I love Ira Glass. I know I should be more objective here, but I can’t help it. This American Life is one of the jewels of American journalism. And when I saw Glass was slated to give a talk about techniques of documentary making, I beelined for the box office.
Glass had a relatively simple, straightforward, and rather obvious message: When making a documentary, whether on the radio or in film or television, talk like a regular person. Be amusing, and emotional, and well, normal. Don’t be corny, don’t go for the "fake gravitas" of network news. Just be a human.
Glass called the network news model an "accident of aesthetics." The model of the authoritative newsman is passe, and the contrived notion that we should receive our news from on high is the reason that opinion journalism is "kicking the ass" of so-called objective journalism. Opinion mongers talk like regular people. Broadcast news anchors do not.
One could quibble with this of course, but Glass is clearly on to something. He hosts one of the most popular radio programs in America, and the most popular podcast, and he seems to have single-handedly revived the genre of the radio documentary.
Besides the larger critique, Glass offered some clear guidance for making stories more interesting, more compelling, and more pleasurable. One of his topics was structure — stories are a series of actions, and the structure of narrative journalism should let that action unfold (creating suspense), but occasionally step outside the action to offer some commentary. Again, Glass said, this is how people actually talk. They tell their stories, but they also say explicitly what the point of their stories are.
Confirmation of the viability of this approach came from an unlikely place. Glass recalled being home in Baltimore for the Jewish holidays and hearing his rabbi give a sermon in exactly this manner. Subsequently, he spoke to people who had attended seminary and learned that this is in fact the structure of a sermon. Glass was flabbergasted.
"I always felt really offended," he said. "’No, no, I invented this.’ I went out and invented something from the bible."