Ira Glass is a writer, producer, storyteller, performer, and a familiar voice. His show This American Life has set the contemporary standard of nonfiction radio shows, and has influenced and inspired countless others to grab a mic and give podcasting a try.
But business as usual is apparently not enough for Ira. Earlier this year, he and his team produced an ambitious live theater show, with musicians, comedians, dancers, and other artists collaborating to create an eclectic performance. Meanwhile, This American Life has also gone independent from its longtime distributor, PRI, and they are also launching a new podcast in the fall called Serial—which, yes, will present a long serialized story over the course of a dozen or so chapters. Ira is certainly not afraid of a challenge.
We spoke with Ira to learn about his workflow, how he crafts his stories, and which tools he uses to produce compelling shows every week.
Location: New York Current Gig: Host and Executive Producer of This American Life One word that best describes how you work: UnrelentinglyCurrent mobile device: iPhone 5 (and Anker Astro Slim3 battery for when it runs out of juice)Current computer: MacBook Air, the smallest one, and a Mac desktop at work. I prefer reading books on an iPad mini. Movies and TV shows I watch exclusively on the iPad mini, never on a TV.
What apps/software/tools can't you live without? Why?
On the tech/app side I keep things unsophisticated. Pro Tools to edit sound, Microsoft Word for writing. This American Life runs on Google Docs. Before Google Docs existed, those rare times I met software engineers, I'd ask them to please create software so two people in different locations could edit a document together online. God bless Google Docs.
We use Google Docs so much at the radio show because we edit and re-edit each story many times before it gets to air. At each edit, we add at least one producer who's never heard the earlier versions.
Editing a radio story goes like this: The reporter reads the script out loud and when it's time for the quotes, we play those from the computer. Someone times how long the story is. We all take notes. If you'd stuck your head into the office, you'd see four of five of us scribbling away furiously and noting what we'd change. Lately we've been buying Muji notebooksand .38 Muji gel ink pensat the office for this purpose. They're pleasant to touch and make the world seem like an orderly place. I number and date my notebooks in case I need to go back to them later.
Then we all rewrite the script together on Google Docs, on MacBook Airs purchased for this purpose. We're also big users of Google Calendar at the radio show. The desktop interface for that is good but the Google Calendar iPhone app is just fucking annoying and really should go to hell. Here are two annoying things it does: 1) Every day (and after every time you close the app) it asks you to log in again with your name and password, which is a pain in the ass. 2) After you log in, a little blue box appears saying "Install this web app on your Phone: tap on the arrow and then 'Add to Home Screen'" which irritates me because the app should know that it already IS on my home screen. It already is on my iPhone. Where does it think it's living? Anyway, after a couple of years of getting mad every time it asked me this, I finally decided this was unnecessary anger to have in my life and switched to the iCal app that comes with the iPhone.
As far as audio gear, t he recording kits we use in the field for our show are Marantz PDM661digital recorders, whose controls and displays are beautifully designed and wonderful to use, andAudio Technica AT835b shotgun mics. I've used the 835b since I was in my twenties. You can spend more for prettier sound but I think it's a great-sounding general-purpose mic, good both for interviews and for recording ambient sound. Shotguns are better for interviews because they isolate the voice of the interviewee better than omnidirectional mics. You just have to be careful about handling noise, but that's not hard.
I'd been doing radio over a decade when I discovered the world of wireless lav mics, which you pin on your interviewee as they teach in front of a classroom, shake hands on the campaign trail, go about their lives. Most radio people don't use these but they're like a crazy magic trick. The interviewees forget they're wearing the mics, or get tired of remembering, and you get incredible stuff you wouldn't get if you were standing there sticking a footlong mic a few inches from their face. I prefer the Lectrosonics wireless rigs though they're insanely expensive. The first one I bought—for $2000—was the most expensive thing I'd ever owned. I paid more for it than I'd paid for my car. There are good ones for lots cheaper but you definitely hear the difference when you spring for the extra money.
