“There’s a power in not seeing,” Ira Glass, host of radio show This American Life, said while in complete darkness on the stage of UCLA’s Royce Hall. “There is an intimacy to just hearing. You feel something more, or different at least.”
Radio, in Glass’ mind, is a great format for storytelling for this very reason — and he should know. After working for the National Public Radio since he was 19 and hosting This American Life — which has become arguably their most popular show — for the network’s past 15 years he understands how to tell a compelling story in a seemingly effortless manner.
But Ira Glass is a perfectionist. Forty-five minutes before “A Night with Ira Glass: Radio Stories and Other Stories” was to start, he was still rewriting the opening of the show. After starting each broadcast with the same lines for the last 15 years, he wanted to do something new.
Before Glass entered, the stage was sparse. There was only a desk with sound equipment and a KCRW sculpture in front of it. Two spotlights illuminated the background.
Over a decade prior, Glass did his first live show for This American Life on the same Los Angeles stage presented by the same radio station, KCRW. But back then, the show was “very low-rent,” according to current KCRW general manager Jennifer Ferro.
The Ira Glass of that first show was not the “alpha male of the beta males” as one reporter described him, but rather was a confident stage presence. And since its first live show, This American Life has impacted film, television, books and even politics.
This time, Glass was performing to a sold-out venue, with each audience member hanging on his every word as he spoke about his radio show and life in general while playing audio and music clips to illustrate his points. Glass was like a conductor in his movements, pushing buttons on the soundboard and motioning with his hand, stopping just as the music stops.
“I’ve never seen your local news here in Los Angeles, but since you’re in the United States of America, I’ll assume it’s crap,” he said while speaking of the differences between most broadcast news programs and what he tries to do on This American Life.
Glass attempts to blur the lines between what is serious news and what is funny, unlike most prestigious news shows. Whereas they try to “sell gravitas,” Glass said he tries to sell reality and all aspects of it. Not only the horrors but also the “pleasure, surprise, humor and joy” that make the world and life so worthwhile. He tries to make the show fun and personable, almost like a conversation with a friend.
“Radio works best when it mimics regular conversation,” Glass said of a rule of good storytelling. “The telling of the story is more interesting than the events themselves.”
It is important to have moments of reflection interspersed with the action, which, unlike most other media, is explicit in radio. The ability to build suspense, to make the listener want to know the destination of a series of events, is what makes a gripping narrative. These tactics, he noted, are very akin to those used in sermons.
“Jesus’ sermons in the Bible are this structure,” Glass said. “Now we live in a time in which we are constantly inventing new methods of bringing narrative to us.”
Though we are more inundated with stories than ever before, Glass lives for the ability to truly see inside someone’s experience through a story. That exact moment of connection is what he believes radio is capable of creating. And because narrative is so powerful, it is extremely important as a basic human function.
“These are tools you can use to save your life,” Glass said, citing the classic Persian tale One Thousand and One Arabian Nights as an example.
Scheherazade, a character in the story, uses suspense and the king’s desire to know each story’s end, to save her life. Each dawn, when the king would have ordinarily killed her, he is instead so intrigued by the story she is telling him that he spares her for another day and this continues for 1,001 nights until he is finally able to learn empathy and decides to spare her life. For Ira Glass, this exemplifies the power and purpose of storytelling — it creates empathy.
After so many years working on the show, Glass is still excited about his job, even more so since he asked Showtime to stop the T.V. version of the show after only two seasons. Now they’re doing much more ambitious projects on the radio, which he says are “format breaking [and] incredibly fun.”
Last week, Glass said he had gotten almost no sleep from working on a project. Each night he would wake up half an hour earlier than the night before, his body telling him, “Get up! Go to work!” Glass said the idea for now is just to focus on radio, but in a new, even more compelling way. Though for Glass, it just might save his own life.
“I don’t have any other special talent,” he said.