"Serial was a risk": This American Life producer Ira Glass spills on the podcast, money and more

18 March 2016

Through This American Life and Serial, Ira Glass is arguably the man behind the rise of podcasting. WeTransfer managing editor, and former It’s Nice That editor, Rob Alderson was at South by South West to hear him deliver an hour of wit, wisdom and balloon animals

Towards the end of his SXSW session, Ira Glass made a balloon poodle for a woman in the audience who said she’d seen him pull the same trick at an event a couple of years ago. It was a surreally silly moment and almost cartoonish in its effect on the audience — what’s this guy going to do next? Ira already had us eating out of his hands, having spoken for an hour about his work on This American Life and Serial with wit, self-awareness and humility. Here’s some of things he shared:

On making This American Life
“We are very pure — we make the show for ourselves,” he said. “What would amuse us? The golden rule is don’t make anything that you yourself wouldn’t consume. If you are not doing that, take a look in the mirror. What are you doing with your life?”

On finding his voice
Ira was honest about the frustration he felt in his 20s when he was struggling to break through in the industry. But he was honest about his shortcomings too — “I knew what good was and I knew I was not there.” For five years he had a late-night public radio show which he used to hone his skills, finding his voice and perfecting the ability to make scripts sound off-the-cuff. He was shameless in asking people for help and advice which he believes was crucial, but there is no substitute for actually doing the thing you want to get better at. “My theory was if I kept making stuff over and over, I would just learn.”

On Serial
Ira admitted that Serial was a risk when it was launched in 2014 — “We did not anticipate it would necessarily work.” Paradoxically considering that Serial is released on a strict timetable (weekly for the first series, bi-weekly for the second), the starting point was the binge-watching TV phenomenon, which led his team to consider whether they could do the same thing with reporting, “creating something so compelling that people will stick around for the whole thing.”
In the initial business plan they worked out they needed 300,000 downloads to pay for the show; in the end more than 10 million people got hooked on the story of Adnan Syed. He attributed this success to two factors. Firstly the talents of producer Julie Snyder and host Sarah Koenig, who he describes as an “amazing performer and a exceptional reporter.” This is a rare combination and her skills are all the more impressive considering how quickly she turns round the complex scripts. “What she is making is super delicate and she is making it in real time,” he said.

But the second factor in _Serial_’s unprecedented success was sheer luck. The launch of the first series coincided with Apple including a podcast app as standard on the iPhone. This was a watershed moment for the format and Serial was perfectly placed to take advantage — “A lot of people came to podcasts through Serial,” he said. So while it took four years for This American Life to attract one million listeners an episode, it took Serial just four weeks.

On podcasts vs radio
Ira outlined some of the things TAL could do as a podcast that it couldn’t do in its original radio show format — they didn’t have to be bound by the strict time constraints, they could reach a huge international audience and (from that) they could make way more money from advertising. But one of his favourite things about the podcast is something more prosaic. “It is so wonderful to be able to curse,” he said. “I love cursing and some stories really benefit from it.” Stories like the Long Island car dealers’ episode wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without the swearing, he believes. “To hear them really curse, it touches your heart.”

On money
He talked lucidly about the need to support creative ventures with commercial savvy. “The more off centre your mission, the more cunning you have to be on the business side,” he said. When he was initially hawking TAL around public radio stations he found lots of people were confused by it, concerned about his (then) idiosyncratic hosting style and the way the tone shifted from very funny to very serious from week to week. In the end he went with a simple proposition — carrying TAL would make the stations money because they had found a way to really nail the fundraising mechanisms around the pledge drive. “I didn’t care if stations wanted us for the right reasons,” he said. I just wanted it to be on.”

On fiction vs reportage
IRA is a busy man, from his podcasts and live shows to his touring dance collaboration (no, really). Most recently he has been working with long-time TAL contributor Mike Birbiglia on his improv-themed film Don’t Think Twice. “The amazing thing about fiction is that you can make up the facts,” he said. With reportage, he is sometimes frustrated by the inability to get a key quote in exactly the way the show needs, so he loves the fact that you can just will that into being with fiction. So if it would be amazing to have the characters have a certain conversation in a basement while looking at old photos, you can deliver the script and there are designers and location scouts who can make that happen. “It’s like a vacation from my day job that you can just make shit up,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

On the future of podcasting
“The bubble will burst. It has to right?” he laughed. “When VR headsets come in, really we are all going to be listening to audio? Come on.”

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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