Ira Glass’s ‘This American Life’ Leaves PRI

Cara Buckley

Ira Glass had lost his voice. That gentle, reliably nasal, public radio staple of a voice had been worked hoarse. On any given day, this would be an issue for Mr. Glass, 55, whose award-winning show, "This American Life," is broadcast on nearly 600 stations and is consistently the top podcast on iTunes.

But it was an unusually big problem one recent Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Mr. Glass and his team were deep in rehearsals. The next night, in two sold-out performances, they would be staging a mini-opera, radio drama and musical, starring 50 performers and hosted by Mr. Glass who, less than 36 hours from curtain, could not speak.

Ira Glass
Getty Images

So, on the advice of his show's singers, he found himself on the Upper East Side to see a throat doctor to the stars. The office was lined with head shots: Luciano Pavarotti, Celine Dion, Hugh Jackman. Despite being in certain quarters rather famous himself, an awed Mr. Glass snapped photos of all four walls, with close-ups. Then he was given a steroid shot and sent on his way. "It's kind of a pain" getting sick, Mr. Glass said froggily the next day, "but it was 100 percent worth it."

By Saturday night, his voice was back to its soft, sinusy self; and the audiences, mostly public radio geeks, cheered. It was yet another performative feat for Mr. Glass, a frenetically busy, insatiably curious public radio star who has repeatedly shown that he cannot be contained by the confines of his chosen medium.

Or, as of late, play by its rules. On July 1, "This American Life" became independent, leaving its distributor of 17 years, Public Radio International, or PRI.

Read More VidCon: Big brands, teenagers, and YouTube stars collide

That change is partly technical. The program is no longer delivered to local stations through public radio's satellite system, but instead over the Internet through the online platform PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

But the big impact is financial. Gone are a distributor's financial guarantees, which in the case of "This American Life," reached seven figures. Instead, Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show's marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. It's the equivalent of Radiohead's releasing its own album "In Rainbows," or Louis C. K.'s selling his own stand-up special — except all the time, for every show. It's the kind of move that can signal radical changes in the public radio firmament, with National Public Radio and other distributors wondering who, if anyone, may follow suit, and whether Mr. Glass will return if he fails.

"You take on the risk if you have to do the marketing," said Laura Walker, president and executive chief officer of New York Public Radio, which operates WNYC. "I don't think it's a slam-dunk way of making money. You've got to put in a lot of effort and do the work yourself."

Read More LeBron: How much he can make, and where he may go

Mr. Glass himself described the move as no big deal: The show will still air on the same stations at its usual time. Listeners will barely notice. He has another project, too: Members of his team are creating a new podcast called "Serial," available this fall, which will unspool weekly chapters of a long-form investigative radio story.

But disruptive change is something Mr. Glass has initiated repeatedly since creating "This American Life," under another title, nearly 19 years ago. The show has spawned a competitive storytelling industry, both on radio and onstage, with "TED Radio Hour," "Radiolab" and "The Moth" fighting for the same public radio listeners.

Mr. Glass himself has proved kinetic in his own interests, helping to create a comic booklet; editing a nonfiction anthology; and co-producing a movie ("Sleepwalk With Me"), a Showtime television series (which prompted his move to New York in 2006) and stage shows, several of which became simulcasts beamed to movie theaters. He has even inserted humor and creativity into those deadly on-air pledge drives, with clever spots and the creation of hip public-radio temporary tattoos.

Netflix's talk show experiment

So this latest experiment in distribution has radio insiders watching. "If anyone in public radio can pull it off, it's him," said Eric Nuzum, vice president for programming for NPR. "But I wonder what 'pull it off' means."

One day early in April, Mr. Glass and a few colleagues took a conference call with executives at NPR, the 800-pound gorilla of public radio.

After announcing in late March that "This American Life" was severing its relationship with PRI, Mr. Glass said, he fielded offers from every public radio distributor, along with SiriusXM Satellite Radio. But NPR had the strongest pitch.

More from The New York Times:
Learning 'Lear': Torn between soccer and Shakespeare
Paris court rejects Guggenheim descendants' claim over Venice Palazzo
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single scoop

There was karmic symmetry to the call. Eighteen years earlier, NPR showed little interest in Mr. Glass's nascent show, even though he had first worked for NPR, in its Washington office, at 19. (He moved to Chicago in 1989.) "I was the ex-intern with an idea. That's not a winning position for anybody," Mr. Glass said. So he and Chicago Public Media (then called the WBEZ Alliance), which produced the show, went to PRI.

This time, Mr. Nuzum told Mr. Glass that "This American Life" was undervalued; it should be charging stations more and airing at better times, according to Mr. Glass. The network also offered, Mr. Glass said, to top PRI's annual seven-figure guarantee. (Mr. Nuzum would not comment on the talks.)

