'This American Life' Host Ira Glass on Pulitzer-winning Storytelling, Trump and Growing Up Jewish

Ira Glass, whose show recently received the first-ever Pulitzer for audio reporting, shares his secret to balancing ambitious journalism with entertainment

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Ira Glass.
Ira Glass.Credit: Mike Coppola / GETTY IMAGES NORT
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

In November 1995, for the inaugural episode of his radio program “This American Life,” Ira Glass chose to interview his mother, Shirley Glass. And, like the proverbial Jewish mom, she wasn’t shy about telling the audience what she thought of her son’s decision to work in public radio. “I’m saying that you’re in danger of appealing to a narrow range of listeners,” she berated him in that broadcast.

When Glass asked her if she was still dreaming about his moving to commercial television, she seized on the image of a popular British actor. “Now, that Hugh Grant is such a big star, and everybody who sees you or sees your picture thinks how much you look like Hugh Grant, that fires up that TV thing again in me.”

But Glass didn’t take his mother’s advice. Today, 25 years and more than 700 shows later, and after he made history this month when his show became the first recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting, a new category – it’s clear he made the right choice. Over the years, Glass’ program has become one of the most acclaimed and popular in the history of radio in America, with a weekly audience of more than five million. (The award, which was granted for an episode about the effects of U.S. policy on migrants in a refugee camp in Mexico, cited “the staff of ‘This American Life’ with Molly O’Toole of The Los Angeles Times and Emily Green, freelancer, Vice News.)

In 2001, Time magazine termed Glass the “best radio host in America”; last month the London Evening Standard called him the “godfather of podcasting”; and he is widely credited with being the person who revived public radio. As he puts it, taking “radio for old Jewish people” and making it popular again.

“The secret is very simple,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in New York. “People love stories, and we provide them with stories that are entertaining to listen to.”

There was a time when Glass, 61, tried to live up to his parents’ expectations: He started college, at Northwestern University in Illinois, as a pre-med student, but between his freshman and sophomore years, he discovered what he really liked doing. For half of his summer break, he worked in the shock trauma unit at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore. “And the other half of the summer I worked at National Public Radio [in Washington, D.C.], as an unpaid intern. And at the end of the summer I just felt like, ‘Well, I liked this experience doing radio way more than the medical experience.’ My parents were very disappointed.”

Did their disappointment stem from the fact that you weren’t going to become a doctor, as they had dreamed, or was it because you chose public radio rather a commercial network?

“It was about both those things. It was about the fact that I would never make any money. There was the fact that the network was publicly owned, which they didn’t enjoy – they weren’t public radio fans. But in a deeper way, I think it was that they had a sense that being on public radio wasn’t grabbing for the prize in life. Like it wasn’t grabbing the brass ring, it wasn’t grabbing the diamond. It felt like, ‘If you’re going to be a broadcaster, be on television and make money, get famous and be successful, be a star.’ It was disappointment that came from their Jewish parental pride and their belief that I could do so much more.”

Glass and his show won the Pulitzer for its reporting on migrants trapped in Mexico while they wait to be interviewed by U.S. immigration officials.

“What they [the Pulitzer Prize committee] were looking for was something that would be a demonstration of people doing very difficult reporting on one of the big stories,” he says. “The show that won the award was a very difficult investigative report, in which we got [U.S.] government workers who were supposed to carry out the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy to complain on the record about how they thought it was illegal. It took a year to cultivate the sources for that story.

Migrants from Central America at a detention facility in Texas.
Migrants from Central America at a detention facility in Texas. Credit: JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / Reuters

“There’s also something very intimate about it, because you really are getting to know people. We did a story about how all of these people are being turned back to Mexico. One of the problems is the enormous number of kidnappings in the border areas by the drug cartels. In fact, the State Department has ranked some of these areas just across the border with Mexico as being as dangerous as Iraq or Syria.”

