Believe it or not, a stone tablet full of radio principles guides This American Life — or at least it did in 1998, when host and executive producer Ira Glass laid them
out in a lecture staged by Minnesota Public Radio. Speaking at Macalester College in St. Paul, Glass said the principles add up to “more, better radio.” This is a complete edited transcript of Glass’s talk.
I want to talk a little bit about making radio stories and how we do it on the show that’s different from what is perhaps traditionally done on public radio.
A couple of years ago, I went to Alaska to cover the Exxon Valdez oil spill with [NPR reporter] Danny Zwerdling. And we were the lead story in every newscast. I bring this story up to say that all the storytelling techniques we use now on our radio show, Danny and I were trying back then, and other NPR reporters were doing. It was like the third day in this sort of saturation Monica Lewinsky–O.J. trial kind of coverage. We were trying to get a sense of the environmental impact on animals. And so Danny and I visited this animal rescue center they had put together in a local community college.
Interviewer on tape: Alice Berkner, director of the center, said earlier today she expects rescue teams to start flying in dozens of animals, mostly birds, sometime today. They’ll feed them through stomach tubes, clean their nostrils, and in some cases bathe them.
Berkner on tape: It’s a series of baths in hot water. It’s a solution of Dawn dishwashing liquid.
Interviewer on tape: Dawn dishwashing liquid?
Berkner: That’s correct.
Interviewer: You’re going to get letters from Ivory and the other companies.
Berkner: You know, I hate to sound like an advertisement, but Dawn is the best soap for the job. I’ve tested just about everything out there, and Dawn seems to remove the most commonly encountered polluting oil. [Jaunty music begins in background.] It rinses out of the feathers very well, which is extremely important, because if you leave any detergent residue in the feathers, the bird won’t waterproof up. So we have been sticking with Dawn. I’m open to suggestions in a lot of areas about bird care, but I won’t allow any substitutes for Dawn. [Music swells.]
Glass: Danny and I left this in basically because it amused us. It just gave us pleasure. We thought our listeners would be amused. John Rabe [of Minnesota Public Radio] and I played this on his radio show this morning — and since then, three people have come up to me to say that they remember this moment from a tape from 10 years ago.
We thought that our job was more than just to explain the big issues and hear the people from Exxon and the state of Alaska and the environmentalists. We felt like it was our job to amuse ourselves and our listeners and to document what was really happening, what we were seeing in front of us, like the Dawn.
The show I produce now — This American Life — you know, it’s this very emotional, idiosyncratic show, and sometimes I try to tell people that I do not feel that my job has changed from the days when I was an NPR reporter and covering breaking news. I always have a hard time getting that across.
But this is what I’m talking about: I still feel like my job is like it was then — to document these real moments that surprise me and that amuse me, and that just gesture at some bigger truth.
What we’re all used to
Okay. Typical story on public radio. Let’s say that it is about welfare reform. The story will be about four or five minutes, and the reporter will interview people on all sides. I was trained this way. You’ve all heard a million of these stories: The reporter will basically write three or four sentences and then you’ll go to a cut of tape from the people who are for welfare reform, say. And then another two or three sentences explaining the other side, and then we hear a quote from somebody who’s against welfare reform.
If the reporter had more than a day to work on the story, maybe you’ll hear somebody who’s affected by the welfare reform as a quote at the beginning or the end. And then, because it’s public radio, the story will begin with, you know, a little vague, sort of murmury street sound, and it’ll say, you know, “Here on the south side of Chicago, it looks like any other day, but in fact changes are brewing in Washington, D.C.”
Public radio has arrived at a kind of mature plateau, where all over the country we have reporters who do a very good job at analysis. Preparing for this, I went through a rundown of All Things Considered from Monday. And there were only two stories that did not follow this format. And the strength of the stories were that they analyzed what was going on really well. They give a lot of background. It was clear what they meant.
The thing that got left out is that the reporter never had any of these Dawn dishwashing liquid moments, in two hours. And all the quotes that were in the stories were only quotes from people who appeared kind of like talking heads, illustrating ideas.
And there was something dull about the rhythm, to me as a radio producer, where every story was set up so there was a little bit of script and then you’d hear a quote, and some script and then some quote. And radio, you know, functions a lot like music, even though it’s speech. It had this very predictable rhythm.
And we never get to know any of the characters, enough to feel anything or empathize in any way or to be amused or to feel angry or to be surprised. It was a two-hour radio show. The only person we got to know — and this is kind of typical in the electronic media — was somebody who died. They did an obit of one of the Beach Boys.
How we structure a story
Glass on tape: So Brett was on the subway platform in New York City. Afternoon rush hour, the platform’s packed. And he sees off in the distance this guy who’s going from person to person to person. [Funky background music begins.] And he’s watching this guy. And this guy walks up to one person at a time. And the guy walks up and is quietly saying something to each person. And Brett can’t tell what he’s saying. The guy’s standing very close. The guy is dressed okay, not a bum. Nobody’s giving him any money; there’s nothing like that. And the guy just moves on, to the next person.
And the guy’s getting closer and closer and closer. Brett is trying to hear what he’s saying. Finally the guy gets close enough that Brett can hear what he’s saying is, “You, you can stay. You, out. You, you can stay. You, gotta go.”
Brett on tape: And I’m starting to feel a little nervous and aware of the fact …
Glass: Will I make the cut?
Brett: It sounds so silly. We all like to think that we’re evolved enough or mature enough, but when push comes to shove and a guy’s going down the line rating, I found that you can’t help but kind of hope he gives you the thumbs up when your turn comes.
