Ira Glass is a rock star. So say Sydneysiders, who queued around the block to get in to the sold out event at the Sydney Festival last night. A second show immediately afterwards assuaged all those who missed out in the first ticket-buying frenzy. I couldn’t help beaming as I surveyed the crowd, all of whom were here to see not some pop star with an album to spruik but this unassuming, nasally-sounding guy who does radio. Radio!
Glass, host of American public radio show This American Life, was here to present an evening of ‘Reinventing Radio’. But host Fenella Kernebone guessed aloud when introducing Glass that the audience would be significantly made up of film, television, radio and other media industry, which was probably spot on. Glass’s stock in trade is storytelling, and the nuggets of wisdom he had to impart, sprinkled with humour and stories of his own, were applicable across a range of media, particularly documentary.
Even in his neatly pressed shirt and tie, something in Glass’s demeanour manages to make him look scruffy. Coupled with his chatty style and a liberal peppering of his speech with ‘like’, the uninitiated may have been wondering who this guy was, but his genuine excitement about the stories he tells and his rapid take down of a CNN special on an aircraft carrier should have won over any newbies quickly.
The storytelling principles he imparts are simple, but vital. He pointed out that a good story is essentially a series of actions, followed by a thought that rounds them out. (There was also a hilarious moment when he reenacted his astonishment at discovering that he didn’t invent this technique, and that it had in fact been around since BC). He noted that radio is different from other media forms in that generally the point is explained, but explicit or otherwise, a good story will have the ‘thought’ moments where the actions take on meaning.
Another point that resonated was his complaint that the mainstream journalism media seems unable to let the funny and the unfunny mix in the same story. One of the strengths of This American Life, and I would argue good documentary, is to let humour creep in throughout, without the story having to be specifically ‘humorous’. So there were tidbits aplenty to be had by anyone interested in documentary storytelling, but I’d also love to see the same format of show presented by a documentary filmmaker. Errol Morris playing clips from his films perhaps? (And if anyone caught the name of the app Glass was using to play his audio, let me know!)
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Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns’ provocative documentary is a “devastating portrait of contemporary social inequality" - The New Yorker.
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