3.39 Ira Glass

On the Saturday before Halloween, we waited for the show to start at Massey Hall when a skeleton walked in and sat in the front row. The lights went out and a man stepped onstage, illuminated by an iPad in his hands. The familiar voice of Ira Glass came from the speakers. I’m going to call him Ira because he’s talked to me through the radio every week for years. He is the creator and host of the radio program This American Life. On stage, Ira suggested the show be presented completely in the dark, but soon he brought up the lights. His iconic glasses welcomed us into his world. Immediately, he acknowledged the skeleton and I knew we were in for a different kind of night.

The venue was packed with a cross section of ages, from Ryerson radio broadcasting students to professionals to those of retirement age. It was a different night because we came to watch a man talk about the construction of stories. No 3D, no music, no IMAX. Just an intelligent man speaking about the human condition. Ira used an audio version of a power point program on his iPad to play clips from This American Life and mix together interviews.

Ira talked about his early days when he started working in radio at the age of nineteen. He interviewed everyday people and learned how to pull amazing stories out of them. He discovered his process by going out and experimenting. There is a forward motion to stories and his structure is to continually create momentum through action, stopping to insert a thought or idea about what is being said. He joked that people told him this was the structure of a sermon. In a way, every episode of This American Life is a sermon, but free of the constraints of a rigid system of ideals. There is a revelation in This American Life, there is redemption, but without having to live under a system of someone else’s rules.

I’ve been an avid listener of This American Life for years and never miss an episode. Every week I’m taken to new places, hearing from people whose voices are unfamiliar. I’ve discovered writers, organizations and comedians who appeared on the show, such as: Mike Birbiglia, Tig Notaro, The Moth, David Rakoff and David Sedaris.

In the summer, This American Life had on Mike Daisey, and he performed a monologue about the mistreatment of workers at Apple factories in China. When factual errors were discovered in the segment after the show aired, Ira handled the controversy head on by putting together another show, correcting inconsistencies and re-interviewing Daisey. There are not many journalists willing to admit they were wrong, let alone exploring all the reasons why they were wrong. I always had a respect for Ira and the show, but there was something about this episode that made me realize what is lacking in much of our discourse: integrity.

At Massey Hall, we were presented with a man who found his mode of expression. He discovered his means of communication. And he was very funny, charming, humble and endearing. On WTF? with Marc Maron, Ira talked about how he doesn’t think he expresses himself personally through the radio show. He might not talk about himself personally, but through the stories he presents, there are small elements of him in them. How can there not be? In the same interview, Ira mentioned that his voice was not the traditional radio voice. It took him a while to develop the confidence to find his voice, which now has become his signature, his strength.

Post-show, I felt the same way as last spring after attending a taped performance of This American Life. That show was also packed and people like Ira give me hope that there are others out there hungry for intelligent, thoughtful and inspired stories. To share stories is a primal thing, a baseline, foundational aspect of human nature because in the end, everyone’s life is a story.