On working in public radio:
I was a baby (when I started in public radio). I was 19. … started at NPR in Washington and did all the production jobs, worked all of the different shows.
(I never imagined I'd be a host) when I first started. For one, I wasn’t very good. I was just not seen as on-air material — I wasn’t a great writer for radio, wasn’t a great performer for radio, and all of that I had to learn by doing. Even now, the way I sound on the radio, I rush my words, I don’t enunciate properly. I’ve chosen a style of performing on the radio that sounds like the way I talk, for better or worse. I chose that because I think it works better. Before this, there was a period before this when I sounded like all the other NPR reporters, but I trained myself out of that to sound like I do now, which is more the way I really talk.
I basically learned to perform so I’d seem like myself. And I think people when they start off in any genre of making things, they try to do it the official way. Like in the news business, you try to sound like a guy on the news. And then only later do you learn to sound like yourself. And in music, you start off sounding like everyone else, and only later do you learn to sound like yourself, unless you’re a genius. When you paint, you draw, you imitate other people and try to do it the way they did, and then you find yourself. I think that’s the road I took.
It’s funny, I feel like it just took me a really long time to get decent. It took me seven years of working in radio before I was really any good at all, as someone who was writing and producing. And that always seemed incredibly long to me because for everyone I know in radio, it did work out faster. The only people I talked to who don’t think of it as a long time are a bunch of professional comedians — “7 years? No, that’s normal to find your voice.”
On favorite This American Life topics/episodes:
I definitely don’t have any favorite topics … I think my relationship to the stories are just like the listeners. Some stories are just really, really sparkly and engaging, you just think like “wow.” So there’s nothing in particular, no particular subject that does that. In terms of my favorites, my favorites tend to be the ones that are listener favorites, too. Before the website, we actually had to construct a list of favorite shows, and it just keeps growing [now you can find lists of favorites on the This American Life website]. They tend to be the audience favorites, too. Even just in the last few weeks there have been two stories in the last two shows that I just love. There was this one … they were both about couples, long-term couples, and one was a couple where they had been together since the third day of college …
Me: The rumspringa [I was referring to a story from the episode "What I Did For Love")?
Yes, the rumspringa. That just story just kills me. Because first of all, it’s a perfect story because it’s people who seem utterly reasonable and what they choose to do is so crazy — and yet you totally understood the logic that got them there. And they’re both very easy to relate to in what happens. What a crazy story. And then the week after, we did a story [in the episode "Play the Part"] about another couple and the guy discovers mid-way through the story he has Aspergers [syndrome], and he was like “well, even if I have Aspergers I’m going to act like a normal person,” and he sets out in a way that only a total obsessive could to try to make himself seem like he’s normal. And I really love that, too, in an opposite way of the first story. It’s so easy to relate to, and then it’s about dealing with another person in a couple and changing your expectations, and how do you really live with another person. There’s just something in both of those stories I feel I related to so much, even though my marriage is so different than either of those relationships.
On the Babes of NPR Tumblr blog, on which he has been featured:
I’m looking at Babes of NPR. I’ve never even heard of it …
… yeah. Oh, this is just sad. Oh, look at this. Holy fuck.
[He did say after that the public radio fans he has interacted with are "lovely" and "they seem like ... people that could have accidentally become my friends."]
On his daily media diet (or lack thereof):
My daily media diet is almost nothing. I listen to (NPR) Morning Edition when I shave and on my way to work, and I read the New York Times. And pretty much there’s nothing until like nine o'clock at night when I get home. And then it used to be that I watched television, but now my wife [Anaheed Alani] is running this website Rookie [with teen fashion blogging sensation Tavi Gevinson] and so she’s basically working every night on the next day’s posts till like two and three and four in the morning, so we don’t even have the TV on … so my television viewing since last September has dropped to nothing. I’ve seen nothing. Though occasionally I’ll pick up a series on video, like recently I just went through all of Breaking Bad over the course of a month I watched an episode a day, which made it one of the greatest months of my life. And then something happened, a memo went out, that everyone is supposed to be watching Downton Abbey, so I‘ve watched now two episodes of that just to catch up. Honestly, I’m almost watching nothing.
I look at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, James Fallows' blog — there’s a couple blogs I look at, but honestly not very much. Especially, for some reason, this past year. It’s been a very busy year. We just shot a movie [Sleepwalk With Me] and somehow my schedule never went back to normal over the course of setting up the financing, shooting the film, editing the film. That was April-January, so I was never awake. And when I was awake I was either working or walking the dog, so I haven’t kind of caught up to a more normal media consumption schedule … I’m often in conversations with people where they refer to things going on in the culture that I have no idea what’s happening because I’m so inside my own little world.
On documentaries, since This American Life often resembles a radio documentary:
You know we don’t actually ever say the word “documentary” about the show because we feel like it’s a turn-off. Even people who like documentaries, when I think of I’m going to go listen to a documentary show, I feel like it’s going to be boring. But I’m actually a huge fan of documentaries, especially those of Errol Morris. Pretty much anything he’s done, but especially his Abu Ghraib documentary [Standard Operating Procedure] and Fast Cheap and Out of Control — that movie I went into knowing nothing about it, and about 45 minutes into it, I was like “what is this about?” And then there’s a section in it where you realize, “Oh, this part is just about dying.” The thing that that documentary is about is so lovely. ... I like Michael Moore. I feel like he really sees his job as an entertainer in addition to trying to do all the other things he’s doing, but first and foremost, entertainment is his business, which I respect. I like Morgan Spurlock. I like some of the old-school documentaries. One of my favorites is this one you almost never see anywhere called The Memory of Justice, by Marcel Ophuls. It’s a really beautiful documentary. But honestly, I don’t see that much documentary, because I don’t see much of anything.
Me: I was going to ask you what your Oscar picks were [the telecast was that upcoming weekend], but I'm guessing you don't have any.
I saw Moneyball. I mean, I’ve seen a few movies — we’re in the movie business. We have a half-dozen movies in development, and when I get off this phone call I have to make a movie pitch. But I mean I was totally fascinated to watch Moneyball, because the book Moneyball is by I think my very favorite nonfiction writer Michael Lewis. It’s a complete pleasure, and just like his book The Big Short and all of his other books, he’s so out for fun in addition to having this great eye for character and scene and how to tell a story — he’s just an amazing storyteller. I was so curious to see how they would turn it into a film and had such respect for it for the way they did it, so I was a huge fan. … I view Moneyball basically as being a documentary but with Brad Pitt, and I feel like if he could be in all documentaries he would only improve them.