Storytelling on This American Life

It may sound painfully obvious to state this, but the most important thing to consider when discussing radio stories is that medium here is sound. Like old-time oral story-telling, hearing is the only sense utilized–unless, of course, you count the mental images sounds can conjure. Radio stories must use sound to engage and sustain the listener’s attention, set the mood of the story, indicate a transition, etc. Ira Glass and his buddies at TAL have an approach to this that actually differs from many other radio programs.

ira glass

Ira in the studio

First of all, Ira, as the host, has an extremely conversational, genial tone. He stutters over some of his words, speaks quickly at times and then slows down, uses colloquialisms like “you know?”, “and, uh”– all to make it sound as if he is not reading a script. I have no proof of it, but I’m inclined to think he doesn’t, that he perhaps has an outline and then just runs with it, has his intimate conversation with the radio mic.

Ira’s voice is usually louder and more casual, but the contributors tend to speak in more subdued voices. The transitional or background music also tends to be jazzy, smoother tunes. This contributes to the dramatic tones of many of the stories TAL broadcasts, but also helps establish an intimate, campfire-story ambiance. The contributors also speak slower than Ira, and often sound as if they are reading. However, they still use exaggerated vocal intonations to indicate surprise, disbelief, etc., and slow down during “key” points.

Background noises/music are also important for emphasizing key points. I noticed that (loosely) the structure seems to be this: begin the story with just the narrator, who is generally setting up a scene of action. Once he gets to a point in this scene that connects to what the larger story is about, or a moment of conflict, or something funny, in rolls the instrumental music (I wish I had better words to describe this music, but I know little about what/why certain types of music evoke certain moods.) At this point, it’s in the background, but after a significant line–perhaps one that expresses a vivid image, one that proposes/implies a question, one that indicates a turning point in the story–the narration will cut and the music will replace it.

Music here allows a moment for whatever the listener just heard to stew. It is also used as a transition, such as in House on Loon Lake when the narrator describes the destructive hobbies he and his friends had, [music interlude], then this one day they go to this house… It rarely has lyrics or is recognizable, presumably so that the listener won’t get distracted. However, that’s not to say that the music has to be irrelevant–as we heard with the time-period music used when the narrator was investigating the history of the family.

The other auditory device that TAL uses in addition to narration is interview clips. These are often done out-of-studio, in real contextual situations so the listener can hear the background noises and so it sounds more like a conversation. TAL produces its stories in this way in order to achieve a level of intimacy, since their stories are often very personal and emotional.

They also usually take a moment in the stories to allude to some larger, universal theme. In House on Loon Lake, for example, near the end two interviewees said that stories like that of the Nason family are common in small towns, it’s all gossip and folklore. This was not as common in 20 Acts in 60 Minutes, simply because of lack of time, but Ira did it in his final story about the performance at the juvenile correction facility. As with all of their sound techniques, they do this to get to an emotional core that the listener can relate to.

-Kayla Hunter


~ by kah117 on January 30, 2011.

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