Carren's Pitch

Life by Design

11/19/2009

Modern Day Minstrel (sans music)

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

In a small chapel at Syracuse University, the pews were filled from corner to corner. The lights dimmed and (to everyone’s surprise) turned off. The room was plunged into darkness. In that blindness, a voice suddenly came on.

“The first thing you have to understand is that it’s radio,” said Ira Glass, whose voice plays every Fridays on a popular radio, This American Life, which is broadcast to 500 stations around the United States.

Glass came on like a celebrity. His voice was greeted by hoots and applause because of its theatricality. No one in the history of the Syracuse University lecture series has probably come on stage with such a production number.

The audience was kept in the dark for a few more minutes as Glass explained the intimacy of a radio. He compared it to a phone conversation—something so personal, even at a great distance. Then, the lights came on and the audience finally saw the man behind the voice.

Glass was a lanky man. He was dressed in a slate-colored suit, with a slim tie that complimented his thin frame. He wore dark, horn-rimmed glasses. Only his salt and pepper hair and easy smile revealed an easy personality. “It’s just as important to amuse yourself when you’re at work,” he said as the lights came on. Indeed, he was practicing what he preached right then.

The stage was set up like a radio booth, where he entertained his audiences with clips from past episodes and shared his own thoughts about journalism. He weaved a story much like he does in This American Life, even having a pre-timed script so he can control the venue as he does his radio show.

Glass called on journalists in the room to bring the story back to the human level. “The mission of the news is not just to describe what happens, it is also to describe what is.” By only reporting the cold, hard facts he argues that journalists paint a world that lacks what we all know to be there—surprise, amusement, disgust and joy.

In a few minutes, Glass began what he hopes would be a crusade against a “stiff formal language that’s really archaic—like news robots talking to other new robots,” he said to the audience’s amusement.

In clip after clip, Glass showed his audience just what it means to be human. He even goes so far as to play a recording from the 7th year of his career, where he admittedly still sucked. “It’s normal to be bad for a while. You just have to realize you have to do a lot of work,” he said.

In the 3-hour lecture that felt more like a well-executed episode of This American Life, he shared what was perhaps the secret to his success. No, it wasn’t the story structure that he uses (action, action, action, grand thought). It was his belief in the power of story to see something from someone else’s point of view.

“That is the power of narrative. It is the backdoor to place inside us,” he said. He reiterated the story of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, he points out how a story could someday save your life. Though his remark was met with laughter, there is truth in his words. In story after story in his show’s 14-year history, Glass gives attentive listeners a chance to peek into another’s reality and to find themselves surprisingly mirrored back.

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