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Ira Glass hitting the road to mark 20 years of "This American Life"

Ira Glass hosts the 73rd annual Peabody Awards Ceremony
flickr user Peabody Awards

Ira Glass is living proof that an internship can be a portal to an astonishing career.

Glass began his career in 1978 as a 19-year-old intern for NPR. Since then, he’s filled just about every chair imaginable at NPR Washington, from writer to editor, reporter to producer.

Seventeen years after starting at NPR, he created and began hosting a little show called This American Life.

From that first episode on Nov. 17, 1995, the program has grown to reach more than two million listeners weekly on more than 500 public radio stations. Another two million listeners download the show each week.

And now, Glass is hitting the road. He’ll be in Kalamazoo on Sunday to talk about his Peabody Award-winning program.

His is really an ultimate internship success story, but Glass tells us that when he started at NPR he had no real career aspirations.

“My hopes were nothing,” he says. “I didn’t think of what I was doing as a career move. All I was thinking of was I want to do something interesting that would be interesting for this summer.”

He let that instinct guide him every step of the way, chasing what interested him with no real plan for what came next. One thing led to another and before he knew it, he had a career.

“Honestly, I feel like the principle I was using was just, like, I don’t want to be bored at my job,” Glass says.

Glass tells us the idea for This American Life grew out of the kind of work he had been doing at NPR for a long time.

“There was a kind of story that I was doing for the NPR news shows … and had been doing for years. You know, the kinds of stories where there’s characters and scenes and funny moments and emotional moments … you know, covering the news and things related to the news,” he says.

He points to one assignment he received that required him to cover one high school for an entire year. The school was going through massive reform and he reported on it every few weeks for All Things Considered.

Over the course of the year, Glass tells us the audience really got a chance to get to know the school’s faculty and understand what they were trying to do, ultimately forming a strong connection with the story.

“I was doing stories like that, and then I just thought, well, you could do a whole show that’s nothing but these stories,” he says, calling the idea “obvious.”

"Honestly, I feel like the principle I was using was just, like, I don't want to be bored at my job."

Twenty years on, the program just aired its 577th episode,"Something Only I Can See." Glass thinks there are two factors responsible for This American Life’s longevity: As a business it’s been run very carefully, and “the thing we’re doing is just very likeable.”

“We’re doing stories that are very traditional stories … the characters you can relate to, and there’s a plot and you want to find out what happens, so I feel like the thing we’re making, the thing that attracts me to the stories is what attracts the audience to the stories,” he says.

Glass tells us some things have remained the same over the last two decades while others are very different. The show has always been about presenting narrative stories, but their focus has shifted slightly.

He explains that when This American Life went on the air 20 years ago, “we were applying the tools of journalism to stories that were very small and personal,” stories that wouldn’t traditionally be covered in the realm of journalism.

In the intervening decades, personal stories have exploded into popular culture through memoirs and reality television, making them “way more familiar and way more in the culture.”

“Now a lot of the most interesting stuff, I think, is stuff where we’re reacting to the news,” Glass says, “and taking the storytelling moves we do and applying it to the financial crisis, or to desegregation of public schools, or to the war on terror, all kinds of things that the news covers that we feel like is interesting to cover in our style.”

Despite the show’s long run, Glass tells us he doesn’t really expect it to leave a legacy.

“I don’t think that that’s going to happen. I think that we’ll be on the air for a while, and then we’ll be off the air, and then we will vanish into the sand like everything else, and I think that’s just fine,” he says.

He’s even expressed to WBEZ his wish that the show be taken off the air once he and the rest of the show’s staff are gone.

“I don’t care if people will pledge, like, I just think our mission is excellence,” Glass says. “I’m happy to get out of the way for younger, living producers to get their show on the air.”

“I think it’s fine for our show to not be on the air anymore. I think it’s fine for our show to be a thing that people enjoyed for a while, and then when I’m dead, when the staff is dead, I feel like it’s fine for it to go away forever.”

Glass will be speak on Sunday at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo. He tells us the show will be a mix of him sharing some “greatest hits” from the program’s history as well as talking about how it’s made. Details and tickets can be found on the venue’s website.

And, of course, you can hear This American Life each Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. on Michigan Radio.

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.