Ira Glass on how to make good radio.

This is so timely; I’m about to start making some podcasts and here’s Ira Glass telling me how, in great detail, with examples.

Ira Glass is the producer behind the incredible NPR series This American Life, which is basically a ton of good stories, well told, available online as free podcasts. In this big long article, Glass talks about how he got started in radio, and includes some brief audio clips of terrible stories from his early days- one commenter called this piece a “delightfully self-critical montage” which is pretty much on the nose; Glass even made a 5-minute remix of all the bad questions he asked in a single interview. Seeing good people’s bad work is so inspiring. I’m really glad this exists and cannot wait to consume and consider it.

Some choice nuggets of wisdom so far:

Quantity breeds quality:

Half the people I’d interviewed for this series didn’t work out. Their stories weren’t interesting enough. That was something else I learned through this series, that lots of things will never be radio stories.

It’s helpful to build into the way you think about stories the notion that lots of ideas aren’t going to pan out. Our show’s acquisitions budget, even at very beginning when we were still struggling for every dollar, was set up to commission a fourth more stories than we’d ever run, with the assumption we’ll be killing lots of ideas.

I studied clown years ago and one of the rules I always liked was “get yourself off”. If the performer can find their own pleasure in the turn, it’s much more likely the audience will enjoy it too. Glass says:

Have your own agenda. Every story had to have some moment that was there to amuse me — a funny moment, an emotional moment, some original observation I’d made on the scene that no other reporter had.

I also came across Glass’ 13 principles for making better radio. These are great, too. Here are some tidbits that spoke to me:

On story structure:

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.

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.

On a particularly moving story a producer brought back one time:

Nancy looked at me and she was 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

On putting his own point of view into his pieces:

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.

On a story about Frank Sinatra, who’s hard to profile well because he’s been profiled so very many times:

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 [some transcription of Sinatra making crude jokes during various gigs]… 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…. 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.

On rhythm:

The length of a news spot 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.

On….

pausing:

An image will stay with you a little longer if we put in more of a pause.

On scoring:

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.

The unresolved issue makes the story:

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.

On poultry stories (poultry stories!):

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:

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.

And this is the best piece of advice for the show I want to do:

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.

I’m totally stoked. Will keep you posted.

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