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Ira Glass on stage at Radiodays Europe in Barcelona 2012

Ira Glass - We want to be "aggresively entertaining"

Ira Glass gave an entertaining session, with lots of audio, to demonstrate the style and execution of This American Life. The show’s a global success – one of the largest podcasts in the world (750,000 a week) and broadcast on over 500 US stations.

Ira described the show as being driven by plot, scene and characters, it’s even “scored” suggesting it’s more like the creation of a movie rather than a traditional radio documentary. They work to ensure the stories are personal, narrative and character-driven.
Ira GlassEntertainment is very important to the team. Ira felt that when they started, they thought the shows NPR were making show were reliable and smart but sometimes a little dull. They instead decided to be “aggressively entertaining” and make sure that they “take away the whiff of broccoli”. They thought NPR could often be a little worthy, they’re keen to make their show as fun as possible – for both the listeners and them themselves.

Ira feels that in much of European public radio the reporter removes themselves from a programme – This American Life is at the other end of the spectrum “narrating the hell out of it”. Ira says “Great writing (script) can be as good as tape (interviews).”

Ira GlassTheir production process is also different to many other speech based programmes. Ira described that they pick themes and then work to find stories that fit them. On average they’re investigating about 25 stories, which then becomes 8 stories that they actively work on. Of those, around 30% to 50% of those ideas get cut before the remaining get on-air.

It also generates revenue in a different way “We make more money from the podcasting adverts than we do with the broadcast adverts – even though the broadcast audience is much larger. I’ve got no idea why.”