Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Ira Glass at Trinity College

The This American Life broadcaster was a guest of The Phil on Monday. Here’s what he said. (Pic via brainpickings.org)

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 11:53


This American Life is probably the best radio show in the world. There’s no other radio programme I’ve learned more from, cried more listening to, talked more about, or indeed consistently tuned in to. Everybody who listens to TAL knows that a fair few of your conversations end up referencing “this amazing episode of This American Life”. And there’s also a joy in discovering someone you know hasn’t listen to it yet because you’re about to introduce them to something truly brilliant. It’s human, it’s interesting, it’s informative, it’s real.

The reasons that TAL is good are plentiful. It shatters the silly stiffness of radio that we put up with and is conversational (although fantastically scripted). People talk in tones that are normal. The structure of the programmes unfolds like a fable. The reporters are passionate. The stories told are interesting because they are human stories, universal in ways that maybe you never thought the subject matter could be. It’s also a triumph of editing. But it didn’t arrive perfectly formed, and Glass was at pains to talk about how things become good in time, especially his own skills.

The beauty of a programme that has been running for so long is also that the archive is a well of brilliant radio yearning to be discovered. With the app, when I’m on the bus, I listen to it. When I’m running, I listen to it. When I’m baking, I listen to it. When I’m on a train, or alone in my apartment, or walking around town on a Sunday morning, on it goes. On a road trip from Austin to Toronto earlier this year, we drove through the night with the early episodes – Your Radio Playhouse – on the car stereo. I love this show.

So when I saw a poster in Trinity that Ira Glass, This American Life’s host and producer, was coming to speak to the Philosophical Society, I was there. Glass was charming and informative, very much aiming his talk at the students in the room (which was most people, obviously, that’s what he was there to do.) Snippets of his speech I’d heard before, like the crappy news report he did about tortillas when he was 26. When playing clips of the show from his iPad mini he pressed the screen like a conductor, or a kid lighting a firework and running away waiting for the explosion, knowing the exact point at which to let things run, stop them, let them go, add them. It’s hardly surprising that this is his live stance for showcasing This American Life, because I’ve always felt that the show isn’t so much structured as composed.

Anyway, here’s some stuff he said. (FYI there might be a word or two out of place because I was just taking notes during the talk, not recording, but it’s all as accurate as can be.)

Amusing yourself
Glass said the first thing that makes good work is when you’re out to amuse yourself. That’s what a lot of the great modern non-fiction writers do, he said, citing Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Buford, Michael Lewis. “It was unapologetically out for fun, out for amusement,” Glass said of TAL when it started in 1995.

The aesthetics of news are poor
I think this is something everyone can agree on. The rigid ‘news voice’, the cheesy theme tunes on CNN, the lack of emotion. Glass said that this traditional broadcast news aesthetic is about convincing you “that they are serious people” but it doesn’t work. Instead “the packaging makes it boring… through an accident of aesthetics, they forgot to create something to engage you.”

Glass played the intro to that famous This American Life episode set on a war ship in 2002, where the first port of call is a member of the military whose job it is to keep the vending machines on the ship stocked. When they start talking about which candy is popular and which isn’t “the reporter is surprised and he is amused and he shows it,” Glass says, when they start talking about Cheez-Its. “They don’t discover things that are funny during their serious shows,” Glass said of other broadcasters.

So by avoiding the humour of humanity in broadcasting, Glass believes that everyone else is missing a trick, “the job of journalism is not to tell us what is new,” he said, “it is to tell us what ‘is’.”

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum American broadcast news has been completely screwed up by frivolity and hyper-emotion (this is me talking now, not Glass), from the angry, vein-popping anchors on FOX to the Idicocracy ‘… and finally’ reports on most news stations. But neither of those things are real emotion or real humour, right? They’re both fake and stupid.

“We all want to do the official thing, but it’s much more fun to sound like yourself,” Glass says.

Sorry, Trinity newspapers
Glass browsed the college newspapers on campus and thought they were pretty bad (although he had some words of praise for The Piranha.) The reason for this is that he thought they were lacking in personality, and didn’t understand why that when you can do anything you’d choose to repeat something boring. I guess that’s a problem with imitating a structure that’s already there. Most college newspapers here are not fun, not funny, overly serious, pompous, and feature articles about the minutiae of college politics that students don’t give a crap about. He did like one article that was about  appraising the various burrito joints in the city, so bravo whoever wrote that! Glass said that Trinity’s newspapers read as if they are out of date or old fashioned.

