Ira Glass shows tough love along with other lessons from NPR

In Fresh Air, Ira Glass, journalism, literature, National Public Radio, radio, Radiolab, reporting, storytelling, This American Life, Tom Wolfe, YouTube on August 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

I recently came across reporting advice in three of National Public Radio’s most popular shows.

Some of these episodes and clips may not be the most recent; I came across them serendipitously.

But they are definitely gems.

The first was This American Life‘s “Make Radio” page, which includes links to tips on reporting from some of the shows’ best contributors.

It also leads readers to Transom.org, which is “a showcase and workshop for new public radio.”

Unfortunately, some of the links on TAL’s page don’t work anymore, including videos of the man himself, Ira Glass, passing down his wisdom.

But fear not, I found the clips on YouTube. Many friends have told me that Glass’ videos on storytelling — there are four of them — are must views.

Here’s part one, where Glass talks about the building blocks to a good story:

Part two
is also particularly good. In it, Glass points out that half to a third of the stories tried by TAL don’t make it to the radio.

That takes confidence with the axe.

“By killing, you will make something else even better live,” he said. “And I think that not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.”

(Glass just made me feel better about not reporting on a boring meeting that I went to last night.)

Radiolab put together a short show in 2008 called “Making the Hippo Dance,” wherein they talk about how they make confusing information — the hippo — understandable — or dance.

Show hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich visited the Koshland Science Museum in Washington D.C. and gave listeners a behind-the-scenes look at Radiolab, which they turned into a podcast.

They discuss how they “embroider” stories with analogies and metaphors, use music, shy away from being the experiment and “be personal, be third grade” to make complex concepts easier to grasp.

Listen to the podcast here.

Lastly, the most recent of these, Fresh Air devoted a show a couple of weeks ago to the counterculture movement brought on by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his Merry Pranksters.

I have always been interested in the 1960s, and actually the last story I ever wrote for my college newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, was about author Ed McClanahan, who was a friend of Kesey and waved Kesey’s bus full of hippies, dippies and trippies goodbye as they left on their grand voyage.

Tom Wolfe

And through my reporting for the McClanahan story, I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which chronicled the trip.

If I had to pick a favorite book, this would be it.

So I relished this particular show and, even more, Wolfe talking about his reporting and his iconic white suit, which surprisingly included lessons for journalists trying to “fit in.”

I’ve included much of what Wolfe says here:

I have discovered that for me — and maybe it doesn’t work for everybody — for me it is much more effective to arrive at any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in.

When I first started out in journalism and in magazine work, particularly, I used to try to fit in. I remember doing a thing on stock car racing. … And I tried to fit into the stock car scene. I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button-down shirt and a black knit tie and some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsalino hat. I figured that was really casual at the stock car races.

After about five days, Junior Johnson, who I was writing about, came to me and said, “I don’t mean to be rude or anything,” he says, “but people I’ve known all my life down here in Ingle Hollow,” that’s where he came from, “they keep asking me, ‘Junior, whose that little green man following you around?'”

It was then that it dawned on me that a) nobody for 50 miles in any direction was wearing a suit of any color or a tie for that matter or a hat — and the less said about brown suede shoes the better, I can assure you. So I wasn’t fitting in to start with.

I was also depriving myself the ability to ask some obvious questions if I thought I fit in. I was dying to know what an overhead cam was. People were always talking about overhead cams, but if you’re pretending to fit in, you can’t ask these obvious questions.

After that I gave it up. I would turn up always in a suit and many times a white suit and just be the village information gatherer, and you’ll be amazed if you’re willing to strike that role.

You can hear Wolfe along with the rest of the Fresh Air show here.

He goes on about how trying fit into Kesey’s scene could have been “fatal” — well worth a listen.

Don’t know if I’ll start showing up in white suits, but it has given me something to think about.


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