I think it’s safe to say that if a magazine sends a journalist to cover your work as a reporter, you must be exceptional. The journalist I’m speaking of, the one who commands praise and respect due to his unique and thoughtful approach to journalism, is Ira Glass, best known for his work with NPR’s award-winning radio program, This American Life.
Glass invited an audience to Kingsbury Hall Saturday night composed of everyone from young college students to older men and women. After a brief introduction from KUER, the lights went dark. The unmistakable soft voice of Glass came over the audience. He joked that because it’s radio, you can’t see anything—“the invisibility of radio,” he called it.
For storytelling, Glass said, seeing things is overrated. He began playing a clip from a story he had aired previously on This American Life about a woman whose young son had deranged and psychopathic tendencies. The audience heard only the waver of emotion in her voice as she related her struggle. Glass explained that if they’d filmed that same segment instead of just recording audio, things like income, how clean their home is, and other such details would give you more information on the subjects. Glass argued that although those details are interesting, it causes a disconnect between you and the subject. The details put more of a distance between you and the subject rather than adding anything of value. The imagination can create all of the details it needs.
Despite his preference for darkness, Glass explained that his hosts, KUER, had strongly urged him not to do the entire performance in the dark, though he felt it would be an interesting experiment. The lights came on to a cheering audience and Glass offered a sarcastic apology for looking different from what the audience likely imagined (many of them had probably only heard his voice on radio). He continued his talk, adding sound bites and musical clips to the background, all controlled by the tablet he held throughout.
His talk mainly focused on what separates This American Life from broadcasts you’d find on cable television news networks or other new agencies. He said that while This American Life seeks to amuse their listeners, other journalists, while great at what they do, are often very grave and serious. Their lack of humor and lack of interesting, amusing segments is something he called a failure of craft. Glass noted that the goal of journalism is to report “what is,” and by removing humor and surprise from the equation you also remove hope. Journalists who ignore “the weapon of humor” are not accurately describing the world around them. Clearly, an effective broadcast explores both ends of the emotional spectrum, just as life does.
Glass wove his lesson about storytelling together with pieces of effective stories that had been broadcast on the show, taking time to note what makes these pieces compelling, highlighting structure as particularly important. While traditional broadcasts follow the “upside down pyramid” approach where important news is related first and less interesting details are related as you go through the piece, This American Life focuses on plot or anything that gives the broadcast forward motion. Having studied Semiotics at Brown, Glass is most interested in what keeps people listening, or for a story, what keeps them reading. Essentially, he feels that what drives an interesting story is the plot and the questions that are brought up as the story goes along. We seek answers to these questions and we’re rewarded for listening or reading on by receiving answers. Once we’ve got most of the answers, a good story also requires an idea—something that sheds light on what the story means or why it’s relevant. Glass noted that it took him a long time to realize it, but his approach to storytelling is pretty much the structure of a sermon you’d hear in church—he didn’t invent it, “It was old when Jesus used it. Although I think of Jesus as more of a content guy than a structure guy,” he laughed.
After describing his approach to structure, Glass explained that he has also been experimenting with different ways of telling stories. One he’s been trying out each month involves telling a story while dancers dance in the background. If it sounds bizarre, that’s because it is. Glass invited a few dancers on stage to perform a number while he played a story (which, interestingly enough, was about river-dancers). The story played while Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” played softly in the background. A few of the moves in the number did actually seem to fit in well with the story, and was a humorous addition to the funny story he played, even if it was a bit strange. Towards the end, Glass himself joined the dancers and performed a segment of the number in his suit to waves of applause and laughter. As you might imagine, it’s quite an experience to go from knowing somebody by his voice, to knowing his face, to seeing that he’s actually a pretty fair dancer onstage.
Once this number concluded, Glass discussed a few experiences he had with censorship and the FCC (evidently you can say “dick” once on the air if you’re referring to someone as a “dick,” but any additional “dicks” must be censored). This section included a recording of a hilarious poem by David Sedaris about a turd that just wouldn’t flush. Following this he invited local writer and NPR contributor Scott Carrier to read a hysterical story about getting a little too gassed-up at the dentist before a root-canal. Evidently, the dentist and his assistant were laughing at him while eating Arby’s at some point during the procedure. As Glass pointed out earlier, good stories sometimes happen to those who can’t tell them, but in Carrier’s case, that was far from the truth.
After Carrier left the stage, the dancers returned for another humorous number that overstayed its welcome by about four minutes, while Glass remained offstage. He returned for a Q and A session and discussed some interesting things about the show, like the fact that all of the ideas for stories come completely at random, and that each episode of This American Life takes five to six months to be created. He also spoke a little about the use of music in the show, and how it’s used to give gravity to things people say while also giving the broadcast a nice forward momentum.
Glass concluded the show by answering one woman’s question about how to get into radio. He noted that it’s never been easier to create your own broadcast at home. While the world is a crazy place sometimes, there’s never been a better time for creative exploration, he said. You can create a radio-quality recording on your phone and even edit it with free tools built into your computer. “My advice,” he said, “is start now. Don’t wait. Start creating now.”
Glass was charming and hilarious throughout, and even laughed at himself when an audience member corrected him for mispronouncing Weber State College: “You’d think when your job is to pronounce things, you’d get something like that correct,” he laughed. The night had exciting insights for anybody interested in stories or storytelling. There’s really no better teacher than somebody who knows how to tell a story without sacrificing humor and without resorting to sensationalism. If there’s one journalist in radio broadcast to learn from, it’s certainly Ira Glass.