Dear Ira

Ira Glass

(Update: response from Ira below.)

Ira, hi.

I’m using first names because I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time together – on subway rides, on airplanes, in bed. Even at the peep show. That’s right: the first time I heard your voice, I was in blue leopard print lingerie, thumbing through the radio dial, and since it was a Saturday morning and customers were out doing better stuff than looking at naked girls (perhaps listening to your show?), I had the luxury of an uninterrupted hour with you for my first time. It was great. I loved your strange, slow pauses and carefully casual enunciation. In retrospect, it was a lot like the speaking mannerisms I had to adopt to be heard by the customers through the glass.

You already know part of this story. Back in 2010, your production manager Seth Lind (I can’t even type that without hearing it in your voice) emailed me and asked if he could run a photo of me doing a drag tribute to you on the This American Life blog. It was totally great of him to ask, and so perfectly full circle: I had started up a podcast in that peep show, the first podcast from a peep show ever (hey, it was 2005, we were first at everything, and rubbing elbows with you in iTunes was always a thrill – like that time my show was the #1 show three weeks running in politics, religion, and business? heady days!), and now, you wanted to recognize this tribute I made to you and your show (and for a calendar raising money for sex workers to speak up in the press and produce their own media!). I was smitten before, and now I was honored.

I hope you don’t mind the intimate tone here, but you know this: radio is perfect for creating intimacy. All those voices can just go about anywhere you invite them to, bringing in stories you never expected to even want to hear, let alone hang out with the engine off (or the peep show curtain pulled shut) to finish. Those of us who make a life out of telling stories, we do it because we all at some point had to fight to have our stories heard and understood. Even though these days more and more people have tools available to them to share their stories (podcasting, blogging hey!) the media playground has never been a level one. The odds are still stacked against anyone who has ever been on the wrong side of the mainstream tracks. Because no matter how cool the toys we have available to us are in this ever-expanding media playground, some kids will always have bigger lawyers.

This is what’s troubling to me, this thing where Chicago Public Media has (on your behalf) sent its recess monitors on the producers of This American Whore. I first heard about their show (where else) on Twitter, where they were using the handle whorecast. I thought, oh wow, it’s another podcast called whorecast! That was what I called mine! But this is totally great. They are doing what I don’t have the opportunity to do right now – no longer working in the sex industry, I don’t get to hear the amazing real life stories they do. So even if they are using a name that’s close to what I used to use, I’m so glad for them. It feels like a tribute. Our collective editorial storytelling calendar is tight, and resources are scant – I’m glad to have anyone pick up stories and give them their due.

I was going to send this to Seth, who was also cool enough to invite me onto his show, Told, and tell stories about my time in sex work. (How do you follow Kevin Allison doing a story about losing his anal virginity to a cucumber? With a butternut squash.) But then I thought it really should go to you, because you’re how this all started for me, anyway. You were there for me on late nights and way too early mornings in that peep show, where I followed your media-making maxim for beginners to be willing to be really terrible at it for a while, to give yourself as many years as it takes to figure out how to even tell a story. I’d like to think my peep show paycheck was the journalism internship I could never afford. It gave me the cash to cover those critical years to be terrible and get better. And while I was at the peep show, I went from writing on my own website, to being published in the (much missed) $pread magazine, to getting my first job as a reporter. It’s been almost ten years since I first went to work at the peep show, and I’d like to think I know how to tell stories (finally! I had pieces in Reason, Dissent, and Glamour in the last month, and I honestly don’t know a single other person who can say that). So thank you.

But – even though I first invited your voice into my life when I was half-naked and under (some really cheap-ass) red lights? I would never mistake your show for a show run by and for sex workers.

Can you let your lawyers know?

Thanks, your fan –

Melissa

ps: When I asked Torey Malatia what the lawsuit would cost, he said “it’s $20 for a 2.5 minute show.”

Update, February 6, 2013 / 7pm

Ira Glass responds:

It’s recently been reported in the press that we’re asking the podcast This American Whore to change their name. There’s been a suggestion that we’re singling them out because of their content. We’re not!

I’ve listened to This American Whore. I find them charming. It’s an interesting podcast and a window into a world that’s very different from my daily life, for sure. I’m glad they’re out there making these and hope they continue.

But the way trademark law works is that we or any business with a trademarked name has to protect that name. If you don’t take action when you hear about people knocking off your name, and get them to stop, you can lose your trademark rights.

Whenever we find out about any podcasts with names similar to ours, our lawyers review what action would be appropriate. Some names and shows are parodies, which are a protected class under the law. Some have audiences that are so negligible that they pose no trademark threat.

Last year, we had an issue with a podcast called This American Startup, and they eventually agreed to modify their name. In the past we’ve taken similar actions which didn’t get press attention. There are some other shows and podcasts out there still with names similar to ours that our lawyers are planning to approach. This American Whore is not being singled out.

I wish them the best. Make more podcasts! I’ll keep listening! If I lose this job and become a sex worker, I hope you’ll have me on as a guest. Just change your name.