For 16 years, public radio host Ira Glass has charmed listeners with offbeat, quirky stories that captivated minds and won awards. Lately, he’s also been kicking butt, taking names and making a difference.
It’s not quite that aggressive. After all Glass, 53 (on March 3), is a nice guy who admittedly would rather get along with his subjects than go “gotcha” on his show, This American Life (TAL).
Nonetheless, Glass and his 11-person New York City–based team have been producing journalism recently that has definitely brought about changes in the real world, beyond affecting their listeners’ thinking.
The latest story to make hard-news waves was broadcast Jan. 6 — a piece about gruesome conditions in Chinese factories where Apple electronics are made. A week later, Apple reversed its stance, made the names of those factories public and became the first tech company to join the Fair Labor Association, which agreed to independently identify factories with abusive conditions.
This month the mammoth product assembler for Apple and other brands, Foxconn Technology, said it would sharply raise employee pay.
Last year a story reported by Glass himself played a role in forcing the resignation of a hard-sentencing Georgia drug court judge — a story honored last week with a George Polk Award.
It’s easy to see that TAL’s story, by shining a national spotlight on Judge Amanda Williams, played a major role in her undoing. But did the Apple piece significantly “move the needle” of public opinion or spur the mega-corporation into action?
“It’s impossible to know exactly what factors into a company like Apple deciding to publish its supplier lists,” said Judy Gearhart, director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a group critical of Apple and other electronics companies for turning a blind eye to factory conditions in China. “For most companies, decisions like that take time to be vetted, planned and cleared through legal, but when the announcement comes right after a media exposé like [This American Life], it seems very likely that the media coverage helped get the decision finalized.”
Jacqui Cheng is the Apple editor for the website Ars Technica. It and other niche outfits have covered this story for a while, she said. “TAL has a huge reach and, by doing an episode on Foxconn and Apple, the show made millions more people aware of the kinds of challenges faced by workers in China as well as tech companies that outsource to China.”
For the last decade, ever since 9/11, Glass says his show has been “way” more interested in the front-page topics such as the Tea Party, the euro’s travails, the role of investment bankers in the economic collapse and more.
“We also became interested in the challenge of doing stories in the style of our show that were about the news,” said Glass. “What that means is stories with strong characters, emotional moments and funny moments, and very traditional story arcs. But about the news.”
Other hard-news takeouts abound. In late January, he tackled the issue of “self-deportation” in Alabama, a practice where the state cracks down so hard on illegal immigrants that they go home voluntarily. Another program explored the recent sex scandal at Penn State, following up on an earlier piece demonstrating why the university became known as the No. 1 party school.
Most notably, in April 2010, TAL ran a story called “Inside Job” that detailed simply and clearly how a hedge fund created a financial instrument bound to lose money and then bet it would, making millions while others lost.
TAL producers did “Inside Job” in collaboration with ProPublica, the nonprofit online investigative news outfit that provided much of the reporting and won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for the story — Pulitzers being an honor bestowed only on newspapers and online news sources, not on radio producing partners.
Glass thinks radio is up to the job of holding listeners’ attention with the most sober of subjects. “We did an hour explaining the euro,” said Glass. “What could be more boredom-inducing than an hour on the euro? But we kept you there. I’ve been saying for a while that somebody could do a daily news show in our style.”
Glass did that last May with an episode called “This Week,” which tried to invent a new way to deliver the news of the week. His team had never done anything like it before. Instead of the usual three acts, there were seven. The stories were all over the place: an interview with then–GOP candidate Herman Cain and a meeting of democracy advocates in Cairo, Egypt.
“It was really, really pretty fun, because it opened up a brand new format,” said Glass. “Much more adventurous than we normally get to do.”
Glass also tried something he’d never done before with “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” He devoted the entire show to a stage production by monologist Mike Daisey that he saw in October.
Glass and Daisey adapted the piece from Daisey’s two-hour performance, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which opened in New York coincidentally less than a week after the Apple executive’s death.
Daisey, an ardent Apple aficionado, nevertheless tells a powerful story about abusive working conditions in Chinese electronics factories, focusing on Apple. He wants the audience to ponder the human suffering that goes into making their iPhones, iPads and devices of other brands that are made in sweatshop-like conditions in China.
As Glass left the theater, he said, he was already “editing the radio version in my head.”
“I thought he was doing something remarkable,” said Glass, “which is taking a fact that we all already know — that these devices we love are made in China in conditions that are probably not so wonderful, and he makes us feel something about it.”
Glass emailed Daisey, inviting him to lunch. They got together Nov. 16, and Glass was nervous. “I came with a whole big speech on why he should do it,” said Glass. “My fear was he wouldn’t want to do anything while the play was still up.”
But Daisey, 37, loved the idea. He wanted his material published as broadly as possible. Since “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” aired Jan. 6, it has become the most-downloaded podcast of any TAL show, according to Seth Lind, the program’s production manager.
“About 200,000 more than normal were downloaded and streamed,” said Lind. “Usually the combined number is about 800,000, and this was over a million.” The number of visitors to its site doubled for the first two weeks after the show aired. And it got tweeted ferociously.
A week after “Mr. Daisey” aired, Apple put out a press release indicating the mega-corporation would — for the first time — make public the names of its 156 suppliers. It also became the first tech company to ask the nonprofit Fair Labor Association to conduct special audits in Chinese factories where Apple electronics are made. The association plans to report its findings in March.
