Ira Glass Created a Radio Show That is (Still) More Popular Than The Bachelor

SXSW is in town March 9-18! We’re shining a spotlight on four speakers and their work that revolutionized our world.

Ira Glass is the creator and host of This American Life, a radio show that first aired in 1995 and not only paved the way for podcasts, but almost single-handedly ushered in an era of live storytelling.

Glass brought a new voice to radio–literally. Now we’re used to podcasts where people talk to each other conversationally, casually. But if you’ve ever listened to news radio of any kind, you know that “radio voice” sounds decidedly un-casual. Broadcasters also had deeper, more resonant voices while Glass has a higher-pitched nasal quality to his speech (listeners have complained about his voice for years; Glass takes it in stride).

This American Life (TAL) aired in 1995 as Your Radio Playhouse (it became This American Life the following year) and earned its way to national prominence through cold calls, enthusiasm and original marketing.

He talks in this interview about how they exceeded their initial goal (they wanted to be on 60 stations by the end of the first year but got on over 100) and that they did it using two clever tactics:

  1. To stations who picked up the show, Glass and his staff would mail a Snickers bar. Such a simple idea, but they stood out because no one else was doing anything like it.
  2. They created entertaining promos for local stations to air during their pledge drives, which are famously boring for listeners to bear. So, Glass’s proposition to station owners was: pick us up because we’ll make you money. He and his staff came up with funny promos that delighted otherwise-suffering listeners (nobody enjoys a pledge drive) and the plan worked! Glass says half of the first 100 stations to pick up TAL did it because of the promos.

Glass has hosted the show for over 20 years now–over 600 episodes–and has never gotten stale. It’s heard by over 5 million people each week via both radio and podcast. (To put that in perspective, in January, the same number of people tuned in to watch the season premier of the Bachelor.) It consistently made the top 10 for years, and more recently has been bumped out by its own shows. Last year, one of its own spinoffs S-Town beat it in the rankings.

Radio people aren’t known for innovation or business savvy (perhaps unfairly?), which makes Ira Glass that much more remarkable. He is constantly pushing the boundaries of what radio (and storytelling) can do.

You’re Terrible At What You Love. Do It Anyway.

When he was 19, Glass began an internship at NPR as a tape-cutter. It’s almost unfathomable in this digital age, but radio programs used to be edited by literally cutting tape-recorded segments together–and throwing the ones that didn’t work into a literal trashcan (instead of an icon of one).

It turned out to be great training, though. He made great connections with the staff, got great at editing (and great radio is all about editing), and began his career reporting.

If this were an ordinary story about a successful figure, right here I would begin detailing how Glass had always loved radio and writing and had followed his passion into the NPR studios that day. It would trace his path from lowly, tape-cutting intern to senior staff reporter. It would highlight his incredible, innate talent for storytelling. It would likely be embellished with childhood anecdotes about winning storytelling contests, or working on his school paper. We would look back on his life and know that he wa destined to be the king of radio.

But this isn’t that story. In fact, it isn’t even close to that story. For when glass started out, he was a horrible reporter.

I feel like I should say that again. When Ira Glass, the undisputed king of modern radio, started out as a radio reporter, he was horrible. So horrible that it took him years to get good.

Many years, in fact. He says it took him longer to get good than anybody he’s ever met. For most of a decade, at least, he was bad. How bad? Take a look at this clip from his eighth year as a reporter.

We love stories of prodigy. We love to be wowed by Mozart, who was writing operas at 12, or Tara Lapinski, who won a gold medal at age 14, or the stories that pop up now and then about 16 year olds going to college.

The thing about those stories is this: they’re not interesting, and they’re not helpful. Because most of us aren’t born amazing at anything. We just slobber and totter around and fall around a lot.

But all of us have something we really want to do.

So what happens when you’re exceptionally bad at the thing you want to do? Give up, right? If you want to be a singer, but you have a lousy voice or no sense of pitch, what’s the point of pursuing singing? You’ll never be great. (Incidentally, Derek Sivers has a great chapter in his book about his own lousy cum amazing singing.)

It is far more difficult to pursue the thing you’re horrible at, but that you want more than anything to be good at, than to go with what comes naturally to you.

Most stories that we tell as a culture are about young people that change the world. They’re about underdogs who win big. They’re about innovators and rebels. They’re about disruptive technologies and overnight successes.

They’re not about people who dedicate decades to one quiet thing. They don’t tell about the 20 years of dedication to the thing you’re horrible at. The stories we hear are about hard work, not heart work.

Glass’ is a story that deserves to be told because it’s the story we all need to hear, over and over again. It is the ultimate tale of triumph. It is a story we could all live ourselves if we want.

It is the story I’ll tell you today.

When Glass was 19, he took an internship at a radio station. The year was 1978. His skill level was virtually zero.

He spent the next eight years learning the ins and outs of radio programming from writing, to editing, to reading stories on the air, to music, transitions, the elements of storytelling, and how to combine them all into good reporting.

At this point, after nearly a decade, he had not gotten it down. He tells us he was bad, and it’s easy to think that it’s his own modesty or self-deprecating personality doing the talking.

