April 25, 2008

Storytelling: What Radio Does Best

DCist covers a lecture by Ira Glass, host of National Public Radio's This American Life. Glass tells his audience, as he has many times before, that storytelling is what radio does best, and that it’s hardly ever used for that purpose.

Which I find ironic now that This American Life is starting its SECOND season as a television show. (Storytelling may not be what television does best, but it's almost always used for that purpose).
(Has anyone seen the show? I haven't looked at the DVD of Season One yet.)

And coming up May 1 a live version of TAL will be broadcast via a digital satellite video feed (everywhere except the West Coast). Only this live event will show clips from the upcoming TV season. Wait. What?

Fans will go to movie theatres to watch a live feed of a radio host showing clips from a TV show? WTF?

DCist article: "Empathy is What Makes Us Sane."

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With all my complaints about personal memoir dominating the storytelling scene, you'd think I'd be down on TAL. Funnily enough, while I do have complaints about the show, it's not their choice of genre. It's their style and tone I that mars the compelling storytelling (i.e. their need to explain the moral of every story and their overreliance on the personal memoirs of their own production team (Blumberg, Glass, Hitt, Goldstein, Updike, Vowell, etc. --all very talented writers and editors, but frankly, when it comes to determining how interesting their own lives are, they're not by any means impartial).

Snarky but dead-on coverage by The Onion, from a year ago: "This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence"

1 comment:

Chris Ereneta said...

I'll point to these YouTube clips Glass made for current.tv video producers about the craft of storytelling.

I will single out Jack Hitt as my favorite storyteller on TAL, whether telling his own tale or someone else's. The way he structures his stories are always instructive to me as a writer.

I think it might be worth taking time to deconstruct some of TAL's devices in ways that reflect back on the practice of oral storytelling--especially since you're asking the question of what kinds of works could fit within a broader festival of "Storytelling."

TAL's "moment of reflection"--which I'd posit is not always an explanation of the moral of the story--is for me offset by their use of music. Some consider it intrusive, and it might seem hamfisted in a live performance setting, but it serves a powerful function as a bridge of time in which the listener/audience is allowed to fill in their own meaning at key points in the story. For those few seconds the storyteller has let go of the controls (yes the music is chosen to evoke specific emotional responses, but the key thing here is that during these moments they are not using words).

And Glass' intellectual approach to the craft has built him into a master of a particular vein of storytelling--drawing out a well-crafted story from an interviewee who isn't a practiced storyteller herself. These tag-team stories he creates (often the short bits used at the top of the show) are deceptively simple.

David Letterman has been doing this nightly for decades and still can't draw a story out of someone in a way that seems at all unforced.

Oh, and I'll lend you my iPod with Season One of TAL on it. Or just buy it from iTunes yourself ($10.99). I'd call it Errol Morris-lite. My favorite is "The Cameraman", because of its subjects, but TAL didn't even shoot that one (it's a shortened edit of a full-length documentary feature about a director's mom and stepdad).