Glass: But, Brett, he’s not choosing you for anything.
Brett: No, he’s not. And he didn’t even look like anyone I particularly wanted to hang with, you know. I mean, as much as one can tell from someone’s appearance …
Glass: You didn’t really feel any need to impress this guy?
Brett: No, no.
Glass: And to me, it’s like I think you’re right because this is the purest case I’ve ever heard of. Literally, he’s picking you for nothing.
Glass: And yet you want to be chosen.
Glass: So the guy walks up to Brett, stands actually a little too close to him, looks in his eyes and says, “You can stay.” And Brett feels this euphoria. There’s no other word for it, really. I mean, in his mind, he knew that there was no reason to be this excited. But in his heart, it made him really, really happy.
Brett: It was like, all right!
Glass: You wrote in your account of this, “I find myself, against my own better judgment, now looking with some disdain and perhaps a tinge of pity upon those who didn’t make the cut.”
Brett: Sure. I mean, if you can’t make this guy’s cut, come on!
Glass: “How terrible,” you write, “to be excluded, to be found unworthy. But no one has ever claimed life to be fair.”
Brett: No, they haven’t.
Glass: There is just something about the judgment of strangers. When the cashier in the record store examines your choice of CDs and gives you a look like, “You are so lame.” When the cute host or hostess in the restaurant seems to be rendering some judgment on you in some way as they walk you to your table. It’s as if by their status as strangers, they have some special insight into who we are. Their vision is somehow not clouded by all the things that we would want them to know about us. [Excerpt ends]
Glass: This is the structure of the stories on our show: There’s an anecdote — a sequence of events. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And the reason why that’s powerful, I think, is because there is something about the momentum, especially in a medium where you can’t see anything, especially in radio. That you just want to know what happens next. It’s irresistible. You just cannot help but want to know what happens next.
Then, there’s the part of the story where I make some really big statement like there’s something about the kindness of strangers. Because you can’t just have an anecdote. It’s got to mean something. You can have people read the little story from the Bible, but unless you tell them, you know, the lesson they’re trying to draw from it, it’s not a real sermon. And radio, in particular, is a very didactic medium.
The way that we’re taught to listen to it is, I think, largely from news shows, where they’re constantly telling you: here’s what happens, here’s what it means. And so we’re used to that. And if I didn’t say, “There’s something about the kindness of strangers,” this story just would not be as satisfying.
So the way that my staff and I talk about stories is we talk about, okay, what’s the anecdote and then where’s the moment of reflection. And we structure the stories like that, over and over and over.
Sometimes the story that we end up getting is not the story we set out for. Like, for example, we sent out a woman who had this idea — we were getting ready for a Valentine’s Day show — and she said that her great aunt and uncle, who are in their 50s, had one of these relationships where in the early stage her great aunt was pursuing him and he didn’t want to get involved. And she pursued him for, like, a year, and then something turned him around. And then he just fell. And they got married, very quickly, and they’ve been married for 22 years.
And so we send this person out; she’s never done a radio story. We show her how to use the equipment. So she talks to them for, like, an hour. And that story turns out to be completely untrue.
But she stumbles upon a different story, and the aunt and uncle talk about how they’d been married for 11 years at the time of this story. And they were in a yogurt store — which for me is a really good moment in any story — and she sees this guy whom she had gone out with, before her husband, and she sees him and it’s just like “Boom!” She remembers everything about everything, and they start to talk and then they’re calling each other every now and then, and they’re getting together for lunch. And pretty soon he is the main thing in her life that she looks forward to. She’s thinking about him all the time, you know. And who among us has not been there?
And she feels like she has to tell her husband. So she sits him down and she says, “Look. There’s this guy and I can’t stop thinking about him. I just can’t stop thinking about him.” And her husband doesn’t get mad, and he doesn’t cry. He puts his arms around her, and he says, “I’m just so sorry I can’t do that for you any more. I’m so sorry I can’t do that for you.” And he holds her for a little while, and she gets up, goes to the phone, calls the guy, and tells him that she will never speak with him again. This is a good place for a music swell. [Music swells.]
When the woman told one of my producers, Nancy, and I this story, Nancy, like, looked at me and she’s like, “I don’t know what it is about that story, but I know I’m supposed to remember that story. And there will come a time in my life where I will be called on to use that story in my own life. That is an instructive story.” And I felt the same way. That’s what we want every story to be on the show. And love is such a big part of it.
We try a million things, we try so many stories, we kill so many stories. We kill three times more stories than we use.
What people want
When I was putting together this speech, I spent an absurd amount of time thinking about what to say to you and pulling tape cuts. And some of my staff members told me, “You’re crazy to spend so much time thinking about this. Anybody who’s coming to see you, all they really want to know is ‘dish’ about their favorite public radio personalities. Don’t bother with the tape and the music and the mixing board. Just get up there and what you should do is say things like, ‘Carl Kasell … boozer. Robert Siegel … has two wives. Garrison Keillor … has his own intern.’”
Stroke of luck
Okay. My background. I started at NPR as an intern myself when I was 19; I’m 38 now. And the first summer that I worked there I did on-air promos for all the shows. And they had one producer on staff who did experimental documentaries — this is 1978 — and his name was Keith Talbot. He did a show that was on about once a month, and every show would have a different sound to it. He would have music composed, and he just did really interesting work.
