Radio host Ira Glass discusses storytelling and potential of radio for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival
Headlining the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, hundreds of community members came to watch renowned U.S. storyteller Ira Glass perform at the University of Michigan’s Power Center for the Performing Arts Saturday night.
Weekly, Glass’s public radio show This American Life — which shares personal, thought-provoking narrative stories of everyday lives — reaches over 2.2 million audience members, with another 2.4 million downloading each episode.
His performance that night titled “Seven Things I’ve Learned” — which ironically began to reach a total of 10 throughout the show — shared his path to success as a journalist and the quintessential elements of telling a story he discovered through his experience on radio.
Glass began the show by discussing his technique for engaging audiences with stories, explaining how the presence of profound ideas and emotional depth are not what make a story worth telling; its momentum is.
“In its simplest form, a story is just like a series of events,” Glass spoke. “Feelings might be in there or might not be in there. Ideas might be in there but might not be in there. There might be something you can relate to, but even that’s kind of optional.”
Later, he discussed how the show’s “chatty” tone helped make way for the show’s unprecedented success without any marketing once it began to broadcast as a podcast.
“It became very successful, very very quickly,” Glass said. “It’s basically, the aesthetics of the internet — the internet has this feeling of like, it's just me talking to you, one to one, whether you’re doing it over Twitter, Facebook or a blog.”
In his ninth lesson titled “The Power of Not Seeing,” Glass shared how radio can act as way of humanizing and can create empathy for others regardless of any other aspect of a person’s identity. He used the translated audio of a Syrian refugee mother describing the psychological trauma her son is facing in the aftermath of escaping Aleppo to emphasize this point.
“I think it helps with an American audience that you don’t see her,” Glass spoke. “If you saw, you’d see she’s wearing a hijab, which is like a headscarf, but just hearing her voice you don’t get any information that’d make you think she’s any different from you. You don’t think that’s just some Muslim lady, you think that’s a mom. Radio is a machine for empathy.”
University alum Eric Huebner, a Glass-listener, shared why he believes Glass is so significant in the radio community.
“As a storyteller, he’s extremely compelling,” Huebner said. “He’s got the ability to relate people’s stories that might tie into a larger narrative about our culture, history, and really communicate moving and interesting stories from people's lives.”
Birmingham resident Paul Peskin described how the highly personal element to Glass’s narration of the stories he shares as why he keeps listening to him.
“He tells them in a relatable way so they actually seem like stories that could happen to me or to you,” Peskin said. “Or you wouldn’t want them to happen to you, so he kind of pulls a bit of a human heartstring, there’s always a poignancy to his stories.”
Southfield resident Pam Lippitt, who has listened to the show for over 20 years, discussed the significance of Glass’s work in U.S. media culture.
“He’s created a completely new genre of telling personal stories,” Lippitt said. “This American Life was the first time that everyday people’s everyday lives were considered compelling enough to be put on the radio.”