Ira Glass mesmerized a sold out crowd Tuesday at Skidmore College, showing why he represents the gold standard in public radio story tellers.
Glass, 51, a Baltimore native who originated the nationally syndicated weekly radio show “This American Life,” spent two hours explaining how he and his crew select stories, edit them, and have fun with them on the airwaves.
The way he explained his craft, his view of life, and how he got started in public radio had the 600-plus audience of Skidmore students, professors, and community members laughing almost non-stop.
The performance, sponsored by the Skidmore College Speakers Bureau, was in the Filene-Ladd Concert Hall of the just-opened, $32 million Zankel Music Center.
Glass launched “This American Life” in 1995 in Chicago. The program (heard locally Friday and Saturday evenings on WAMC-FM2 90.3) is distributed by Public Radio International and is aired on more than 500 stations.
He was dressed in a white shirt, brown pants, and a navy blue hooded sweat shirt. Glass wears black-framed glasses and has uncombed brown hair that sticks up a bit on top.
He started his presentation with a piece he did at the start of war in Afghanistan. The major television and radio networks had already done broadcasts from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier that was sending fighter planes over enemy territory.
He joked about their stiff, serious, unimaginative presentations focusing on the fliers and their mission.
“They are all 21 years old,” Glass said about the large crew aboard the huge carrier. He said only about 60 of those on the carrier were fighter pilots.
“It was a giant, floating, nuclear-powered dormitory,” Glass said to laughter from the crowd.
“This American Life” focused on what the young crew was eating as snacks, the types of candy, chips, and cookies they liked. Their youth and the humor of the moment came through clearly.
Glass said he liked “stories with surprises, pleasurable surprises.” He and the people who work with him on “This American Life” are constantly looking for the offbeat, very human story that the major media outlets ignore.
The stories must include “surprise, pleasure, joy” and when possible, be hopeful.
“Most broadcast journalism doesn’t have this,” Glass said.
He asked which members of the audience might be interested in broadcast journalism or creative writing and editing. There was a loud applause indicating many of the students were thinking of careers.
“My parents wanted me to be a doctor because I was a smart Jewish kid,” Glass said. His parents finally accepted his creative career after he appeared on some late night television shows, including David Letterman.
It takes time and a great deal of work and editing to find a person’s creative voice. “I took longer to get good at my job than anyone I have ever met,” he said. He started in public radio as an intern at 19 and didn’t start doing work he was proud of until a decade later.
He played some of his early broadcasts for the audience, explaining how bad they were.
“What gets you over the hump is doing a lot of work,” Glass said. “You have to be a warrior.”
Early in his career he would pay people he admired in National Public Radio to listen to his work and criticize it, explaining to him what was missing.
“It was cheaper than grad school,” he joked.