How Ira Glass Does Money (For His Show, and For Himself)

Ira Glass hosts the 2014 Peabody Awards

Gotta announce my biases from the start: I adore Ira Glass, in a celebrity-idol kind of way. I got to meet him, once, and for about three minutes he asked me questions about my life and then really listened in that way that few people do, in a way that seems improbable given that I waited in the book-signing line for nearly two hours while other people also had their three minutes of personal listening-time with Mr. Glass.

Yesterday, “This American Life” left P-R-I, Public Radio International, and I bet you’re already hearing the same lyrical fillip that accompanies those solemn words, because those of us who are “This American Life” fans have heard them so many times.

Now, TAL will be distributed over PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, an “online marketplace for distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming.”

In other words: “This American Life,” like many Americans, now has to earn money on its own, on the online marketplace.

Here’s what The New York Times notes about how this change will affect TAL:

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.

I guess I really should pay them $5 for the video version of “The Radio Drama Episode.”

Of course, Ira Glass & Co. having to find corporate sponsors for TAL isn’t quite like me looking for new writing clients, nor is it precisely like Radiohead asking fans to pay for “In Rainbows.” (It’s more like asking a few corporate sponsors to become patrons for “In Rainbows” so other people can listen for free.)

And then the NYT article drops this:

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.”

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.

(Somehow I’m feeling less badly about my studio apartment, if Ira Glass and his wife only live in a one-bedroom.)

And that’s a story I’d really like to see on TAL: the show is hugely successful but it might not raise enough money to fund itself; Ira Glass himself is ridiculously successful but he’s taking on side gigs to pay the bills.

This American Life, indeed.

Photo: Peabody Awards



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