Public Radio Journalist Ira Glass Gives the Keynote Speech at Commencement 2012

Hear what “This American Life” host Ira Glass had to say at the Dec. 13th commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2012.

2012 Commencement: Ira Glass, Host, PRI’s “This American Life” from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.

By Lauren Rothman
Class of 2013

Ira Glass, often regarded as an unconventional journalist, had unconventional advice for the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s 2012 graduating class.

“My message is this: Amuse yourself,” he told the 86 graduates in his commencement speech at the TheTimesCenter auditorium on West 41st Street down the block from the J-School. He urged the grads to use their newly minted Master of Arts degrees to distinguish themselves by pursuing stories that interest them personally. “You’re not gonna make any money, is what I’ve heard,” he said, “so you might as well have fun.”

At the same time, Glass, the host of Public Radio International’s “This American Life,” doesn’t agree with the doomsayers who moan that journalism is threatened, dying, or even dead. “If you make something good, there’s an environment out there to monetize it,” he said.

Glass said the Internet has made it possible for budding journalists to get their work out for the public to see and possibly even secure funding. He cited the work of Roman Mars, a public radio producer and reporter whose Kickstarter campaign raised more than $100,000 for 99% Invisible, his self-produced show about design and architecture.

Glass said that in a world seemingly saturated with news stories, finding a good one is a nearly full-time job. “Story ideas are not sprinkled on us like fairy dust,” he said.

He said one way to track down something really unique and special is to follow one’s own instincts and to have a sense of fun about the work. A story that resonates with the journalist who produces it is likely to resonate with the audience, too. “It’s got to stick in your gut first,” he told the graduates.

He mentioned one story produced several months after 9/11 about an aircraft carrier that had been flying missions over Afghanistan. The ship housed 5,000 people, men and women, average age of 21, and the whole scene reminded them of a “giant floating nuclear-armed dormitory.” While other broadcast news organizations ran very serious pieces, his reporter interviewed a 19-year-old Navy volunteer whose entire job was to fill vending machines with candy.

Glass, 53, has hosted “This American Life,” a popular radio show and podcast that tells unexpected stories about everyday people, since 1995. The show has received honors from the Peabody and DuPont-Columbia awards as well as by the Edward R. Murrow and Overseas Press Club awards.

Glass admitted that sometimes, getting a good story is just a matter of getting lucky: “Being a journalist is about harnessing luck. You have to have a theory about how to invoke it.”