Ira Glass is not afraid to fail. In fact, he seems to relish the possibility of defeat.
The Baltimore-born creator and host of the weekly public radio show "This American Life" courts catastrophe. Where pundits see disaster looming, the 57-year-old Glass rushes in headfirst, if only because it potentially can take him to such interesting places.
But despite Glass' most determined efforts, abject ruin stubbornly continues to elude him. He will discuss these efforts Sunday night in a talk titled "Reinventing Radio" at Goucher College, where he picked up an honorary doctorate in 2012.
"Our show consciously tries to do things that radio doesn't normally do," Glass said recently over the phone.
"Everything we do is an experiment. It all comes from the same impulse of 'What would it amuse us to try to do?'"
For the past 20 years, the same things that divert Glass have been attracting listeners to "This American Life."
The weekly New York-based show reaches an audience of 2.2 million on more than 500 stations, while another 2.2 million download each new episode, making the show often the most popular podcast in the country.
"This American Life" also has picked up journalism prizes, including five Peabody Awards for the radio show and a 2011 Polk Award for Glass.
The many obstacles that "This American Life" has, if not exactly overcome, then blithely ignored, begin with the host's voice. While not unpleasant, it doesn't beg to be broadcast. Nasal and slightly atonal, Glass rounds off consonants as if every articulated "t" and "k" were verbal speed bumps designed to slow him down.
Glass grew up near Pikesville, the son of Barry Glass, an accountant and Shirley Glass, a psychologist. He got his start in radio as a student at Milford Mill Academy writing jokes for his idol, the legendary former WFBR DJ Johnny Walker.
Perhaps no one ever born is less laid-back than Glass, a man in constant, almost frenetic motion. It's a tribute to his consummate mastery of radio that, on the air, he sounds relaxed, even spontaneous. The show moseys along as if the host and his producers were friends swapping stories around a campfire.
"When we went on the air, there was not a lot of long-form narrative journalism on the radio," Glass said. "Now there's a whole movement of people trying to do what we do."
The hourlong show does none of the things deemed necessary for broadcast success. It features no celebrities, though it has made stars of some contributors, including the humorist David Sedaris. It doesn't tackle such timely topics as the presidential election or police-community relations.
But it gets at those issues by exploring the minutiae of daily life. Each show contains anecdotes organized around a theme, such as "I Thought I Knew You," or "The Heart Wants What It Wants."
The former episode features two people who incorrectly guess the race of the person they're talking to over the phone, while the latter showcases a protester at a "Black Lives Matter" rally who develops a crush on her arresting officer.
"When people think about journalism, there's sometimes a trade-off between doing something fun and something serious-minded," Glass said. "But we thought we could do a show with characters and scenes and funny moments that's also doing the most ambitious things journalism can do."
Two years ago, Glass made a decision that media pundits feared could bring about his show's downfall.
"This American Life" severed ties with its distributor, Public Radio International, announcing that it would market itself to stations and find its own corporate sponsors. Last summer, Glass went one step further and split from his longtime producer, Chicago Public Media.
Artists and visionaries generally aren't known for their business acumen, and, in exchange for achieving his show’s independence, the New York Times wrote, Glass was giving up seven-figure financial guarantees.
Instead of floundering, "This American Life" became even more profitable. The show now is on firmer financial footing than it has been in the previous two decades.
"That really wasn't such a risky move," Glass said. "We left thinking we could do as well or better ourselves, and we were right.
"We can do a level of intensive investigation and reporting once a month now, that in the early years of the show we could only do once a year. For instance, we sent three reporters for five months to document life at a Chicago high school where 29 current and recent students were shot."
Think about that for a moment: Broadcast and print journalism are in crisis, with dwindling audiences and advertising revenue. "This American Life" has found a way to not merely remain stable, but thrive.
"We're in a very unusual corner of journalism right now," Glass said.
"Our colleagues in print and network TV are having such trouble making a go of it financially. Because of the boom in podcasting, we suddenly have money that very few journalists ever get, so we have the luxury of experimenting."
He credits the windfall to the runaway popularity of such podcasts as "Serial." A spinoff from "This American Life" that's hosted by former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, "Serial" tells one story over 12 episodes.
"Serial" won a 2015 Peabody Award — and a post-conviction hearing for Adnan Syed, the man convicted in 2000 of killing his girlfriend and dumping her body in Leakin Park. Season 2, which debuted in January, focuses on Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier captured by the Taliban, rescued in a controversial prisoner exchange and now facing court-martial. A third season is reportedly in the works.
"We wanted to create a radio show that does with facts what an HBO or Netflix series does," Glass said, "which is to pull you in at the beginning and get you involved in the situation and characters so you'll come back episode after episode after episode."
Initially, the producers hoped to reach the break-even point of 300,000 listeners.
“That was our business goal,” Glass said. “Sarah Koenig and [“Serial” co-creator] Julie Snyder were talking about how nice it would be to do a side project that no one was paying attention to.”
Instead, 8 million listeners downloaded each episode in the first season — more than watch most TV shows. The success of "Serial" helped swell the audience and advertising base for other podcasts doing original programming, including the one produced by the spinoff's parent company.
A landmark moment occurred last August, Glass said, when the weekly audience for "This American Life's" podcast became as large as the radio show's.
"The radio audience isn't shrinking," Glass said. "It's actually very stable. But the podcast audience continues to grow."
More podcasts created by his staff are in the works, including one that will be launched later this year, though Glass is keeping mum about the details.
Other experiments, such as a televised version of “This American Life,” which ran for two seasons on the cable giant Showtime have been less successful – though this particular “failure” picked up three Emmy Awards.
Glass said that it was he, and not Showtime, who walked away from the program.
“The TV show wasn’t as special a TV show as the radio show was special as a radio show,” he said.
“Television is better when you’re not telling a story about the past. The cameras have to be there when the story is happening so they can document it in real time. Our producer was constantly in the position of trying to find something that hadn’t happened yet but that was going to happen. It was crazy, like reporting on the future.”
But he said the experience left him with a deep, visceral understanding of visual storytelling that he continues to explore.
Other "experiments" include "Don't Think Twice," the second movie that Glass has produced with his friend, the writer-director-actor Mike Birbiglia. The movie premieres Sunday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Last November, Glass collaborated with cartoonist Chris Ware to produce an innovative cover for New Yorker magazine. Computer viewers who click on the "play" arrow watch animated characters acting out an anecdote about regret that Glass originally recorded for his radio show.
Now Glass is working on what he describes as "a weird mash-up" of two media: radio, an art form for the ear; and dance, which optimally is experienced in real space and time. Dance generally doesn't do well on film, where skyward leaps get squished into two dimensions and shrunk onto small screens.
Naturally, Glass is determined to figure out how to make the first truly satisfying dance movie — one that would include the dancers talking about what's going through their heads as they jete side by side on stage.
"We're talking about filming the dance show I'm touring in," he said, referring to "Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host."
"We threw a little money at it as an experiment, just to see if we could film one 31/2-minute dance. It will be partly a piece about dance, and partly a portrait of the two dancers. It could be very dynamic and beautiful. But we're still not sure it's going to work."
And off Glass goes in avid pursuit of his heart's desire, the next unsure thing.
If you go
WYPR presents "Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass" at 7 p.m. Sunday at Kraushaar Auditorium, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson. Tickets are sold out. Information: publicbroadcasting.net/wypr/events or 410-235-1660.