Ira Glass & why storytelling matters, part 2

This weekend, in between bouts of cross country skiing and running errands, I saw Ira Glass, the creator of NPR’s This American Life speak at Harvard’s chapel-like Sanders Theatre.

Called “the nation’s storyteller” in a recent Boston Globe piece by Joel Brown, Glass spent two hours dissecting the structure of effective storytelling and explaining why our culture needs public radio (to bring news to small communities across America and to ask the questions others don’t). He also spoke about why he felt NPR’s firing of Juan Williams was a big mistake—in retrospect, a probable opening salvo in the revived culture wars from the 1990s/Gingrich era. I plan to write more about this very interesting part of Glass’s show soon, so stay tuned.

In a nod to his popular radio show, Glass sat onstage with just a microphone, a mixer and two CD players. A veteran of public radio since he was 19 years old, it was all the equipment he needed to weave a rich mix of voices and music that helped punctuate his points and illustrate his stories.

Ira Glass (Nancy Updike, via

Sitting at first in the completely darkened theatre, hearing just Ira’s familiar voice, got me thinking about the post I wrote called The Moth Ball: why storytelling matters. Without visual media’s special effects that we now expect when we consume modern entertainment, the human voice still retains the ability to transport us to another world. Never mind the 3-D, the digital, the remixing, the soundtrack: our voices are the first human medium of entertainment, and remain the most intimate and most powerful. All we need is voice!

Glass’s storytelling influences range from 1,001 Arabian Nights to Roland Barth. The best stories, he says, share the same structure: action, action, action, thought. Something happens, then something else, then…something else…until the payoff happens, a “joyful surprise” which must be universal, relate-able, and memorable. Dialogue should be reenacted in real-time, driving us forward to a story’s climax.  Why don’t we teach this powerful structure of storytelling in our schools? Glass blames an entrenched teaching system behind legions of schoolchildren’s lifeless essay-writing, proclaiming: “We must stop the topic sentence!”—which he quickly acknowledged is indeed a topic sentence. Sigh!

Glass laments the decline in popularity of fact-based reporting and the rise of opinion disguising as journalism. After all, he says, the purpose of journalism is not just to show what’s new, it’s to show what is. But as Glass puts it, the best journalists are also unafraid to bring their emotions in to convey and interpret the human side of the stories they report—to better explain why we should care about a story, and to make a complex issue understandable on a more human scale. In this sense, the best journalists are also the best storytellers:

In broadcast journalism, a hard news story is better for a funny moment—it’s an aesthetic choice…[When journalists] wipe the sense of joy [out of a story] they depict a world removed of everything that makes life worth living. We want to look for joy; to restore the world to its proper place.

Toward the end of the show, Glass twisted up a balloon poodle and tossed it to an appreciative audience—public radio’s reverse of a rock concert’s bra-toss:

Ira Glass making a point (or maybe a balloon animal) Sanders Theatre, Cambridge.