Mr. Glass had gone into the call figuring the show would stay independent, but suddenly he wasn't so sure. "They really did give us pause," Mr. Glass said. "It seemed like, 'Oh, this would be so easy.' "

Read More Gadgets to make those summer days more fun

But Mr. Glass had been questioning the distributor model for some time. While PRI had handled the radio distribution, Mr. Glass and his team oversaw the show's apps, podcasts and podcast underwriting. Those sales had far surpassed hopes: $180,000 from last year's surplus helped pay for the Brooklyn show.

Mr. Glass wanted to keep that digital independence, waving off PRI's hunger for involvement. And he began to think that "This American Life" could do better than with PRI as a distributor. While Mr. Glass and Julia Yager, PRI's spokeswoman, said the prospect of sharing podcast revenues was never broached in the negotiations, the talks ended in deadlock. Both PRI and Mr. Glass describe the split as mutual and amicably reached.

"We believe we can do more in our underwriting, and we think it was maybe costing us with staying with them," said Mr. Glass in an interview in his Chelsea office.

In the end, Mr. Glass turned down NPR, too. But he acknowledged that there is a lot of uncertainty. "That's the one X factor hanging over our heads," he said. "We could really, really be wrong."

'Huge amount' of money poured into art

It doesn't help that Mr. Glass is facing increased competition, which he himself helped shape.

In recent years, shows that sound strikingly similar to "This American Life" in tone and form have arrived on the radio dial. "Radiolab" and "TED Radio Hour," to name just two, are already on nearly 500 stations each. They are both distributed by NPR, which because of its size can influence which shows air and when.

Still, Mr. Glass has shown himself adept at marketing. As any listener who has groaned through an on-air pledge drive knows, his pledge spots are the rarest of creatures, managing to be funny while having a dramatic arc. This is no accident; Mr. Glass said he gives them everything he's got. "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."

Read More Why Google's streaming music service could win

Yet the act of directly asking for money for his own show sometimes makes Mr. Glass squirm. The Brooklyn event was recorded live and turned into a $5 download on the show's website, but the prospect of relaying this onstage to the audience was making Mr. Glass sweat.

"Is it crass that I'm selling the video?" he asked on the eve of the show, sitting on the carpet of an empty corridor at the academy with some of his producers. "I feel like a hack." Backstage the next night, he was fretting again. "Did I sound crass?"

His discomfiture about earning money extends to himself. Mr. Glass's own salary, while healthy, is relatively modest considering his stature. Still, he remains self-conscious about it. In recent years, he took home about $170,000 in compensation and benefits — commensurate with the senior producers on his show — a figure that went up to $278,000 in fiscal year 2013 at the direction, he said, of the WBEZ board.

But then, "feeling weird about it," he asked to lower his salary the following year, to $146,000, he said. "Then this year, I asked to lower it again," he wrote in an email. "It's still a lot of money."

Read More May the force be with you: George Lucas chooses Chicago for museum

But it's not enough to pay for his life in New York. Two years ago, he and his wife, Anaheed Alani, who works at the fashion commentator Tavi Gevinson's site, Rookie, bought a 950-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea for $1.2 million. (They share it with their rescue pit bull, Piney.) To pay for it, Mr. Glass, who already works 60- to 70-hour weeks, began booking speaking engagements at a breakneck pace. He earns five figures per talk, proceeds from which, he said, account for the bulk of his income.

"He's not motivated by money at all," said Julie Snyder, a senior producer at "This American Life" and Mr. Glass's longest-term employee. "I think he likes attention a lot more than money."

Which is why, perhaps, Mr. Glass often spends speech-free weekends on the road with his show "Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host," which he would like to take to Broadway.

The future of the film industry is China: Analyst

He had recently discovered a love of dancing, which he practices with sweaty avidity in a yoga studio near his home. Never one to do things halfway, Mr. Glass has suits that now hang loose; he has danced away 30 pounds in the last year.

"This American Life," meanwhile, has expanded to a second work space, nicknamed the Western Bureau, down the hall from its offices in Chelsea. Two of its most senior producers, Ms. Snyder and Sarah Koenig, are working there on "Serial."

Anyone might wonder whether Mr. Glass can continue this frenetic pace — acting as producer, radio host, speechmaker, dancer, Broadway dreamer.

Read More Tiger is back, but can he come back?

After seeing him so aglow onstage in Brooklyn, Ms. Snyder felt a stab of dismay. The following Monday, she came to his office door.

"She said: 'O.K., I can see what's happening. You're going to quit the show, you're going to be onstage. That's where we're heading,' " Mr. Glass recalled. "I thought, 'I'm not quitting the show! I'm not dead yet!' "

But Ms. Snyder said Mr. Glass plainly loves performing onstage "in a way that seems sincere and mystifying."

"Not many people have a Broadway show and full-time public radio shows," she said, only half in jest. "What am I supposed to think?"

"He can deny it all he wants," she continued, "I felt like I should be making my Plan B. And I wanted him to know that it's fine."

By Cara Buckley of The New York Times