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When Ira Glass came to Dublin

‘Reinventing Broadcast Journalism’

It’s no secret my love for radio these days, having spent most of the last twelve months plugged into on-demand podcasts like You Made it Weird, Here’s the Thing and the New Yorker fiction podcast. And such is the effect of This American Life (from here on referred to as TAL) on a generation of listeners, that most lists of really good audio documentaries begin with it. True that TAL is just one type of audio programme, a sort of news show which lays out its public service duty (many contributors are ordinary citizens) at the beginning, and endeavours to go wherever any self-respecting news reporter would like to go to tell you the story. The risk of sentimentality and maudlin wallowing in the injustices and coincidences of this funny life are high in this field and yet TAL never misses an opportunity to expose the humour in a situation, the frailty of an argument or the ridiculousness of a fine mess. This is what Mr Glass called the ‘Oh yeah, I’m an ass’ moment when he spoke to the Philosophical Society in Trinity College, Dublin on 30 September last. Every TAL story has that bit when the plot is paused (and I stop what I’m doing and stare off into the middle distance) and the idea is exposed. By alternating the two, Mr Glass says, the point of the story is revealed.

The thrust of Mr Glass’ talk was how to give good story. But he touched on many things that appeared relevant and interesting to the gathered student body. Refreshingly, he laid into the student publications he had come across in the previous two days. He said most of the articles he had read lacked personality. And they bore no resemblance to the people he had met on campus who he found engaging and replete with ‘winning’  temperaments. He was impressed by the Dublin Burrito correspondent, who, alas, was not in the room (or didn’t admit to being).

Nor had the age-old template of the RTÉ broadcast failed to catch his attention. It was all the same, formulaic and forgettable. RTÉ, he said, had managed to make a Sunday night television show about circus boring. Every question asked was boring, every answer received was boring, every shot was boring. The aesthetic of broadcasting has become tired and, by way of example, he spoke of a CNN war programme that uses theme music akin to Battlestar Galactica. In this jaded landscape, TAL tries to answer the question: ‘What would be surprising or engaging that would make you want to listen?’

For Mr Glass, to build a story in such a way as to keep people listening, but more importantly, to be cunning so that listeners don’t have time to think in a way they’ve thought before, humour is very important in achieving this. So TAL began by trying to change the tone of broadcast journalism and this is rooted in the human voice sounding like a human voice. Mr Glass then played a clip of himself, at the beginning of his career, reporting on corn production and sounding like an android. He admitted that in the beginning, we all want to sound like the establishment but his advice for the audience gathered was to ‘burn through being crap’ and to begin that without delay. He acknowledged that we now live in a world where we simply can’t wait to be given opportunities to produce a lot of work. Once the precious route of the very talented and often confined to the spheres of artistic endeavour (music, acting), now it is never too soon to begin moving towards the thing you are most interested in. Now, with the aid of the internet, we embark on self-assigned apprenticeships all the time.

While Mr Glass worked his way through the thesis of Barthes’ S/Z, he played clips from past shows to illustrate the points of most import in the philosopher’s analysis. These clips did to me what TAL and any good audio documentary always does: made me sit a little taller in my seat, made me strain my neck a little forward and to the left, so that my right ear may hear just a little better. I felt the familiar pull of the story and rather than listen to semiotics applied to broadcast journalism, I wanted to go home and hit play and sit back and learn some. Barthes’ work asks ‘How does this story get its hooks into us?’ Oh, how indeed.

Directing our attention then to the ways in which TAL draws interviewees out, Mr Glass recommends getting them to tell anecdotes. This seems to me to be most effective when the interviewer is prepared to listen and to find the magic in what people give away about themselves.

At the same time as Barthes may guide a journalist or storyteller to enlighten or enthrall, TAL believes that all the listener really needs is to know that Mr Glass can be trusted. This, I think, is the key to contemporary documentary-making and when a reporter or narrator is unreliable in this context, we expect that to be signposted. If you think I’m wrong, try watching Ultrasuede: in search of Halston and tell me you don’t feel confused, betrayed and annoyed by director Whitney Smith’s multiple costume changes and general ignorance of the most important persons of the fashion industry.

Exchange, whether it is spoken or sung, written down or enacted, is an attempt to tell a story. Mr Glass recommended one use the same techniques for reporting hard news, to find conflict and character.  This is why we return to This American Life time and time again. TAL and the stories it tells make us feel better about the stories we want to tell, however small or personal they may be. Taking care of character, plot and idea are all the dedicated editor or curator needs to consistently do a good job.