Since 2007, Apple has monitored supplier working conditions and written Responsibility Reports, but until now, the company hadn’t named its suppliers and exposed them to additional oversight.
“I never want to overstate our role,” Glass said. “I think we were one of a number of things that drove Apple to make that announcement on Jan. 13. I think we affected the timing but not what they announced.”
But there were direct links in a chain of events that led to public engagement with the issue and Apple’s response. One TAL fan was particularly incensed and moved by what he heard. Mark Shields, a D.C.-based consultant, said he was heartsick after learning how his beloved Apple products are produced.
Late in January, Shields decided to do something rather than just grumble. He started an online petition demanding that Apple improve labor conditions in its suppliers’ factories and be more transparent about them. By mid-February, some 250,000 people had signed the petition. Shields printed out three boxes full of names of co-signers and delivered them to a local Apple store.
“Here’s the thing: you’re Apple,” said Shields’ petition. “You’re supposed to think different. I want to continue to use and love the products that you make, because they’re changing the world, and have already changed my life. But I also want to know that when I buy products from you, it’s not at the cost of horrible human suffering.”
Shields told Glass’s team that their program had moved him. “For what it’s worth, just wanted to be sure that you’re all aware that the stories you tell are giving lots of people the eye opening and kick in the pants needed to speak up a bit,” Shields wrote to TAL senior producer Julie Snyder.
Others started separate petition drives, particularly after the New York Times ran two pieces in January detailing why Apple products are not made in the U.S. and the onerous workday circumstances for tens of thousands of Chinese assemblers. Workers stand for long hours without a break in brightly lit factories. They live in cramped dormitories. They are exposed to toxic chemicals and forced to perform crippling repetitive motions.
For years, the press has periodically reported on inhumane labor conditions at Chinese electronic factories, but Daisey’s show, TAL and the Times reports plus the petitions had an impact.
“The This American Life piece generated a tremendous outcry,” said Daisey. “That piece running led directly to a quarter of a million signatures. I started working on this two years ago, and it’s been really gratifying to see it continue to evolve. Now there is a system to affect change.”
On Feb. 13, Apple announced it would let independent outsiders monitor working conditions and would make the reports public. “Apple now sees that if they are not willing to behave in a humane way, people will galvanize against them,” said Daisey. “Apple doesn’t contest a single fact in all the coverage.”
Georgia Judge Amanda Williams, on the other hand, sent Glass a 14-page letter complaining about the TAL’s March 2011 broadcast, “Very Tough Love.” It’s the story of the Glynn County judge who ran one of the most punitive drug courts in the country.
“Glass’s inflammatory story, which was riddled with falsehoods, provoked death threats against Judge Williams from far outside Georgia,” said a press release from the judge’s lawyer, Mercer University law professor David Oedel. He called Glass’s story “libel masquerading as journalism.”
Glass stumbled on the story while working on another piece in a small town in Georgia. It wasn’t an easy story to get. He aimed to put it on the air in fall 2010 but didn’t have a strong enough story by then.
“I was being strongly encouraged by everyone in my life to put it aside,” said Glass. But he couldn’t.
Then he got a break. He received a letter from Lindsey Dills, a young woman who wound up in Williams’s drug court. The troubled high schooler had forged two small checks on her father’s account to buy drugs. Her father turned her in, trying to get her help.
Dills chose drug court over jail, even though her father and her attorney begged her not to, because they knew of Williams’ reputation for punitive sentencing.
On average, a person sentenced by a U.S. drug court program spends a little over a year under supervision. Dills spent 10-and-a-half years of her young life under supervision of the drug court — 20 months of it behind bars.
At one point, Dills was put in isolation. She felt so despondent that she attempted suicide.
Glass spent about nine months pulling the story together. “I’ve never spent that long on a story,” he said. “Most stories are turned around in a couple of weeks, at the most three to four months.”
“Very Tough Love” ran last March 25. On Nov. 10, the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission filed 12 charges of misconduct against Williams. On Dec. 19, Williams announced she was resigning after 21 years on the bench. In doing so, ethical violations charges were dropped. She promised to never again seek or hold judicial office.
Glass keeps a copy of her resignation letter in his office.
“The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission had been looking into her,” said Glass. “They’d been looking into Judge Williams since fall 2010. The visibility of what I did in March moved her to the top of the list.”
Glass found it gratifying that the first two counts against Williams were based on the drug court experiences of Dill and another person featured in “Very Tough Love.”
“I’m really not interested in pinning down wrongdoers like [former CBS 60 Minutes correspondent] Mike Wallace did,” said Glass. “Whenever I do it, I feel awful. I feel protective of the subjects. My personality is built for getting along with the people, which you can hear on the air, not for grilling them.”
If he says so, but Glass and his crew have had some practice lately turning up the heat.
Glass’s Judge Williams story came out of an experiment in serendipity tried by the program.
Jackie Conciatore profiles Ira Glass and TAL in Current, 1997.
TAL retracts Mike Daisey’s Chinese factory report, March 2012.
The program’s biggest spinoff became an NPR economics reporting unit, Planet Money. Current talks with the producers, 2009.
Glass negotiates a “first-look” deal with a Hollywood studio, 2002.
Glass’s 1998 manifesto on the radio producers’ shop-talk site, Transom.org
Copyright 2012 American University