Ira Glass

Ira Glass

Born in Baltimore, MD, Glass contributed jokes to the local radio station, and worked at the radio station at Northwestern University when he went there after high school. At 19, however, he received an internship at NPR in Washington, DC. This was his formative experience. NPR was beginning to establish itself and, as an intern, he was involved in nearly every aspect of production for many shows that NPR produced including news shows "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." During this time, Glass also managed to work with cutting edge writer producer Joe Frank. Frank's personal and dreamlike monologues opened Glass's eyes to the kind of stories that could be told on the radio. Glass returned to college, this time majoring in Semiotics at Brown University and, once finished, came right back into the NPR world. In DC, Glass was a production assistant, then producer on stories for varied NPR shows. He also hosted "Talk of the Nation" for a few months. It was around this time, Glass says, that he was able to convince his parents that he could be successful at this career by pointing to his father's cousin, composer Philip Glass, who had created a very successful career out of an artistic niche. Glass truly created the radioscape he became associated with when he moved back to Chicago in the late '80s. He started out producing reports on school reform, and spent nearly a year following kids at a Chicago high school and elementary school. The pieces aired on "All Things Considered." Also in Chicago, he became associated with the local public radio station, WBEZ. From 1990 through 1995 he co-produced "The Wild Room" at WBEZ, an hour-long show that incorporated some of the elements of his future show, including David Sedaris. Glass discovered Sedaris at a Chicago reading, where Sedaris was reading from his diary. Glass quickly saw the potential of Sedaris on the radio, and put him on "The Wild Room." In 1992 Sedaris read from his Santaland Diaries on NPR's "Morning Edition." Sedaris later published a Santaland Diaries essay in his first collection Barrel Fever (1994), and Glass later rebroadcast a longer version on an early "This American Life." "This American Life" was called originally "Your Radio Playhouse. " The show came about in 1995, when the MacArthur Foundation contacted Torey Malatia, then WBEZ's General Manager, about a $150,000 grant to produce a local program that featured local artists. Wanting a structured, written show Malatia approached Glass, who convinced him that it would be better to do a national show featuring local artists (Sedaris included). "Little movies for the radio," is how Glass described his vision for the show, combining both fiction and non-fiction stories. After months of honing, the first episode aired in November 1995. The show, like all episodes, had a theme. This one, appropriately, was "New Beginnings," and featured, among other things, an interview with his parents. In 1996, his first full year, Glass produced 40 episodes of "This American Life." The show quickly struck a cord. Although NPR passed on producing the project, the show was swooped up by Public Radio International for national syndication in 1996. PRI had a sympathetic network and audience, and a mandate that was well suited to Glass's creation. After one full year, the show reached 60 stations and won a Peabody Award "for weaving original monologues, mini-dramas, original fiction, traditional radio documentaries and original radio dramas into an instructional and entertaining tapestry." By 1998, the show was carried by over 250 stations nationwide. For Glass, the consummate perfectionist, the schedule was exhausting. In 1998, "This American Life" produced 30 new episodes and from 2000 through 2014, the show averaged 27 episodes per season. Of course, going from 40 episodes to 27 meant Glass had more time to test the "This American Life" model in other media. The show was performed and recorded for broadcast a number of times for individual episodes, and Glass also took the show 'on tour' a few times, performing the same stories at different venues, then using the best performances for a "live" "This American Life" episode. "This American Life" stories quickly became favorites in film as well. In 2002, the show signed a deal with Warner Bros, which would give the studio "first-look" rights to the library and future shows. "Unaccompanied Minors" (2006) was the first film to emerge from show. Directed by Paul Feig, the film was a comic take on Susan Burton's "This American Life" retelling of the time she, her sister, and other unaccompanied minors were stranded overnight in an airport when a Christmas season snowstorm grounds their flight. Television also called to Glass and "This American Life." After a number of near misses, the show finally agreed to terms with Showtime. In 2007 and 2008, the network aired 12 episodes and a 13th in 2009. Some of the stories in the series were original and solely for television, and some were adapted from stories that premiered on the radio. Glass and his "This American Life" producers decided to stop the TV series after its second season because the pace of producing the radio show and the TV series proved to be extremely rigorous. The stories also inspired filmmakers without being directly involved in the production. This was the case with "The Informant!" (2009), which was the subject of a rare full hour "This American Life" story. The radio story drove screenwriter Scott Burns, director Steven Soderbergh, and star Matt Damon to create the film, based on Kurt Eichenwald's book. Glass also took "This American Life" directly to the big screen, using digital cinema to distribute a number of "This American Life" staged shows directly to theaters. In 2012, Glass co-wrote and produced "Sleepwalk With Me," based on the stories of frequent "This American Life" contributor Mike Birbiglia, who starred in and directed the film. It premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Best of NEXT Audience Award. In 2014, Glass produced a podcast spinoff from "This American Life" called "Serial." Hosted by "This American Life" producer Sarah Koenig, "Serial" was the opposite of its progenitor in that it followed one story, with episodes over the course of many weeks. The mission behind season one of "Serial" was to try and answer questions surrounding the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend. The series quickly became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes, surpassing "This American Life."