He was interested in a different way to structure an hour of radio. He did an hourlong show with segments about the ocean. You would meet different people, like a guy who does this really beautiful description of what he thinks about when he’s scuba diving. And somebody else who lives on a beach and literally lives on stuff that washes up from the ocean. And he does a little fable about Sea World.
There’s like a bunch of different documentary stories, and each of them was edited so you never heard the interviewer. The person just starts talking and then just continues, which, if you’ve heard This American Life, we still do sometimes. And there would be music and stuff kind of washing underneath their voices.
But what was different in the form of the thing was that he was interested in taking the authoritative voice out of the center of the story, and so to get from segment to segment, the device that he came up with was two guys sitting on a pier.
One of the guys is telling stories about this imaginary friend that he had when he was a kid. And the imaginary friend really loved the ocean. And he tells a little story and that spins you into the next segment. And it’s really like this lush little thing. So I produced promos for Keith where I would basically recreate in the 30-second promo, the sound of whatever the show was that he was doing, and he hired me the following summer as his production assistant.
And what I got from him was that I learned not to be scared to play around with structure of things. I think a lot of people who come up in public radio feel the one way to do a story is the way you hear on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. But I knew from the time I was 19 that you could just follow a kind of pleasure and feeling and instinct and build around that, and you can get something that also can be good. After I worked for Keith, I started being a tape cutter for All Things Considered and Morning Edition. I produced stories with Nina Totenberg and Scott Simon and Robert Siegel — I was his producer for a very long time … [whispers] and never revealed the two wives until tonight.
Periodically, I would try to be a reporter. It took me longer to learn how to be a reporter than any person in the history of broadcasting. I started in public radio in 1978 when I was a freshman in college. I was not really capable of writing a radio story that I would want anybody to hear today for 10 years. It took me 10 years, partly because I thought that a lot of the way that people write radio stories is a little corny and I couldn’t figure out how to make it okay.
And I just was not a very good writer, and it took a really long time to learn.
But then I became a reporter. And after I moved to Chicago, there was an assignment in 1990 that made this huge change in the way I thought about what a reporter does. It was for a series on race relations, and they were going to send me into Lincoln Park High School for six weeks, to report on how black and white and Latino kids got along.
I really had no idea how to go about it, because nobody in the school had a perspective that would satisfy the story. I was just trying to get this thing in a set of very personal stories, very novelistic stories. And I didn’t know how to go about it.
And at the time I saw this film called Seventeen, done by a filmmaker named Joel DeMott and her boyfriend Jeff Kreines. And it had the most incredible footage I’d ever seen. It just was so real. And I called her up and asked. And she said basically what you should do is you go into the school, and you’ll find that you’re drawn to someone or some thing, and you should just follow that instinct.
She did this documentary on high school, and she started off following this group of kids. One girl in particular, by the middle of the school year, was turning out to be one of the few white kids who was dating a black kid. And there was this huge racial incident over it, where crosses were burned on the kid’s lawn. And it turned out that Joel, the filmmaker, who was drawn this girl, had herself been the one white girl in her high school who had gone out with a black kid. And something had just unconsciously pulled her to it. If you’re a reporter, a lot of times you’re just depending on luck. You’re waiting for an interesting moment to happen.
But after I had that talk with Joel, I really started to organize all of my reporting around the notion of waiting for the lucky moment and just trying things. I switched my style of reporting much more than I think most reporters do. And now, I have a whole team of people who do that.
At Taft High School, there was this teacher named Jerry Patt, and I don’t know why I liked him so much, but I just did. And he was like the Quote Machine. He and I just got to a point where we just really relaxed with each other, and stuff would just start to unfold in front of the microphone. I would be standing in the hall, and kids would come up to me and say, “We’re cutting school. We’re cutting school. Come with us.” And I just taped the whole thing and got incredible tape. Jerry Patt was a really good teacher, really struggling. This is from the story about why like a third of the kids at this school would do their homework. It was a massive, massive educational problem.
Patt on tape: Now here’s a kid that maybe you would want to talk to.
Glass on tape: Math teacher Jerry Patt pulls an embarrassed teenager over to my microphone.
Patt: Pablo is — now tell me when I’m wrong, Pablo. Pablo is exceedingly lazy in math. However, if I lean on him constantly, he does well and he does his work and he does well. His father is up here a couple of times talking to me already. I don’t know how many times with the other teacher. This is a kid that, if we push him and motivate him any way we know how, he’ll do the work. If we don’t, he won’t.
Glass: Pablo then launches into a description of the speeches that Mr. Patt made first semester to warn him he was going down the tubes.
Pablo: Yeah, Mr. Patt tells me that I’m looking at Burger King in front of me. Like he’s looking at the future.
Glass: Like you’d be working at a Burger King.
Glass: And then we do this, huh, Pablo?
Pablo: Um hmm.
Patt: This is a gesture of flipping hamburgers.
Glass: They’re standing there going like this.
Patt: But let’s see. You got your makeup work there.
Pablo: Yeah. That’s 166.
Glass: And at that moment, by handing in makeup work for two units, Pablo successfully completed the first semester of geometry. Just two months before he was failing the class. But victories like this can be fragile and short-lived. On Friday of last week, Pablo stopped coming to school. By Tuesday of this week Mr. Patt was worried and headed down to the office to call Pablo’s house.
Patt: I tell you, you know, I haven’t seen him in like three or four days and I started asking the kids and they said he had transferred out or he’s going to leave because he was threatened to be beat up. I don’t know the first thing about it. Let’s see if my key will get me in here. No. They stole the phone out of here, you know that. Yeah. Fourth period. Everyone was in the office.
