhere,” he says.
Glass majored in radio, television and film at Northwestern University, but later transferred to Brown University. Serendipitously, changing schools would have a significant impact on his future broadcasting career. At Northwestern he worked at the college radio station and quickly became comfortable with the technical aspects of the job. Brown, however, had no radio/TV/film program, so Glass majored in semiotics.
“Truthfully, anybody could learn the basics of [broadcasting] technology in a day or two,” he says. “Even today when people want to get into radio, they can learn the tech side of it in an afternoon.”
His switch to studying semiotics is one of the things he talks about on stage.
“Semiotics is the theory of narrative and how to structure work into narratives so that they are compelling,” he says. “And I have to say that ended up being much more useful to me than a more traditional broadcasting major.”
Indeed it did. Glass’ This American Life is one of the most popular radio programs in America, with 4 million listeners over the air and an additional 1 million via podcast. It is regularly the most downloaded podcast on iTunes, along with Welcome to Night Vale, a radio show that takes place in the eerie, fictional town of Night Vale, and comedian Marc Maron’s WTF.
While the podcasting audience is growing, Glass isn’t totally convinced of radio’s demise.
“Weirdly, podcasts are just not catching on,” he says. “They’ve been around for years, but it’s like soccer. Everyone thinks it’s going to be the next big thing, but it never becomes the next big thing.”
In the case of This American Life, though, the podcast audience continues to grow steadily.
Each week since 1995, when the show was called Your Radio Playhouse, the program has chosen a theme and presented several stories on that theme.
“There’s a kind of feeling you get from a certain kind of story on the radio,” Glass says. “People weren’t doing that sort of thing very much. That’s what I wanted to make.”
On stage this week in Proctor & Gamble Hall at the Aronoff Center, Glass will present Reinventing Radio.
“Basically the way it works is I stand on stage and I tell stories,” he says. “I have an iPad with clips and music and sound from [This American Life] and as I sort of talk about what we’re trying to do on the radio show, I can recreate the sound of the show around me.”
REINVENTING RADIO: AN EVENING WITH IRA GLASS takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets: 513-621-ARTS or cincinnatiarts.org.