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NPR's Ira Glass Talks Passion, Storytelling And 'Driveway Moments'

Laura J. Nelson |
October 12, 2010 | 12:38 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Creative Commons
Creative Commons
More than 1,000 people sat in darkness, staring expectantly at the auditorium's unlit stage as a silhouette slipped out from behind the curtain.

"I wanted to do the entire talk like this," Ira Glass said as he slid into a chair at the center of the stage.  "Because this is what radio is really like. You can't see anything."

Glass, the host of the NPR show "This American Life,"  talked in darkness for five more minutes Monday evening before the house lights came on over USC's sold-out Bovard Auditorium.

The event, sponsored by USC's Visions and Voices program in honor of President C. L. Max Nikias's official inauguration Friday, showcased Glass's snarky sense of humor and masterful storytelling ability.

Not surprisingly, Glass spent a majority of his talk (called "Radio Stories & Other Stories") telling stories. Over nearly two hours, he touched on how important it is to have passion, joy and curiosity for life and for work, no matter what field – and how much of that joy can come from hearing and telling stories.

"The world is a place where surprise and joy and pleasure are still absolutely possible," Glass said. "Your work won't be good unless you're having fun."

People are hungry for good stories, Glass said, and they recognize them instinctively. That passion for a well-told tale is where the "driveway moment" comes from: the radio story that's so compelling, you sit in the driveway, car still running, just to hear how it ends. 

Journalism, especially broadcast, takes itself way too seriously, Glass said. It's preachy and devoid of the curiosity and humor that makes the world tick. (His example: You'd never hear the "George Stephanopoli" of the world saying, "Oh, that's so cool!" or "I didn't know that!")

He played a range of radio stories, from an interview with a 19-year-old soldier whose only job was to restock the USS Ennis's vending machines; to a story he wrote in his early '20s that he deemed so bad, "it didn't show any hint of talent for this, whatsoever."

Every story should be so entertaining or interesting or awe-inspiring that it's fun for the teller to weave the tale, Glass said. In short, storytelling should be selfish. 

But finding those stories is a job in itself, Glass said. He said he asks two questions to get to the heart of every story: "And what happened next?" followed by "What did you make of that?" 

At the end of his talk, Glass retold the story of One Thousand and One Arabian Knights, which tells the story of a Persian king who killed his wife and all of her suitors after learning that she was unfaithful.

Every night after, he married a new virgin and killed her in the morning. The only woman to survive was the vizier's daughter, who told the king such compelling stories every night that he postponed her execution for 1,001 nights just to hear what happened. 

"So you see, remember these things I'm teaching you," Glass said. "Someday, they could save your life!"


Reach reporter Laura J. Nelson here. Follow her on Twitter: @laura_nelson.



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