Public Radio Rock Star

'This American Life' host Ira Glass offers Syracuse advice on storytelling and winning audiences back from 'commentary' shows.

The crowd applauded, waiting for Ira Glass, producer and host of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, to appear. The applause eventually faded to a brief, awkward silence, with Glass still nowhere in sight. Suddenly, the lights shut off. Someone shouted “Ira,” as if he were a rock star about to take the stage.

Watch The NewsHouse video interview with Ira Glass

“The first thing you have to understand is that it’s radio,” Glass said, his voice flowing through the dark auditorium.

From his experience with This American Life, Glass shared stories and advice Tuesday with a crowd at Syracuse University in Hendricks Chapel, where the audience filled the seats and lined the walls of the room.

Glass began the talk in the dark, stressing the power of sound and voice over images in storytelling. 

If you hear someone talking from their heart about something that means something to him, “it’s really hard not to feel something back,” he said, still in darkness. The lights came on for the remainder of the presentation, which was more a conversation than a formal lecture.

Glass advised students who plan to work in the media to use a personal voice in their work, unlike the formal voice used in most news broadcasts. Surprise, amusement, disgust and humor are all human aspects of stories that can and should be included, he said. 

“It’s reasserting the fact that we live in a world that’s worth living in,” he said.  “I’ve never seen your local news in Syracuse, but since you're in the United States, I’ll assume it’s crap.”

The audience laughed and applauded.

He called the traditional voice “archaic,” and blamed it for journalism’s loss of audience to commentary shows like Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert. The draw that commentary shows have for viewers is a more personal voice.

“They talk like normal people,” he said. “Journalism needs to catch up so we can kick their ass."

Glass also revealed what he said sets his radio show apart from other media and keeps people engaged and listening. Glass’s radio broadcasts follow a structure that gives action, followed by a thought, which is followed by action, and another thought, and so forth. This structure draws people into the story.

“It pulls you forward with a constant bait, so you want to stay with it,” he said.

He detailed that structure throughout the discussion, pausing from his speech to play audio clips of people who have appeared on the show.

Glass joked that after he realized the effect of this storytelling structure, he felt he was responsible for its creation. Then during a visit to his hometown synagogue in Baltimore he heard the same format in his rabbi's sermon. Others with formal religious training would later confirm that rabbis and preachers throughout history have tailored talks in the same pattern. 

“I accidentally invented the way Jesus tells his stories,” he said.

A standing ovation followed the end of his speech.

Erika Mahoney, a sophomore broadcast journalism major and long-time fan of Glass, had an accidental run-in with him before the lecture began. Mahoney, who has listened to Glass’s work since she was 12, was looking for the restroom in Hendricks Chapel when she opened the door to a small room, where she found Glass.

"This isn’t the bathroom and you're Ira Glass – it’s really nice to meet you,” Mahooney said, feeling star-struck. "He said, 'Nice to meet you too.'"

“To see him in person was really exciting."

Aaron Gittleman, a sophomore in the College of Visual and Performing Arts who also attended the lecture, agreed with Mahoney.

“He’s the best speaker to come to SU,” Gittleman said.

Ira Glass is seen from back stage at Hendricks Chapel.

Is the transcript available

Is the transcript available anywhere?

Marry me, Ira

He was so entertaining. I couldn't find a seat anywhere, so I went up to the way top of the balcony and sat on the floor behind a row of seats. I literally could not see the stage, so I just listened. Was still more educated, amused and engaged than I'd ever been while watching TV. No wonder this guy is a radio phenom. What a great night :)

I loved his criticisms of broadcast journalists. No offense to the talented TV journos out there, but so many on-air reporters sound ridiculous. I agree with Glass. Just sound like a human. I think print reporters could also take a lesson from that. As a writer, I struggle to have a voice of my own in print. Still trying to learn how to be objective but uniquely me.


You forgot the best quote of the evening: "Journalists get paid next to nothing, so you might as well enjoy yourself." It was truly a wonderful night. Thanks for the recap.

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