National Public Radio host Ira Glass gave a small group of UC Santa Barbara journalism students a taste of how to excel at radio. Some stories, he said, are just not that good. Glass, a nationally renowned radio reporter, admitted he throws out half his stories. “The natural state of all things is mediocre,” he said.
The host of the Public Radio hit This American Life, Glass has worked on many NPR programs. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious George Polk Award in Radio Reporting. Yet, he said, when he was a “baby reporter,” he was bad for an unusually long period of time. It’s doubtful anyone in the room believed him.
Standing in a white dress shirt at the Granada Theatre’s Founders Room, hosted by UCSB’s Arts & Lectures, Glass said he pungently smelled like car air freshener. He’d had to take an Uber up from LAX after his plane to Santa Barbara was cancelled. As he sipped a can of Red Bull, he recalled one breakthrough moment that happened in his early twenties, when his editor asked him what would be the first sentence of a two-minute segment he had to record a couple hours later. He was astonished. He hadn’t even gone to the press conference. I still have to go out and report, he thought. But his editor reminded him that he already knew what the announcement would be — he might as well start brainstorming even before he went out to interview. His editor also asked him in a perfect world what that quote would be. Go get that quote, he told him.
This raised an important point for young reporters: Spend time thinking about the story you want to tell. Young reporters tend to go on a wild goose chase and believe it’ll all just work itself out. The problem with this strategy, of course, is that is always doesn’t. And it wastes time.
Glass also suggested talking with others about the best thing you heard at an event before you even go back to your notes and start writing. It’s similar to the old trick — lead with whatever you would tell the guy sitting next to you at the bar.
Glass offered simple but important advice: After transcribing a tape, circle the best quotes. Focus on plot. People want to keep listening to find out what happens next. Have fun because you aren’t going to make much money. Include little moments in a story to entertain yourself. Read as much as you can. Coming up with new ideas is part of the job. And a glimmer of hope: Podcasts are soaring. His show has blossomed from a staff of three to 18 people.
Like any good storyteller, Glass left the group feeling as though they could do what he does.