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Posted on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

Ira Glass will offer insights on storytelling and 'This American Life'

By Jenn McKee

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An old adage claims that every face tells a story; but in radio, of course, we rely on the spoken word and intellectually curious interviewers like Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s “This American Life,” who’s coming to the Power Center courtesy of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

With a program titled “Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass,” the show will feature Glass talking about his show and how it’s put together; what makes a compelling story; and where he finds material for TAL, which usually features “regular” people telling true, personal stories that share some kind of thematic thread.

The show began life as “Your Radio Playhouse” in 1995, and it’s gone on to win piles of awards; become the butt of a famous punchline on “The O.C.” (“Is that that show where those hipster know-it-alls talk about how fascinating ordinary people are?”); spawn a two-season Showtime television adaptation; and inspire a parody video that went viral late last year.

Glass, with his trademark black glasses, is the unmistakable voice and face of the show, of course. So to prepare for his upcoming appearance, check out his insights on storytelling, NPR listeners, and more.

On the elements of storytelling ( I had to figure it out. I'm not a natural storyteller at all. If anything, I'm a natural interviewer, a natural listener, but I'm not a natural storyteller. That meant I had to really take apart the machinery of how a story works. When I think about a story today, I think about it in a very mechanical way; I'm very aware of the structural parts of it and what I need for it to work.


"Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass"

  • What: The Ann Arbor Summer Festival brings Ira Glass—host of NPR’s popular storytelling program “This American Life”—to town to talk about how the show is created, and what makes a story compelling.
  • Where: Power Center, 121 Fletcher.
  • When: Saturday, June 23 at 8 p.m.
  • How much: $35-$55. For tickets, call 734-764-2538, or go to, or visit the Michigan League Ticket Office at 911 N. University.
When I was in college, I was a semiotics major, which is this hopelessly pretentious body of French literary theory. But there were a few pieces of writing in the field that were not about how language is a conspiracy theory to hold us in our place — which I did believe then, but don't believe anymore — but were about: How does a story give pleasure? And the radio stories I make, the way I think about them is the way I thought about stories when I was in college reading Roland Barthes's "S/Z." He talks about the five codes of how a narrative gives pleasure — about how a narrative will keep you from knowing something and make you think the opposite and then reveal it. Which is totally about wrongness, come to think of it.

On NPR listeners ( "They're lovely. Weirdly, I feel like when I meet the public radio fans, what they seem like is people that could have accidentally become my friends, except we don't know each other. I have that reaction a lot — with the occasional person who's way too interested in grammar or technology."

On the TAL episode that broke down the financial crisis in simple, understandable terms ( That got a bigger reaction than anything I think we've ever put on the air. We've heard from government officials that they've passed it around their offices so that everybody understands what exactly happened in the mortgage crisis. I feel like I was just there as kind of an observer and editor, so I feel like I can't claim credit for this personally. What they did is, they got the people who were making really terrible loans, the loans that brought down the economy, to explain what the hell they were thinking. Why did this happen?

Part of what was smart about it was the way they (Adam Blumberg and Adam Davidson) framed it. They sort of stepped back from the whole thing to say "Well, the first thing you have to understand is that the amount of money in the world that was being invested grew in a really huge way between the years 2000 and 2006." But there was all this money looking for investments, and at some point mortgages came to seem like a really good investment, so investors all over the world were just like, "Well, get me more mortgages to invest in," so they started giving away worse and worse mortgages, just to have something for these investors, and that sort of was the seeds of the whole problem.

On what he’s learned from public speaking engagements ( I’ve learned I don’t have to dress like I’m going for a job interview. I’ve learned that, generally, people won’t stand and attack. I’ve learned that I better not say anything too super-important in the first 30 seconds, because people are getting so used to looking at my voice coming out of my head that that is overriding any content that I could be saying.

On not putting storytelling on a pedestal ( I think sometimes people talk about storytelling like it’s this precious, greek urn that we have to keep in a museum and go and stare at, when, really, good storytelling is just there for fun.

On how TAL differs from conventional journalism (The New York Times): We’re taking the tools of journalism and applying them to people whom you wouldn’t normally apply them to — people who aren’t famous, people who aren’t powerful, people just like you and me. … A newspaper probably wouldn’t run an article where a cop remembers one weird incident with a squirrel when he was a rookie. That’s too far from any kind of normal news hook.

On whether his job makes him like or dislike people more (Huffington Post): Reporters tend to find in others what they are suited to find, so there is a whole school of reporting where they are cynical about the world and everything reinforces that. Whereas I tend to be optimistic and be amused by people and like them, even rather bad people. Calvin Trillin is like this. He did these stories about murders in small towns. The people, although they have done these horrible things, are portrayed sympathetically -- not because he believes that people are good, but that people are familiar and understandable. In general, when I am interviewing someone and it is going well and they are being very bare, I totally love them. And it is hard not to.



Tue, Jun 19, 2012 : 11:58 a.m.

Podcasts of This American Life make me look forward to plopping down in an airline seat and putting in the headphones. That's high praise given the state of airline travel these days. Thanks to Mr. Glass for a great show, week after week, and to NPR for providing such high quality programming!

Bertha Venation

Mon, Jun 18, 2012 : 3:52 p.m.

I really enjoy listening to Ira. Especially when I can sit down and savor the experience.


Mon, Jun 18, 2012 : 3:50 p.m.

Glass sounds like a really cool and interesting guy!

Dog Guy

Mon, Jun 18, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

Ann Arbor is NPR's audience between the coasts.


Mon, Jun 18, 2012 : 2:49 p.m.

Don't get out much, eh?