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by Bryce J. Renninger
June 19, 2013 12:55 PM
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Should Documentary Filmmakers Make Radio Shows Instead?: 10 Things We Learned from Ira Glass at Sheffield Doc/Fest

Ira Glass in 2008's 'This American Life' Showtime

Ira Glass, perhaps America's most popular radio journalist currently on the air, is the man behind "This American Life."  The show is broadcast on over 500 public radio stations weekly and the show is often the United States' most downloaded podcast any certain week.

He's been in the news recently because of a story he ran from a professional storyteller about a visit to Foxconn that turned out not to be actually true.  They ran a redaction of that story.  That episode was embarrassing, and now the show hires outside fact checkers.  They've also made a real impact with shows like a report on the actions of a judge gone rogue in Georgia.  

Glass came to Sheffield, England this past weekend, in part to recruit some documentary storytellers from the capable field of filmmakers gathered for Sheffield Doc/Fest.  He also gave a rousing presentation that explained how he approaches the show and, in so doing, why it's so successful.  He also talked about his short-lived Showtime TV series, that he asked to stop after it became too difficult to figure out how to visualize all the stories, especially the ones that are set in the past.

Here are the ten takeaways from Glass's presentation:

1. "Documentary" can be a dirty word.

"Even though we're a documentary program, we don't use the term.  We say we're doing stories."  He also explained that his goal with "This American Life" is to "take the whiff of broccoli out of the air" when it comes to talk radio or radio journalism.  And best of all:  "The audience sees it as entertainment too."

2. Documentary storytelling can be fun.

"When serious-minded people come together to discuss serious work, not enough gets said about amusing ourselves."  He cited a number of journalists -- Michael Lewis and Susan Orlean among them -- that he admired for their ability to tell stories well.

3. Many journalists think they have to sell the gravity of situations like war.

When "This American Life" producer Alex Blumberg went on board the USS Stennis on the Arabian Sea in 2002, a year after the September 11 attacks, he spoke with a woman, Prevon Scott, whose job it was to fill the vending machines on the carrier. When CNN ran their report from the Stennis, they played dramatic orchestral music, with the voice over noting that the Stennis was "bringing America's fighting power to every corner of the world."  According to Glass, "It's a war, it sells itself." " The music was excessive," he says.  "They're selling an aesthetic of gravitas.  It's an aesthetic mistake and it limits certain things you can do with a story.  At the same time that serious things are happening, there are funny things that happen in the mix."

4.  Certain topics are hard to cover on the show, because everyone thinks they know where they stand.

"The single hardest thing for a show about Guantanamo is that everyone knows where they stand, they're not gonna learn anything new.  You need to get them listening before they understand what anything is about.  Our hour on Guantanamo is the single funniest hour ever made about Guantanamo."

5.  If it's fun for the producers, Glass thinks it'll be fun for listeners.

When someone involved with the show spotted a bunch of boxes in a pork slaughterhouse in Oklahoma marked "Imitation Calamari" and ready to ship to Asia, he asked that imitation calamari was doing in a pork slaughterhouse.  It was rectum, the meat industry rep said.  

When Glass heard this, he thought:

1.) This can't be true

2.) If that is true, that is amazing.

The story took a few weeks to construct, and they did a taste test ("You can't tell the difference.")  "You can't argue that there is a big mission-y reason to do that.  The only reason to do that is because you're out for your own fun."

6.  Sometimes hiring a Broadway producer is the best way to explain a difficult story, like purposefully obscured financial instruments designed by hedge funds.

When "This American Life" producers realized that hedge fund Magnetar's scheme followed the plot of Mel Brooks' "The Producers," they hired some Broadway vets to write a song.  And the result is fantastic.

7.  "This American Life" is on the extreme end of a conversational tone.

Glass compares this to much of contemporary journalism, which often takes its tone from 1930's newsreels.  "Stories are better if a person narrating [sounds like an actual] person."

8.  The "This American Life" format is simple:

"Plot, plot, plot, action, and a thought.  Plot, plot, action, and a thought."

9.  The key to getting something good out of an interview:  Keep asking questions.

When one of the show's contributors, Adam Davidson, told members of the staff that he once wanted to be Prime Minister of Israel and kept a diary in his teenage years tracking his ambitions, Glass got him to read from the diary, an embarrassing task, but he also wanted to say something larger about this strange act. He thought,  "I know I want[ed him] to say something profound about this."  Talking broadly about his methodology, he added, "I ask a barrage of really dumb questions.  If they just respond to one of them, all they have is to say one good thing."  He turned out saying some really interesting things about how disappointed he would have been then at where he ended up today.

10. If you're looking to produce documentary content, consider radio.

Glass charted the history of the show:  "Four of us started the show with $224,000.  We made 48 episodes that year and worked all the time.  Now there's 9 of us and the budget's in the millions, we have fact checkers and things like that. We'll spend 4 months on an episode.  Start with 15-20 stories and evaluate them, go into production on 7-8 stories, and 3-4 up on the air."

As for making money now, Glass cited the recent Kickstarter campaign for the design podcast "99% invisible," which Glass claimed "really turned the public radio world upside down."  

"If you can convince a radio station to run it, stations pay us to run the show."  Glass provides the stations with pledge drive materials to run, and they typically make more money for the stations than they receive back from the stations in licensing.   

But:  "We make $300,000 selling apps. $100,000/year selling downloads.  We have projects that bring in merch.  We have underwriting.  Listeners donate to our podcast if we ask.  It's a much cushier situation than anyone who makes films."

2 Comments

  • Simon | June 19, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    Good summary...but This American Life has not "been in the news recently" with its retracted story about Foxconn. That happened more than 16 months ago - in March, 2012.

  • Stewart | June 19, 2013 2:20 PMReply

    Cushier? Fun? Make money! The exciting world of contemporary journalism. It's just a story.