Glass and his radio team spent more than two weeks on both sides of the border, reporting on the tragic situation of nearly 60,000 migrants from Central and South America who were forced to remain in Mexico while waiting for their cases to be considered, under President Donald Trump’s tough migration policy. That policy bears the newspeak name of Migrant Protection Protocols, or as it’s dubbed in the media, “Remain in Mexico.”

The award-winning episode, broadcast last November, and titled “The Out Crowd,” began with the story of Darwin, a 9-year-old boy who fled Honduras with his mother. He’s known at the camp in Matamoras, Mexico, as “El Terremoto” – the earthquake – because he’s always shaking things up. “To be clear,” Glass pointed out in the story, Darwin and his mother and the thousands of others camped at the border, are “trying to follow the rules and enter the United States through a border station and formally apply for asylum.”

Later, Molly O’Toole, Glass’ colleague from The Los Angeles Times, is heard speaking to an asylum officer whom the program calls “Ursula.” She describes the great cruelty entailed in breaking up families, in separating the men from the others.

Ursula: “You’re put into a cell. You’re separated from your kids and your wife. You have no idea what’s going on, because you thought today you were going to be interviewed about El Salvador [where the first family she interviewed in her job had come from] and you were going to get to enter the United States.

“A couple hours later, they lead you into this freezing cold cell where they chain your hands to a table in handcuffs, and someone is sitting across from you who doesn’t speak your language, and starts talking to someone in the phone who starts translating to you that you’re going to talk about Mexico.

“You smell like shit, because you’ve been living in a shelter, you know, without any running water for a month and half, plus you’ve traveled all the way across Central America to get there, and you don’t understand why someone is talking to you about Mexico.”

A nurse named Helen Perry who heads a small relief group told Glass about the first time she arrived at the camp, which is across the border from Brownsville, Texas: “A woman came up to me and asked me if we would be bringing in condoms, because when she got sexually assaulted again she wanted to be able to ask her attacker to wear a condom so she wouldn’t get pregnant.”

Glass and his team even managed to get information about the drug cartels in the camps from the migrant’ phones, documenting up close the routine of kidnappings and the financial negotiations for the release of the abductees.

But it’s not only in-depth reporting from the field or heartrending stories that have made Glass’ program so popular. For example, earlier this month he broadcast an episode titled “Stuck!” It was an hour of human-interest accounts of how people’s lives have entered a “holding pattern” in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic and the accompanying social distancing. One past episode, titled "Fiasco," was dedicated to tales about things going wrong; another episode featured people who stumbled upon unsettling historic events, and another episode was about people who believe their own lies.

You said once that the program you were most proud of was the series from 2013 about Harper High School in Chicago, where 29 students were shot in one year – eight of whom died. But you have also said that you look at your show as a sort of entertainment, in a way. It really is something like a Netflix docuseries – Hollywood and journalism combined. Wouldn’t you like to focus more on the more serious items at the expense of the entertainment aspect?

Glass: “We do the show as an experiment in doing the most ambitious, aggressive kind of reporting you can do. But at the same time, we want the story to be complete entertainment, for it to pull you in and pull you forward. Newspaper stories sometimes make you think, ‘I would be a better person if I would read that story, but it just looks kind of heavy.’ We never want to be that, and I don’t think there’s a contradiction between trying to do journalism with the highest standards and also doing something that is defined as entertainment.”

Don’t you want to make use of the stage, the power you have, to finger the guilty, to attack President Trump’s immigration policy or the large social gaps between blacks and whites?

“We do get to that stuff that is so heavy and dark, but if you remember the episode about the Mexican immigrants, we start with this little 9-year-old, Darwin, in the refugee camp. He is just this incredibly charming kid, and you kind of watch him go through his day. That’s what pulls you in and makes everybody seem like a real person. It’s not some corny, dark, desperate documentary from 1955.

