Ask Ira Glass how his NPR show “This American Life,” gained millions of followers nationwide, and he isn’t totally sure.
What he does know is that its simple, stripped-down structure really seems to work.
Laid out in acts like a theatrical production, the show features a hodgepodge of documentaries and interviews portraying different stories of everyday life, some humorous and some somber.
“Because we don’t have to be on every day, we have the luxury of really being able to find amazing stories,” Glass says. “We can do journalism that’s also kind of an entertainment.”
From these experiences, he’s gained a few sagely insights on keeping audiences hooked.
Keep It Personal
Glass and his co-producers had no strategy for building the audience for “This American Life,” he admits.
They simply told stories that grabbed their attention, he says, which he considers crucial for telling any story, regardless of medium.
“We’re making a show about what amuses us, what interests us,” he says. “Even when we take on the news, it’s very personal.”
Many of the show’s stories have surprised him, especially an in-depth look at a Chicago high school that experienced 29 shootings in one year.
“Gangs in the neighborhood aren’t mostly criminal enterprises. It’s just basically teenagers like your high school clique, but you can get guns so easily,” Glass says. “The nerd kids, the drama kids, every kid is in a gang because you need a gang to be able to walk to school through the neighborhood.”
Follow stories out of your own curiosity, he emphasizes, “and the work will get so much better.”
Build the Story
Glass has described his show’s episodes as “little movies for radio” that abound with plot and characters.
“Lots of stories in our show follow the structure of an old-fashioned Broadway play, where they’re funny at the beginning and get sad at the end,” he says.
He knows structure better than most, after spending his college years studying semiotics, a form of literary theory he describes as “incredibly pretentious.”
As this focuses heavily on what makes narrative structures successful, he says, it gave him tools he uses every day.
The best way to build suspense is simple, he notes: just describe one action leading to another.
“People just want to find out what happens, even if the story is super mundane,” he says.
Connect with Audiences
Even though his show is titled “This American Life,” Glass doesn’t think of its stories as purely American.
Stories must hold a universal appeal to be successful, he says, by touching on common issues such as hardship, affection and loss.
“You need somebody to relate to,” he explains. “It’s hard to do a story about a crazy person for that reason. It’s hard to do a story about someone who’s not a good talker.”
Humor is key as well, he notes, insisting his show delivered “the single funniest hour on Guantanamo that any broadcasters have done.”
That highlights another advantage of the show, he adds – that it can keep listeners surprised.
“In the mix of things people are watching for the news, we’re just trying something new,” he says.
Hear more of Glass’ stories of the job in “Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening With Ira Glass,” at 7:30 p.m. on February 11 at The Smith Center. For tickets, visit: www.thesmithcenter.com/event/seven-things-ive-learned-an-evening-with-ira-glass/.
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