Last September, National Public Radio’s This American Life broadcast an episode titled “One Last Thing Before I Go.” The first act was about this small town in Japan called Otsuchi, which suffered devastating losses in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. To help him deal with the grief of losing his cousin, one of the town’s residents installs a telephone booth in his backyard. The phone doesn’t connect to anything, but he goes out there and makes these phone calls to his cousin, his voice carried by the wind. The phone booth has since become a pilgrimage for the grieving. They talk to their dearly departed, and somehow, this provides them a measure of comfort.
In the episode, we get to listen in on some of these conversations—from a grandmother who brings her grandsons, to a man who lost his wife, daughter and mother—with no background audio other than the faint sound of waves. So palpable is their sadness that you feel like you’re in the phone booth with them.
This kind of storytelling is at the heart of This American Life. In tales that are heartbreaking or funny or informative or simply bizarre, the show connects its listeners to the deep complexity of the human experience, told through the lens of ordinary people. “Generally, we want a story with a surprising plot with somebody in it that’s easy to relate to, and they have to go through some experience and have some thought about that experience,” says Ira Glass, the show’s host and co-creator.
These days, of course, radio has morphed into the more wide-reaching platform of the podcast (TAL is often the No. 1 most downloaded title, and it reaches more than 2 million listeners on NPR). Each week This American Life is sui generis of narrative journalism, the rich tapestry of storytelling it has spawned has surprised Glass himself.
“I never imagined that we would be living in the world that we are now, where so many people are downloading shows and podcasting,” he says. “One of the things that has been so surprising making this show for 20 years is that when we started, we really were the only show that existed on radio anywhere that was doing narrative journalism. Now you have Radiolab and Invisibilia and StartUp and Heavyweight and Love + Radio and Snap Judgment, and just a whole world of podcasts that [are] doing incredible narrative stories.”
Call it an embarrassment of riches, and now an embarrassment of talent. When he started the show two decades ago, Glass couldn’t find the right people to hire because what they were doing was so new that no one had the skill set to produce what he and co-creator Torey Malatia envisioned. “Now what we are having to deal with is the most senior producers on our staff have ideas for other shows. And of course, I want them to do the most exciting stuff, so then they go off and start Serial, for example, which was created by two of our staffers. For what we’re doing, it’s just an incredible time. So many kinds of journalism are having a hard time creating a business model that actually keeps them afloat, and this is weirdly one of the kinds of journalism that is just thriving and expanding,” says Glass, who now has full ownership of TAL.
“For what we’re doing, it’s just an incredible time. … This is weirdly one of the kinds of journalism that is just thriving and expanding.”
To complement and publicize the program and give its listeners a chance to put a face to the voice, so to speak, Glass tours the country with a live show, which is coming to The Smith Center February 11. The concept changes from tour to tour, and this year’s theme is Seven Things I’ve Learned. Given that TAL just passed its 600-episode milestone, Seven Things audiences should be in for an evening of laughter and a wide gamut of emotions, not unlike that hour each week when a TAL episode airs. Only this time, they get the extra treat of Glass in person.
“The way it works is that I stand onstage with an iPad and play audio from our show and quotes and music, and sort of re-create the sound of the show around me and perform parts of stories that had been on the radio. Then I also play videos, things that people have not seen. So, it’s kind of fun to do,” Glass says.
“Basically, these are just seven entertaining things I have learned about [telling] stories.”
Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening With Ira Glass
Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m., $29–$99, Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center, thesmithcenter.com