Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ira Glass

I went with NBTR and some other friends on Saturday night to the Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus to see Ira Glass of This American Life. Jeanne, who works for an on-line journal, knows this noted radio personality who broadcasts a news show on NPR, whereas I had never heard of Glass before Jeanne recommended his show to me.

I asked around at work and found out that Glass has quite a devoted following. People eagerly download his weekly podcast. But nobody could really describe his show to me. Personal interest stories, well done. Humorous? No, not really, but yeah.

Oh.

His show was funny, extremely entertaining, engrossing and informative. However, Jeanne assured me that it wasn't anything like his radio show. The performance featured a seated Glass executing a lengthy monologue built around recorded interview excerpts accompanied by music. There also was a 10-minute preview of a video clip from his TV series, and a Q & A segment.

Everyone there already seemed intimately familiar with his radio show. For instance, I kept hearing references to the Testosterone Show, which evidently was a recent smash hit.

Glass at one point asked for a show of hands from anyone in the audience who didn't know anything about him beforehand and got “dragged there by someone.” In the entire arena, only three other NPR ignoramuses put up their hands. I was too shy to share my ignorance with the NPR crowd so I did not raise my hand.

Glass thanked the three publicly identified philistines for coming and said he hoped they at least “got sex out of it.”

He described his method of story telling on the radio, where because there is no reliance on visual images, the taut story line is everything. Music places emphasis on important parts and builds mood. His tale-telling method is as classic as the steady stream of engrossing stories in 1001 Arabian Nights, he said. Action, action, action then reflection equals interest, and anticipation of more. Anecdote then reflection. That is how stories are told.

Even mundane things can be made interesting by this technique. How interesting is it to stock candy machines aboard an aircraft carrier in a combat zone? The military technician doing it sincerely relates that Snickers and M&Ms always sell out, but nobody ever buys Million Dollar bars. To get rid of the Million Dollar bar backlog, she only stocked the machines with those. Sales dropped to zero. You could almost see her shrug as her recorded voice said that she went back to stocking Snickers and M&Ms, with only one row of Million Dollar bars. She doesn't know what she's going to do with all the Million Dollar bars she has. Overhead sixty pilots bring death and destruction to the combat zone while here in the bowels of the great ship, a vending machine technician ponders her great problem aloud.

Modern news is told by topical sentence, Glass said. News item, detail, detail, quote. Repeat. The stock market is down. The decline is driven by worse-than expected profits at Walmart. The cost of goods manufactured in China is up because of higher oil prices, cutting into Walmart’s profits. A greeter at Walmart said, "I now walk to work because my hours have been cut and I can't afford to fill up my car with gas. ”

There’s where your true story might lie, said Glass. That greeter could have a funny or poignant story that is intriguing and will create empathy. People can relate to it if the announcer can bring it out conversationally.

Good stories lead to empathy. We empathize with seemingly inconsequential tales that resonate with the circumstances of our lives.

Empathy is the key. His story telling method can be described as empathic.

9 comments:

jeanne said...

nice write up. you perfectly captured the whole thing.

i might just have to send this around the newsroom! thanks!

Susan said...

I used to download This American Life. Now I am asking myself why I ever stopped...

I enjoy him.

Petraruns said...

Wow I love this American Life. If you like that kind of thing you should read Paul Auster's book True Tales of American Life after his NPR program - the amazing stories that are part of everyman's life..

CewTwo said...

I have listened to This American Life, as well. It is difficult to explain it.

Bex said...

Dude, where have you been. Looooove 'This American Life.' Have seen Glass perform three times now. Three. Does that mean I'm a groupie? Not that there's anything wrong with that. Oh, and one of Eric's friends is a producer on the show. Cool.

Endurance said...

I'm an NPR ignoramus too. Never heard of Ira Glass or even NPR until a few years ago when I discovered it programmed into one of my car radio's presets. Apparently my husband listens to it when I'm not there ...

ShirleyPerly said...

Oops, that was me logged in using my Endurance Sports Bar account (again) -- sorry!

Sunshine said...

Haven't been listening to Public Radio much since Bush started being pres. Hard to hear about what I can't do anything about?

So I have been missing "This American Life". Always used to enjoy Garrison... So...
Thanks for information.

Jade Lady said...

I'm so out of it - not an NPR person - but your interesting post has peaked my interest - I'll have to check out This American Life. Thanks for enlightening me!