Glass: You can just hear him saying they stole the phone out of here. Fourth period. Everybody was in the office.
Patt: Got in a crowd and swiped our phone.
Ira: Someone lets us in the office and Jerry Patt dials one of the remaining telephones.
Patt: Yeah, Pablo? This is Mr. Patt. What’s going on? Yeah. What’s happening? Why haven’t you been in school?
Glass: The story went like this: some students decided they wanted to keep their clothes and shoes in Pablo’s gym locker. Pablo said they were gang members; he didn’t want them there. And after a while he took his stuff and the combination lock to another locker. Then they came looking for him, saying their stuff had vanished, demanding he pay for it all. They told him people get killed for this kind of thing.
Patt: So, well, what are you going to do? Are you going to come back to school?
Glass: Pablo told him he was too scared to come back to Taft.
Patt:Well, what are you going to do? Just blow off the rest of the year?
Glass: Pablo and his parents had requested a transfer to another school, Von Steuben. But the principal at Taft would only give him a transfer if he revealed the names of the kids who were threatening him. By the time Jerry Patt got off the phone, he was angry.
Patt: It’s just bad, you know. What the hell? He’s not coming back here. But, you know, if the kid wants to transfer, let him transfer. I mean, the longer he sits home and not being in Von Steuben, he’s the one getting punished for these jerks doing what they did to him, you know. [Tape ends.]
Glass: Anyway, what’s interesting to me about that tape is just that the whole thing is unfolding as you’re there. We’re walking down the hall. You can hear us moving through space and it’s really, really visual radio.
It’s your most visual medium. You know, I’ve said that so many times and it’s not even true. But I just feel like if I keep saying it — it just seemed like such a good quote. “Radio is your most visual medium.”
I wish it were true. It can be true. In the story, we try to put in stuff to look at, like when they’re flipping the hamburgers, to give you something to see. And it really was just luck that I happened to be in the classroom when Pablo turned in his last assignment and then Jerry and I happened to run into each other in the hall three days later as he was going to call the kid. To do this Taft series, I was getting 30 hours of tape a week. That’s a lot of time. Especially when you realize that when you record 30 hours of tape, to figure out what you’ve got, you’ve got to listen to 30 hours of tape. That takes 30 hours.
I hope you all will remember that the next time we’re asking you for pledge dollars — all the work we’re putting in.
The first thing [you want] when you listen to the radio, even when you’re watching TV, I think, is to be surprised. That’s one of the things that our electronic media do not do well. This is from a story, from Taft, where I went to the high school senior prom.
Glass on tape: On the dance floor there was a certain amount of copping feels and kissing. But the sexual tension of the prom hit a kind of surreal zenith when the deejay told the boys to bring chairs down to the dance floor — the girls were seated in the chairs — and the garter ceremony began.
Emcee at dance: We will count down on 10.
Glass: Over a hundred teenage girls presented bare legs with garters.
Emcee: All hands — you have to put your hands behind your back.
Glass: Meaning, grab the garter with your teeth.
Emcee: All right. I’m going to count backwards from 10. Ten, nine, eight …
Glass: This is the kind of activity that separates the “just-friends” prom dates from the real dates. And dozens of just-friends stood around the edges of the hall in various states of discomfort. [Countdown continues in background.] A hundred kneeling teenage boys bring their faces up against the slightly sweaty thighs of their dates, grip multicolored garters with their teeth, and drag them off their legs. It’s a shocking and amazing sight. But when I ask teachers about it later, they all say, “Where have you been? They’ve done this for years!” At homecoming, apparently, things get even more explicit.
Emcee: Okay, let’s move the chairs and we’ll have a slow dance. [Excerpt ends]
Glass: These next two clips are from the ’92 Clinton campaign, from the bus tour. This was a really, really wonderful assignment. You know, NPR has the nation’s best political reporters. And they sent me out, who knew nothing about politics really, with the idea that I would be really observant and document what I saw. So I was on the bus tour, right after the Democratic National Convention.
I feel like it’s part of my job, to make stories more interesting, to express my own amazement when I am amazed. That piece with the garter — it’s like, I am truly amazed, and I am letting you know. And we’re all going to share in that experience together, because it’s just going to be a more fun radio story.
Anyway, there were all those town meetings where Clinton and Gore would take questions from the audience. One of the big moments in the story is when somebody finally stumped him. Clinton, you can’t stump him. So somebody finally stumped him by asking the question, “Do you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?” And Clinton goes, “You know, I believe that Senator Gore would like to answer that one first.” [Glass laughs.]
You know one thing with the Gores — they were so affectionate, and clearly just adored each other. Sometimes she would just stand there with her hand on his butt until Robert Strauss, high-level Democratic consultant, advisor, one of these wise old men, told her she had to stop because she was going to get photographed. Or someday somebody might tell an auditorium full of people.
Anyway, so this is from the town meetings:
Glass on tape: Like any good politician, Clinton’s message as he goes around the country is: I am one of you. In Pennsylvania, he says:
Clinton: I know a lot, I think, about Pennsylvania. My wife’s family is from Pennsylvania.
Glass: In Illinois, he remembers another branch of the family:
Clinton: My wife is a daughter of Illinois and she wants you to vote for me for President.
Glass: When someone in Louisville complains about the drug problem in their community, Clinton empathizes:
Clinton: I’ve got a brother who’s a recovering addict, so I know more about this subject than I wish I did.
