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For this assignment, I had to look up not one, but three videos about how storytelling works in audio form, from the perspectives of two well-praised experts on the medium: Ira Glass, and Jad Abumrad. Glass is best known as the producer and host of This American Life, a long-running radio program, premiering in 1995, that focuses on essays and short stories, and also briefly aired on Showtime in the late 2000s; Abumrad is the the co-host and producer of Radiolab, an investigative series on philosophy and science that he founded in May 2002.
According to Glass, “One of the things you don’t want to do” when telling stories for radio or television broadcasts “is you don’t want to think about it the way that you learned in high school,” with regards to topics and facts. Instead, all you have to remember are two things, namely anecdotes, which Glass described as “a story at its purest form” because its “one thing following another,” raising questions intended to be answered along the way, and reflections, which drive home the point of the performance, and help the audience figure out “why the hell” they are “listening to this story” for themselves.
This is because, to Glass, something that most digital storytellers get wrong nowadays is how to tell their audience something new with their respective projects. Either the build-up is interesting, but the pay-off is predictable, or vice versa, but in the end, “you’re going to need both” for the story to sell with viewers.
“The trick of the whole thing,” Glass said, “is to have the perseverance, that you’ve got an interesting anecdote, that you also can end up with an interesting moment of reflection that will support it, and then the two, together, interwoven [for] three minutes, or six minutes, or however long your story is, will make something that’s larger than the sum of its parts.”
There are two other things that Glass recommends newer storytellers avoid when they start out: talking “like people on TV” when talking like yourself makes the story more appealing, and showing a “horrible personality,” putting the focus on themselves instead of being interested in the minds of others, and the world around them. “Even if its a first-person story, documenting your life, what’s interesting isn’t just your take on things; it’s seeing you interact with other people, and seeing other people through your eyes,” he said.
In a similar vein, Abumrad believes that “the coolest thing about radio is what it lacks,” as radio takes away the visualizations necessary for most people to see what’s going on as a given story unfolds. “What that enables is … this deep act of co-authorship, and in that is some of the potential for empathy,” Abumrad said.
“Somehow, we’re doing it together, because we have to fill this gap of picturelessness together; we have to, somehow, be connected,” according to Abumrad. “I love the immediacy, and the connection that you can have, with another person, through radio.”
Both of these interviews show that just because you’re the narrator of a specific story, doesn’t automatically make you the star. It’s the job of the audience to ask the questions when the opportunity presents itself, and the narrator to answer them before the story can truly end.
It isn’t enough to simply say, or show, who you are, when telling a story. You also have to do so in a manner that listeners can relate to.