Ira Glass on broadcasting’s “failure of craft”

A radio personality filling a concert hall with fans? That’s pretty rare, but it happened Aug. 21 when Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” (TAL) on National Public Radio (NPR) appeared at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. The place was packed.

Introducer Dan Savage, publisher of The Stranger, which co-sponsored the event along with KUOW-FM and Northwest Associated Arts, dead-panned that Glass “slept his way to the top…which sounds like fun until you remember he works in radio.”

Savage, who writes a sex-advice column, is a regular contributor to TAL. “He [Glass] keeps me around just for the sex advice,” Savage quipped, adding that “I know what Ira likes” but “I can’t tell you.”

(Glass is married. His wife is from Iraq, he said later in the program, and her family fled that country because of Saddam Hussein.)

After Savage’s intro, the house lights went out and Glass’s distinctive voice was heard: “I tried to talk them into doing the entire show in the dark, but they said no,” he joked. For those who find his voice somewhat affected, that’s really just the way he talks.

Glass described TAL – a program he originated in 1995 after 16 years as an NPR employee — as “applying journalism to things it doesn’t normally get applied to.” His goal is to add “fun,” “joyfulness,” and “surprise” to stories, he said. He noted that this “never happens in broadcast journalism,” which is “a failure of craft.”

Glass noted wryly that he used to listen to NPR stories thinking: “I would be a better person if I can get through this story.” The crowd applauded knowingly.

As TAL fans know – and they are a devoted group – Glass consistently tells interesting stories in an engaging way, unlike much of the broadcast media.

“Part of the job of journalism is not to describe what’s new, but to describe what is,” Glass said. “The world they describe is so much smaller than the real world.”

This is “one of the lousy things about doing journalism,” he added – i.e., that much reporting focuses on “massive, unsolvable” world problems. That “makes most of journalism such a drag and also makes it so inaccurate,” he said.

Describing broadcast journalists, he said that they sound like “talking robots….the esthetics of the language is so stiff” He called that “one of the reasons why journalism is having such a tough time now.” Television journalism is “doing terribly,” he said.

“The only people who are doing well is public radio,” Glass boasted – to more applause from his loyal fans. Seattle-Tacoma listeners on KUOW and KPLU make up TAL’s third-largest regional audience nationwide.

“Opinion in all its forms is kicking the ass of journalism,” he said. However, opinion and commentary – including much that is on NPR (even on TAL) – is clearly a major part of journalism. Surely Glass would acknowledge that. In fact, the lines between reporting and editorializing have crumbled, if not fallen.

Glass mentioned Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart as primarily news  commentators, adding that he’s a fan of Maddow and Stewart. As for Beck, he said: “That guy is fascinating,” but moved on without adding much detail. Too bad. Maybe Glass will do a story on Beck sometime. That would be interesting to hear.

Glass spent a lot of time talking about his approach to story-telling. A story is “not about logic, it’s not about reason, it’s about emotion,” he said. “You can use incredibly banal action to create suspense.” On radio, “you tell a story like you tell it in real life.”

He played several sample cuts, complete with the brief musical interludes that are a staple of TAL. His story about the veteran who allegedly dumped his wife’s ashes in a parking lot was fascinating; the story of the couple who went to a swingers’ party was really lame.

TAL’s basic formula is “action, action, action” followed by “thought,” Glass said. He noted wryly that he had “spent three years of [his] life inventing” that format – then realized that his rabbi did exactly the same thing, as did every other deliverer of religious sermons. In fact, he quipped, the entire Bible follows that formula!

TAL now has a staff of eight (it used to have four), and they review 25 to 30 ideas a week to produce three or four stories for the program. He invited the audience to suggest story ideas. (Hey, Ira, how about a story on the “TAO of Journalism”?)

“From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we’re bombarded by stories,” Glass said – on television, radio, print, and the internet – but “it’s rare to have stories that we can empathize with and that can touch you.”

That’s TAL’s goal, he said: “We live in such a divided country, it’s rare to get inside somebody else’s shoes. That’s what we try to do.”

Glass got a standing ovation. Clearly TAL fans think he succeeds — and most of the time, he does. TAL plays a unique and valuable role in American journalism and in American life. More journalists – print, broadcast and online – could take a lesson.

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About John Hamer
JOHN HAMER is President of the Washington News Council, an independent forum for media fairness that he co-founded in 1998. Hamer was formerly Associate Editorial-Page Editor at The Seattle Times and previously Associate Editor with Congressional Quarterly/Editorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C. Read more about John or read John's blog posts.

Comments

  1. Scott Fogdall says:

    This American LIfe is a great show, but no matter how intriguing, moving, or eerie its stories are, it is ultimately a human-interest program. It may have produced a few pieces on the economic crisis and so forth, but TAL doesn’t even come close to being hard news, which Glass apparently feels we no longer need. In the areas of tone and style, maybe he’s more entertaining than hard news, but the solution to journalism’s problems isn’t for network reporters to start speaking in Glass’s semi-mumbling cadence or to start creating shows about what happens at highway rest stops. A big part of the crisis facing broadcast journalism (as well as print newspapers) is the fact that too many viewers/listerners are more interested in quirky, personal stories like those on TAL and no longer have the awareness and political curiousity needed to engage in discussions of world events.

  2. eZachLeeWright says:

    Mr. Glass attended the Restoring Honor Rally put on by Glenn Beck August 28, 2010. He was packing his tape recorder and doing interviews with attendees. Mr. Glass was low key and took a lot of time with at least one couple the interviewed. A fellow media persons spoke with Glass and he says that Glass commented he was surprised at how polite the overflow crowd was. The interview with the couple took place within the shadow of the Vietnam Memorial of three soldiers walking.

    • John Hamer says:

      Thanks for the comment, eZachLeeWright! I’ll be listening for Ira’s story about Glenn Beck, who Ira rightly described as “fascinating.” Whether you agree or disagree with him, he has clearly touched a national nerve!

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  1. [...] Radio series “This American Life,” I was interested to read that host Ira Glass had offered his thoughts on journalism at a speech in [...]

  2. [...] of journalism is not to describe what’s new, but to describe what is,” Glass recently told an audience in Seattle. “The world they describe is so much smaller than the real [...]

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