Radio personality highlights the power of narrative

Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010

About 900 people packed Centennial Hall Tuesday night, eager to see Ira Glass in person. But he made them wait a bit: The man behind the popular weekly PRI radio show "This American Life," took center stage while all the lights were off, simulating the non-visual experience of radio.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

In the dark, Glass described the challenge of covering Hurricane Katrina on the radio when there were so many compelling images on television.

"It turns out that hearing someone talk about something that they went through takes you inside an experience," said Glass, adding that this could be conveyed over a scratchy phone line. "You can feel what it would have been like to be there."

He played a phone interview of a woman describing the scene at the Superdome.

"There's an intimacy to just hearing somebody's voice," he said, joking that he might conduct the whole show in the dark. "It would be the most radical evening of theater ever presented from this stage, with the possible exception of some of your gubernatorial addresses."

When the spotlight finally turned on, Glass was standing behind a control panel, smiling behind his signature black-rimmed glasses.

"I feel like when you meet people in Alaska they are constantly asking, 'How do you like Alaska? You're going to stay longer, aren't you? What are you going to see in Alaska?'" he said. "I just want to get that out of the way right now so we all are square with each other - it's super, I love it here."

Glass was endearing in his humanness, sharing stories about his life and craft throughout the nearly two-hour performance. He played audio clips from some of his favorite shows, talked about the process of interviewing and editing, and shared his thoughts on the power of narrative and the importance of surprise.

"There's a moment that I really love on the radio where something is surprising and fun, where joy happens and it can happen in any kind of story at all."

Glass said surprise is lacking in broadcast journalism, a profession he has been perfecting for 30 years. "You can't show surprise, discovery or delight, that would be too human - and honestly I feel like it's a total failure of craft."

"There is a strict segregation of the serious and the funny and the two are not to touch, this is from the bottom to the top of news programming," he said. "I was always told by my betters at NPR that the job of journalism is not just to tell us what's new but to tell us what is - that this is going to be the part of the media that's going to say, let's look at the world and capture it accurately," said Glass, who didn't buy this logic.

"It is a world utterly without pleasure and surprise and humor and joy and a sense of discovery, which makes the world so much smaller than it is," Glass said.

Glass originally started "This American Life," because he thought it would help bring more balance and fun to public radio.

"When you're doing journalism, so often you are hearing about how terrible it is in the world, and to not balance it out with the sense of hope that you feel when you have that moment of discovery and that sense of, oh my god, look at that... this is my problem with broadcast journalism. It usually makes the world seem smaller and stupider and less interesting."

Glass also touched on censorship, and the lack of "adult supervision" his show has now. Glass also described how he and the show's other producers get new story ideas: usually through people contacting the show themselves, or through the internet, newspapers or friends, when all else fails.

Glass revealed he used to make balloon animals at birthday parties and had a balloon-off with K3 program director Jeff Brown. Brown's balloon moose defeated Glass' poodle by a longshot.

Glass closed the performance with an impassioned discussion about the power of narrative using the story of the Arabian Nights as an example.

"Narrative is a back door to a place that is very deep within us, a place where reason and logic don't necessarily hold sway."

He encouraged journalists to find that universal human connection.

"It is so rare for it to be a story where they give you enough information about the people in it that you could actually imagine what it would be like to be them. It's so rare, and when it happens you notice, and when you hear that kind of story, it makes you feel sane, when you finally understand 'that's what that's about."



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