Why Ira Glass is the godfather of modern podcasting
Nearly every narrative podcast can trace its roots back to This American Life.
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It’s always difficult to determine the exact moment an industry has gone “mainstream,” but a sudden influx of celebrity involvement is usually a good indicator. And if you’ve been following the goings on of the podcast industry over the past year, you’ve no doubt noticed a virtual tsunami of new podcasts helmed by name-brand A-listers like Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian, and Oprah.
But while each of these star-studded shows is sure to pull in massive audience numbers, bringing major advertisers and millions of new listeners into the fold, there’s one person who’s primed the podcasting landscape more than all these others. Yes, he has a certain level of niche celebrity, but he’s someone who can walk down a crowded street without being mobbed or even recognized.
Yes, I’m talking about Ira Glass. Glass has done more than any other single person to influence the modern podcast ecosystem, and that influence can be seen in virtually every aspect of the industry, from storytelling to revenue generation to talent development to distribution.
At this point you might be rolling your eyes and thinking, “Well, duh. Of course Ira Glass is influential! He runs one of the most popular podcasts on the planet! He’s been parodied on Saturday Night Live!” But while your eye-rolling is perfectly justified, I think few people truly understand the myriad and nuanced ways Glass shaped an industry that now generates billions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of millions of listeners across the globe.
Let’s take a look at how Ira Glass became the godfather of modern podcasting:
Developing the podcast aesthetic
Before the podcast was even invented, Glass laid the groundwork for the kind of narrative storytelling that’s now prevalent within many of the most high-profile shows.
Narrative storytelling thrived in the mid 20th century, mostly in the form of serialized teleplays like Lone Ranger and Dick Tracy, but by the mid 1990s it was all but dead. As The New York Review of Books put it recently, “What had been the signature radio format in the 1930s and 1940s, had been replaced by news, angry talk, rock and roll, and, above all, television.”
Yes, there was public radio, but its reporting was utilitarian and dry. “The overall tone [was] very formal, a bit proper, a little stuffy,” Glass said in an interview. He got his start at NPR when he was a teenager and worked his way up as a tape cutter and producer for shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition. He didn’t start reporting on air until his early 30s. It was then he started to develop the storytelling techniques that would later show up in This American Life. “When I’d produce pieces, I always felt that the stories should have more feeling, be funnier, to have these little moments, tastes—to get to you more,” he said.
In 1990 he started co-hosting a WBEZ Chicago show called The Wild Room. Outside the strict confines of NPR’s news programming, he was able to experiment with all sorts of storytelling methods that didn’t really exist anywhere else on the radio dial. “If you listened to The Wild Room week after week, every week it was a totally different show,” his cohost Gary Covino recalled in a 1998 Chicago Reader interview. “One week it was an incredibly serious documentary program, the next week it could be a wild, surreal absurdist discussion, and the next week could belong to stories told by other people with music mixed in.” It was almost This American Life, but not quite. In that same Chicago Reader article, Glass explained why he eventually left. “I didn't want to do free-form radio anymore. I have no interest in improvisation.”
In 1995, Glass and WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia debuted Your Radio Playhouse, the show they eventually renamed to This American Life. In interviews, Glass recounted that it took some time for TAL to establish its voice and editorial outlook, and those early days were marked by constant experimentation. “We tried a lot of random stuff,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, the staff became interested in making journalistic stories in a style where there were characters and scenes and plot and funny moments. We decided, ‘Let’s just run with that. The story exists for our pleasure as much as anyone’s.’”
Glass and his staff essentially invented a genre of audio documentary, one with stylistic flourishes, tight editing, sound design, and a strong narrator voice. In 1999, The American Journalism Review noted that “in ways small but clear, as inspiration if not direct model, This American Life is at the vanguard of a shift in American journalism." The Guardian wrote that TAL is “often credited for ushering in not only a public radio revolution, but the rise of storytelling as an industry and podcasting as a form."
I still remember the first time I stumbled upon a This American Life episode while listening to public radio in college. It felt like I had stumbled upon something entirely new and novel. Of course, today this kind of storytelling can be found in hundreds of the world’s most popular podcasts, from Radiolab to 99% Invisible to Reply All. It’s almost easy to take the techniques that make such shows possible for granted, but if it weren’t for Ira Glass, they might not exist at all.
Distribution and monetization
Glass isn’t just a great storyteller. He’s also a savvy businessman and marketer, two attributes that aren’t exactly prevalent in the world of public media.
Think of public radio as a loose federation of fiefdoms. Some of their budget goes toward creating their own programming, but they also license shows from other stations and national organizations like NPR. For Glass to scale This American Life’s audience and revenue, he needed to convince other stations to pick up the show.
He did this in an ingenious way. Early on, Glass proved quite adept at recording messages for public radio fund drives. They were as quirky and endearing as anything you’d find in This American Life. “It’s every bit as ambitious as the hardest thing I ever do,” he said. “It just seemed like a macho act to try to kill it on the pledge drive.” Station managers noticed pretty quickly that the phones would light up after they ran one of Glass’s recordings, and they started begging him to record segments for their stations. Glass figured out pretty quickly that this gave him leverage, so he set the condition that he’d only hand over a fund drive recording if the station picked up his show. Before long, it was carried on over 300 stations.
Glass was also one of the first hosts to explore IP deals for film and television. Today, the podcast-to-Hollywood pipeline is well established, but Glass signed a “first look” deal with Warner Bros all the way back in 2002, and plenty of This American Life stories have been adapted into TV shows and movies. In the mid aughts Glass established a partnership with Showtime to produce a television version of This American Life, which ran for two seasons and won three primetime Emmys.
