By E.A. & D.M Swarts
If you doubt the existence of a heritage voice in contemporary radio, look no further than Ira Glass, who creates, curates, and hosts the iconic radio program “This American Life.” Heard each week by nearly 5 million people on more than 500 public radio stations and the Internet, “This American Life” is a virtual time capsule of people from every corner of culture telling their own stories in their own words. March 23, 2019, Glass gave the audience a rare glimpse into his own story when he transformed his radio aesthetic into a one-man, multimedia show entitled “Seven Things I’ve Learned.”
Presented by Cal Performances in Berkeley , Glass’ program blended lecture with memoir and highlighted his unique ability to find the absurd in the midst of serious situations. This ability drew the audience into each of his seven topics (ranging from “How to Interview a Kid” to “It’s War”), and even permeated the musical underscoring and video projections that accompanied them.
“I’m not a particularly good storyteller…as my family will attest,” Glass joked in a riff about his early life. “Just ask them, some of them are sitting in the audience.” This sort banter—funny, self effacing, and off-the-cuff—is at the heart of what has has transformed Glass from a self-described failure into not just a good storyteller but at times a masterful one.
Glass structured the lecture component of his show around the creative process he has developed over 40 years working on nearly every program and production job at National Public Radio. Pulling back the curtain for fans, he explained that the key to an interview is structuring questions around a plot. He shared his preferred story structure of “anecdotes followed by ideas,” quipping that even Jesus uses this formula. He offered insight into how multimedia can tell multiple stories at the same time, as words carrying one kind of message while music or animation carry another.
At first, Glass drew material primarily from “This American Life” subjects. As the evening progressed, however, he pulled increasingly anecdotes and ideas increasingly from his own experience. In a segment titled, “It’s Normal to be Bad Before You’re Good,” he shared early efforts to write news stories at NPR, offering alternate versions of these stories to reveal and poke fun at his shortcomings. With each successive topic, however, he led the audience into his most personal memories, culminating in a piece about grief, divorce, aging, and memory that included a dance interlude—a moment of self-indulgence earned by a career documenting what it means to be part of this American life.
While his trademark humor laced even his most vulnerable moments, he was unable to maintain it during the last of his “Seven Things,” aptly labeled “It’s War.” Although Glass refrained from commenting on Trumpian politics, he decried the effect “Fake News” propaganda is having on society and implored everyone to fight for objective reason and reality. “I stand before you an enemy of the people,” he declared, without a drop of humor or irony. “That’s what the President called me.” It was then that the presentation went from lecture to rally cry, as Glass urged fact-based media to spearhead a battle for the truth. “It really is a war” he said.
And then, in characteristic fashion, he sent the audience home with a thigh-slappingly hilarious David Sedaris story—too lewd for public radio but just right for an evening with one of its legends.
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