This American Life, the syndicated public radio show that usually focuses on everyday people and events, doesn't often find itself in the center of a news story. But after airing an episode in January that included an excerpt of monologist Mike Daisey's one-man play The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which features his damning account of a trip to Foxconn's Chinese factory that manufactures Apple products and other electronics, the program became part of a major news event.
"It's never happened before," says Ira Glass, the host of This American Life. "I feel like we were just ... one factor that made things tip."
Glass visits New Orleans this week and will discuss the common and uncommon nature of This American Life.
The Apple story was already brewing when Glass covered it. During the week the episode ("Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory") aired, there were reports that between 150 and 300 Foxconn workers had gone on the factory's roof and threatened mass suicide in protest of working conditions. Soon after, The New York Times began a series of front-page investigative stories about Foxconn. The culmination of events prompted Apple to respond, saying it would disclose a list of the companies that build its products, and that it would allow third parties to verify working conditions at those factories.
"People emailed (Daisey) saying that a lot of people who work at Apple in Cupertino (Calif.) heard the show, because they're California engineers which means they're big public radio listeners. Apparently, it had an effect on morale," Glass says. "So we were part of this thing — (Daisey) says it's like he's watching a meme being formed. It was really crazy to see that response. Especially since in the past, (Apple) had completely not spoken with us or with anybody about this stuff."
Besides the Apple story and occasional explainer episodes about the economic crisis, the Iraq War and other major events, This American Life typically doesn't focus on hard news. Most episodes, which are broadcast locally on WWNO-FM (89.9), find compelling stories in the lives of regular, relatable people.
It's frequently the week's most downloaded podcast in the country and has won every major broadcasting award. The show's popularity has manifested itself in strange ways — most notably the This American Life YouTube parody involving a sex tape between Glass and Fresh Air host Terry Gross that circulated on the Internet last year.
There also was a short-lived, but critically acclaimed, This American Life TV series on Showtime. Several stories from the show have been, or are being, developed into films. Most recently, Glass produced Sleepwalk With Me, a film based on comedian Mike Birbiglia's story from the episode "Fear of Sleep." Sleepwalk debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and is slated for a theatrical release soon.
At his Reinventing Radio tour stop Saturday, Glass will discuss the show and answer audience questions.
"Basically I stand on stage and have an iPad and I can, by playing music and sound and quotes, recreate the sound of the radio show around me," he says. "What it is is a combination of me talking about the radio show and how we put it together, but also it's an excuse to play really funny or really memorable moments from the show."
What has likely contributed to This American Life's popularity is its ability to find fascinating stories in unlikely places. Episodes have featured the deranged petty dictatorship of a school maintenance department supervisor in Schenectady, N.Y.; a moving production of Hamlet in a high-security Missouri prison; and a heated rivalry between two Santas in a Nashville, Tenn. shopping mall. The instinct to find interesting, radio-friendly stories in not-always-obvious subjects is something Glass, who has hosted and produced the program since 1995, says he's had to hone over time.
"That's something I really had to learn. I think when a lot of people are starting out in journalism, they say 'I want to do stories about regular people. I want to do stories about everyday life.' But I had no idea what that would mean, and I had no idea about what a person would do to make those stories interesting," he says. "The problem with doing stories about regular people is that often when people tackle those, they do them in a way that's really corny.
There's a whole genre of feature reporting that's, I think, very, very corny. So figuring out how to do something where people would seem real, but it would be enough of an interesting plotline that it would be worth listening to, that took me a long time to figure out."
Besides his abilities to find and tell interesting stories, Glass has a chatty and engaging vocal style and truly enjoys interacting with his fans.
"They're lovely," he says. Weirdly, I feel like when I meet the public radio fans, what they seem like is people that could have accidentally become my friends, except we don't know each other. I have that reaction a lot — with the occasional person who's way too interested in grammar or technology."— To read more of Lauren LaBorde's conversation with Ira Glass, click here.