Empathy Is What Makes Us Sane: Ira Glass at Lisner Auditorium

DCist.com (Washington, DC), April 15, 2008


Ira Glass, creator and host of the weekly public radio story anthology This American Life, led an inspiring two-hour discussion of the techniques of storytelling as practiced by the staff of This American Life, and the reasons stories are so indispensable to our humanity. Glass observed that storytelling is what radio does best, and that it’s hardly ever used for that purpose.

Twelve-and-a-half years after it first began airing locally on Chicago’s WBEZ, This American Life remains a shining exception to that sad fact, with an estimated 1.7 million listeners tuning in to hear the show on one of the more than 500 public radio stations that carry it each weekend. The podcast that gets uploaded each Monday morning archiving the prior Friday’s This American Life broadcast is frequently the most popular one on the iTunes Music Store.

But the most telling statistic is the fact that average listening time for the 59-minute show is 48 minutes. In other words, nearly everyone who turns on This American Life at any point during the broadcast listens all the way through to the end.

Glass’s aim, he said, when he began the show in late 1995 was to restore “human scale.” He follows a story where it leads, instead of using people as props to support a premise that’s usually been decided upon before the actual reporting has even begun.

One story he shared was of Sam Slaven, a traumatized Iraq War vet suffering from bouts of rage whenever he found himself among Muslims back in the U.S. He set out — in Glass’s words — “like a broken robot, to fix himself,” joining a Muslim organization on his college campus to force himself to learn to live peacefully among them.

Before taking questions, Glass retold the Arabian Nights story of Scheherazade, the heroine who persuaded her murderous king to spare her life nightly for 1,000 nights by keeping him hooked on a very long story, until, on the 1,001st night her storytelling had engendered enough empathy within him to cure his need to kill. He likened this to a speech civil rights historian Taylor Branch had given in at the National Cathedral last month urging the two Americas simply to see each other. “That empathy is what makes us sane,” he said. “That empathy is what rescues us from Hell.”


Subjects Covered: digital storytelling, healing, storytelling festivals

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