But at least one other successful radio producer and reporter backs him up. There’s nothing in here showing any talent at all, she says of one of his stories from the time.

He kept doing it anyway.

In 1990, 12 years into his tenure, he moved beyond producing and reporting to become co-host of a weekly (local) radio program that ran for 5 years.

It wasn’t until 1995, 17 years after starting in radio, that he started what would become This American Life.

He started at age 19. It took him nearly another lifetime to get to This American Life.

What do you badly that you would dedicate a whole lifetime to getting good at?

What if the thing you’re terrible at is the thing you’re destined to be great at? What if all those years of learning are precisely why you end up on top?

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

[I]f you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal, and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.

Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

Ira Glass on Taste

An Incomplete List of All the Times Ira Glass and TAL Changed the Game:

-TAL hosts live shows, which has become normal for podcasts. TAL’s shows, however, are often complete with musical numbers, live dance and theatrical performances. They’re available for download through their website.

-TAL developed its own app where you can access the entire 600+ episode archive and stream anytime.

-Its annual pledge drive is a 1-minute pitch by Ira Glass himself. Each year, they exceed their needs for the show. On years where they don’t need the money, you don’t hear a pitch. They’ve established enough trust with their listeners (and created enough value) that when they ask, we respond. It’s how Serial season 2 was created, and S-Town, too.

-In 2014, they put some of the surplus into creating a spinoff. Serial went on to shatter records and bring podcasting into the mainstream. Podcasts were so new at the time that they had to create a video to teach people how to listen to them.

-TAL was, briefly, an Emmy award-winning TV show on Showtime. It’s currently available to stream and on DVD.

-In addition to three Emmys, it’s won tons of other awards, including the prestigious Peabody 8 times. (Listen to the award winning episodes here.)

-In 2014, they announced they’d be parting ways with their longtime distributor Public Radio International (not NPR, many are surprised to learn) to distribute the show via PRX in an effort to further democratize public radio.

-In 2015, it signed a deal with Pandora to stream TAL and Serial.

-In 2016, resident TAL geniuses developed Shortcut, a way to turn TAL podcast moments into video clips shareable on social media.

-Also in 2015 it changed up its partnership with WBEZ, the station they’d worked under since the show’s beginning in 1995, because they were forming their own production company.

-For a few years, ending in 2017, he toured with two dancers in a show he co-created called Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.

-Glass produced two feature films by comedian Mike Birbiglia, and a podcast to promote the second movie.

-But, even after all that, you may know him best from his advice to creatives where he explains the gap between starting out with good taste but having terrible execution. It’s an excerpt from a (brief) 4-video series on storytelling that you should definitely watch.

I could go on–that’s how influential Ira Glass and his shows have been. Instead, I will leave you with this:

Three Business Lessons We Learned from Ira Glass:

  1. Assemble a great team. Glass is talented, hardworking, and enthusiastic about new projects. Without an amazing team, though, he couldn’t have done half of what is on this list. In fact, the show wouldn’t even have gotten off the ground. Collaborate, cooperate, and trust.
  2. Take creative risks. This is true even if you’re not in a creative industry. Push the envelope! You’ll learn more, you’ll keep getting better, and then you’ll be able to apply that mastery to other areas. By his own admission, Glass started out terrible. He was 19 and didn’t figure out how to sound good for nearly 10 years. It’s no coincidence that it’s only been the last 10 or so years that TAL has really taken off (Glass is nearly 60). It takes time, effort, experience and practice, yes, and risk.
  3. Mastery opens doors. Glass is a master storyteller and a successful businessman. He developed these skills over the years and they paved the way for new, diverse, interesting (and lucrative) opportunities beyond radio. People worry that focusing closes doors but in fact, it’s more often true that getting to the top of what you love is the best way to get into (often by invitation) other industries, fields and opportunities.
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See Ira Glass March 11 @ 3:30 PM

Further Reading & Recommendations

20 years of This American Life has made Ira Glass a seasoned interviewer, but did you know he is also an excellent subject? He’s insightful, interesting and relatable. Here are a few of my favorite essays and interviews:

Q&A: Ira Glass on Structuring Great Stories, Asking Hard Questions I promised he was a good interview subject and now you can see why.

Radiowaves Podcast Interview Probably my favorite Ira Glass interview because it manages to be wide-ranging without losing the listener or being boring. It’s linked above because it’s not just about Glass and TAL, but shares insight about business and marketing that can apply broadly.

Ira Glass’s Manifesto This is basically everything I wrote above but from his perspective and with sound clips that aren’t included here. His path from peasant to king; his advice on pitching (and finding) great stories; and how to tell great stories.

Public Radio and Capitalism I mentioned above his innovation to public radio pledge drive, and how their success there has allowed This American Life has been able to do ambitious shows and create record-breaking spinoffs. Here’s more on the money side of public radio, from Glass’ perspective. It’s worth a read because though he’s talking about radio, what he’s saying can apply to any business.

Ira Glass on Storytelling is a quick 4-part series (total runtime: less than 20 minutes) about how to tell great stories. It includes his quote about good taste. Watch them.

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