Earlier this year, the radio classic This American Life moved away from its longtime distributor, Public Radio International (PRI), to an independent model. Ira Glass, the show’s host and producer, has been doing more rounds in the press of late, discussing where the show is after 17 years, and where he is at this point as a journalist. The takeaway from the New York Times profile earlier this month was that Glass is, literally, dancing as fast as he can, working as both professional talking head (the bulk of his income comes from speaking appearances) and as the soul of a really good radio show when he’s not harboring dreams of Broadway. Whew!
So it’s interesting that his advice in a recent Lifehacker piece that’s part of their “How I Work” series is, in short: do it yourself. Or, to let our favorite national nerd of public radio take the floor: “Don’t wait for permission to make something that’s interesting or amusing to you. Just do it now. Don’t wait. Find a story idea, start making it, give yourself a deadline, show it to people who’ll give you notes to make it better.”
It’s simultaneously thrilling and terrifying to see that even Glass, a guy who’s “made it,” as far as having a public platform and name recognition, has the guts to go indie these days. (But it must be considered that he’s in a better and safer position, of course, than your average working-class storyteller, of course.) Would Glass have said those words four years ago? Or is his immersion in current independent media — for one, he’s a mentor for Tavi Gevinson, the creator of Rookie, where his wife, Anaheed Alani, works — helping him realize the power of making stories and culture without the approval (financial or otherwise) of any guy upstairs?
It’s something to ponder, sure, but even more important is the fact that his advice is relevant and tuned in: for journalists today, if there’s a story out there that nobody’s covering, you can tell it yourself. Nobody’s stopping you. That vision is necessary for anyone who’s throwing themselves into the quixotic pleasures of journalism. After all, it’s hard to sell ideas that are weird and left-of-center when all publications want is content with viral potential (which translates to stories about James Franco). But media remains hopeful that good stories will find their audiences eventually.
Distribution — and whether people discover it — on the other hand, is more of a shell game these days, with some people preaching doom (look at this CJR piece on the low numbers from self-publishing) and others looking at the future with optimism (journalism startups like The Atavist are getting nominated for National Magazine Awards). It’s hard to figure out what young journalists’ voices are going to be heard above the din of work coming out today; but it’s easier than ever for young journalists to show what your voice is and how you can report on the story. The latter skills are things that a journalist can take anywhere — even if they have to pay their rent with, well, what passes for a “real” job these days.