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Ira Glass talks storytelling and “This American Life”

On May 4, Ira Glass graced the Pantages stage at the Broadway Center. Glass hosts “This American Life,” a radio show and podcast that he created. Though his show did center around his radio show, the purpose was to demonstrate and explain not only how the show tells stories, but why storytelling is important especially for radio.

After a short introduction, the theater went dark. On stage, the glowing screen of a tablet wandered on, bobbing from one end of the stage to the other as the voice of Glass began the show. Glass said how because radio listeners rarely get a visual on the stories that they hear, especially with “This American Life,” that the audience is allowed to create intimacy without judgment.

Every now and then, Glass would tap the screen to play a clip from a show or start or stop music to add to his show. This was something that continued throughout the performance and made it feel as if one was witnessing a radio show being created, out of thin air and with no editing.

When Glass started the show, he wanted to do what public radio was attempting to already do, but do it successfully. Public radio wanted to take the stories of regular people, not celebrities or public figures, but average folk, and show the world the special talents that everyone had. However, it wasn’t working; Glass wanted to take the same basic idea and get rid of the smell of broccoli.
Glass accomplished this by having a central theme to the stories of that week’s show, some past titles include “Death and Taxes,” “Day at the Beach” and “I Was So High.” Taken at face value, these are rather mundane titles that most people can relate to at one point in their life or another, but it’s partially because of that reason that people tune in to listen. The stories center around a main idea that is relatable to the audience, and once that connection is made, then the actual stories do not matter; the idea does.

Another trick to accomplishing this is to make sure that the stories all have forward momentum. This means that not only are the stories themselves interesting, but they help further the idea that they are demonstrating.

Glass calls this “forward motion,” and it means that the stories are not centered around facts but plot. Oftentimes, the story becomes more important than the facts it is telling.
One of the trademarks of the show, so to speak, is their insistence in not giving up humor. “Not having humor is giving up a huge weapon” Glass said. Too often the media bogs down already heavy topics with dramatic music and dialogue, but most people do not want to listen to that all the time.

Glass says that starting off with the mundane (a vending machine re-stocker on an airship, for instance) to ease into a serious story will keep people tuned in and help diffuse the gravity of the situation without losing the meaning of the story.

The importance of this goes beyond just keeping people interested. The whole point of “This American Life” is to show just that: all aspects of American life. It is all too easy to get caught up in the negative and violent aspects of our world that are so often portrayed through other media outlets, but life is also full of wonder and joy, surprises and love. It is a hodge podge of both bitter and sweet, so the show tries to tell stories that encompasses all those emotions.

To listen to “This American Life,” you can tune in on the radio, 90.9 on Sundays at 7 p.m., or listen to their podcast at the website, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/. For more information on upcoming shows at Broadway center, check out their website http://www.broadwaycenter.org/.

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