Internal ribosome entry site (IRES) RNAs are important regulators of gene expression, but their diverse molecular mechanisms remain partially understood. The HIV-1 gag transcript leader contains an IRES that may be a good model for understanding the function of many other IRESs. We investigated the possibility that this IRES’ function is linked to both the structure of the RNA and its cellular environment. We find that in the context of a bicistronic reporter construct, HIV-1 gag IRES’ activity is cell type-specific, with higher activity in T-cell culture systems that model the natural target cells for HIV-1 infection. This finding underscores how an IRES may be fine tuned to function in certain cells, perhaps owing to cell type-specific protein factors. Using RNA probing and mutagenesis, we demonstrate that the HIV-1 gag IRES does not use pre-folded RNA structure to drive function, a finding that gives insight into how conformationally dynamic IRESs operate. Furthermore, we find that a common exon drives IRES activity in a diverse set of alternatively spliced transcripts. We propose a mechanism in which a structurally plastic RNA element confers the ability to initiate translation internally, and activity from this common element is modulated by 3′ nucleotides added by alternative splicing.