Ira Glass On His Public Radio Salary, Being Recognized And Finding 'Sparkly' Stories

Oct 23, 2015

For many, Ira Glass and his program, This American Life, have been a gateway into the public radio world. 

But the radio icon, who has one of the most recognizable voices in the business, claims that it took longer for him to get good at telling stories on the radio than anyone else he knows in the business. 

"I was working in public radio starting when I was 19. I knew I wanted to do radio stories ... but doing it well, it really took me until I was 27 or so until I was a decent writer and reporter, maybe 28 really," he says. 

Glass spoke to KCUR's Steve Kraske about his career in public radio, and how he manages to find and tell stories that captivate audiences each week.  

Here are some highlights from the interview:

On asking to be paid less at WBEZ in Chicago

I was hosting This American Life and I was doing the pledge drive. I do a lot of stuff for the pledge drive, not just for my home station WBEZ, but for stations all over the country and WBEZ was very insistent on giving me a raise because they felt like, 'Well, you're doing a very nice job for the radio station and you have this national show, blah blah blah…’ and I felt like, 'I don’t know, it seems weird to be making this much money and asking people to donate money,' It seemed unseemly. So I said, 'I think that I should just make less.’ I just thought it ... seemed fair. It seemed like I should make what you make if you're like, a high school principal or something. Not even the principal, but the assistant principal.

On deciding what stories will be on This American Life

Unlike working on a news show, there’s nothing dictating what should be on our show. When I worked on All Things Considered, it was clear what we were doing: we were doing the news. So stuff was happening in the world and we had to cover it.

On our show there's nothing dictating why something should be on. So sometimes we do newsy stuff, but sometimes it will just be totally personal stuff. So when anything can be on it's a lot harder to decide.

If the reason to listen to a story isn’t that it’s gonna give you vital information about the news or something happening in the world that you might be curious about, then the story itself has to be so sparkly. … What we’re looking for are stories where there's somebody to relate to, and something happens to them. It has to have a plot, the plot has to be surprising, it has to drive at some idea about the world that you haven't heard before. That's a huge amount of burden to put on some little radio interview. To make that happen, for us to find three or four stories that we think are good enough, we will run at sometimes 10 or 15 or 20 stories and in some cases a lot more, to find enough stories for an episode of our show. It will takes us months generally — three or four is typical, but sometimes it’s way longer to find enough stories that we think are at the level that our audience will like.

One some of the crazy things his staff will do to get an interview

We've done a lot of things where we'll stake out somebody's house because they're not answering our phone calls ... it doesn't happen very often, but definitely, as a staff, we've definitely done that.

On whether being a radio icon a cool thing or a drag

It's mostly nothing. Mostly nobody knows who I am and I'm totally anonymous. I was on a plane yesterday and sat next to some lady who was wearing a Bernie Sanders T-shirt and I asked her if she watched the debate, and she was like 'No, I don't watch TV, I get all my news from NPR.' She had no idea who I was. That's how famous I am. In the coach section of United Airlines I can't get recognized by one of our own listeners.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts presents 'Reinventing Radio: An Evening With Ira Glass' at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24. For tickets and information, visit www.kauffmancenter.org.