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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.

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Editor’s note issue 6

Cover issue 6 June 2013 (detail) © Hannah Doyle,

In the aftermath of the party we threw for THE SOUTH CIRCULAR’s first birthday, a familiar vapour of uncertainty began to parade around my workspace and I began to doubt. Again. For with the affirmation, the highs of the live readings, the sugar rush of the cake my sister had baked and the comedown, I wondered ‘Is that it?’ and ‘Is that all we had to do to get to this point?’

Something happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.

In Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro resists calling this happening a ‘moment’ but here I will throw the words catalysis, catharsis and chrysalis at you and trust that your imagination will bring you to such happenings as you have known in your own life. When the before and after are so clearly defined that you cannot believe or accept that either state relates to the same life or you, the same person.

But by avoiding such hackneyed terms, Munro shows that what constituted a life is often only the result of fabrication in hindsight and known after the event. Fiction is this creation before.

We consider the four stories (by Seán Kenny, Helen Chandler, Pierce Gleeson and Tim Smyth) in issue 6 of THE SOUTH CIRCULAR to be about such happenings, confidently executed with singular voices and employing a tingling tension inside the ordinary. This tension is possible in fiction, when a tale is told with imperfect detail and the reader addresses at once the quotidian as well as the irresistible pull of change. Because we cannot draw the arc in our own lives in advance, we find in these stories that happening which does, someplace else, for someone else, at some other time.

Overt or not, the happenings of these stories set an image, a sense, a sign for the next time we glimpse animals in a field, kiss the wrong person or take a job we never wanted.

And the process used by our long-time collaborator, Hannah Doyle, to create her cover perfectly mirrors the register of at least one of the stories in this issue: ‘A moment passes and nothing has changed, or maybe it has changed dramatically, only for us to see. The window was painted on wood with spray paint, gouache and acrylic, then literally dragged through a thorny field. The dots are vinyl composed on clear acetate, and the text was written on a steamy window and digitally cut-out. Everything was then layered in Photoshop. This is how I usually work: get an idea, gather imagery, draw, paint, sculpt, experiment, photograph. Through trial and error, and trial again, things happen.’

By mentioning ‘other places’, Alice Munro faces the fact that life goes on and what once was sacred to you is now in the hands or heart or mind of another. So after our party we got up and began work on this issue almost immediately and we turned again to Object Lessons: the Paris Review presents the art of the short story. We listened to New Yorker fiction podcasts and we took notes when Jon Hamm spoke to Pete Holmes about curiosity, certainty over arrogance and becoming undeniable. And we took heart from points made in Art and Fear and decided that no, that’s not all we had to do to get to this point. For you our readers, we’ll work now and draw the arc later.

Aoife Walsh