“If you’re not producing at least one story a week, you’re in trouble.”
Cue gasps from the packed house of next-gen podcasting hopefuls. We’re listening to the bona fide king of podcasting under the sails of the Sydney Opera House for a student’s-only journalism workshop – and everyone in class senses we’ve already fallen behind.
Each week Glass chases stories that exemplify the extraordinary aspects of our ordinary lives. From ‘After the flood’ on Hurricane Katrina, to ‘Kid Logic’ on children’s reasoning, to ‘Switched at Birth’ (no explanation needed) – if a story triggers Glass’s curiosity you can expect to hear it on the airwaves.
The key to audience success in This American Life comes down to each episode’s intimate and engaging production – which is why class is in session today. These lucky few have grasped the opportunity to have their podcasts critiqued by the golden mic master.
Here are five lessons I learnt from Ira Glass…
Make your story happen
One of the podcasts produced by a member of the class interviewed a woman with endometriosis who felt that her friends and family weren’t taking her illness seriously. It was an emotive piece, but led to a pure documentation of the situation with few ‘epiphany moments’ – In other words, it wasn’t a journey.
Glass says he is constantly asking himself “What is the best way this story could end? How can we make this happen?” This often involves the interviewees facing a moment of realisation or reflection where suddenly their thinking has been challenged, then changed.
It’s good, but Glass can go one step better by exposing when the ‘lightbulb’ moment happens to him, the interviewer, as well.
Lesson: Every story needs a ‘lightbulb’ moment. If this isn’t happening, don’t be afraid to use the host and the interviewees as vehicles, and keep tweaking your story until you find one. Podcasts are like the thoughts in your head, so reflection and realisation is vital.
Drop the fat
Another podcast shared by the class described a home burglary that happened to a student while living in a share house in Indonesia. Play by play, the student narrates the story in chronological order – from the locals placing a ‘spell’ on their house so the residents wouldn’t wake during the invasion, to sleeping like a baby and rising the next morning.
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Hilarious and engaging, Glass gave kudos to the story but said the momentum was stalled by including minute details that could have been summarised into a pithier sentence.
Interviews aren’t always succinct but telling a great story rides on ramping up the tempo toward the catalyst.
Lesson: Momentum is crucial. Unlike the top-down structure of news, great stories consist of building narrative tension that doesn’t stall. If someone’s breaking down your door, you don’t need to explain the floor plan of the house and how noise should travel. They’re simply ‘breaking down your door’.
Follow the rabbit hole
Another podcast shared ran an interesting interview with a 100-year-old man who has lived in the same small town his whole life. They discovered some interesting stories, including how the old man met his future wife and his recollection of the days before electricity.
However, Glass quickly noticed there was a lot more drama that could’ve been exposed. What were the hardest aspects of living life without electricity? What summer dress was the old man’s future wife wearing when they first met? What did she say? He explained that probing the interviewee to explain their personal stories beat by beat forces a different explanation and builds the narrative story.
Lesson: Conflict = Drama. Drama = Audience engagement. Glass notices topical gems in what his interviewees say and explores them, remaining open to changing the course of an episode on the fly. This reflects the success that is often found in staying flexible and searching for conflict topics within your interviewees.
The intimacy of podcasts as a channel can be the ultimate blessing or a downright curse. As listeners, we are so used to what a conversation ‘should’ sound like that any cuts made in editing, exaggerated tones of an interviewee or someone reading straight off a page are picked up instantly.
Glass praised the students who spoke like they were having a normal conversation that included colloquial terms, sarcasm and all. Coming across as an ‘actual person’ not only makes you more personable but more unique.
Lesson: Don’t lose your spark trying to be professional. Speak as though you’re having a conversation in-person with your listener – it’ll come across more natural this way and your audience will be more engaged because of it.
Feel the vibe
One of the biggest criticisms Glass consistently shared was initiation of a musical overtone at the wrong time, or selection of the wrong musical tone completely. It sounds simple but the tone of the music should reflect the type of story you’re telling – if it’s ponderous and reflective, make it mysterious and dreamy, if it’s action-packed, make it dramatic, etcetera.
Glass says music should assist in building the narrative tension, intensifying as the story intensifies. Bring in music on the rising action and cut it just before the most important “highlight quote” to make an impact on your listeners.
Lesson: Don’t be fooled by your own musical preferences. Even if you like a musical track, ask yourself if this sound truly reflects the mood of the piece. Is there a better choice?