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NPR’s Ira Glass tells Reddit what makes a great interview

Glass has produced NPR’s This American Life for 17 years, and recently co-wrote the movie Sleepwalk With Me with comedian Mike Birbiglia.


Kevin Collier


NPR’s Ira Glass, host of This American Life and cowriter of the movie Sleepwalk With Me, came to Reddit Wednesday at noon to talk shop with the site’s users. Though he offered to speak on a wide range of subjects, “Radio, dogs, the relative heights and weights and body fat counts of various public radio personalities,” and “the possibility of a This American Life musical” among them, redditors mostly hounded him about his acclaimed 17-year-old radio show.

What’s your favorite episode of This American Life? (thefuncooker86)

I wish I had one favorite because it would make it easier to answer this question. I have lots. My favorites tend to be the same as everyone’s – when we started a favorites page we ended up with five pages and dozens of shows.

I like the episodes where we try stuff that’s new, stuff that’s hard. This Week, 20 Acts in 60 Minutes, the episode on an aircraft carrier (which along with our Habeas are arguably the two funniest hours of broadcasting about the War on Terror; Habeas our goal was to make a show about the writ of Habeas Corpus that a normal person would be able not just to tolerate but actually ENJOY). Testosterone’s another I love. And – the hardest episode of all – not a listener favorite I think but definitely one of mine, is Stories Our Parents Pitch where every act was pitched by a staffer’s parents.

What was the most compelling segment that never made it to air? (featherthefish)

Sometimes the person just refuses to talk. Just a couple weeks ago there was a story about a kid who stole a Lamborghini that we could not get the kid or anyone who knew him.

There was a guy who keeps a blog about amusement park accidents who had an amazing story and we couldn’t get him to talk to us. That was disappointing.

Lots of people have the good sense not to talk on the radio.

Is there going to be a follow up to the Drug Court episode, Very Tough Love. That episode haunts me, and I would really like to know what happened to everyone – including the judge. (valjean260)

As for Judge Williams, she stepped down from the bench after the state agency that investigates judges looked into her actions.

I’m dressing up as you for Halloween. (kroboz)

Me too!

The journalistic integrity This American Life presented when it retracted ‘Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory’ is absolutely astounding. Has there been any change in policy since then? (iobserver)

We used to fact check the way they do on the daily NPR news shows (where I worked before doing this show): editors and reporters consult about questionable facts, rundown stuff in an ad hoc way.

Now we have professional fact checkers for everything, including the personal essays.

Still a question is what to do about David Sedaris. He doesn’t pretend the stories are true. He says to everyone they’re “true enough for you.” I assume the audience can tell, he’s a funny writer, there may be exaggerations for comic effect. We have three choices: 1) assume the audience is smart enough to tell; 2) label his stuff on the air as possibly non-factual (hard to figure out a way to do that which doesn’t kill the fun but there probably is one); 3) fact check him the way the New Yorker does. I honestly don’t know where I stand on this one. When I pose the Q to public radio audiences, at speeches and events, they overwhelmingly vote #1, with a vociferous tiny minority who feel strongly in favor of #2.

Who has been your favorite person to interview? (evelyn52892)

Definitely Myron Jones, from our Babysitting show. He tells the story of an imaginery family his sister would babysit for, named the McCrearies, but at some point it becomes clear that the story is really about what it’s like to have a crazy mom who doesn’t show much love.

The grace he has about the terrible things she did to him and his sister is amazing. (She put him into an orphanage!) A model for how you’d hope any of us can feel about our parents as we age and learn to forgive the things they could’ve handled better.

And he was the rare interviewee who could go anywhere I’d point him. Like: I’d throw him some leading or speculative question like “I wonder where the McCreary kids would be today and what they’d grow up into” and he’d have a thoughtful, funny, utterly broadcastable answer, an interesting answer.

I throw out these questions in lots of interviews. In the good interviews, the people field them and throw them back. In the bad ones, not so much.

He was the best ever. What a sweet, great guy. Passed away a few years ago now.

Photo via kuer90.1/Flickr


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