For Ira Glass, the 50-year-old host of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life, doing radio is like talking on the phone to somebody late at night. "There's an intimacy to just hearing someone's voice," said Glass, Saturday's keynote speaker during the University of North Texas's fifth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. He began his address with the lights off inside the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center's ballroom to illustrate his point.
Eventually, Glass was illuminated only by a spotlight that came from the back of the room; a table full of sound equipment sat next to him, lit by a single piano lamp. He played segments from previously aired shows and some interviews that never made it on the air. Often, Glass started and stopped tape by bringing his arm back and up over his head before coming back down to hit play or to fade out sound -- very theatrical.
Glass in the past has been vocal about his disdain for the pomp that can accompany literary conferences. But he seemed to feel this one was different and that it seemed "like a nice conference." Indeed, he spoke well beyond his time limit, stretching the evening past 10:30 p.m. Afterward, he stood at the front of a very long line of fans to sign copies of The New Kings of Nonfiction, an anthology he compiled, and DVDs of his Showtime TV show. Sometime after 12:30 a.m., he even showed up to hang out with the boisterous crowd at the hotel's bar.
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Glass focused his lecture on the beauty of a good narrative story, but also gave some practical advice. Glass threw the journalists in the room an idea for future survival based on Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Glass imagined a future for journalism "where you would have the tone of The Daily Show -- talking in normal language, but they would be real reporters."
As an example, he played a segment from his radio show where a reporter found a way to make a piece on the mortgage crises mesmerizing. The reporter recorded her attempts to find the person who was supposed to be in charge of oversight for the industry that collapsed. Each person she spoke to sent her to somebody else. Throughout the piece, she used chatty sentences to talk to the listener, like, "It sounds crazy, right?"
"I can imagine that would be a place that journalism could move towards and survive," said Glass, suggesting a casual conversation would replace the medium's more "stiff" formalities. Because Glass, you see, is one of the few in the media who doesn't believe these are terrible times for the news industry. Instead, he said, "I feel like it's a great time, because it's wide-open." Sounds crazy, right?