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Stories smooth as Glass

Popular public radio host talks about storytelling

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  • Story by Lisa Bruce
  • Published: March 10, 2008
Ira Glass portrait

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, talked about the importance of storytelling on March 8 at Jesse Auditorium. Photo by Nancy Updike.

A guy named Joel works in a place where the office manager’s 9-year-old daughter sometimes comes to work with her mother. Joel has developed a playful relationship with the girl — they often stick their tongues out at each other when she delivers his mail.

One morning, he’s leaving the restroom, and his glasses are in his pocket. He sees a small figure walking toward him from the end of the hall. He drops down, crab-walking toward the figure and using his hands like claws.

“At this point, no one turns off the radio,” said Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, after playing audio of the story above to an audience in Jesse Auditorium on March 8. “Why? If you think about what’s going on in this story, it’s really banal. This is not a fascinating story with amazing incidents you just can’t believe. This is a guy fooling around in the hallway of his office.”

Glass said this example gets to the very heart of what a story is and how we’re built to interact with it. “It’s not about logic,” he said. “It’s not about reason. It’s all about motion. You can feel it’s leading somewhere. You can feel one thing moving to the next.”

Glass sat at a table with a sound board, a microphone and a couple of CD players as he talked about the art of telling stories. 

The formula

Each week, This American Life, heard locally on KBIA, features poignant, funny, sometimes quirky and intensely personal stories. The show starts out “in motion,” unlike most public radio shows, because when listeners quickly can visualize the story and the characters in their heads, they've been engaged in what Glass calls the “dream of the story.” Once listeners are so intimately engaged, it's hard for them to break away.

The formula works. This American Life is one of the most popular public radio shows in the country. 1.8 million listeners tune into the radio show, and another 450,000 subscribe to the podcast. When bandwidth costs for the free podcast climbed to $180,000 a year, the show appealed to listeners for donations. Almost sheepishly, Glass admitted they collected nearly $250,000 in a week. The program also has spawned a cable television show that starts a second season in May.

More crab-walking

Back to Joel, the crab-walker: As he waddles toward the small figure, he says, “Oh no, I can’t believe you’re here today.” The small figure comes into focus — it’s not the 9-year-old, but an intern who is a midget.

The audience howled as the clip continued: Joel stands up, apologizes and tells the intern he thought she was someone else. She is gracious. He is mortified. The story has reached a destination.

But it takes one more step to make the story satisfying: Joel talks about how, years later, he still cringes when he thinks about it. Everyone has had that experience  — the one that still makes you wince when you recall it. Glass said examining what it means, how it makes you feel, is crucial.

Rare empathy

Stories that create that kind of empathy where you feel what it’s like to be young, a sailor, a gang member, a cop, a fundamentalist Christian — whatever it is — are rare, Glass said.

“To come in as somebody who actually is interested and really wants to hear what is in their heart, that’s a huge thing,” Glass said.

Glass wishes more journalists would embrace this style. News and analysis are important, but so is “this connection with other people and with the simple fact that other people are like us, which is the corniest thing in the world to say, but one of the truest,” he said.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012