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Overheard: Ira Glass’ Radio Stories in Boston

In Uncategorized on February 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Submitted By: Gentry

Last night Kellie and I had the opportunity to see Ira Glass share his “Radio Stories and Other Stories” at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. Before I mention anything about Ira’s talk, I should note that this show was Kellie’s surprise birthday present. When I was laid up at home on Thursday because of Five Guys Hamburgers and Fries fueled puking throughout the early morning hours, I saw this talk advertised on Boston.com and immediately knew that we had to find a way to get there. After the Carrie Erwin and the Cade’s graciously offered to help with childcare I secured two tickets – in the orchestra no less! – and impatiently waited until Kellie got home so that I could tell her about her present.

When I told her that we were going to see Ira Glass on Thursday evening, she actually let out a little scream of joy. That moment brought me as much pleasure as the event itself. I’ve got to find ways to make that happen more often.

Anyway, to the show. Ira started the show in the dark, talking about the intimacy of radio and how, even though we don’t see each other, radio creates an environment in which the power of the word has the opportunity to break boundaries between people and foster a strong sense of empathy. I wish those of us who preach always had the same confidence. Ira quipped that he had asked the crew at Sanders Theater to let him complete his lecture in the dark, but since Churchill had not done likewise when he held the same space, they refused to do so. At that moment the lights went up, the audience clapped and, you know, things unfolded.

Ira was seated behind a board like the one pictured above.  With radio clips on his right, music on his left, and a mixer at center Ira talked about his history at NPR and how he had developed the idea that public radio needed to alter its aesthetic by entertaining, connecting, and empathizing with their audience. He said that he believed the NPR could move beyond its high fiber cereal – great for you if only you can choke it down – appeal if it would learn to use stories well. Ira then provided a brilliant, brief introduction to the structure of story that you can also hear directly from Ira, for free, at open culture, so I won’t rehash it here. Simply said, Ira noted that anyone can sound 80% smarter if they tell stories that are structured as a series of sequential events and include an honest, meaningful moment of reflection. He also cast the topic sentence as the great enemy of story and said that we have to trust the power of narrative to communicate information, connect with others and help us make sense of the world.

After illustrating and explicating the idea of story for a while, Ira admitted that although he believed he discovered the most elemental structure for story, he was shocked a few years ago to hear his favorite Rabbi preach at Rosh Hashanah – “the Super Bowl of the Jewish year” – and hear this same structure. He now lives across the street from a seminary and he says that every student realizes that the idea of story isn’t just in the Bible, it is the Bible. How many of our young preachers who’ve been taught to prepare sermons like they are five paragraph essays and more experienced preachers who rely on movie clips to provide this narrative power and often unwittingly hijack the biblical narrative in the process, need to either hear this lecture or read Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot? It’s not that difficult colleagues, get with it.

I realize this is going long, but nobody reads posts published on Sundays anyway. The best of the rest.

On Juan Williams: Ira admitted that NPR was wrong to fire Williams for a quote that was completely taken out of context. He said that when reporters admit their visceral reactions to situations – such Williams did by saying that he gets nervous when he sees fellow airline passengers in “Muslim garb” on a flight – before discussing why we need to move past our visceral reactions in order to live in a free, civil society – as Williams did – they should be commended for transparency, not fired. He said that NPR had provided its mea culpa in the “corporate way” by accepting the resignation of the head of NPR news, then he turned to consider Williams’ post-firing accusations on Fox News. Glass said that Williams has claimed several times that NPR is driving by ideology and that their reporters are expected to be standard bearers of the political left. Ira said this accusation was manifestly untrue – admitting that professional standards would not allow him to call it a lie – and said that if partisan news organizations like Fox want to test the objectivity of their reporting against NPR they should “bring it on.” He stated in no uncertain terms that NPR would win that fight. For my part, I question whether NPR would be willing to embrace the tactics that it would likely take to win that kind of fight at this moment in time.

On Amazing, Un-Aired This American Life Stories (TAL): He played a few, including a spellbinding story of a veteran who dumped his wife’s ashes out in the parking lot of a veteran’s cemetery when the government’s promise of free interment for veterans like his wife was hindered by a $16 handling fee. This story was riveting, scored with the standard TAL soundtrack and ready to kill. Only one problem, a fact checker at the eleventh hour discovered that the handling fee never existed and the female veteran’s ashes were safely stored in the crypt next to her since departed husband. Apparently the husband fabricated this astonishing story, and subsequently endured years of humorous harassment from his family, for a reason no one will ever know.

On Balloon Animals: Ira showed off his teenage magician skills by twisting a poodle and giving it to an elated and oddly demonstrative upper middle-aged lady in the front row.

Ira closed the evening with a shortened question and answer session since he had indulged us by running 20 minutes over his alloted lecture time. During the Q & A he: said that TAL doesn’t have plans to send reporters into Egypt since the news division is doing a great job covering the story and he’s not eager to see their contributors kidnapped, spoke briefly about the use of music in the show as well as a few often used sound clips that readers were begging him to stop using and, in response to an awkwardly phrased question about the “lowest common denominator of TAL’s stories” said, “I don’t understand the question. A banana peel?”

As Kellie and I darted out of the theater into the lighting and driving rain we had stupid grins on our faces and I wished that, four or five of you in particular, had been there to enjoy the evening with us.

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