AUSTIN, TX: Ira Glass was having a bit of an identity crisis. It wasn’t specific to the event he appeared at Tuesday morning, a SXSW “conversation” with Los Angeles Times writer Mark Olsen; in fact, it’s something that happens all the time. The problem is that he’s been interviewing people for so long — specifically for his acclaimed radio show This American Life, currently in its 20th year — that he still hasn’t gotten used to being the one answering questions instead of asking them.
“I so try to be a good interviewee, I so relate more to being you in this situation than being me,” he told Olsen. “And when I’m answering a question that you’re giving me, I’m totally listening to myself as an interviewer, being like c’mon c’mon get to the point please answer the question…”
He didn’t have anything to worry about. Over the course of their hour-long talk, he got big laughs, provided words of wisdom, and conveyed what little he’d figured out about the runaway success of TAL‘s first spin-off show, Serial. “We didn’t anticipate that it would be the biggest podcast ever,” he confessed. “In fact, we didn’t think that it would necessarily work.” And he eagerly attributed the vision of the show to producer Julie Snyder. “She just had this idea like, ‘What’s the biggest thing in culture?’ The biggest thing in the culture is these TV shows that we all binge-watch, where you see people beginning the show and saying, ‘We can’t not turn this off, we have to get to the next episode.’ And she was just like, ‘Can you do that with reporting? Can we do an investigative story that is so compelling in the beginning that people would stick around for the whole thing?’”
As far as explaining the show’s massive success, they did have an accidental secret weapon — a bit of fortuitous timing that greatly increased the show’s access to the general public. “We were lucky in the sense that the technology changed the month Serial came out,” he explained. “Up until that point, podcasting wasn’t quite a thing yet. And then that same month, this is the fall of 2014, Apple came out the new iOS, which came installed with a podcasting app.” But of course, that’s not all there was to it: “It’s both the technology and the content. Obviously you have to have both. And I think a lot of people came to podcasts through Serial. I mean, I met so many people who had like never heard of podcasts, but then they could only hear it as a podcast, so they were forced into the podcast world.”
Up until then, This American Life‘s podcast had been quite popular, but Glass admits that was basically just a way to better distribute the show, without a lot of extra bells and whistles. There is one thing about podcasting that he likes, however. “You can curse, which is so wonderful,” he said with a grin. “I love cursing, and some stories really benefit from it! We did a story about these car dealers in Long Island, to hear them really curse — it just touches your heart.”
And he’s also well aware that podcasts are just having a moment, however long it may last. “It’s crazy, it’s amazing, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a bubble! And we’re gonna ride out this bubble. The podcast ads bring in more money than the radio ads do.” That’s contrary to movements in pretty much every other area of journalism, with massive layoffs and belt-tightening in newspapers, magazines, and network news. “Weirdly, the only TV news that does well still is local TV news — which is like, why? It’s so bad! Universally, any city you’re in, it’s just horrible! And my theory, and I have no data on this, is just, old people still cannot figure out how to look on the Internet for weather and have to watch local news. I have no facts to back that up, it’s just based on my prejudices.”
The point is, while “really serious journalism” is becoming an endangered species, “we happen to be holding the winning ticket, and because of podcasting we have all this money, to actually do investigative reporting, and to do things like stage a musical with Lin-Manuel Miranda, to send three reporters for five months into a high school in Chicago that had 29 shootings in a year — like, you can’t send three reporters for five months into anything. We’re a little boutique radio show, and we can do that… I don’t take it for granted. We were broke for so long!”
Will that bubble burst, Olsen asked? “Yes,” Glass immediately replied. “I hope not, but very soon. Of course! Like, audio? Really? Like, that’s gonna be number one? When virtual reality headsets come in?”
So with all of that success in all of these booming media formats, what on earth was Glass — who was at SXSW with Mike Birbglia’s film Don’t Think Twice, which he executive-produced — doing making movies? “I know, right?!” he responded, incredulously. “I was saying this to Mike! Why would you make a movie? It takes a year, it’s such a horrible process. The chances of it being any good, and then anyone seeing it — it’s crazy, it’s so wrongheaded.” So why were they doing it? “He wants to make movies! He’s into movies. And I was like, ‘Great, do this by yourself.’ And then he just kept showing me scripts, and I was like, ‘OK, you should change this here…’ He totally played me.”
But there is one thing about narrative films that he prefers to journalistic storytelling. “It’s such a miracle, you can just make up the facts!” he laughed. “In a movie you can literally be like, ‘In the dream version, how would this happen? Oh, they’d be in a basement and they’d find these old photos from when they were young and they started the group.’ And then your art director can make the old photos and you can find a basement. It’s your dream version: Where is the best place in the world they can have this conversation? If they’re gonna break up, where is the best place for them to break up? If they’re gonna fall in love, here’s the best place. It’s crazy! That’s the one thing about fiction that’s incredible, I can see why it’s so popular. Oh, we can just make up shit!”
At the end of the panel, an audience member asked Glass if he’d developed any additions to his famous quote — a theory he floated “spontaneously in an interview that became more famous than my actual work,” Glass joked — about closing the gap between taste and talent. “The main thing that I would say to somebody who’s looking to do creative work is, just do it now,” he said. “Don’t wait. It’s so hard to make anything, that it’s just easy to put it off, and be like, when I get the right financing, when I get the right this or that — just start doing it now. Because one of the great things about this moment in our culture, it’s never been easier to make something. The technology’s never been cheaper, and honestly the way to get the thing out to people is get your stuff out on the Internet, and get an audience, and get a small version to get you enough backing to do the big version.
“There’s so many fucked-up things in our country and in the world right now, and we live in a very dark climate. But the one place where things are going great is, if you want to do creative work, you can actually make some version and get it to people. And just don’t wait, is what I’m saying. Don’t wait. Just make the thing. Make a version. And then make it better. And then make it better.”