Glass: When someone asks what he’ll do for people whose relatives have Alzheimer’s disease, Clinton begins:
Clinton: I have had a great aunt and an uncle suffer with …
Glass: The way he stumbled, I almost thought he was going to say, “I have Alzheimer’s.”
Clinton: … so I know quite a bit about it. [Excerpt ends]
Glass: I mean, these are moments that I thought revealed a lot about him. He’s so smooth. And it was early on in our eight-year love affair with him as a nation.
It was the kind of moment that as a reporter you come back and you tell your friends, you tell your friends in the newsroom. And reporters as a group tend to be very, very funny people. Like, I mean, most people tend to be very funny people. But reporters, they’ll be really funny when they talk about their stories, and then their stories will be really boring. Or the funniest moment won’t be in the story.
So I was with a group of reporters at NPR; we were going to be funny in the story, too, not just around the office.
We are really careful to build surprises into This American Life. And we kill stuff that’s really good, and perhaps might appear on another radio show, that we just do not find surprising enough. For example: About a year ago, we did an hour-long show on Frank Sinatra. And we had this plan to, like, conjure the myth of Frank Sinatra really fast, at the top of the show.
The story we had was by Will Friedwald, who had written a pretty definitive book about Sinatra. And, you know, with Sinatra there’s literally a moment in 1942 when he became the Frank Sinatra that we think of today. Like before this one show at the Paramount Theater, he was just another nobody from Hoboken. And after that show he was Frank Sinatra.
So Will Friedwald goes into the NPR studio in New York and he tells the story in a very straightforward, Fresh Air with Terry Gross kind of way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actually, Fresh Air is my favorite show. Terry Gross rules! Seriously — it is the most consistently good show on public radio, for me anyway.
So we have this story, a perfectly fine narrative. It just wasn’t surprising. In fact, this is just like the damned Discovery Channel, and we are not going to do it because it’s not surprising. So we put together this:
Announcer on tape: All right, Mr. Ken Lane, whenever you’re ready, we’re gonna sing a few of these songs. We hope you enjoy ’em.
Glass on tape: Yeah. We hope you enjoy them. From WBEZ, Chicago, it’s This American Life. I’m Ira Glass.
Sinatra: What’re you staring at? Brassieres. [He sings:] I dig a broad with no brassieres.
Glass: This is a recording from 1962 of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., performing in a club outside Chicago. And like everything else about Frank Sinatra, what’s fascinating about this recording is how many different people he’s able to be all at once, cutting up on the one hand and then turning around and singing the most vulnerable possible love songs on the other.
Sinatra singing: When you’re alone, who cares for starlit skies? — [he makes a crack:] Where does it hurt, baby? — [he continues singing:] When you’re alone …”
Glass: Not three minutes later he’s lashing into a gossip columnist he hates, Dorothy Kilgallen.
Sinatra: I never met a … I mean, I’ve met many, many male finks, but I never met a female fink until I met Dorothy Kilgallen. How’s that for an opener? [Club audience laughs.] I wouldn’t mind if she was a good-lookin’ fink.
Glass: Anyway, he goes on. “That such beautiful music should emerge from such vulgarity is one of life’s great mysteries,” the Washington Star once wrote.
Sinatra: The town where she came from, they had a beauty contest when she was 17 years old, and nobody won. [Excerpt ends]
Glass: Don’t laugh at that, public radio listeners. Uphold a standard.
For me, what I liked about that, it was not the Discovery Channel. You know, everybody’s got their standards, I’ve got mine. You know, there’s something really vivid about it, and there’s something surprising about it. And you just feel like you hear this thing that you don’t normally hear about him.
That’s a very hard show for us to do — Frank Sinatra — because it’s something that other people have written about. And when you hear Frank Sinatra, you feel like you already know everything, so it’s hard to stake out a territory, as a public broadcaster, where you feel like nobody’s said this other thing yet. So that was our challenge.
The 45-second rule
The length of a news spot — if you listen to like the newscast at the beginning of All Things Considered or Marketplace — is 45 or 50 seconds. Usually, there’s a couple of sentences from the reporter, then they do a quote from somebody, and kind of two or three more sentences from the reporter, and you’re at 50, 45 seconds.
It turns out that we public radio listeners are trained to expect something to change every 45 to 50 seconds. And as a producer you have to keep that pace in mind. For example, in a reporter’s story, every 45 or 50 seconds, you’ll go to a piece of tape.
So if you have a four-minute story, you figure you’re going to have four quotes or maybe five. And even in a format like ours, where it just sounds like people talking and music washing all over the place, we have to adhere to that pace.
I bring this up because I produced this writer named David Sedaris, and from the very first time I saw him read, I knew his work would work for the radio — not only because it was completely original, and not only because it was really, really funny, and not only because he had a great reading style that was totally his — but he told anecdotes that ended every 45 or 50 seconds. And I knew I could make it work for Morning Edition.
This is from the first piece of his that we put on the air. He told the story of when he was an elf at Macy’s department store, around the Christmas season. This is 52 seconds. Carl Kasell could talk his way into it and play it during the newscast.
Sedaris: Twenty-two thousand people came to see Santa today, and not all of them were well-behaved. Today I witnessed fistfights and vomiting and magnificent tantrums. The back hallway was jammed with people. There was a line for Santa and a line for the women’s bathroom. And one woman, after asking me a thousand questions already, asked, “Which is the line for the women’s bathroom?” And I shouted that I thought it was the line with all the women in it. She said, “I’m going to have you fired.”
