This American Life, and What’s Interesting Radio?

Canada’s Radio Sweetheart, Dan Misener pointed to an episode of The Sound of Young America a couple of weeks ago, and in so doing inspired me to explore the amazingly rich episode archives of the show.

One of the most interesting interviews is with Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, the public radio show he hosts (another listening habit of mine inspired by Dan).

You can listen to the interview here.

The interview is interesting in part because it affords an opportunity to hear the unscripted Ira Glass, which is quite different from, although no less enjoyable to listen to, the well-worded and deliberate Ira Glass we hear on This American Life. It becomes immediately obvious what an incredibly deliberate and well-crafted show it is when you note this difference; you realize the show isn’t just Ira Glass hanging out in the studio and ad-libbing.

The other item of note is Glass’ description of the importance of a narrative thread to This American Life stories, and how this differentiates them from run-of-the-mill radio “feature reporting.” When host Jesse Thorn asks Glass about an episode of the show that focused on Improv Everywhere and their Best Gig Ever. Thorn wanted to know why the episode focused on this particular project — one that, in a certain sense at least, backfired — rather than any of the more “successful” projects from the group. To which Glass responded:

I know what you’re saying: you’re saying that basically 90% of what Improve Everywhere does is actually quite dear and really wonderful and we happened to choose two cases where they had dramatic failures…
…but I have no interest in a story about Improv Everywhere. Like I think that Improv Everywhere is totally interesting and if I were a feature reporter working for a daily news show or working for a newspaper, maybe I would do the story that you’re talking about, which is the story that goes “There’s this cool group, they do these funny little happenings,” and we’d go along on one of their happenings, and we’d quote some people at one of the happenings.
That’s not what I’m interested in doing. Because I don’t think it’s that compelling.
I’m more interested in a story with a plot and a conflict and characters and something that’s more engaging. And truthfully the story that I’m describing as the theoretical straight news version of this story isn’t as interesting as the story of “they accidentally screwed up.”
I feel like, in a way, it gets to something really interesting about Improv Everywhere, which is they mean well, they totally mean well, but even with the best of intentions, and even being very imaginative, creative people, occasionally they screw up… that to me is more interesting than “hipsters putting on happenings around New York.”

Those few sentences are as good an explanation of the difference between boring radio and compelling radio that I’ve ever heard.

And indeed they also cut to the heart of the difference between boring blogging and compelling blogging. So many times I’ll sit down and carefully craft a blog post, a blog post that I think will be the greatest blog post ever written, only to find that, in the end, to plot sort of, well, trails off. There’s no punch line, no resolution. No story. And so I close the browser and try and walk away with some notion that I’ve learned something, and vow to write another day.


oliver's picture
oliver on March 7, 2008 - 07:56 Permalink

I guess I’m just not as inspiring as Dan. I’ve been recommending TAL to you myself for at least a decade. (Did you see Charlie Rose’s interview with Ira Glass?)

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on March 7, 2008 - 14:17 Permalink

Your advocacy efforts, alas, predated the iPod, which makes listening to TAL viable for those of us without an NPR station on the dial. I do acknowledge your groundbreaking contribution — you sowed the seeds that Dan pushed me to harvest.

Alan's picture
Alan on March 8, 2008 - 18:33 Permalink

I highly recommend adopting the multi-award winning NCPR, our local NPR station (serving us here in Kingston as part of its community) as your own. It is pod-gastic if that is your thing but also carries more quality shows than a lot of the less well supported stations like the one in Maine — even though it broadcasts to a mainly rural area. The coverage zone also means NCPR covers many issues at least analogous to those in PEI:

oliver's picture
oliver on March 9, 2008 - 07:41 Permalink

Ah. That makes sense. Kind of you to credit me before Steve Jobs.