Okay warning: this is going to get a little wonky. I give a lot of speeches, easily one every two weeks, and in those speeches, I like to recreate the sound of our radio show. I narrate live, and roll in quotes and mix music, all live. For years, I needed a mixing console and CD players to do this. But now I can do it with an iPad mini. The tech isn't complicated. I run Ableton Livesoftware on my MacBook Air. The Air plugs into the house sound system out of the regular headphone jack. (You need to go through a direct box to push the sound up to proper levels for a professional P.A. system but direct boxes are cheap.)
Then on the iPad mini I use software called TouchAble that controls the Ableton Live software that's on my Mac. It gives me all my quotes and music and a full mixer, right on the iPad. So I can hit music and ride levels up and down, all live. I travel with a wireless router, a robust one, to create the wifi network that lets the iPad mini talk to the MacBook Air.
What's your workspace setup like?
I have a computer with nice Genelec 8020B speakers and Dorrough 12-AES digital audio meters, which is what we all have at the radio show. I'm not fussy about where I work. In fact, kind of the opposite. I can write anywhere. Desk, diner, airplane. If anything, I write better on planes and away from the office because I'm not interrupted by anyone.
What's your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
I've got nothing. Reading other people's answers to this question on your website today made me realize I live my life like an ape. I eat the same breakfast and lunch everyday, both at my desk. I employ no time-saving tricks at all.
Though come to think of it, I guess my biggest life hack—and this is the very first time I've attempted to use the phrase "life hack" in a sentence—is that my wife and I decided to live just a few blocks from where I work. We did this because of our dog. Since I spend at least an hour every night walking the dog, I didn't want to spend another 60 or 90 minutes a day commuting. I don't have the time. Like lots of people, I work long hours.
What's your favorite to-do list manager?
Wunderlist. I keep two lists: a to-do list and a list of stuff that's just books and movies and articles that people mention, that I hope to check out. I like Wunderlist because it's so simple.
I'm okay but not great at managing my time. In addition to being an editor and writer on my radio show, I'm also the boss, and deal with budgets, personnel stuff, revenue and spending questions, and business decisions. My worst habit: when I should be writing something for this week's show, I'll procrastinate by looking over some contract or making some business phone call or doing something else that actually isn't as important as writing. Which is to say: Iprocrastinate by working. I wonder if that's common.
I also find that somehow, the way I'm built, the hardest part of my job is simply to shift from one task to the next. The new task is like icy water you have to dive into. The old task is a warm bath. It's especially hard when I know the new task is going to be really difficult, as half of them are. I always have to brace myself.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without and why?
I'd be lost without a toilet to dispose of human waste.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What's your secret?
I don'tthink I'm better than everyone else at anything, but I am very quick at organizing a big mass of interview tape into a structure. I learned my technique from a great print editor namedPaul Tough, who was at the New York Times Magazine and Harper's, and worked with our show a lot in the early years. It's so basic I worry it doesn't bear going into here, but just in case it's handy to another writer or editor, here we go:
When I come out of an interview, I jot down the things I remember as being my favorite moments. For an hour-long interview usually it's just four or five moments, but if out I'm reporting all day, I'll spend over an hour at night typing out every favorite thing that happened. This is handier than you might think. Often this short list of favorite things will provide the backbone to the structure to my story.
Then I transcribe the tape or have it transcribed by someone. Getting every word right isn't as important as having something on paper for each sentence that's been said, because to make radio stories, you edit by the sentence. For some reason in the radio biz we don't call these transcripts, we call them tape logs.
Then I print out the log and mark it up. Every possible quote I might use, I write a letter next to, A, B, C, etc. As I do this, on a single piece of paper, I make a list for myself of the quotes. So when I'm done, there's not just the tape log, there's a piece of paper with tiny handwriting on it, listing the quotes "A - he describes the old house, B - what it was like the moment he came home, C - his sister warned him," etc. Any quote that's especially promising gets an asterisk. Any quote I'm sure I cannot tell the story without gets two asterisks.
The point of this is that it gets all this inchoate material—the sound you've gathered—into a form where you can see it all on one page. You see all your options. It's in a form where your brain can start to organize it. Also, writing the list sort of inserts all the quotes into quick-access RAM memory in your head in a helpful way. I find that the important first step to writing anything or editing anything (half of my day each day is editing) is just getting the possible building blocks of the story into your head so you can start thinking about how to manipulate it and cut it and move it.
