Ira Glass Spoke On Radio's Storytelling Power

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

When the lights dimmed in the Tivoli Theatre, fans who packed the event hall craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Ira Glass, host of National Public Radio show, “This American Life.” They were greeted only by a glow of his iPad mini as Mr. Glass walked the stage in the dark in an effort to illustrate the power of radio. Mr. Glass was in Chattanooga to speak at George T. Hunter Lecture Series.

For Mr. Glass, the power of radio can be summed up in the intimacy it provides for the listener.

“Without the distraction of someone’s face, the words go right inside me. There’s an intimacy to just hearing someone’s voice,” he said. 

Mr. Glass, who began his radio career at 19-years-old, prefers to take a different approach to journalism on his show.

“Broadcast journalism typically separates the serious and funny, and that can be unnecessary. At our show, we want to embrace the fun. We want to embrace entertainment as our mission and not be ashamed of it,” he said. 

“The job of journalism isn’t just to tell us what’s new, but what is. Traditional broadcast journalism leaves out the surprises, joys, and humors of everyday life. If you leave those moments out, it makes the world more boring, sadder and darker. At ‘This American Life,’ we want to try to find those moments of surprise,” he continued.

Mr. Glass relies on a method of storytelling that assists listeners in focusing on the more human elements of the story rather than just the facts. Throughout his talk, he played clips of interviews with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances he had featured on the show—a woman caught in a tornado, a teenage victim of a shark attack, a school principal dealing with gun violence.

“To keep people listening, you have to have narrative suspense. There has to be a question in the air. We start with the plot because it pulls people into the dream of it,” he said. 

Mr. Glass, who studied semiotics in college, has researched what makes a good story.

“We use a structure similar to a sermon. We start with the action and then insert a brief idea on what is happening. It’s anecdotes followed by an explanation,” he said.

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