Ira Glass tells some trade secrets of 'This American Life'

Amid jibes at mainstream broadcast media, including NPR, the radio personality explains that his formula for storytelling comes from the Bible, and his rabbi.

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Ira Glass, host and creator of "This American Life"

Amid jibes at mainstream broadcast media, including NPR, the radio personality explains that his formula for storytelling comes from the Bible, and his rabbi.

A radio personality filling a concert hall with fans? Not a problem for Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” (TAL) on National Public Radio, who packed Seattle’s Benaroya Hall earlier this month. Dan Savage, editor of The Stranger, was Glass's wisecracking foil.

After Savage’s intro, the house lights went out and Glass’s distinctive voice was heard: “I tried to talk them into doing the entire show in the dark, but they said no,” he joked. For those who find his voice somewhat affected, that’s really just the way he talks.

Glass, 51, described TAL, a program he originated in 1995 after 16 years as an NPR employee, as “applying journalism to things it doesn’t normally get applied to.” His goal is to add “fun,” “joyfulness,” and “surprise” to stories, he said. He noted that this “never happens in broadcast journalism,” which is “a failure of craft.” Glass noted wryly that he used to listen to NPR stories thinking, “I would be a better person if I can get through this story.” The crowd applauded knowingly.

As TAL's devoted fans know, Glass consistently tells interesting stories in an engaging way, unlike much of the broadcast media. “Part of the job of journalism is not to describe what’s new, but to describe what is,” Glass said. Another "of the lousy things about doing journalism,” he added, is that so much reporting focuses on “massive, unsolvable” world problems. That “makes most of journalism such a drag and also makes it so inaccurate,” he said.

Broadcast journalists sound like “talking robots, Glass complained. "The esthetics of the language is so stiff.” He called that factor “one of the reasons why journalism is having such a tough time now.” Television journalism is “doing terribly,” he said. “The only people who are doing well is public radio,” Glass boasted — to more applause from his loyal fans. Seattle-Tacoma listeners on KUOW and KPLU make up TAL’s third-largest regional audience nationwide.

Glass spent a lot of time talking about his approach to story-telling. A story is “not about logic, it’s not about reason, it’s about emotion,” he said. “You can use incredibly banal action to create suspense.” On radio, “you tell a story like you tell it in real life.” TAL’s basic formula is “action, action, action” followed by “thought,” Glass said. He noted wryly that he had “spent three years of [his] life inventing” that format. Then he realized that his rabbi did exactly the same thing, as did every other deliverer of religious sermons. In fact, he quipped, the entire Bible follows that formula.

TAL now has a staff of eight (it used to have four), and they review 25 to 30 ideas a week to produce three or four stories for the program. “From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we’re bombarded by stories,” Glass said. But “it’s rare to have stories that we can empathize with and that can touch you.”

That’s TAL’s goal, he said: “We live in such a divided country, it’s rare to get inside somebody else’s shoes. That’s what we try to do.”

Another version of this blog originally appeared on the Washington News Council's website.


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