“And we are showing that all of this is happening because of Donald Trump, as we say explicitly in the show. We say: Here’s the policy, here’s when it began, here’s why it’s different from what came before, here’s why some of the people who are administering the policy, who work for the government, believe that it’s illegal. I’m not sure how we could say more pointedly that the cause of this is the president of the United States, and the new policies that he has put in place in the last two years.”

Two-sided conflict

Glass was born in Baltimore in 1959. His father was a businessman and founded a financial services company; his mother was a clinical psychologist. Though they were not religiously observant, Judaism occupied a central place in their home.

“My parents were both born in America, and their parents were born in America, and their parents were born in America. So we are a very Americanized family,” he says. “And my parents were not raised with many Jewish traditions and they decided they wanted my sisters and me to be more Jewish and know more about the traditions than they did. So we were sent to Hebrew school three times a week in addition to our regular public school, and there was a long period when the family went to Shabbat services and had Shabbat dinner.

“We were Jews in a Jewish community in suburban Baltimore, and in a part of the city that was very, very Jewish – so Jewish that there were almost no non-Jews in my elementary school.”

Decades later, Glass describes a great affinity for Judaism and the Jewish people – but with God, as he has said more than once on his program, he hasn’t been in touch for quite a while.

Ira Glass speaks in front of cameras and microphones.
Glass. “I discovered when I was 15, 16, years old, studying Mishna and the Torah, that I just didn’t believe in God. It didn’t seem like the most logical explanation for the way the world is.” Credit: Peabody Awards

“I discovered when I was 15, 16, years old, studying Mishna and the Torah, that I just didn’t believe in God. It didn’t seem like the most logical explanation for the way the world is,” he says. At the same time, it’s important for him to emphasize that, “like a lot of atheist Jews, or secular Jews, I understand that my Jewish identity is a part of me, even if I don’t believe in God. There’s the shul I went to as a child, where I had such wonderful experiences. And Broadway shows were a very Jewish part of American culture; I saw ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ probably once a year.”

Do those fond Jewish memories sometimes stir an inner need to return to those places, possibly a short sojourn on Yom Kippur?

“Today, no. Shul is an incredibly nostalgic place, it’s like walking into a room where my childhood is still going on. But I feel like a synagogue isn’t there for my entertainment and nostalgia, it’s there for people who want to worship and build a sense of community. While obviously I still feel a sense of community with anyone who’s Jewish, a synagogue isn’t a show for me and other atheists to have feelings about when we were little kids.”

There was also a strong affinity for the Jewish state at home. “I felt a strong connection to Israel. I can sing ‘Hatikva’ from memory, we raised money to plant trees in Israel, and we felt very close to the state.”

Glass first visited Israel in 2002, within the framework of the 217th episode of the program, provocatively titled “Give It to Them” (without specifying who was meant). The settings were the borders between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; between a café in Ramallah and a Jewish settlement; between a conversation with Palestinians under curfew and a meeting with Israeli girls who lost boyfriends in a terrorist attack; between random meetings with diners in a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant and talks with political leaders on both sides of the conflict.

Glass’ conclusion at the end of the visit, as he put it in the program 18 years ago, still carries relevance today: “Israelis have a kind of moral certitude that they are in the right. They’re united on this in a way that perhaps they have never been united in their history. The attitude is, we tried everything. We were reasonable. We were generous. In the end, they [the Palestinians] didn’t want peace.”

He added, “Israelis are prepared for the idea that it will continue like this for years. They’d rather have peace, but they’ll settle for what they have now. A war that produces fewer casualties than car accidents. A war where they dominate and control their enemy.”

How did you feel in your visit to Israel?

“Like many American Jews, I grew up knowing many people who went to Israel and came back and showed their slides, had pictures they would share with you. So I was very familiar with what the country looks like and with the different cities. But one of the first things that really hit me was on the flight there. I had never heard anybody use Hebrew to do something normal, like order a Coke. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I guess the language can be used for something else [besides Hebrew school and prayers].’ It was an experience of something very familiar and also very unfamiliar.”