I had two people say that to me today: “I’m going to have you fired.” Go ahead. Be my guest. I’m wearing a green velvet costume; it doesn’t get any worse than this. Who do these people think they are? “I’m going to have you fired.”
And I want to lean over and say, “I’m going to have you killed.”
Glass: The fiction that we have on the show, we edit it exactly the same way that we edit the nonfiction, which is that it proceeds in a rhythm of: anecdote, reflection, anecdote, reflection.
To me, the reflection in this piece is where he says, “Who do these people thing they are?” It tells you the meaning of the story.
[Editor’s note: We cut a part here that doesn’t really work in text without the audio Glass was using as an example. However, we did want to preserve this bit of advice.]
Glass: People ask, “Why do you put so much music?” It’s because music is like basil. Everything’s going to go better. Put it on, don’t think twice. Chicken, vegetables — it’s just going to be better.
Another way to tell a story
The purest way to tell a story is a sequence of events. That’s what going to draw you in and pull you forward. And it will create the effect we seek, which is that you will not be able to turn off your radio. But I can tell you, it’s very rare that something unfolds in front of your microphone in exactly the way you want it.
So then what you have to just tell people to just tell you stories. If you listen to our show carefully, you’ll hear me constantly coaching people: “And then what happened? And then what did he say? And what did you say? And what did she say?”
Six years ago, a little after my move to Chicago, I had this series of stories that I thought it would be cool, that I talked Morning Edition into doing.
I would interview somebody for about an hour, an hour-and-a-half, until at some point I would hit something that they really, really cared about. You hit the issue the person hasn’t quite resolved. It’s almost like their unconscious starts to speak. And then they start to describe scenes and characters and images. It’s almost like a dream. It’s like what happens in therapy. And that’s what you’re going for, because at the heart of every story is some unresolved something expressed in scenes and images and characters. And then I’d cut away all the other stuff and then you’d have this perfect little gem, perfect little object.
This is one of the stories. This guy named Bradley Harrison Picklesheimer. He grew up in Lexington, Ky., a small-town boy. Homo, gay, homosexual. Didn’t like women, and really obsessed with high society. And so he moves to Palm Beach, Florida. He would work these high-society parties of the super-rich.
In the early part of the piece, he describes these parties and how you put them together and what he thinks and all that stuff, including a party that cost a half-million dollars. At some point he tells this:
Picklesheimer on tape: [Lush movie music in background.] And they treat the help like the help, you know. And the country boy in me wanted to say, “Now listen here, Honey. You ain’t no better than anybody else,” you know. But on the other hand, you want her business next year, and you say, “Yes, Mrs. So-and-So.” Because when you deal with very wealthy people, they want what they want, and someone will give it to them.
There was this one time where we did this party for an estate in Long Island. And they had planted these flower beds and all of the flowers came up and they were all blue. But in this one bed, there was this one little yellow flower stickin’ up, and we were out there working, putting the party up. And all of a sudden, like everything sort of stopped; all the gardeners stopped; all the workmen stopped, and this little old woman wiggled out on a cane, silver cane, in a nightgown and pointed at that little yellow flower and said, “That one, right there! Take that out of there!” And, Honey, these gardeners just snapped, and just like this flower had never existed.
And then later on my friend Tom from New York was out by the truck, crying. I said, “What is wrong with you?” And he said, “You know, I just realized I’m never going to be that rich. I’m never going to ever be able to do that.”
And I just thought well, Honey, who’d want to? I thought that little flower just added everything to this estate, myself. I felt like that little flower was me, and it snuck its way into bulb beds and waited down there all winter long to aggravate her and got her dead ass out of that mansion and come up here and pitch us the sermons to get rid of that little yellow flower. So I loved the whole idea of it. And that was the only time we ever saw her.
Bob Edwards on tape: Bradley Harrison Picklesheimer is an …
Glass: Hey, you know this thing with the flowers — the blue flower and the yellow flower. Radio is your most visual medium.
Okay, I’ll just go straight to it. Daniel Schorr: obsessed with Star Trek. Sylvia Poggioli: a man and a Canadian. Bill Kling and Nina Totenberg: the same person. Never been photographed together.
Alex Chadwick is my favorite reporter on public radio. When I was trying to figure out how to write for radio, the person I learned more from than anybody was Alex Chadwick, and specifically the thing that I learned — and I’ve told him this and I think it kind of freaks him out — he is the one who I would hear jump to these little abstract ideas all through his script.
Look, if you’re trained in broadcast, usually you don’t say things like, “The thing about the judgment of strangers is …” You know, those big general statements that I make. And I make some really big ones. I make ones that are completely indefensible. I’ll tell you two, before I get to Alex.
Number one. Every year around Thanksgiving, we do a show about chickens and turkeys — our annual poultry slam. Because there’s something about stories about chickens that brings out the best in a writer. Like we have big, important themes that we can’t get people to write for us. But if you tell them we’re doing a show on turkeys, and you’ve got guys from the New Yorker. It’s magnetic.
But I say at the beginning of the show, the thing about poultry is that, more than any other animal in the animal kingdom, we control every aspect of their lives — everything, the feed, everything. And because our dominion of them is so great, when we tell each other stories about chickens, we are really telling each other stories about ourselves.
That is completely untrue, but it really sounds good and it makes it sound like the show is really important and we’re on a really important tip.
The other time that I can tell you about, where I just said something that I knew was completely untrue — and I thought it was so obvious that it was not to be taken seriously. I went to this restaurant in Chicago called Medieval Times with a medieval scholar — this is a true story, there are like 11 Medieval Times restaurants.
