Ira Glass: "I blame the topic sentence"Sunday evening, Ira Glass revealed to a packed lecture hall the format that makes This American Life so successful: (1) A little plot followed by (2) "Some goddamned big idea." TAL vignettes are characterized by a little bit of action and storytelling, usually about mundane things, followed by reflection on its connection to some greater human truth. (Though he thought he invented this format in an editing-booth epiphany at age 19, he learned that it's a common format taught in seminary, as well.) In fact, Glass pointed out that much of public radio is boring, simply because of its reliance on the topic sentence. Rather than boring people upfront with a summary of points, just captivate them with narrative and a big idea; they won't turn away. (He pointed out that in the last presidential campaign, Kerry's logical points were no match for Bush's dogma, for similar reasons.)
Though the entire lecture was hysterical, the most fascinating portion came at the end, when Glass described the egregious FCC decency regulations (PDF). According to the FCC, a single expletive will hurt children. (Though this developmental psychologist disagrees.) A scatological David Sedaris piece that aired in 1997 can no longer be played; a few seconds of it would cost TAL's licensees hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thank goodness for the online archives. Tom, who sat "within kissing distance" of Ira Glass, took a pic that's now on Wikipedia.