Ira Glass has stories to tell about telling stories

Ira Glass, host of “This American Life.”
Jesse Michener
Ira Glass, host of “This American Life.”

As juggernauts go, Ira Glass is a quiet one. During the 22 years he’s hosted the wildly popular public radio program “This American Life,” his soft-spoken affect and halting cadence have spawned much imitation and emulation — and even some consternation among those who crave the more declarative style familiar to prior generations of listeners.

Glass has shown great interest in combining performance media. He toured the world a few years ago with “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” a show he developed with the Monica Bill Barnes & Company dance troupe. In 2016, “This American Life” commissioned “Frozen” composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to write a song from the perspective of House Speaker Paul Ryan; Neil Patrick Harris sang it. “Come Sunday,” a Netflix-produced narrative film based on an episode of “This American Life” about Bishop Carlton Pearson, with a cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jason Segel, and Martin Sheen, will begin streaming Friday.

Glass performs his latest solo show, “Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening With Ira Glass,” at Symphony Hall on Sunday evening. It’ll feature Glass presenting audio and video clips as he tells some of the stories that never made it to air, and offers a peek into the making of “This American Life.” He spoke to the Globe by telephone.


Q. You’ve talked about your work on the radio being influenced by Broadway musicals. How so?

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A. My mom took us to musicals when I was a kid, and as Jewish kids on the East Coast growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, that was the music that was in the house. When “Fiddler on the Roof” came to Broadway [in 2015], I went and I realized how much of the show I had memorized. I hadn’t seen it since I was 18.

When I started working in journalism, I always had this feeling that I want to give the stories more oomph, more feeling, more . . . something. I didn’t have a word to describe it. And then at some point when I looked at the kinds of stories that we end up making on “This American Life,” I realized that those are stories where they would start off very light and funny and then you would come to realize that, oh, this is about some bigger idea, some bigger something. And by the end it would be very sad. And I was like: Oh, that’s actually the structure of “Fiddler.” That’s the structure of a lot of those old musicals. I feel like that template got somehow imprinted in me from those shows.

Q. When you first saw Monica Bill Barnes’s dance company perform, what did you see that made you feel you had a common creative cause?

A. I just thought they were really entertaining, but entertainers who were about something bigger and more thoughtful. They were funny, and I had never seen dance that was funny. But it also could be very emotional. They created a feeling in their dances that felt to me like the feeling we’re trying to create on the radio show, but they used no words.


Q. One of the hardest things to do on the radio is sound conversational, and you definitely do that. Would your friends say they recognize the Ira Glass they hear on the radio?

A. They would. I very much had to train myself to sound on the air exactly the way I sound in real life. That took 10 or 12 years.

I just had the experience a couple months ago, since my wife and I split up, of going out with somebody for the first time in 20 years. She kind of knew from a friend that I did a radio show or something, but she had never heard it. And then we had gone out three times and she finally listened to the show and she had two reactions. One was a kind of surprise, like, “Oh it’s good!” And then the other thing was, “It sounds like you’re talking right to me but you’re talking over the radio.” I felt like: Yes! It took years to develop that!

Q. How does everything that’s going on in the country right now affect the work that you do on “This American Life”?

A. As a staff, right now we’re trying to figure out how to document the seismic changes that the US is going through culturally and politically. It’s a constant challenge, and I feel like we’re constantly trying to invent new things to do.


We’ve done one thing that we spent like eight months on — producer Miki Meek and I and two other producers went into one town in Alabama that had a flood of immigrants and we tried to say, definitely, what happened. Did they take American jobs? Did they lead to an increase in crime? Did they lead to an increase in taxes? Let’s look at one place and see what really happens.

Q. As a journalist in this climate, I feel like simply telling the truth is a patriotic act.

A. It’s war right now between the fact-based media and the non-fact-based media, and the fact-based media is not winning. Partly because we don’t treat it as a war. The other side sees it as a war and talks about it as a war, and those of us in the fact-based media are not rising to the occasion. Rising to the occasion would mean new resources, new money, new tactics, which the other side is doing.

There’s all this money flooding in and new ways of doing it and honestly a lot of innovation and a lot of sass, and they deserve to be successful because they’re making stuff that’s really engaging and entertaining. And those of us in the fact-based media are doing what we’ve always done. And doing it really well — there’s incredible reporting from the fact-based media every day. But I feel like this moment actually requires more than just being factually accurate.

Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening With Ira Glass

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets from $30, 617-482-6661,

Interview was edited and condensed. Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at and on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.