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Ira Glass in 'Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host'
© David Bazemore

Ira Glass: 'It’s like ‘This American Life’, plus dancing'

Ahead of Ira Glass' first stage show in London, ‘Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host’, we ask the podcast king about storytelling, success and the new season of ‘Serial’

By Sonya Barber
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You’re probably more familiar with Ira Glass’s voice than his face. He’s been filling the ears of radio and podcast listeners for the past 20 years as creator and host of ‘This American Life’. Each week, the show uncovers small, powerful, funny, sad, surprising and true stories that explore what it means to be human. It has inspired a wave of broadcast journalism that uses tools of fiction: narrative, character and emotion. The hit investigative podcast ‘Serial’ is a spin-off from ‘This American Life’ and Glass serves as its editorial advisor. More recently, he moved from studio to stage, performing in the storytelling and dance bonanza ‘Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host’. After touring the world, the show is finally coming to London.

There have been almost 600 episodes of ‘This American Life’. Why has it been so successful?

‘We’re choosing things that we feel strongly about and that we respond to in a crude, primitive way. It’s fun to hear a good story and we spend a lot of time finding the great ones.’

What do you look for in a story?

‘There has to be a good, surprising plot and it’s best if it drives towards some thought about the world that you haven’t thought before. There also has to be somebody that you can relate to and invest in.’  

What has the popularity of ‘Serial’ meant for you?

‘It brought people to podcasts who’d never listened to one before. Twelve million people listened to each episode of the first season. It came out just as Apple put an automatic podcast app on phones and it suddenly made it super-easy to download them. That combination gave a big boost to podcasts overall.’

“Jesse

© Jesse Michener

‘Doing radio is a weird act. We sit in a soundproofed room, pretending to talk to people’

What can you tell us about ‘Serial’ season 3?

‘I can’t tell you anything, but I can say that other people from our staff are coming up with their own shows that we’ll be bringing to the public in the next year. When one of us thinks of something we haven’t seen anyone else do, we try it out.’ 

I don’t think I’ve heard of anything quite like your ‘Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host’ show. Can you explain the idea?

‘It combines radio stories and dance, which I know doesn’t sound very good! Basically, it’s like an episode of “This American Life”, plus dancing. I went to see [the show’s co-creators] Monica Bill Barnes & Company perform in 2012 and thought they were going for exactly the same feeling as us. I knew nothing about dance, but I found their work accessible and fun, and also very emotional. It had a documentary quality, capturing real feelings and moments. I thought it would be interesting to make something together.’ 

How do you feel being on stage?

‘Doing radio is such a weird, solitary act. We sit in a soundproofed room, pretending to talk to people. It’s very different from being on a stage, where people give you immediate emotional feedback.’

“Jesse

© Ebru Yildiz

‘This will be the first assembly of London listeners, ever’

How do you think the London audience will react?

‘We have lots of English fans and we’ve never done an event in England before. It will be interesting doing the show in London because here you listen privately on podcasts, not on the radio. This will be the first assembly of London listeners, ever.’ 

Any plans to do ‘This British Life’?

‘Everything I know about London comes from reading Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby. If it’s in any way different from what’s portrayed by them and on “Gavin and Stacey”, then I know nothing. I support anyone who wants to do it. It could help me learn!’

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host’ is at the Royal Festival Hall on August 16.

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