The Oral Storyteller: an Evening with Ira Glass


DWL welcomes Fyza Parviz to its ranks as a guest blogger. Fyza will be covering literary events in San Fransisco, California and will also contribute book reviews. This is her first post.


‘This American Life’ is one of my favorite shows on NPR. With a dedicated audience of 1.8 million listeners and 700,000 weekly subscribers to its podcast, this show has become a phenomenon in the US since its inception in 1995. Its premise lies in finding fascinating tales about regular everyday people and reformatting these stories for the radio in such a gripping way that they keep the listening audience absolutely riveted. The radio host creates a world painstakingly – word by word, sentence building on sentence – until he breathes life into scenes and places, people, conversations and things, making this a true form of oral storytelling as art. So it was my luck that Ira Glass, who has made an undying name for being the host and the creator of ‘This American Life’, was in the Bay Area this past month for a live performance.

The Wells Fargo Center of the Arts was the venue for the event, titled An Evening with Ira Glass. ‘This American Life’ is produced by NPR member station WBEZ Chicago but broadcast from New York. In the live performance, without any notes or prompters, Glass eloquently talked about his radio program and how it is put together: what makes a compelling story, where they find the amazing stories for their show, and how he and his staff are trying to push broadcast journalism to do things it doesn’t usually do. Glass mixed stories from the show live onstage, combining his narration with pre-taped quotes and music, recreating the sound of the show as the audience watched. He played funny and memorable moments from previous episodes, and talked about what went on behind the scenes.


According to Glass, the format of every gripping tale should be “action, action, action, action… and then the moral”. This journalistic formula, to his own surprise, had also been used by our ancestors way back. The biblical teachings of Moses and Jesus followed the same pattern and to this day the priests conduct their sermons in this method. It visually simulates the person to degrees that images on television have not been able to accomplish. This was very interesting to me as in fiction I only enjoy reading modernist prose where the plot is usually unobtrusive at best. But then I came to realize that creating a page-turner requires a whole lot of creative imagination, something that is found abundantly in the producers of ‘This American Life’, who travel the globe in search of interesting stories.

As an example, Glass played a recording of a show that featured an American military base camp in Iraq. They found a marine whose sole job, i.e. 18 hours a day, was to fill the vending machine on the camp. She even chuckled while explaining how she collected statistics on which candy bars and snacks were more popular than the rest. This was quite opposite to the kind of stories and images that were being featured on the Iraq war by the rest of the media, e.g. CNN showed fighter jets leaving the runway and tanks ready to fire. Even the music featured with these images was taken from the opening credits of the sci-fi show Battle Star Galactica. In reality, on ‘This American Life’, the marines mentioned how they felt very safe in their camp, as the Taliban (lacking an air force, navy and nuclear arsenal) were not as well equipped as US forces. The American soldiers told the producer of the show that they felt as if they were in a huge dormitory rather than a military camp. This story was quite personal and gave the audience a feel of what was really going on rather than what they saw on television. And this is where Ira Glass has been able to transform radio and use its magnetic power to attract audiences from all over the world.

The host closed the show by talking about how narrative can lead us to the inner workings of the person, using one of Scheherazade’s tales from A Thousand and One Nights. “What the story is about, among other things, is what narrative does to us,” he said. “It is a back door to a very deep place in us – a place where reason doesn’t necessarily hold sway. We live in a very odd cultural moment where from the moment we wake up ‘till the moment we go to bed we are bombarded with stories like no one who has ever lived. And I mean everything on the radio, everything on TV, every ad, every billboard, every song, all the little videos on the internet, it’s story, story, story. And for me, the number of stories I encounter over the course of a day, with so many of them it seems like the colors are too bright and the thoughts are partial, and it’s rare that I can imagine what it’d be like if I were in that situation. Stories that are done well enough that we can even empathize, and that touch you, it’s rare still somehow… and we live in such a divided country and world, where we so rarely get inside each others’ lives, especially people who live differently from us, I think anything that helps with that is probably a good thing. Not just the news, or information, but stories that take you inside someone’s experience, because that’s what stories can do like nothing else can. And that’s what we shoot for on the show.”

I was so touched by this that after coming home from the show, my modernist literature loving self picked up a book that I otherwise would have never enjoyed: ‘Luka and the Fire of Life’ by Salman Rushdie. In it, Rushdie writes –

Man is the Storytelling Animal, and in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants ele-phantasize? You know as well as I do that they do not. Man alone burns with books.


4 thoughts on “The Oral Storyteller: an Evening with Ira Glass

  1. Interesting how we make narratives and then they make us. Or is it the other way around? Can one ever tell?

    • I wonder if it’s harder to tell nowadays because of what Ira Glass mentioned – the inundation with stories. And narratives are becoming more sophisticated and pervasive, in many ways. Perhaps it was easier to distinguish earlier… to have a more defined sense of self before everyone and their aunt started telling stories to change us.

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