Had things gone according to plan, This American Life would have graced Google’s homepage this Fourth of July.
“But I knew that’d be trickier, because it’s not a holiday that carries as much strong emotion and feeling,” Ira Glass, host of the popular weekly public radio show that’s partnered to host today’s Google Doodle, tells BuzzFeed.
So instead, Glass and his crew circumvented the regular Doodle lead time of about four months and rolled out a love-themed audio package that captures the show’s honed spirit of plaintive narrative. If you visit Google.com today, you’ll find six candy hearts. When you click on one, it plays one of six sound clips of real people telling a micro-love story, while stick figure-type illustrations act out each tale.
Glass and Google hatched the collaboration idea after Glass spoke at Google’s Mountain View campus back in December. Both parties were interested, but there was a sticking point right away: The radio host wasn’t too keen on the traditional Doodle format, which commemorates mostly big events and bigwigs.
“In our first meeting [about it], Ira slammed his hand on the table and said, ‘Why can’t we just celebrate regular people?’” Jen Hom, a “Doodler” and illustrator at Google, says. “We all looked at him like he was insane, because traditionally we only celebrate really famous people and big holidays like Fourth of July and Valentine’s Day [in Google Doodles]. He was like, ‘Why can’t we have a regular person just talking on the homepage?’ And we were like, ‘Cool idea, but we don’t know if that’s actually possible.’ It turns out it’s totally possible.”
With the green light, Glass and his radio crew produced six 90-second vignettes: three stories that had already aired on This American Life — ones deemed simple enough to recast in a short snippet — and three new ones which Glass and Co. aimed to represent “a diversity of voices,” including at least one couple who wasn’t straight. The animated tales include a man who meets his wife on a blind date after crushing on her TV appearance, a middle school boy who harbors a crush on a girl at his school dance, and a woman whose newlywed doubt is quickly eased by her husband’s gentle spirit.
The stories were originally supposed to be stand-alone audio recordings with simple “press play”-type buttons, but Hom and her team thought that such a unique theme required special treatment.
“When you go to the Google homepage, you’re not just sitting there listening to a story the way you would in your car,” she says. “With audio storytelling, you need to keep your users visually stimulated.” The Google illustrators decided to cast each story in simple line figure animations, of the sort one might draw in elementary school.
“We wanted to avoid having the illustrations depict exactly what’s being said,” Glass says. “Instead they kind of riff on what’s being said, in this way that’s so sweet.”
Glass’ favorite part of the whole process was trying to figure out what music to accompany the clips. His team realized that licensing music to play for millions of Google visitors would be staggeringly expensive. Instead, the team commissioned “Charlie Brown-type” music from Roger Neill, a movie score composer. The effect is much like a traditional This American Life podcast: Each animation spins out a pithy yet poignant story set over almost unnoticeable background music.
The tales themselves capture the same elements Glass believes make the love stories on his radio program so compelling.
“At some level, a great love story is like any other story,” he says. “You need someone to relate to: a surprising plot, funny moments, emotional moments. Plus of course, you need the story to remind you what it feels like to be in love.”
Glass cites 2012’s story of comedian Kurt Braunohler and his longtime girlfriend, who decide to take a “rumspringa” from their relationship and sleep with other people, as one of his all-time favorite love stories from the show. “The plot of most love stories is either people falling in love or losing love — movies about love are usually about the beginning of a relationship or one of the people dies. But some of the love stories we’ve done on the radio that I’m proudest of are about what it feels like to be in love for a long time.” In other words, what happens after that moment of falling in or falling out.
When asked what he’s learned about love from producing and listening to love stories all these years, Glass at first says “nothing,” with a laugh. “Though there is one story that’s stuck with me in a particular way: the time we visited Dr. John Gottman. He’s a therapist who’s researched extramarital affairs, and he says that every couple has certain things they fight about. He videotapes these couples fighting, and he studied their responses and the way they fight with each other, and things like the looks on their faces and whether they get sarcastic. He devised sort of a totem pole-type scale. Now he can tell by watching 15 seconds of videotape whether that couple will be together in 15 years.
“So sometimes when I’m fighting with my spouse, I notice the things that we’re doing that would go over either badly or well on Gottman’s scale.”
But even though his stories today adorn the largest search page in the world, Glass is an admitted and proud internet non-savant. He doesn’t do Facebook, and while the @iraglass Twitter account boasts over 46,000 followers, it lacks even a single tweet (instead, it directs readers to follow the This American Life account). “I’m busy,” Glass says. “I feel like I don’t need social media. Life is simple. I have the people I work with, my wife, my dog, my family. I fear the thing of getting really obsessive with Facebook and getting lost in it. I haven’t done it not because it doesn’t seem interesting and not because I don’t think I would get something from it, but I do feel like I wouldn’t have the ability to control myself. I have friends who are on Twitter all the time. If I were on Twitter, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. That would become my life.”
The internet might not be a best friend to Glass, but Google’s collaboration is most certainly boosting his show’s profile. This American Life has been on air for almost 15 years and has made previous forays into television — on Showtime back in 2007 — but today’s Doodle might be the public radio program’s biggest exposure yet. To capitalize on it, the TAL homepage currently boasts a similar-looking illustration of a candy box, where each chocolate clicked plays an additional love story from the archives.
“You think about how you can distribute your work, and OK, we’re on the radio and we have about 2 million listeners there, and then a million people download as a podcast,” Glass says. “Then if you get on network television, you can do millions more than that. Then you could do the Super Bowl and reach tens of millions. But THEN there’s the Google homepage. It’s the biggest thing you could ever present a story on. This is the biggest thing we will ever do. It’s all downhill from here.”
Will he be celebrating tonight? As for his own Valentine’s Day plans, well, Glass and his wife haven’t officially cemented any.
“Friday’s a show day for me, and my wife is working, editing the website she runs [Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie.com] so she’s constantly on deadline,” he says. “So we have yet to work that out.”