Ira Glass talks journalism and storytelling at the Power Center
“It’s just like the radio show, except you’ve paid a lot of money,” joked Glass, whose distinct voice is more-than-familiar to public radio fans of “This American Life.” “ I do actually wish we could do the entire show with the lights just like this - the most radical evening of theater presented on this stage since (UMS’ presentation of) ‘Einstein on the Beach.’ My cousin (‘Einstein’ composer Philip Glass) bests me again.”
Jokes aside, the darkness served as the evening’s starting point for a reason: to underscore how, when we listen to someone’s voice on the radio, we open ourselves up to listening to people whose appearance might otherwise cause us to shut down - for instance, young girl gang members that Glass profiled early in his career.
“I just thought that if people saw these kids, they would not love these kids. You’d see a girl gang member - black lipstick, tough look on her face, baggy clothes - I was wary that people wouldn’t relate to her. They wouldn’t instinctively just go, ‘Oh, that could be me in some other version of my own life.’ But on the radio, if you hear something on the radio, and they’re talking from the heart about something that happened to them, it just gets into you. You can’t help it. There’s an imtimacy in just hearing somebody’s voice. To the invisibility of radio. Like you’re on the phone late at night with somebody you care about.”
Glass noted that when he launched his storytelling radio show in the mid-90s, he thwarted conventional journalism wisdom by aiming to entertain. To illustrate the contrast in philosophies, Glass discussed the way that CNN presented a story about an aircraft carrier stationed near Afghanistan in the months following 9/11 (tense music, dramatic footage, a movie-trailer-like voiceover), and the way TAL began a show on the same topic (an interview with the carrier’s vending machine supply person).
“Most of my people, the broadcast journalists, what we’re selling is a kind of serious gravitas,” said Glass. “We’re worried you’re not going to take us seriously, so we’re going to perform in a serious tone of voice. There’s almost kind of a theatrical seriousness to it. And these moments where the (TAL) reporter is kind of discovering the story, and expresses bemusement, curiosity - those are usually not part of American broadcast journalism. It’s just not part of the deal. And I think that’s a mistake.”
In this way, most news shows, in Glass’ opinion, depict “a world utterly without a sense of surprise, pleasure, discovery, humor” - which is to say, a world most of us don’t recognize as the one in which we live our day-to-day lives.
Glass also told the near-capacity crowd that the way TAL structures its stories stems from his undergraduate studies in semiotics (“My parents took out an ad in The Baltimore Sun saying, ‘Semiotics major wanted, high pay, no experience necessary’).
And while Glass’ parents were disappointed that he didn’t become a doctor, Glass argued that he actually uses what he learned in college every day. “All semiotics is interested in is one thing: how does the story work on us as a reader? How does it hook us in? How does it give us pleasure? Why is it pleasurable when a story resolves?”
Citing Roland Barthes’ book “S/Z” as an early influence, Glass explained that, according to Barthes, every story is a detective story, in that it raises questions that are answered in the end, causing a sense of satisfaction and relief for the reader/listener; and that suspense is created by the forward motion of a story’s plot.
“(A story)’s not as satisfying as it is when you go on to interrogate the question, ‘What is the universal something happening here? What’s the thing that we’re all relating to?’” Glass said.
Glass described the process of finding stories for TAL as “chaotic,” in that stories are submitted in various ways, a single show takes 3 to 4 months to put together; they’ll start with 15-20 potential stories before paring it down to 3 or 4 that make it to air; and the storyteller has to be a good talker (“Weirdly, the inarticulate don’t make it on my show. No one is documenting their tales.”)
The focus of TAL, in the last 4 or 5 years, has shifted to focusing on news, according to Glass. This has led Glass and his team to employ their unusual approach to news in places like Iraq and, more recently, Egypt.
“For all the reporting out of Egypt, something so small as going to these meetings,” between diametrically opposed factions that are trying to find common ground, “you can get a sense about the excitement of, ‘We’re going to make a country. What are going to be? Let’s figure it out,’ in a way that is so easy to relate to,” said Glass. “And you kind of notice that in the other coverage, but I don’t think you necessarily feel it as strongly as if you get into the details. Radio is just peculiarly good at that.”
After speaking for a little over 90 minutes, Glass took a handful of questions from the crowd, including one about the show’s music selection.
“A lot of the times, what we’re looking for is music that has a forward motion to it - that isn’t saying much more than, I’m moving forward,” said Glass. “ A lot of the music we use is from motion picture soundtracks, because the music is designed to be spoken over.”
Another audience member asked about Mike Daisey - who fabricated details in a TAL story about a Chinese factory, Foxconn, that produces Apple products - and the fallout behind-the-scenes at TAL, which retracted the original piece.
“Now, everything we do, we work with professional fact checkers,” said Glass. “ And we will not let this happen again. You don’t feel good if your job is to tell the truth to millions of people, and then you learn that you’ve lied. I didn’t blame Mike Daysie. People lie to reporters all the time, and it would be nice if they didn’t lie, but it’s our job to catch it.”
Among those in the audience was Allegan’s Tim Kooy, 18, who, as a finalist in Michigan Radio’s “One Minute Michigan” story writing contest, won tickets to Saturday night’s event and had his entry read by Glass on stage during the show.
“I loved it,” said Kooy. “ It’s kind of cool that I remained anonymous, and nobody (in the crowd) knew who I was.”
Kooy learned about the contest from his English teacher. “She actually called me three times, trying to get a hold of me,” said Kooy, who will attend Grand Valley State University in the fall. “ Once I learned I was getting tickets to (the show), I kind of caught up on (‘This American Life’), and now I really enjoy it.”