December 4, 2010
Oh yeah. This was an event that had been one of the most eagerly anticipated of the season. A show that sold out rather quickly, and had a promise of being something special. Truth be told, although I was familiar with his radio work, I had no idea how an Ira Glass show would be. Would it unfold like an episode of “This American Life,” his show on NPR (National Public Radio)? The possibilities swirled in my head, but all that stopped once I entered the doors of The Paramount.
Looking around the lobby with a sense of wonder, I found a pleasant surprise.
The place was all decked out for the holidays, and it was beautiful to behold all of the decor. Wreaths, nutcrackers, jolly elves, and slightly creepy old ladies under a giant Christmas tree made the lobby a festive place. I was surrounded by the holiday cheer. As Billy Mack from Love Actually would sing,
I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
Christmas is all around me
And so the feeling grows
Warm feelings abound and everyone was all smiles and pleasantries. Before taking their seats, it seemed all were taking in the decorations. With a few minutes to spare, seats were filled and eyes were trained towards the stage. After a brief introduction by director Ken Stein, the house lights went out, leaving us completely in the darkness.
The moment of darkness lingered, and then a vocal recording filled the auditorium. It was obviously a young girl, and one could hear the genuine fear and trepidation in her voice. She was talking about living in a gang culture, and recounting an incident when a gun was first pulled on her. The young woman gave a depiction of this violence as being typical for her surroundings, but she had never encountered it personally before. Clearly, it shook her to describe this event. The emotion in her voice hung in the air after she finished speaking, but then another voice was broadcast. This one was live. It was gentle, reassuring and casual. It belonged to Ira Glass.
The stage lights slowly came up, and Glass was revealed to be sitting at a station onstage with audio equipment. It resembled a mini radio booth, and was ever so appropriate for him.
As Ira came into full view, he explained that the girl was a gang member that was interviewed for a story. He added that her appearance had a tough exterior and for most people would have been considered off-putting. But when just her voice was presented, you don’t have any other images to paint her with preconceived notions. With only a voice, you don’t just listen… you hear her.
Thus is the power of one’s voice on its own, Glass poignantly described. When it is just you and someone’s voice, it is one of the most intimate acts of communication. He had a point. Think of any late night phone call from a loved one. Your full attention and heart are focused on that voice on the other end, under the cover of night. That is genuine intimacy.
Ira appended by demonstrating that stories are all around us. I knew in short order this was going to be a very special evening. One about sharing and the power of human interaction. And what an amazing night it was. The experience was so rich and full, that my meager summary here can’t possibly do it justice.
Storytelling was the theme of the show. Ira Glass shared tales about people he’s encountered while making “This American Life,” and also behind-the-scenes drama on its creation. He played clips from people who shared their experiences, augmented by transitional music (just like his show). And what interesting anecdotes they were! We heard tales about the bizarre behaviors of drunken undergrads at Penn State, the eccentricities and snobbery of Palm Beach’s super wealthy, and many more. Each underlined the power of narrative communication.
The most fascinating twists and turns came from a story of an elderly veteran who served his country and was outraged to find his wife’s burial (also a veteran) was not going to be taken care of 100%, as promised by the governement. Incensed by a 16 dollar fee, he dumped his wife’s ashes in the parking lot of the Veteran’s Affairs office. When Glass caught wind of the story, he was intrigued at the possibilities. Not only was it outrageous in its own right, but it held deeper connotations. It revealed a attitude of a prior generation, when people had faith in their government and the honor of service. Quite the stark contrast to the cynicism of today’s populace, he thought. The story also was an indictment on bureaucracy and red tape. It was going to be a perfect lead story for his program. There was only one tiny problem.
Research revealed the entire story was a fabrication. The story collapsed as the holes were uncovered, and it was never allowed to air.
Such are the tough breaks when one is bound by journalistic integrity. Make no mistake, Ira Glass is a journalist, but not in the sterile and conventional sense. He addressed this throughout the show also, along with thoughts on the state of media today. I tended to agree that news too often takes an “authoritative” view of itself, possibly derived from an era (early 20th century) where radio had to boom its broadcasts. It’s a commanding tone that, when transferred to the emerging medium of television in the 50s and 60s, hasn’t served itself well.
Perhaps this is why so many gravitate to “less objective” media outlets. Opinions are dominating broadcast journalism now because of how antiseptic the traditional methods have become. Glass described journalists as “robots,” and that’s not far from the truth. Who among us can identify with a robot? People therefore tend to gravitate to the biased outlets. Not because they’re fringe lunatics who wish to lean left or right, but because they identify more with the passion on full display when opinions are involved. People want connection to the stories they hear.
Near the conclusion, Ira opened the floor to questions, and his answers also were little nuggets of gold. At one point, he played a very unique promo for public radio by Alec Baldwin. He takes a humorous reverse psychology approach, pleading with listeners NOT to give. There was a whole library of these gems played for our amusement, and they can be found here for your own enjoyment.
Not one to shy away from any answer, Glass weighed in on the theatrics of Glenn Beck and also on the Juan Williams controversy (“it was poorly handled, but it was in poor taste for Williams to bad mouth NPR so quickly”). Also unconstrained by pride, he played clips of what he called his early awful “radio voice.” I’d hate to disparage the man, but “awful” is the right word. It was forced and too self-important to take seriously. Give me the earnest and slightly nasally Ira Glass voice any day.
All in all, I enjoyed the presentation a great deal. The casual atmosphere gave the whole experience a pleasant and easy-going tone. Ira’s sincerity and candor made the show feel like a conversation with an old friend. Ira might as well have been across a table at a coffee shop rather than on stage. Granted, he wouldn’t have been able to conduct such a presentation without his equipment. The entire production reinforced the importance of what Glass referred to as an integral part of storytelling, the element of narrative suspense.
I don’t think any of us wanted it to end. We could have spent many more hours with Ira Glass. Like that personal phone call in the dead of night, we didn’t want to disconnect. All of us hung onto every word, drinking in the emotion and knowledge as if at a desert oasis. Afterwards, the audience was still buzzing, obviously chewing over the topics presented and exchanging ideas with their companions.
I’m not sure if it was just the show or the added warmth of the holiday season, but I emerged that night with a great sense of rejuvenation and a renewed appreciation for storytelling’s power. It can cut through rational and irrational thought like a knife through butter; connecting us to something in a core we all share. Stories are everywhere, and the diversities of these unifying narratives remind us how rich, big and wonderful our world really is.
I couldn’t wait to get home and relay some of the things I heard that evening to my loved ones. Telling stories is contagious like that. Thank you, Ira, for giving me such great ones to share tonight. And also for reminding me that the intimacy and sharing of these tales is a lot like love, actually.
I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
Stories are all around me
And so the feeling grows…