Most of what I’ve described so far occurred before the advent of podcasting, and it didn’t take long for Glass to grasp the new medium’s potential for increased reach and revenue. Early podcast episodes of TAL weren’t free, and instead were sold on iTunes. After they did switch over to free, Glass adapted his fundraising pitch for them; rather than encouraging listeners to donate to their local public radio station, he directed listeners to the TAL website. Sometime around 2008, I found myself, for the very first time, handing money over to a podcast.
Glass’s business savviness continued into the next decade. He eventually cut ties with distributor PRI and shifted to PRX -- a risky move that afforded him more control over distribution and sponsorship. In 2017, he obtained sole ownership of the show, severing most of its ties with WBEZ. And long before Joe Rogan signed his $100 million Spotify deal, Glass secured an exclusive streaming partnership with Pandora-- one of the first podcast deals of its kind.
Lastly, there’s the spinoff of Serial Productions, a company that he recently sold to The New York Times for $25 million. We’ll dive more into that further down in the piece.
Over the past year, major tech platforms and media corporations have plopped down over a billion dollars to purchase podcast IP. The advertising market is quickly maturing, and we’re starting to see serious revenue generated through events, Hollywood adaptations, and even paid subscriptions. On nearly all these fronts, Ira Glass was one of the initial trail blazers, the podcaster who walked so the rest of us could run.
Nurturing creative talent
One of the downsides to pioneering a new form of radio storytelling is you can’t hire someone already skilled in the artform. In interviews, Glass has spoken of how difficult it was to hire and train people who could produce the archetypal This American Life story.
Flash forward 25 years, though, and there are hundreds of TAL alums, many of which have gone on to create their own hit podcasts and companies, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
Alex Blumberg: Blumberg left his job as a teacher and got his start in radio as a low-level assistant at This American Life. He eventually worked his way up to producer and on-air talent, and by the late 2000s he was producing some of the most impactful stories at the show, including The Giant Pool of Money and When Patents Attack. He co-launched Planet Money, one of NPR’s first blockbuster standalone podcasts. Blumberg went on to launch Gimlet Media, a VC-funded network that spawned several incredibly popular shows and eventually sold to Spotify for $230 million. In interviews, Blumberg has stated that he owes much of his career to what Ira Glass taught him.
Sarah Koenig: Koenig may be the only This American Life alum who’s just as famous as Glass himself. She worked as a producer for the show for 10 years before she launched Serial, which is one of the most popular podcasts of all time. More on that in a bit.
Adam Davidson: Davidson wasn’t a longtime TAL staffer, but he co-hosted The Giant Pool of Money with Blumberg and then went on to cofound Planet Money with him. Davidson branched out from podcasts for a while -- serving stints as a New York Times columnist, New Yorker staff writer, and movie producer -- but recently he signed on for a podcast joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment.
Starlee Kine: Kine narrated one of my favorite This American Life episodes in which she consulted with Phil Collins while composing a breakup song. She went on to launch the cult hit Mystery Show, which ran for a single season under Gimlet. She’s since worked on several high-profile projects in the podcast space while also dabbling in TV writing.
Alix Spiegel: Spiegel was one of This American Life’s earliest employees and now co-hosts the megahit NPR podcast Invisibilia.
Jonathan Goldstein: Goldstein narrated one of the most famous This American Life stories, a segment about a mother who left an unhinged message about The Little Mermaid on her son’s answering machine. He now co-hosts the cult favorite podcast Heavyweight.
The list goes on and on. Suffice it to say, if there’s a podcast you listen to that contains ambitious narrative storytelling, there’s a better-than-decent chance that at least one of its creators passed through Glass’s editing room at some point over the past 25 years.
The Serial effect
If you talk to anyone who’s worked in podcasting for at least a decade, you’ll often hear them speak of two distinct eras: Before Serial and After Serial.
Yes, the first season was a monumental success, attracting tens of millions of downloads, but it also triggered a rising tide that lifted all boats. Serial was the first podcast to become a topic of mainstream watercooler discussion, with each episode talked about with a degree of excitement usually reserved for a show like Game of Thrones. This caused millions of people in the English-speaking world to open a podcast app for the first time and figure out how to use it. Naturally, many of these listeners decided to stick around and try out other podcasts. I’ve interviewed plenty of podcasters over the last several years who told me they saw a very noticeable increase in downloads during that first season of Serial. It widened the listening pool significantly.
Admittedly, Glass played a secondary role in that show, but he did encourage Koenig to pursue it as a standalone podcast. He ran the first episode to This American Life’s millions of listeners and has helped edit every season. Serial Productions podcasts are almost entirely staffed by This American Life alums.
Imagine an alternate reality in which Serial never existed. The podcast market would almost certainly be smaller than it is today. The show accelerated growth of the industry and put the medium on the map.
Let’s be clear: Ira Glass didn’t invent the podcast, and it certainly would exist in some form if he’d chosen a career other than radio. There are thousands of podcasts out there that sound absolutely nothing like This American Life, and plenty of them have amassed audiences in the millions. Some of my favorite podcasts to listen to feature no narrative storytelling at all.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the industry owes much of its growth and stature to Glass. He’s been a kingmaker, mentor, trailblazer, pioneer, and entrepreneur, and his gifts for narrative storytelling and marketing are inextricably linked to nearly every aspect of the podcast ecosystem, from the indie show you produce in your closet to the blockbuster series worth millions of dollars. It’s impossible to tell the story of the podcast revolution without placing Glass front and center where he belongs.
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