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Ira Glass urges journalism to "fight back", reveals e-mail's importance in his storytelling

Ira Glass urges journalism to "fight back", reveals e-mail's importance in his storytelling

Events_SPA_Ira Glass_July 10
Ira Glass Photo by Stuart Mullenberg

There's a distinct set of radio devotees who quiver every Sunday morning with the sound of a crackly voice intoning, "From WBEZ Chicago, you're listening to This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass." The cult hero radio producer's Saturday night Jones Hall appearance, presented by Society for the Performing Arts, represented a dazzling moment for those über fans.

Following an Oktoberfest-infused pre-show reception at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, the radio personality regaled the audience with his touring act, "Radio Stories and Other Stories." Glass began his performance with a lights-out moment at Jones, to mimic the atmosphere of his weekly broadcast.

Over the course of his discussion, he demystified the science behind his trademark show, such as the construction of the four-acts model, the surprising percentage of story ideas culled from e-mail submissions, and the employment of music to "sound smarter" and build suspense. As a treat to audience members, Glass previewed a clip of next week's episode on the inner workings of Sunnis and Shiites in post-American occupation Iraq, including a precise deconstruction on the story's method of research and reporting.

On a more holistic level, he explained This American Life's flavor of journalism, in which reporters provide a personal viewpoint and unravel seemingly complex topics. Using the Planet Money program's coverage of the Wall Street crash as a case study, he revealed how the American Life team went to the chiefs of finance, asked the tough questions and relayed their tales in plain language.

He likens this style to the casual method now seen in blogs, but put in the more formal format of broadcast radio. In this way, This American Life differs from older styles of reporting for its relatable appeal — what Glass describes as journalism's way to "fight back" from the decline of traditional forms.

Glass also shared images of his past life before radio production acclaim, from his childhood in Baltimore to a stint making balloon animals at birthday parties (which he charmingly rehashed for the audience). He went into his long relationship with public radio, including tidbits about breaking into news reporting with stories on Chicago public schools.

From the telling anecdotes and life narrative, the radio personality was unmasked and the audience grasped what makes This American Life so relevant: The show sheds light on human connection.