Before Ira Glass, the host and producer of the Chicago-based public radio show “This American Life,” became an icon in narrative journalism, he was a 19-year-old intern working for National Public Radio in D.C.
Glass, now 52, returned to the District Saturday night, and said he still tackles each story – from colorful exposés to weighty investigations – with the joy and curiosity of a teenager.
“When you’re starting in journalism, people try to teach you a bunch of idealistic, high-minded things about it, and how serious and important it is. But I wish that somebody had said to me that it’s supposed to be enjoyable,” Glass said in an interview before his sold-out performance at Lisner Auditorium Saturday.
“When one does that, you end up with amazing work because you throw yourself into it,” Glass said.
Even after three decades in journalism, Glass still tries to discover new ways to tell stories. The route to discovery, he said, is not always smooth.
In a “This American Life” episode that aired last week, when Glass pursued a form of investigative journalism that was new to him – one about a particularly abusive drug court judge – he encountered roadblock after roadblock.
“When I was 19 starting out, I thought I’d really look forward to a point when I’d know what I was doing, and this won’t be so hard. It shocks me still how many times I run into a situation and I think, ‘I don’t even know how to do this,’ ” Glass said. “I thought that feeling was supposed to go away, but you just get it in different forms.”
Glass also experienced new forms of uncertainty, from not only telling different kinds of stories but also exploring various storytelling platforms.
Glass devoted half of the two-hour event Saturday night to showing video clips and analyzing the “This American Life” television show, which aired for two seasons on Showtime in 2007 and 2008.
Glass said his team ultimately ended the television show due to its struggle to find stories conducive for a visual format. The TV show also drew considerably smaller ratings than its radio counterpart, which has over 2 million listeners between radio and podcast.
“We didn’t understand that TV is smaller than radio now. We thought, ‘Wow, we’re on TV. We’re going to be famous!’ ” Glass said.
Glass’ visit to D.C. coincided with the ongoing political war over funding public radio. Members of the House of Representatives accused NPR of liberal bias and voted to strip the organization of federal funding two weeks ago, but the Senate has not taken such action.
“It’s a little weird to be in Washington, D.C., because you know who really loves me and my kind? The United States House of Representatives,” Glass said sarcastically.
Glass aimed to debunk the notion of liberal bias by sharing an NPR report about public radio content, which he played from his iPad because he is “so unbelievably with it,” he quipped. The segment from “On the Media” cited various studies concluding that public radio does not shun conservative viewpoints.
“Bill O’Reilly declared that public radio is a ‘totalitarian outfit working as an arm of the far left.’ I’ve got to say that I just don’t see it,” Glass said.
Unifying to counter such criticism is a challenge for public radio personalities who work in independent organizations, he said.
“Usually public radio’s strength is its decentralization, but it becomes a problem in a moment like this when nobody is in charge,” Glass said. “It’s like what Jon Stewart says: ‘We’re bringing a tote bag to a knife fight.’ ”