Through The Looking Glass Of American Life

Through The Looking Glass Of American Life

One-on-one With NPR’s Ira Glass

By J.T. Ryder

Ira Glass in his production ‘Radio Stories and Other Stories.’ Photo courtesy of George Barcos. Left photo courtesy of Emily Condon.

Through his nationally syndicated NPR radio show This American Life (which airs bi-weekly on WYSO), Ira Glass has become an inspirational ideal within the journalism community: A journalist’s journalist. This American Life, whose first broadcast aired on November 17, 1995 under the name Your Radio Playhouse, is an amalgam of essays, short fiction and recorded stories contained in a loosely themed 60-minute show. The whole process seems almost organic, eschewing many of the AP style news productions or commentary-driven formats of other news agencies. This, in and of itself, has made Glass and his work a point of aspiration for many in the journalistic fields.

Glass, at the behest of WYSO’s General Manager, Neenah Ellis, is on his way to the Miami Valley, not only bringing his production, Radio Stories and Other Stories to the Victoria Theatre to benefit WYSO, but also conducting a workshop in conjunction with WYSO’s Community Voices project, which tries to get people within the community interested and trained in radio broadcasting.

In interviewing Glass, I was at once curious if there was any danger, when one considers the broadly emotional swath that This American Life takes, of getting too personally close to a story …

“I think that any normal person that gets into the kind of situation where reporters get into, where you’re talking to people about very important, emotional things that happened to them … like any situation like that, it inherently affects you … if you’re normal,” he said. “The real question is, ‘What do you do with that?’”

Leaving that question unanswered, Glass went on to describe some of the rules that do apply to this distinctive type of newsgathering.

“In this style of journalism, there are certain things that you don’t do, like you don’t pick a side in a fight, but there are certain things that you can do,” said Glass. “Like, if something horrible happens, you can gesture the fact that you know that this is really horrible or if something funny happens, you can acknowledge that something is funny. You know, there’s just more of a range of emotion to it and since the audience is feeling it and the people in the story are feeling it, it would be kind of silly for the reporter to pretend that they’re not feeling it too. I don’t think that there’s a danger to it. I don’t feel like we’re a bunch of reporters that get into these journalistic quandaries.”

This American Life almost flies in the face of what the print media describes as AP style news writing which, like Joe Friday, is only interested in the facts.
“I think that that’s also a difference between print and broadcast and truthfully, I think one of the things that we strongly encourage the reporters to do is to be in the tape, asking questions and giving the back and forth so that we hear them,” he said. “Broadcast is …” Glass paused, gathering his thoughts. “… There’s a tradition in broadcast that the reporter is the surrogate for the person listening and that it’s nice to hear them ask a tough question or laugh or react emotionally. In fact, it sounds weird if they don’t do it. One of the things that I think is a problem, actually, is that there isn’t enough of that. I give seminars to reporters all the time and I say, ‘Look, one of the things that you can do that would make your story better right away is to get yourself in the tape’ because radio reporters also, for some reason, tend to keep themselves out of the tape. We don’t hear them in the tape enough. I guess I just view that as a mistake.”

As for his dealings with WYSO and their workshops, Glass became very animated, answering the question before I had even finished asking it.
“I have to say, WYSO is really interesting to me with what they are doing,” he emphasized. “I don’t know of any other radio station in the country that is doing that. I don’t know if they are more appreciative of how unusual it is that they are trying to actually go out and get more people making radio from the community and to train them and make people into radio producers … it’s very unusual, this Community Voices project. Like, nobody is doing anything that forward-thinking and just really reaching out to the community.”

As This American Life seems to be created organically, I wondered if there was some kind of ultimate direction that the show was heading in – some ultimate destination.

“We have no direction that we’re headed in,” Glass answered, laughing. “I wish we were the sort of people who had a direction. The show exists, like among other things, to amuse us as the people who make it and so often, what we are dealing with is, ‘What would be fun for us?’”

As for the stage production, Glass gave a brief description of what an audience could expect, which is a visually energetic look at what fans have been creating in their own imagination as they listen to the radio show.

“It’s a mix of things that haven’t been in other shows,” he said. “There’re a couple of things that haven’t been on the radio that I play. A lot of it is favorite moments from the show that I use to explain, ‘Here’s why this is built the way it is built.’”
Glass added, almost as an aside, “Also, because I have the music and the quotes and the sound, I can recreate the sound of the radio show onstage … which is kind of weird.”

You can see Ira Glass on the Victoria Theatre’s stage on May 22 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $40 and can be purchased by going to the Ticket Center Stage box office at 138 North Main St., by calling (937) 228-3630 or by going on-line to www.ticketcenterstage.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer J.T. Ryder at JTRyder@daytoncitypaper.com.

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