The number of people who come through the Medieval Times castle in Chicago — that’s what it is, a castle — to see a faux jousting tournament from the 14th Century, is 350,000 people a year, which is exactly the same as the number of people who listen to the public radio station.
And the staff of Medieval Times at this one castle was 250 people. The number of people who work for NPR News out of Washington, including all the editors, all the reporters, all the producers: 170. Their budget was many times larger than NPR’s or PRI’s.
And what I realized was that I work for a radio network that is less popular than jousting, a sport which has been dead for 700 years.
And I just said it to be funny, but it’s not true, and so clearly untrue because, you know, that’s not counting all the member stations and their staffs and it’s not counting the fact that that’s 350,000 people in that one castle over the course of the year, and we have 350,000 people a week or whatever it is. It’s, like, so untrue.
And I didn’t realize that people didn’t know it was untrue until one of my own producers said to me in passing, “Well, maybe if we worked at Medieval Times.” And I was like, “Elise, that is not a true thing!” We made that up. That was just a joke! But she heard it on public radio.
So Alex Chadwick is the one who’d make these big general statements in the middle of his stories. For example, this is kind of a small general statement.
Alex Chadwick on tape: We’ve delayed a few days bringing you this next story because it hasn’t had an ending. It still doesn’t, but we’re going ahead anyway with our own modest contribution to developments.
Here’s the situation. In southern California, in Victorville, at Victor Valley High School, Jennifer Graham, aged 16, would not carry out an assignment in biology class. She refused to dissect a frog. She said it bothered her that any creature should have to die so that she could cut it open for study. It was a matter of principle. And as with many such issues, it wound up in court.
Glass: Ah, you see there? “It was a matter of principle. As with many such issues, it wound up in court.” Completely unnecessary to the story he’s telling. But it’s just like this stepping back; there’s a grandeur.
When I was learning to write for radio — this is a weird thing to confess — sometimes I would write entire stories as Alex Chadwick. And they would get on the air. They were good stories. Only I knew — until tonight.
How do you find those stories?
Generally the way we do the show — it’s only four of us on the staff; three producers and me — we’ll have one story that we really love. And then we’ll go look for other stories that will go along with it.
And we’ll go through 15 or 20 stories to get the three or four that end up on the air. What we’re looking for is narrative — a story with characters and scenes. And some bigger something is at stake, and we watch these people go through this bigger something.
It’s not just documenting everyday life; it’s documenting a drama. To give you an example of what I mean, a really good, very experienced radio producer named Dan Collison sent me this tape where he wanted to do a story about going across country with an interstate trucker. It could be an okay story. And he sent me a tape and it’s 45 minutes long, beautifully produced with very clear writing. You know, they had their little moments on the road. And the only problem with it was, all it was was somebody driving across the country. There was nothing at stake; the trucker didn’t have any burning issue, no thoughts about, like, what am I supposed to make of this? There’s no unresolved something at the center of it. So we didn’t run it.
Recently, I’ve been reading A Thousand and One Nights. On the surface, it’s kind of a corny idea. The idea is — if you don’t remember this from school — that there’s a king, and he catches her sleeping with somebody else, and he goes crazy. And so he kills the two of them. And he believes that all women are evil. And then from that point on, every night, he takes a different bride and in the morning he has her killed, so she can never betray him. He does this for three years until there are no young women left. Everybody flees, who could be married to him except for the daughter of his vizier, his adviser. His vizier has two daughters, Scheherazade and Dunyazade, and he makes his adviser bring him Scheherazade, and Scheherazade has a plan, which is that she’s going to tell him a story and every night leave a kind of cliff-hanger so he won’t kill her.
And in a way it’s a really corny thing, like a series of cliff-hangers. And that’s part of it. But the interesting thing to me, you’ve got got this king who’s crazy and he believes that women are evil. And every night he decides to send one to death, and every night Scheherazade tells him a story. And almost all the stories are about somebody who’s crazy. And sometimes the person knows they’re crazy and sometimes they don’t. And in almost every story that person is about to judge whether someone will live or die. And every story is structured so that you empathize with the person who’s being judged because that’s the thing the king lost, was empathy. And every night she does this kind of psychological warfare. And in every single story for 1,000 nights the king in the story lets the person live. And every night the king who is listener, her real husband, hears her tell this story where he’s forced to sympathize with the person who’s being judged. And at the end of 1,000 nights he isn’t crazy any more. [Sighs.]
I wrote a string of stories on the public schools — a story every week or two. And there’d be all these kids in the stories, gang kids, and teachers, and all these people like struggling over these policy issues. And I think that the policy stuff made a small contribution, but I really think that the thing that people remember, and that got to people, was the fact that they could empathize with all the characters, they could empathize with the kids, they could empathize with the teachers. And what people seemed to carry away from it was like a picture of what it would be to be a person in that situation.
And there’s something very particular to radio when it comes to this. [Churchy background music begins low.] Because radio, more than your other media, allows you to tell a story where the way a person looks doesn’t interfere with what you’re getting from it.
I remember I used to do these stories about gang kids, and I always thought that one of the advantages of doing it on radio was that you wouldn’t see this kind of tough kid with baggy clothes. On radio, you could just hear their voice, and I could tell their story in a way where you would become them more.
Sometimes when it comes to empathy in stories, I’ll do two different kinds of stories. There are the stories about experiences that we’ve all had, like going to the senior prom — I hope we’ve had — and those stories are about trying to make you relate to characters who are a lot like yourself.