Listing the quotes this way is also important because a radio story, unlike other kinds of writing and even other kinds of journalism, is usually structured around the quotes. You organize the beats of your plot around the most compelling moments you have on tape. (Though I learned this from a print journalist so I guess it's applicable there too.)
Next I stare at my one-page list and think about what would be a fun or compelling beginning. (Okay, I've been thinking about that since I decided to do the story but now it's down to brass tacks: what actually works on tape and what are the many things that I tried that failed?) Usually there are two or three decent options for the beginning of the story and one or two obvious possibilities for how to end it. Then I think about what really are my very favorite moments and what doesn't need to be in the story. And then I sketch a structure based on my letter code: okay, F is the opening beat, then do C and D and then jump to M and N and end on G. And then I write. Usually my list will include a few extra beats that I'm not sure if pacing will permit. When I get to that spot in the writing, I'll know whether to include them or cut them.
This technique lets you go from many hours of interview tape to a concise, workable structure very quickly. It's hard to imagine how you could do it more efficiently.2
I just finished Elizabeth Kolbert's Sixth Extinction (which I loved if you can say "loved" about a book that's so grim) and Dan Barber's book The Third Plate which is a surprisingly well-reported Michael Pollan-ish book written by a professional chef. They are amazingly similar books, about what we're doing to the natural world. In Barber's case, not to be too glib about it, this has consequences for what he can cook. His stuff about fish is some of my favorite reporting I've read this year. Molly Ringwald did a story on our show and now I'm reading her novel. It's deeply relatable and pretty sad. I'm also slowly working my way through all theLemony Snicket books which seem like works of pure genius to me. The word "genius" is used here to mean works of complete originality in content and voice. Snicket readers know what I'm talking about.
I don't read many books that aren't for work. I don't have time to read much for pleasure. I do read the New York Times and the New Yorker, exactly like you'd expect of any glasses-wearing East Coast public radio employee. I read Rookie to see what my wife's up to; she's one of the people running the site. Fortunately, it's great: soulful and entertaining and continually surprising. Unfortunately, it's totally reshaped my music listening so now my playlist at the gym is that of a 15-year-old girl's. Lots of Charli XCX lately.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I am a noisy introvert. My sister Randi made up that phrase and it describes lots of people I know. Lots of writers seem to be introverts who love to now and then be on stage. Lots of radio people too. I covet large amounts of time alone, and I'm most comfortable and very happy when I'm alone, but obviously there's another side to me because true introverts don't end up with their own national radio shows.
What's your sleep routine like?
I'm nothing. No routine at all. Productive thinking or working can happen late at night or early morning. I generally go to sleep at midnight or 1 a.m. and get up at 7 or 8 a.m. To be truthful, I handle this terribly. By the end of every week, I'm just getting five hours sleep so I can get into the office at 7 a.m. and write. By the end of every week, I'm sleep deprived.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Jay-Z, Malcolm Gladwell, Tavi Gevinson, Shonda Rhimes. Seriously, Shonda Rhimes, how does she do it? How many TV shows is she writing and producing now? What's Jay-Z's day like? Does he work, like, ten hours a day, or just two? What's his home stereo system like? Does Malcolm Gladwell set aside time in his week to look for stories? If not, where do they come from?
What's the best advice you've ever received?
"An explanation is where the mind comes to rest." This wasn't said to me. I read it in Michael Lewis somewhere. Sometimes when there's some uneasy truth about my life that I don't want to admit, I will notice that my mind will keep insisting on that truth and this quote will come to mind.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers/fans?
I'd just say to aspiring journalists or writers—who I meet a lot of—do it now. Don't wait for permission to make something that's interesting or amusing to you. Just do it now. Don't wait. Find a story idea, start making it, give yourself a deadline, show it to people who'll give you notes to make it better. Don't wait till you're older, or in some better job than you have now. Don't wait for anything. Don't wait till some magical story idea drops into your lap. That's not where ideas come from. Go looking for an idea and it'll show up. Begin now. Be a fucking soldier about it and be tough.
Title photo by Stuart Mullenberg. Additional photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz/This American Life.
The How I Work series asks heroes, experts, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Every other Wednesday we'll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips, and tricks that keep them going. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Andy.