As Ira Glass ascended to the stage before a packed Law School auditorium, the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause. But as Glass, radio personality and the speaker for the Poynter Fellowship’s annual Gary G. Fryer Memorial Lecture, settled behind his desk, the entire auditorium plunged into darkness — and then, silence.
“This is radio,” Glass said into his mike as the audience laughed along in the dark. “There’s something about the invisibility of radio, of listening to someone’s voice, that really gets to you.”
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Sitting behind a full set of broadcast equipment, Glass, NPR’s host and producer of This American Life, emphasized the personal and narrative quality of radio journalism. Even when the lights turned back on, Glass delivered the lecture much like a radio newscast, brandishing his arm to cue dramatic music while illustrating his ideas about broadcast journalism.
“There is a strict segregation of the serious and the funny in broadcast,” Glass said. “The aesthetics of journalism tries to keep the sense of humor, discovery and joy out of the story.”
Playing clips from his show and explaining the different techniques that went into each piece, Glass said an audience will listen if the reporter finds genuine pleasure in the story. Through a strong narrative structure and relatable characters and situations, one can come across as genuine and interesting, he said.
“Can you forget about all the trappings of the news and just get the feeling out?” Glass asked.
Citing “Arabian Nights,” where a woman barters for her survival by telling nightly stories, as an example of the power of narrative suspense, Glass emphasized the importance of presenting compelling information. Narratives, Glass said, are “lessons in empathy” and “the first building blocks to sanity.”
“I don’t think it’s the most important thing in the world, but it’s important to me,” he said. “What you’re achieving is taking someone to somebody else’s life, and that’s important.”
While Glass likened his narrative style to Jesus’ sermons — an entertaining anecdote followed by an overarching theme — he said the method has taken his entire career to perfect. After playing a recording of himself from his eighth year in broadcast about the rise of corn and subsequent tortilla prices, Glass assured the audience it takes time to hone in one’s talent.
“It’s normal to be bad for a long time before you’re good,” Glass said. “If the nineteen-year old version of myself applied to be an intern at my show, I wouldn’t make it.”
Cassie Mitchell ’09, who is a longtime fan of Glass and his show, said he was one of the best speakers she has ever seen at Yale. He was “utterly charming” and “captivating” to watch, Dan O’Connor ’12 said while he is not interested in journalism as a career, Glass made him more interested in the media.
“He really opened me to alternatives to the traditional news style,” O’Connor said. “I am glad I came, even though I had to stand in line for a long time.”
Glass has worked at the National Public Radio for over thirty years. His weekly show, This American Life, has won two Peabody Awards and as has been adapted into a television show on Showtime.