Reinventing Radio: Lessons Learned From an Evening with Ira Glass

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On Saturday Ira Glass, host of the award-winning radio program, This American Life, stood before an auditorium of "NPR Junkies," at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts to discuss everything from his love of Radiolab to his weekly battles with the FCC to his limited knowledge of Arizona (namely, our extreme temperatures and even more extreme politics).

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For many Public Radio listeners, Ira Glass is a household name. But many of his fans are beginning to wonder if Glass's increasing popularity will soon interfere with the indie enigma that is This American Life.

Just last week, Portlandia's Fred Armisen guest starred on This American Life in an episode entitled "Dopplegangers," where he delivered a comical impersonation of Glass.

Although this was not even Armisen's first instance of Ira Glass role playing (his first impersonation was a SNL skit that ultimately got pulled from airing), it raised enough hype for

Slate magazine

to ask:

"Is Ira Glass Becoming Too Famous for This American Life?"

Glass addressed this issue head on at Saturday night's show, saying that despite the celebrity cameos and the occasional pop culture reference, he can still manage to get on a plane to Phoenix, check in and out of his hotel, and still remain unrecognized.

Indeed Glass's cult following stems from the growing number of This American Life listeners and not the other way around. To fans of This American Life, Glass ranks in the upper echelons of celebrity stardom. To those who have never heard of the show, he's just a middle-aged stranger with buddy holly glasses.

And while Glass didn't invent the concept of narrative journalism, his show has set the standard for how to do it well, making it a program worth not just listening to but also taking note from.

For all of you budding storytellers, journalists and podcasters out there that missed it, we're here to share three major lessons learned from An Evening with Ira Glass: Reinventing Radio.

1. Amuse yourself

According to Glass, when it comes to journalism, the trick is to amuse yourself. The more you amuse yourself, the better your work gets. Glass encourages aspiring journalists to go after the stories that truly interest them, "if we're out for fun, then it [the story] will be better."

2. Stop making the world smaller than it is.

When Glass first started his career at NPR he was told that journalism doesn't just document what's new, it documents what is. But Glass notes that for a lot of mainstream news shows, this is not so much the case.

According to Glass, in many new shows, the approach to journalism is robotic and no nonsense. This type of reporting is delivered with what Glass considers to be "unnecessary omissions" leaving the audience with a world that seems smaller, darker, and duller than it actually is.

In Glass's eyes (and even more so ears), stories that contain instances of surprise, pleasure, joy and so forth, are the ones that paint the world as it truly is: large, unexpected, and full of possibility.

By embracing the small yet positive plot twists of life in your stories, you are are assuring your reader (or listener) that "the world is a place where surprise and joy can happen- the things that make life worth living."

3. There are two essential parts to creating a This American Life story

Part one: Every story is a detective story, no matter what it's about.

Regardless of the content, every story is raising questions in the beginning that it's going to answer along the way. It's a dynamic that keeps the reader or listener continuously hooked to a story. Answers are either withheld throughout the duration of the story and reveled in a single moment or gradually dispersed throughout the journey keeping the reader moving forward from page to page. The ability to manage this balance of mystery and revelation determines the amount of satisfaction your reader will receive at the end of the story.

Part two. Find the bigger something at the end.

Stories on This American Life have an almost formulaic structure that Glass developed while studying semiotics. A series of actions is laid out, accompanied with great visual description and, if possible, dialogue.

The initial goal is to not only bring the listeners in but also to move them forward. It's a simple chorus of: action, action, action, and then finally stepping back to reveal a bigger picture, a meaning behind the plot you've just laid out.

Many storytellers can lay out a series of events, but to Glass, the big payoff is revealing the universal message that's at stake,"You don't just tell an anecdote you say the meaning of the anecdote."

Glass continues his tour around the U.S. throughout the year. For more information and tour dates, check out the This American Life website.

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