After a moderate amount of mental preparation, I was able to call him on the telephone.
How do you think going on tour and letting the audience see you affects your relationship with your listeners?
It's bad for the audience to ever see the people on radio, because it takes something that's sort of ephemeral and makes it literal in a way that invariably makes it smaller. You know what I mean? When, say, Sarah Vowell becomes a real person, and not just the idea of a real person. On the other hand, we're a radio show, and as a broadcaster you have to stay close to the audience. Hopefully, people bring their friends and we get new listeners out of it.
But you've been gaining new listeners consistently. Do you think you can keep growing at the same rate forever?
At the same rate, forever. Yes. Our calculations say that by the year 3000, we will have more listeners than there are people alive! [laughs] I mean, I think that Public Radio in general is so badly advertised; there's no ad budget. Honestly, any indie band getting screwed over by their record company is spending more money on advertising than any program on public radio. The worst b-list band is still getting more promotion than Fresh Air.
Can you measure how your life has changed from ten years ago, now that you have this element of celebrity about you?
It's a really low-key kind of celebrity; I have to say, it's the lowest-key kind of celebrity you could possibly have. Which is like, most of the time, people don't know what I look like, and most people don't listen to the public radio, so even if they knew, they wouldn't really care. It's only among a really small group of people.
Do you look at your work as a type of journalism?
Yes. It's journalism. But it's a really particular branch of journalism where we feel like it's just as important to be entertaining as to get the story right. So it's designed as a piece of candy, but clearly it's a piece of journalism. The stories are true, and their mission is to document what it's like to be this person. What's this phenomenon about? Clearly it's a journalistic mission, versus American Idol or something.
Can I give a shout-out? If people could just vote for Clay
Clay's your favorite?
Not everyone on the staff agrees, and I'm gonna get in trouble for that.
I've only seen American Idol a couple times.
I just started, because of my girlfriend. I find it a little dull, actually.
It's just about waiting for the mean guy to say something.
I know. And then he went through that phase where he was all mellowing! You're just like, please! People don't want that!
I am glad that Paula Abdul is getting a second chance. I love her.
You have a good heart. I think if you watched it a little more, you'd love her a little less. I felt exactly the same way; I was all like, "Oh, how nice! Paula Abdul." But when you watch... she's making a really weird choice in the things she's saying and the way she's presenting herself. She's talking far too much like a robot. I feel like I'm two minutes later in the cycle than you are--like everyone in America has gone through this thing where they're like, "Oh! Paula Abdul, good for you honey, you have a job again!" And then they watch and they're rooting for her, but she just talks so much like a robot that you're like, "Make a better choice!" If you watch for another hour, you will be at this place.
I'm so sad!
I know we all are.
Does interviewing people get easier the more you do it?
There came a point where it got easier, and it's been at the same level since that point. There are hard ones and easy ones.
Do you have pre-interview freak-out?
I have a little bit of a freak-out, yeah, but it's small. I couldn't even really call it a freak-out; I do have a very worried-planning thing where I have to procrastinate a bit and force myself to structure the interview.
I was feeling slightly intimidated before calling you, so I was wondering if you ever get the same thing.
This is why I don't like interviewing people who--I don't think I'm particularly famous, but--I don't like to interview anyone famous. It makes me very uncomfortable, which is one of the reasons the show has very few famous people on it. Sometimes I'll actually try to interview them, and I'll blow it.
Is it because they're famous, or because you already know a lot about them?
It's because to make it work with someone who's been interviewed a lot, you have to find an angle that will get them to say something they've never said, and that will be revealing enough to be worth reporting. It's such a magic trick, such a precise piece of craft. And then there's the fact that they're so famous, they've been interviewed a million times, they tell the same stories over and over. What's in it for me, or for them? As a human experience to be talking to them, as the interviewer, I'm just one on an assembly line. I don't like feeling like that. It just seems pointless. I'm not interested in famous people.
And then there are the ones whose work you really love. In a way, knowing more doesn't help you. I love the fact that the White Stripes' entire bio was built around the lie that they were brother and sister. I love the fact that they took the trouble to lie, because I don't want to know anything about them! I don't want to know anything that's going to make them human-sized. Or Quasi, you know? I don't want to know about them. I want them to just be "that girl from Sleater-Kinney and her ex-husband who sings all their songs about the marriage, while she gives him that weird look while she's on the drums." I don't want to hear an interview with them. I just want it to be that.
What song gets you dancing no matter where you hear it?
There's no song that gets me dancing. I'm a grown-ass man! There's literally no song with that power. I feel like the question is so much better than the answer that I'm giving you! That is such an incredibly romantic question, and my answer is so deeply unromantic and bad. I wish I was living a life where I could live up to your question. Your question expresses a faith and joy that I'm afraid my actual life cannot measure up to.
This American Life Live--a live version of TAL starring Ira Glass, Davy Rothbart, Sarah Vowell, Jonathan Goldstein, and Jon Langford--comes to Portland Friday, May 16, Keller Auditorium, SW 3rd & Clay, (503)790-ARTS, 7 pm, $25-35.