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August 21, 2014

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Renowned radio host Ira Glass on storytelling, sucking at poker

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Stuart Mullenberg / Courtesy Photo

Ira Glass

Fans of stories about real people moving through high-stakes situations and changing along the way have likely heard of Ira Glass.

Known for his quizzical voice and empathetic storytelling, the host of public radio’s “This American Life” has changed the landscape of American broadcasting.

Now, on the first stop of a national tour, Glass will bring his show to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts on April 27 as part of the Audi Speaker Series. The 54-year-old radio pioneer will tell live stories and present a mix of pre-taped quotes and music, followed by a “best of” segment of the show’s funniest moments.

What makes a good story?

The kind of stories we write on our show are super traditional stories. There’s a character and a situation. Things change. Things happen to them. They learn something. They change some idea they have about the world. They change personally by the end of it.

When we’re looking for a story, we need there to be a plot. There has to be incidents. We always need a character you can relate to. It helps if they’re funny. It has to be surprising.

Have you always told stories that way?

It took, for me, a long time to develop this idea of what to do on the radio. But from the beginning of my time in radio, I had pretty non-traditional tasks.

I started at NPR when I was 19 in Washington. And my first boss was a guy whose job it was to invent new ways to do radio documentaries. So he was very interested in having the characters in the story, narrating the story and the way he would use music and the way he would put you into a place.

But then I switched after a couple of years to working on daily news shows. And for years I would try to figure how to use what I learned from him in the context of being a daily news reporter or a producer.

How does empathy fit into your storytelling?

You have to connect emotionally with the person in the story. You have to empathize with somebody. There are exceptions to that, but by and large, I think that’s the one way to truth.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to tell stories for a living?

Amuse yourself. I think stories get better the more people try to amuse themselves.

For beginners, I wish somebody had told me it was normal to be bad for a long time. I was bad for a long time before I got good. I wish somebody had given me that reassuring news that that’s normal. I wish somebody had given me the news that ideas don’t just fall on your head like fairy dust. You have to treat that like a job. You have to spend hours each day, where you’re just like, “This is the part of the day when I’m looking for an idea.”

And where do ideas come from? They come from other ideas. You have to surround yourself with stuff, and other stuff, and different stuff, to get something that will be worth making something that means something to you.

You did a story about professional poker players and said you fell in love with the game. Do you still play?

I still play. I play mostly in an illegal card room in New York City. I don’t know if it’s bad to say that or not.

But honestly, I haven’t played in six months, and I absolutely plan on playing when I come to Vegas. I’m not so good, but I enjoy it.

I’ve read the poker books, but at this point, everybody who’s playing has read the poker books. I feel like I’m knowledgeable enough to understand what’s going on in the game, and I understand why I suck. And I’m not sure if I’ll ever rise beyond that to the level where I don’t suck.

I understand what it would take to be good, but I just don’t know if I would ever actually get there.

Ira Glass will present “Reinventing Radio: An Evening with Ira Glass” at 7:30p.m. April 27 in Reynolds Hall. Tickets cost between $26-$99 and are available at www.SmithCenter.com.

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  1. Thank god (strictly in a Vonnegut sense) for NPR.