Monday, January 24, 2011

Ira Glass: This American Sermon

When "This American Life" host Ira Glass (pictured) talks about storytelling, we listen.

Huffington Post's religion editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbush has resurrected an interview that he conducted for in 2008: "Ira Glass, Religion and the Empathetic Power of Storytelling."


Yes -- when Raushenbush first stumbled upon Glass's award-winning radio show, he reveals, "the tone and content was so unlike anything else on the dial. For the next hour I was immersed in stories from other people's lives that were compelling, funny, tragic and -- to my religiously tuned ear -- sacred."

Though Glass was raised Jewish, he purports to be an atheist. But as you'll see in this excerpt below, he acknowledges that his goal is to create mini-sermons.

Q: What is the value of telling stories?

GLASS: The story is a machine for empathy. In contrast to logic or reason, a story is about emotion that gets staged over a sequence of dramatic moments, so you empathize with the characters without really thinking about it too much. It is a really powerful tool for imagining yourself in other people's situations.

The mission of our show [is] to take the people and present them at exactly life scale. So when we do a story about sailors on an aircraft carrier that is flying missions over Afghanistan in the early months of the war on terror, we didn't only go for the heroic gung-ho men and women who are traveling in harm's way, we go for what it is actually like for the majority of the people there. In the show we did, the first person you meet is a woman whose job it is to fill candy machines on the ship with candy. That's her job in the war on terror, which she laughs about.

Most people on the aircraft carrier don't fly planes, or shoot guns at bad guys to make the world a better place. They do laundry, they check the radar, they fix the intercom system. That's a lot of what it means to be in the military.

Q: How do you tell a story well?

GLASS: There is a kind of structure for a story that was peculiarly compelling for the radio. I thought I had invented it atom-by-atom sitting in an editing booth in Washington on M Street when I was in my 20s. Then I found out that it is one of the oldest forms of telling a story -- it was the structure of a sermon.

I actually realized it when I went home for Yom Kippur in Baltimore. We have a great rabbi. He is one of those guys whose sermons are the total entertainment package. There is one anecdote after another and then, of course, the Torah portion for that week. He then ties it all together with some heartfelt emotional moment.

So I'm with my sisters and my mother and he is giving the sermon and doing his thing, and I thought, oh, that's the structure of my radio show.

Q: Does every story that makes it onto "This American Life" have a moral?

GLASS: A moral overstates it. Every story has some thought about the world...
Read the whole terrific Q&A with Ira Glass here. There are lessons aplenty for visual journalists.

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