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Ira Glass Reflects on Nearly 25 Years of 'This American Life'

Jesse Michener

What began nearly 25 years ago under the title ‘Your Radio Playhouse’ launched a different kind of radio journalism, with each episode centered on a basic theme.

The idea that became This American Life is now heard by roughly 5-million people each week, through NPR member stations and podcasts.  Host and Executive Producer Ira Glass wil present a stage version of the show at the Historic Academy Theatre in Lynchburg on October 12.

At the program’s start, Glass said he had no idea the show would last this long.

“There was a point at five or six years into the show, when as a staff, we talked about ‘Have we run out of everything you can do with this format?”  

But Glass said as new producers came aboard, they would have new ideas, and the staff become interested in doing a different kind of news program. “Somehow, we figured out ways to keep re-inventing it,” he said.

Glass says the initial goal was for the program to appear on 60 stations in two years. It was on 200 with one year. 

“I had a moment, when there were four of us making the show, and basically, any minute we were awake, we were working – that’s not much of an exaggeration.”

Nowadays, he says many of the ideas for stories This American Life come via email, but there are so many pitches, he admits the staff will never get to all of them. 

“We’re always working up more material than will end up on the air,” Glass said. “The only way if you can tell it’s going to be any good – you just have go out and start recording people, and just see if they’re good talkers, and see if it’s as interesting as you’d hope.”

He says one portion of each program, or one story, is often very labor intensive, while the rest of the show comes together pretty quickly. 

An extended interview with Ira Glass.

In the long history of This American Life, Glass has done a number of stage presentations in a number of cities as a way to promote the radio program.  But it took a while to become accustomed to a live audience.

“I tried to design something that was as much like doing a radio show as possible, except I happened to be on stage,” he said.

"We're always working up more material than will end up on the air. The only way if you can tell it's going to be any good, you just have go out and start recording people."

The program and its format became so popular, that This American Life was developed into a cable TV series for Showtime, which won three Emmys.  Despite its success, the staff asked to be taken off television after two seasons.

“There’s nothing (from making TV) that I was able to bring back to radio,” Glass said.  “It was hard to make a show in our style, and do it well.”

Glass’ October 12 presentation in Lynchburg is called ‘Seven Things I’ve Learned.’ He calls ‘a grab bag idea’ of stories that are fun to tell in front of an audience, some of which has never been on the radio.

This American Life can be heard Saturdays at 3 p.m., Sundays at 10 a.m, and Mondays at 7 p.m. on Radio IQ.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.