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Ira Glass

Don’t worry, he’s not retiring or sick or anything. In fact, he co-wrote and produced a great new movie, and everybody should go see it. I just wanted to talk about him a bit.

His friend and contributor David Rakoff died this week, and so this morning I wanted to load a piece by David about his cancer onto my iPod. Couldn’t make it work for some reason, so I gave up and instead of listening to a random recent “This American Life” podcast, titled Amusement Park. Go listen to the first segment now, then come back.

Ira has gotten a lot of (deserved!) attention and praise for encouraging new talent (like Rakoff and David Sedaris and Mike Birbiglia and many others) and for doing really superb journalism about important topics, like the mortgage meltdown and a terrific hour about a runaway judge running a drug court in Georgia — a piece of investigative journalism that led to the resignation of the judge in question.

But if you really want to understand that Ira really does, think about that amusement park segment. Because it’s about… nothing. Well, nothing you’d notice or be interested in if I described it to you — it’s about a 25-year-old college drop out who runs the carnival games at a small amusement park in Kansas City. He doesn’t have any deep secrets, he’s not a gifted poet or musician or reformed criminal, he’s just a guy who loves his job. As Ira points out at the end, he’s not even that good at it, if measured by income to his employer… the amusement park makes more money selling food.

But Ira spends a day with him and crafts about 15 minutes of radio that is funny, fascinating and narratively gripping. It becomes a portrait of a man and his enthusiasms, about employees and employers, about motivation and fun and the reason people go to work, or may not want to. The central character becomes a Character, somebody you think you know, or at least would like to, and it left me thinking about how I approach my work and the people I work with, and how I can do both a lot better.

And here’s the thing you need to know — how incredibly hard that is. To understand that this is a person worth spending a day within the first place, then to record hours of interviews and sound and then tease out of that raw material just the right sound bites and add narration and music and make a great radio documentary. To make it into a story compelling enough to make complete strangers, who couldn’t care less about a topic of the story, fascinated with its essence.