And then there’s this whole other set of stories which are like making you relate to characters you normally would not relate to. In those stories, we consciously manipulate the facts to allow you entrance.
We started the show two weeks ago with a story about this Mexican-American girl, Sylvia, who is 17 years old, about to turn 18 — and I don’t say that she’s Mexican until a ways in. I constantly phrase it as, she’s an immigrant kid having a quintessentially immigrant experience. Because I felt like as soon as I said the word “Mexican,” people conjure images and they think that that’s not me, and it just pushes you away.
This is the beginning of the show from a couple of weeks ago. Her parents are immigrants.
Glass on tape: Sylvia’s parents are immigrants, very traditional. And at Sylvia’s house, the men are men, the women are women, just like back in the old country.
Sylvia on tape: My brother goes, ‘Oh, I want tortillas,’ and my mom, you know, just she’s right there on. Like, “Turn off the TV,” and she’ll go make them. And my brother says, “I want money,” and my mom’s right there to give him money. And he says, “Wash this shirt for me — I want to wear it tomorrow.” And there goes my mom washing the shirt.
And it’s not like that with me. That’s the way she thinks; that’s the way she is. She’s like, “Well, you know, he’s a boy.” Like, for instance, “He can’t cook for himself — he’s a boy.” Or he can’t do this, because he is a boy, and it’s a woman’s job. And my mom always has this little saying that really annoys me. She goes — sometimes when the house is dirty, she says, “Oh, it looks like there’s never been women in the house,” making it sound like women are supposed to clean. And I’m thinking, “Well, Dad can clean, you know.” And she goes, “No. He’s supposed to be in the garage fixing the car or something.”
Glass on tape: It’s a typical immigrant story in this country. From the time she was little, Sylvia spoke English better than her parents. She was the one in the family who’s call the phone company or the utilities. She translated teacher conferences. If the family was going somewhere and needed directions, Sylvia was the one who’d walk up to the stranger and ask for them.
Now, nearly grown up, she wants to be an American girl, in a way that her parents don’t completely understand. She goes to a big integrated public school. A few years ago she started listening to the Cranberries and Nirvana and Metallica, not the kind of stuff her parents knew, growing up in small towns in rural Mexico.
Sylvia on tape: My mom wants me to be a typical Mexican girl. Like, when I was younger, before I had my cotillion, I used to start liking alternative music, and my mom …
Glass: And then she goes on to, you know, tell the story about what’s going on with her and her mom and how they disagree on her future, and the whole thing is designed to make her sound exactly like you and me.
Another example: There were these kids, who we wanted to do a story with, who lived in this housing project on the south side of Chicago. And there were these three boys, total sweetheart boys, really great.
And they made the case that the housing project, one of these high-rise projects just like you see on 60 Minutes, operated like a small town. All their aunties and grandmothers and these huge extended families were all in this one building. And everybody was into everybody else’s business. And in this one building they had somebody who cut hair, and two people who had little like places where you could buy candy and pop during the day, illegally, out of their own apartments. And there was somebody who made clothes. And there were the old guys who’d sit out front, and just talk about this and that.
So over the course of this story, we tried to structure the story to make these kids seem like just your kids, if you live in the suburbs, and to try to create empathy, to say that this person is just like you.
One of the things about this subculture, one of the most surprising things, because it was very particular to this world, is that all the girls moved out. Like if you had a daughter and you could halfway get it together to send her to live somewhere else, you’d send her to live somewhere else by the time she was like 13 or 14.
Boy on tape: So if there is some girls in there our age, we don’t want to mess with them, because of the situation that they be in and the situation that they be causing.
Glass on tape: You just don’t feel that, the girls in the building, there aren’t that many who’re doing that much that’s positive.
Boys: Right. Most don’t even go to school no more.
These females that’s dropped out is younger than me, and I’m only 17, and they’re like 14, 13.
Glass: If this building is a small town, is it one where you guys would choose to live if you had a choice?
Boys: Yes, it’s okay to live. [Music begins low.]
It is okay to live. I want to live on my own, to tell you the truth, a place you know where I have a upstairs and a downstairs.
And a basement.
Yeah. And all that.
Glass on tape: Why a basement, of all the things you’ve named? Why a basement?
Boy: You could throw a party down there, card games. My auntie, she got a house with a basement in it, and that’s where she goes when she don’t want to be bothered with the people upstairs. She go downstairs in her basement and she’s got a nice little TV down there and some furniture down there. I’d always come back and visit the building, because that’s where I grew up. It’s fine now. But I don’t want to be there all my life.
Glass: To me, that number about the basement is like one of my favorite things. When he said it, I just was like, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” The show’s going to be okay this week.
Because his dream is so normal and middle-class, and anybody can understand it. And empathize. You know, like get inside his head and empathize. In our lives in this country, it is hard to maintain a kind of empathy. Because we are so various as a nation, it’s hard to remember to feel for people around us who are so separated. And it’s not the only mission of journalism, or the mission of radio, or the mission of public radio, just to tell us the facts and and to analyze the day’s news.
It’s also, I would say, the mission of public broadcasting to tell us stories that help us empathize and help us feel less crazy and less separate. And just, you know, go straight to your heart. [Music swells and ends.]
Related stories from Current:
- Ira Glass: “The main thing I’m doing still is radio”
- Ira Glass starts own company for This American Life, Serial
- Ira Glass: Public radio can capitalize on its popularity without selling out its mission