Ira Glass: an expert storyteller
Ira Glass has three things you need to be likeable on radio: firstly, a soft, intimate voice that makes you feel like he’s talking directly to you across your kitchen table; secondly, the humility to discuss his own work as something not innately brilliant, but as the culmination of many years of hard graft; and thirdly, a brilliant ear for wonderful, personal stories that make for compelling listening.
This American Life, which I’d never listened to before this week, is a kind of Reader’s Digest on the radio – that is, a sweetshop of tasty morsels, none of which you’d never planned on investigating, but which seem to fascinate nonetheless.
In the episode we were asked to listen to this week, about storytelling, or more specifically, reruns, the framing is classic Ira. Act one is all about action and the Beaver trilogy, a film in which the film maker became obsessed with returning, over and over, to the same subject. The story is gripping because we hear the journalist, the film and the film maker, Trent Harris, all narrating slightly different parts of the narrative. I found the act slightly long-winded, but by the end the effect is that I really wanted a happy ending for hte beaver kid, just as Trent and the jounralist do. I learned that good radio stories are involved, and take the reader on a journey, using the sequencing that Ira references in his video.
I enjoyed the second episode more, perhaps. about couples rerunning each others’ stories – what do relationships do to you and your stories? Despite the journalist speaking to a number of spouses who claim to have heard their partner’s stories over and over again, we find that they don’t in fact tell authentic, accurate versions of their stories. Hearing them realise this is entertaining, and the contrast between the voices is enough of a cue to the listener to expect different angles. Of course there’s also a lot of work behind the scenes to uncover some wonderful stories – as Ira says, the art of good journalism is as much about knowing what to take out as much as to keep in.
Discussion in Act Three of how often the Rosa Parks story has been evoked to explain revolutionary behaviour in many different contexts is an example of ineffective storytelling – where the simile isn’t really apt. But it’s a good example of how the collective subconscious that Jung talks about gathers experiences into each of our memories so we feel like Rosa Parks, for example, is an ancestor of ours when we make a stand. Choosing a person that means something to people can help them find a hook for what you’re telling them.