RTE is lame
Ok, he didn’t actually say those words, but pretty much. “Every single Irish person I’ve met has been very winning, very smart, funny. I thought ‘there must be people who aren’t like that in this country, and when I turned on RTE…” cue laughter – that’s where he found the boring people. He apologised for insulting the national broadcaster, but that’s how he felt listening to “The RTE”. You kind of have to agree in many ways. RTE’s current affairs and human interest programming (not the talk radio element of RTE) does sound boring in comparison to TAL, although I do find the Doc on One app throws up some decent stuff from time to time.

With This American Life, he said one of the things he was interested in from the start was changing the tone of how we speak on radio, “trying to get as close as possible to a human being talking.” Glass said that’s why the show is also an internet hit (900,000 podcast downloads a week.) “We were a very big hit on the internet because the aesthetics of what we were doing were similar to the aesthetics of writing on the internet.”

He referenced writing more than broadcasting in a way, in terms of how things are written and structured. I think there is a cultural difference between American journalism and Irish journalism that informs This American Life more, though. Quality American journalism – like This American Life – exists in a context of a long and illustrious history of long-form journalism and New Journalism, which has never been properly present here. For me, This American Life is following that history and legacy. If you look at how American newspapers are written in comparison to Irish newspapers, it’s radically different. Reports in the New York Times often begin like features. Irish print journalism is much more rigid and frowns upon style, whereas American print journalism embraces style and unique voices far more enthusiastically. It’s strange, because Irish people are fantastic storytellers, yet our journalism is quite sterile. Personally, I think the greatest work of long-form Irish journalism is The Boss, because it echoes the American journalistic devices that I love, more than the cold facts Irish journalism prefers.

The nuts and bolts
Glass spoke a good bit about how TAL episodes are structured. He emphasised the importance of anecdotes in all speaking – not just radio shows. The power of a plot in motion makes it hard to turn off the radio, he said, likening it being on a train where there’s a destination. You’re not going to get off until you’re there.

He also spoke a good bit about semiotics – what gives us pleasure in reading a story? What creates the feeling of satisfaction after watching a good film or a great episode of Breaking Bad? What is it that makes you feel satisfied? He said every good story raises questions small and large along with way and answers them, and that’s what pulls you forward, even if the story itself is incredibly banal. And a really good story, he said, will answer everything in one perfect moment.

The power of the plot is important: “this leads to this leads to this leads to this – as long as you get that in motion, you’re already raising a question: what happens next?” He said, “you can’t just tell a story that doesn’t have a point – every story has to have a point.” Glass equated the structure of TAL with the form of a sermon, which at its most rudimentary is “tell a little anecdote and say: ‘here’s the meaning of this’.” Glass said he learned how to harness structure by getting interview subjects to reveal anecdotes, and then look at whether there’s a bigger idea contained within them, “what is this about?” This can only be achieved by trying so many things until something happens, he said. You eventually can elevate something to a greater meaning by trying one question after another.

Half of everything TAL starts, they kill, Glass said. They start with maybe two dozen ideas, they’ll go into production with seven or eight, and maybe half of those they’ll kill. You’re talking big resources, lots of time, and talented people given the space to explore, in my opinion. Lots of programmes would find that method impossible and impractical to pursue, but it obviously works. TAL isn’t great accidentally, it requires huge talent, lots of time, resources, money, ability, space to think and explore, effort, and eureka moments. Eureka moments aren’t accidental either (this is me talking again, not Glass), they come from the endless and constant percolation of thought, from ideas colliding together, from stories revealing themselves after time and exploration. Every journalist knows that sometimes when they get an idea and start a story, the narrative of that story reveals itself to be completely different – sometimes that ‘different’ is amazing, sometimes it’s a let down. “You just want to try a bunch of stuff, because you don’t know what’s going to be great,” Glass said. This also means applying the techniques of finding characters and conflict to hard news to reveal a greater truth or interesting story.

“Where do ideas come from? Ideas come from other ideas,” Glass said, an obvious but important statement. Glass said you have to surround yourself with things that make you think, things to read, things that make you ask questions, and soon you’ll become obsessed with something and you mightn’t even know why, but if you gravitate towards it that’s where the interesting idea or a worthwhile piece of work to pursue will be.

Thanks to The Phil for hosting this talk, and for letting me crash it.

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