Ira Glass: Reinventing Radio

I had grand plans to write a brilliant blog based on snippets of intellectual gold I’d gleaned from Ira Glass’ mouth. Instead I bring you illegible handwriting scrawled on my it’s-summer-in-Queensland sweaty hand (see Exhibit A, pictured above).

I blame the lack of profundity on the fact that my seat was, through no deliberate booking effort of my own, just three rows from the front and on the aisle. I had my notepad out and pen poised, but felt incredibly self-conscious about it. Never more so than when Glass noticed it and me and we had a brief moment of eye contact (and yes, everything about him kind of made me melt).

I’m sure he didn’t mind me taking notes and was probably actually quite pleased about it. His show is, after all, called Reinventing Radio and in it he does reveal the secrets to his and This American Life’s (TAL) success in order that many more good radio shows and segments can be produced—he wants us to take the information away and do something with it.

But I am too shy, too in awe of Glass, and was too worried he’d later single me out in a kind of this-audience-member’s-taking-notes spotlight to keep it out. So, notepad went away and uneven, slightly sweaty surface of the hand took its place.

The problem is that I can’t decipher the dodgy notes I took in my dodgy handwriting in the dark. Sigh. The only word I can truly make out there is semiotics, as in the study of signs and symbols and how they’re used or interpreted. You know, subtle cues such as how Darth Vader was in all black and his identity was concealed by a robot head while Luke and Leia are dressed in angelic white.

It was what Glass majored in at uni and that no one ever thought he would use. The irony is that he uses it all the time in his role as host/producer/writer/interviewer/creative genius behind knockout radio show TAL (it kind of reminds me of Steve Jobs studying the seemingly waste-of-a-subject calligraphy then going on to create iconic Apple fonts).

If you haven’t listened to TAL and are not sure what I’m talking about, now’s the time to step away from this blog and to download the podcast or, better yet, the TAL app. Then start working your way through the podcasts. The show will completely change your life and you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it. I realise that sounds gushy and hyperbolic and a bit like I’m about to throw in some free steak knives with that. Please, just trust me. Especially as I can’t articulate just why TAL and Glass are so incredibly brilliant.

Indeed, I’m exceedingly frustrated that I can neither work out what I wrote nor recall what Glass said (if you can read my handwriting, let me know—whatever I wrote down, I was at the time convinced it was must-not-forget profound). In truth, I feel like that after most of the TAL shows. The concepts are so brilliant and so brilliantly executed I can’t possibly explain or recreate them. Instead I say, go listen to the show. And then re-listen to it. TAL is unlike any other radio show you’ve ever heard. Its emphasis is on storytelling. It is, effectively, like writers writing for radio.

That was pretty much the sentiment shared when we ran into friends outside and spent hours discussing which TAL episodes were our favourites. The previous week’s episode had just been an hour-long Apple factory expose. We puzzled over the simple-yet-effective storytelling techniques—the show was a slowly told, minimally emphasised monologue, which had the potential to be boring but had the opposite effect: we hung on every word. Then we discussed some of the classics, not least Mike Birbiglia’s sleepwalking and boyfriend’s girlfriend’s tales.

Sigh. I’m not exactly espousing intellectual gold here. So, without notes to convey I’ll simply say that the synopsis of this blog is that Glass was incredible and the night incredibly inspiring. I came away with ideas and inspiration too plenty for a Thursday night (the temptation to call in sick to a client’s on the proviso that I had creative projects I absolutely had to work on was almost too great). If you went to the show and recall those elusive gems I no longer can, please feel free to post them below. If Glass is heading to your town anytime soon, I recommend you see him and his show.