In 2002, you said that Israelis had learned how to live in peace with the conflict. Does it upset you that today no one in Israel is talking anymore about peace with the other side? That the conflict has disappeared from the political discussion, as we saw in the last three elections?

“It does bother me. But I also know from Israeli friends how annoying it is to Israelis to hear American Jews venture opinions about a situation that we know so much less about. People should trust my opinion about what’s going on in Israel the way that I would trust my friends in Tel Aviv talking about how Governor Cuomo is handling the COVID-19 crisis in New York City.

“So I say in all humility that I know things would feel very different if I was living there, but even so, it disturbs me that nothing’s been done to stabilize the situation and reach a viable peace with the Palestinians.”

Trump and Clinton during an election debate in 2016.
Trump and Clinton during an election debate in 2016.Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

‘Charismatic performer’

Today’s generation gets the news via short posts on Facebook and Twitter. Do they have the patience to listen to a whole hour of human stories of the kind you broadcast?

“I think that the idea that everyone wants information fast is only half true. The most popular cultural product in America, in Israel and around the world is television series that take 15 hours, 25 hours, to get through. People are totally ready to slow down for a story if the story is any good. Our radio show is more like the kind of narrative that you get on television, in that kind of series. We are just trying to do what those very traditional sorts of stories do, and people everywhere have the patience for that.”

For the past few months, media outlets in the United States have been focusing on human-interest stories related to the coronavirus. How do you create your distinctive niche in that flood of narratives?

“The challenge is simply to find things that are different from what others are saying. To do that, we have a couple of strategies. One is to pick up something that’s on the news but [which is reported there] without its full emotional impact.

“For example, one of the first shows we did after the lockdown began in the United States was about a couple with a 2-year-old who were both sick with the coronavirus. Until that point, although I had consumed a ton of stories about the coronavirus, I hadn’t actually heard from someone who was sick. Actually saying, ‘This is what it feels like, this is what it’s doing to me, this is what is like to be a parent raising a kid while you feel like this.’ Someone to give me the lived experience of it.

“We did the same thing with ambulance drivers. That’s the kind of story that I think radio can do particularly well, and in a way has an edge over other kinds of journalism, because of the intimacy it offers. You can get across much of the same feeling in a newspaper article, but you have to be kind of a great writer to do that. It’s much easier to do it on the radio, just by playing the person’s voice, because just hearing somebody talk has a special power.

“Another tactic we use is to go back to the origin of things and explain how we got to where we are. An example is our coverage of President Trump’s immigration policy, which is an incredibly contentious issue. We know that a huge part of the country thinks immigration is a terrible thing, that people are stealing American jobs, driving up our taxes by using social services. But others think this is the American dream – hard-working people who want to better their lives.

What we did was focus on one small town in Alabama which had been all white, and then there was a flood of immigrants and within 15-20 years the town was a third or fourth Latino. We went there to examine the effect of that: Did it take away American jobs, did it cause a spike in taxation, what did it do to the town’s politics, did it change the way people get along? That way you see what is happening at the policy level, but also at the personal level, what it actually feels like to be there.”

Speaking of Trump, as someone who’s been reporting about people on the ground for 25 years, how do you explain his rise?

“I think that after Barack Obama’s presidency, the country became very polarized. Suddenly there are two versions of every story, there are two narratives out there. There’s the mainstream media version of the story, but there’s also a right-wing, Fox News version of every story. A great many people were not into Hillary Clinton and President Obama, and that was accompanied by a whole set of beliefs that made them ready for somebody else.

“People wanted to shake things up, and Trump said he would do that. Trump is an incredibly charismatic performer, he’s funny, he’s easy to understand. I remember that during the election campaign, one voter told me that he understood everything Trump says. He said with Hillary Clinton you can’t tell what she means sometimes – she talks like a politician.”

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