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Ira Glass: A lesson in sharing

He’s compassionate, intelligent, skilful and a very funny storyteller. While we are mostly strangers to him he is like a cherished family member to many of us. The instant you hear his boyish voice you are ready for a memorable trip that is both everyday and yet astonishingly out of the ordinary.

Broadcaster and journalist Ira Glass and his team tell stories on US public radio that airs This American Life (TAL) and via ABC radio in Australia. TAL traverses a varied landscape that can include the European debt crisis, crazy love, Iraq, Wall Street and all manner of social and political interactions that tell a tale.

There is something unique about TAL reporting. Ira’s journalism involves serious deep thinking yet his spontaneous giggles note the absurdity in many of life’s tales. It’s not simply about the story being ‘worthy’, funny or having a message it’s also about delving into an unexpected angle to the story. It’s about looking for a deeper understanding of who the players are and how the story came to be. This approach is in stark contrast to most mainstream journalism where the context of the story is regularly ignored.

As well as looking for insightful angles that are not necessarily ‘newsworthy’ in a mainstream sense, a notable thing about Ira Glass as the host of TAL is that he shares the techniques of making good radio.

He shares the program’s behind-the-scenes ideas and approaches. The hard lessons in journalism, as well as what worked are included to help those wanting to do similar creative work.

The TAL team are inspired by radio hosts who investigate a topic by including their own thoughts and questions into the process to show the exploration of the story.

Glass cites Radiolab. And Planet Money as successfully engaging with a topic in an interesting way.

When the hosts and interviewers are truly engaged with the speakers and interviewees and have permission to respond then the realness of the exchange is appealing. In the words of Ira Glass on Radiolab:

Having two narrators lets them express amazement, underline what’s funny, manipulate the pacing, pause on a difficult idea and bring up opposing arguments in a very graceful way.

Glass consistently makes a plea for real voices and genuine human responses to all forms of reporting.

Discussions on how we learn consistently emphasise how engagement with a topic through conversation, questions or interactive techniques are more helpful than a lengthy lecture.

What seems startling to me is how easily Glass talks about watching others in the media industry and adopting their approaches or trying new techniques such as the TAL program aired on the 5 June 2011:

This week we’re trying something we’ve never tried before: An hour of stories about…this week. We take a crack at major news events, like what’s happening in Egypt; and at the most minor, like an 8-year-old who’s finally taking the training wheels off her bike. The stories are united by one thing: They all happened in the seven days prior to broadcast.

The TAL team reveal their behind the scenes creative work and how they apply ideas they ‘stole’ from others such as the reporters who insert themselves into a story. However, a TAL episode on testosterone was more an exploration and conversation with insight into human fears and myths that raised more questions than answers.

The TAL team getting their testosterone levels tested to not only see who had the most but if personality traits matched with hormone levels. The wisdom of such exercises is questionable but the process is revealing.

Finding people who can tell their own stories is crucial to the TAL approach to radio.

In 1951 in Wisconsin USA a baby was switched at birth. When Ira Glass hosted this hourly show the listener was likely to swing from outcry to shocked silence as various participants recounted their story.

The story about babies switched at birth was really about so much more. There were the values of the day, in this case over six decades ago. There was serious undervaluing of women’s opinions. Professionals and experts could attract inflated respect that was beyond reasonable questioning. Societal class boundaries could easily create gratefulness and dependency on helping professionals thereby stifling capacity to speak up to right a wrong.

Glass’s constant sharing of ideas and experience – in a time when competition is valued and commercial secrets are seen as standard for success – is interesting. As well as wanting to increase the amount of good journalism out there, revealing the behind-the-scenes work reflects the Internet age and practice of sharing tips and online mentoring. In the sphere of creative work there are a range of opportunities for sharing and collaboration such as Creative Commons that works to assist creators in the digital sphere.

The more slick, polished and auto-cued the media presentation the more I am drawn to the gasping, giggling responses of engaged interviewers that make the whole exercise human, easy to relate to and often profound. Many TAL stories show that humour can be added to the mix to explore some of the bleakest and most important topics.

Perhaps the success of TAL is that there doesn’t seem to be a mighty gap between interviewees and questioners. The notion that people often feel better if the ‘whole story’ is told in a way that genuinely promotes an understanding of their side of the story appears to be in play. Empathy seems to unlock some TAL revelations and show for example, how easy it is for smart folk to end up in messy criminal undertakings. Yet in the telling of the story when the context, links and crucial elements that can take you from law abiding to serious criminal are revealed, the whole story is understandable making shifts in value judgements possible.

A TAL story reportedly takes over four to five months to develop and produce. Despite the speed of the Internet age people seem to also want the whole story even the long version. Yet mainstream media seem increasing removed from investigative pieces. Even thorough outlines of complex issues such as the environment, mining taxes, the poverty gap or immigration are rare in mainstream news.

On his January 2012 Sydney Town Hall visit to share his insights on radio broadcasting Ira Glass asked the two thousand attendees in an incredulous voice, ‘Who are you?’

The audience laughed with a heartfelt familiarity fashioned from hours of remarkable storytelling that reaches out of the radio to shape our Australian lives. As well as reminding us that there are many ways to tell a story, Glass shared some useful tips on how do it.

Sharon Callaghan writes pieces for the Illawarra Mercury that reflect social and political issues within the community. She has written in different publications on the rights of asylum seekers, democracy, nonviolence, racism, public space, community unionism, human rights and feminism.

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