“I will destroy both of them.”
—Ira Glass, referring to David Sedaris and Garrison Keillor, both of whom would later visit the same venue.
Ira Glass doesn’t possess the type of voice you normally associate with radio. Even National Public Radio, Glass’ tweedy left-of-the-dial home, holds its fair share of full-timbred talents. Glass, on the other hand, has a slightly creaky voice and a pause-peppered delivery, making his talent for tying together the stories on his This American Life show seem all the more like some kind of alchemy.
This American Life
(Showtime; US DVD: 20 Jan 2009; UK DVD: Unavailable)
But Glass would be the first to tell you that it’s not about voices. It’s about stories, and This American Life succeeds better than most at finding the thematic connections between stories that initially seem miles apart from one another. It’s a regular appointment for 1.8 million listeners each week, and the Life crew even made the transition to television, offering two seasons of episodes on the Showtime cable network.
So how would Glass, unaided by the television show’s unique visual slant, or the equally quirky voice talents of writers like Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris, fare on his own before a live audience? Well, first of all, he wasn’t so alone. Seated at a desk with a mixing board and two CD players—one for recorded quotes and another for music—Glass mixed his own observations with snippets from his show with almost virtuosic grace. It also doesn’t hurt that Glass is genuinely funny. The show started off with all of the house and stage lights down, with Glass speaking while he and the crowd sat in total darkness (“it is radio”, he joked) and later thanking audience members who weren’t familiar with him for coming to the show—and hoping that they “got sex or something” from whoever dragged them here. But as funny as he was, Glass seemed driven by a more serious mission. Even the humorous stunt of starting the show off in darkness underscored a point Glass would return to often over the night: The immediacy of radio.
Glass’ discussion was equal parts a lesson in how to construct a narrative, and a media critique. And even the storytelling discussion doubled, with Glass calling the mainstream media on the carpet for their tendency to separate the serious from the fun, what he considers “a failure of craft” that makes the world seem smaller. “The job of journalism is not to tell us what’s new, the job of journalism is to tell us what is”, he proposed, discussing his belief that the mainstream media fails to connect with people. He didn’t specifically blame our soundbite culture—although he did half-jokingly blame the topic sentence—for the current media woes, but in his dissection of This American Life stories, he made a compelling argument for the value of narrative flow, of letting a story progress from event to event to event, as good stories always have. It was this lack of satisfying coverage on the part of the mainstream news, Glass said, that led the This American Life crew to begin tackling larger news stories, from interviews with former Guantanamo Bay prisoners to a day-in-the-life portrayal of an aircraft carrier to a detailed breakdown of the mortgage crisis.
To underscore his point, Glass spent a good portion of the show discussing This American Life‘s wildly successful “The Giant Pool of Money” broadcast that examined the mortgage crisis. In that episode, This American Life producer Alex Blumberg and NPR’s Adam Davidson tackled the intricacies of the financial crisis and, quite frankly, explained it more thoroughly and clearly than just about anyone else on the airwaves. Even Glass, in his quick summation of the show, described the basic premise in an easily understood fashion that made you wonder if other news outlets were either incapable, or unwilling, to shine a revealing light on the meltdown. It was a clarity that I kept in my thoughts as the John Stewart/Jim Cramer/CNBC kerfuffle came to a head with Cramer appearing on The Daily Show. Glass had specifically mentioned The Daily Show and its ability to speak directly to people about the news in a way that was easily understood. Why, Glass wondered, couldn’t someone put together a real news show that did the same thing? Throughout the Cramer-Stewart interview, as Stewart repeatedly cut to the heart of the matter, I felt anger welling up inside of me—not over the financial crisis, or over anything Cramer was saying, but over the fact that it fell to a comedy show to ask unrelenting, tough questions about the matter. Or that it took a show like This American Life going outside of its comfort zone to provide an hour of substantive discussion.
The late David Foster Wallace, in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, considered the vast flood of noise that assaults us in the media: The countless channels, the talking heads, the vapidity with which 24-hour news channels fill their time. Now more than ever, he wrote, we had to choose filters for ourselves. We had to choose trusted sources who did the job of aggregating something as tedious as Congressional reports and then presented them to us in a way that made sense to us. This isn’t an easy task, especially when it becomes more and more clear that most filters pursue their own agendas, answer to corporate interests, or sacrifice integrity on the altar of access. Granted, This American Life and The Daily Show possess slants of their own, but it’s hard to argue with their efficiency.
But as Glass spent an hour-and-a-half discussing the structure of narrative, even delving into Scheherazade’s life-or-death dilemma in One Thousand and One Nights, it seemed clear that the best filter might not be much of a filter at all. Just let people tell their stories. Let the humanity in, with all of its weird, sad, vain, humble, selfless, and selfish qualities shine through. Then we might learn something about what’s going on around us.