Sarah and I have become This American Life groupies lately. If you haven’t heard the radio show, it’s about time you do. It’s like a documentary of sorts: a group of disparate ideas centered around a central theme, but also it occasionally includes short stories and monologues.

About a month ago, there was a live telecast event of TAL 1 in theaters around the country. We went to that. Then this past weekend, show host Ira Glass came to Colorado College in Colorado Springs to give a lecture. We went to that too.

We’re now officially groupies.

Ira Glass

It was a fascinating evening. Besides the excitement of seeing one of your favorite personalities in person, Glass gave an interesting talk on the nature of narrative power, especially in contrast to more pervasive mediums as TV and film.

He began the talk in near dark. We could not see his face except in silhouette. His point being that the voice alone can be very intimate and persuasive. Of course, the voice alone only has so much power. There is a certain craftsmanship required to elevate the spoken word to more powerful heights.

Glass went on to share the technique he’s perfected over the years. Surprisingly, he found that it held uncanny similarities with — of all things — the art of preaching. He was told by monks, televangelists, and Evangelical pastors alike that his narrative style (starting big, using humor, intercutting with good music, make your audience think, formulate the narration around a central theme) resembled closely what they did for a living.

This style is what Aristotle called the “proairetic code” 2, Glass said:

It’s a sequence of motions that creates suspense no matter how banal it is. You simply get the action moving. This thing happened, and then this thing and then that led to this next thing and then that next thing. And we inevitably wonder what will happen next.

And he’s not kidding. Glass dissected the technique while playing some clips from past shows. The effect is very addicting.


  1. the acronym of the show’s name, as it’s known to the fans
  2. Wikipedia has a nice definition here.

Join the Conversation


  1. I’ve never heard of it so I went to youtube. I could get addicted to this.

    Reality radio is sooo much better than reality TV.

  2. James » You can also listen to all the previous episodes for free from their website in Real Audio format. Once a week, they release a podcast version in mp3. That’s how I listen.

    Looks like it’s on at 10am on Sundays on your local NPR station. 😉

  3. NPR?

    Man, I’m not sure anything is worth subjecting myself to NPR on a weekly basis. lol

    I’ll have to stick with the podcasting.

    Dude, I have always loved radio stuff. What little bit I listened to last night was just great.

  4. I listen to NPR pretty much every weekday and often catch a bit on weekends. By and large they have some pretty great programming on their, This American Life included. So glad you both got to go to that talk, sounds like fun. I don’t always agree with everything, but hey, that’s part of the fun!

  5. Glad you’ve gotten hooked on the best weekly thing out there. TAL is completely addicting. I have gone back in the archives and started listening from the beginning. What strikes me most is that Ira Glass has been good at this for a long time. Some of his early show are poignant, beautiful, and entertaining. (A few are boring, but I guess they were able to become more selective over time.)

    (I also made it to the live broadcast… really enjoying evening! I can’t wait to see the full episode with the “Ask an Iraqi!”.)

    Of course, if you haven’t yet… also find out about Radio Lab from WNYC. It’s like TAL mixed with Malcolm Gladwell. Highly addictive. I listened to all their downloadable episodes within 2 weeks.

    P.S. The archived TAL shows are streamed via a custom flash player, not Real Player.

  6. Eliot »

    I think I might be one of the TAL dinosaurs. I started listening at least 6 or 7 years ago, and like you, have since gone back to the archives and probably listened to all of them. You’re right — some are boring, but almost all have at least some hook or interesting aside.

    And Eliot, you are responsible for my addition to Radio Lab! Wow, that show is completely fantastic. I love its mixture of lush audio mixing with science exploration. It’s just a really great show. I’ve listened to all their episodes now too. I think my favorite is probably the emergence episode. Really mind-blowing!

    My mistake on the Real Audio. That shows how old I am. Back in the day, they used Real for all their archives. 🙂

  7. I love This American Life! The one on “What I learned from television” I listened to 3 times! All the monologues were hilarious! You know it’s funny when you laugh out loud to the radio!

  8. I would like to just publicly state that I can’t really get into Radio Lab. I thought the episode I listened to was way too long and randomly organized! This American Life, however, is just the right length for me (short attention span) and focuses on a narrow theme. Love it!

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