Reinventing Radio – An Evening with Ira Glass

“I’m at the University of Chicago and my fly is open, this is like a bad dream!”

As you hopefully know from our previous posts, this past weekend UChicago was home to the Studs Terkel Festival, celebrating the life of one of our city’s greatest story collectors. To pay tribute to this iconic man and to celebrate his legacy, yet another Chicago radioman and story connoisseur came to speak – the one and only Ira Glass of This American Life! For those of you who are not yet aware, This American Life is a public radio show, based in Chicago and inspiring over 2 million listeners nationwide with weekly broadcasts of true stories of everyday people, not to mention those who listen to their podcasts.

Ira Glass is the remarkably funny voice and personality behind this radio show, which embraces a distinctly unique type of broadcast journalism. According to Ira, others in his field present a world “smaller, dumber, and more hopeless than the world we actually live in.” In contrast, “We’re out for fun and not ashamed to be out for fun.” When discussing how the show covers topics that the public might be sick of, say climate change (“I know we’re screwed; I don’t need another hour on our screwed-ness!”), the trick is to get listeners engaged first, to make them laugh and connect to your characters before the topic is even introduced. This American Life is a synthesis of both journalism and entertainment.

For one spectacular Saturday night, Ira Glass talked about how to tell a captivating story, from narrative structure like the sermons of Jesus (Action, Action, Action, Idea!) to awkward interviews between Studs Terkel and Louis Armstrong. He played clips of his own show and of  Studs’, keeping the audience laughing throughout it all. He chose to conclude on a particular episode of This American Life, entitled Harper High School. This two-hour episode came in the wake of yet another year of Chicago shootings, and is based on the stories of high school gang members at a south side high school, very close to our own Hyde Park backyard. For those of you not yet in love with This American Life, I have attached a link to part one of this episode below and whole-heartedly encourage you to give it a good listen. The message from Ira Glass was this – there is an intimacy to radio and just hearing a voice without the face or maybe even the name to judge from. This openness, upon which both he and Studs Terkel relied, is something we should all seek a bit more in both our stories and our daily lives.


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