Once upon a time

1 August 2015
1 Aug 2015
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

Radio Shows? Are those like the 90’s version of podcasts?

Okay, maybe we’re not that clueless. But whether we’re talking about one of the most successful national radio shows in the US or one of the most popular podcasts to grace our digital shores, there’s one name that can’t go unmentioned. Ira Glass could be the Carl Sagan of public radio or the PewDiePie of podcasting. Coming into national acclaim with the documentary-style radio show and podcast This American Life, Ira Glass is one of the most passionately creative individuals in the media landscape today, in my humble opinion. But all that introductory material aside, his particular style of approaching radio shows and the spoken media is what fascinates me so much.

This American Life delivers ideas and perspectives on the current events, but I’d be hard-pressed to call what it does any kind of “news delivery” or “reporting”. Because unlike most forms of delivering information, TAL is not a relaying of cold, hard facts; it’s an organized presentation of perspectives. Throughout a single episode, the show goes through a few different stories, from the “average Americans” (hence the name), focusing around a single idea and carving out a coherent picture around it. In simpler terms, it’s like hearing eyewitness testimony of a single event from a half dozen different people. And TAL’s spin-off podcast series, Serial, has also become a cultural icon by, this time, investigating a single story – a crime – from multiple perspectives, contrasting evidences, and testimonies.

Both podcast series’ have one thing in common, that it delivers information and ideas not by telling the listener about it, but by letting them be a spectator to a play, if you will. It tries to be more theatrical and less lecture-like. And that alone distinguishes this storytelling form of spreading ideas from, say, traditional documentaries or nonfiction.

For example, consider the grim topic of gun violence. The “traditional” approach to a news outlet or media covering a story (or even the idea in general) would be to consider some statistics over the past few decades, study court cases, and maybe reference a few interviews along the way to get a comprehensive, and more importantly, reasoned picture of the situation. We’re used to this kind of coverage of the news simply because, on the outside, it makes sense. The first step to understanding anything is to understand the evidence and approach it rationally and objectively. And for that, facts and evidence are king.

But to the average person just getting through the day, a rationalized, mathematical news report about gun violence in the States is also, admittedly, uninteresting. Yes, we acknowledge, rationally, that it’s an issue. We understand, after listening to several reports, the statistics, the positives and the negatives, and the various perspectives. But we don’t care about these facts and reports the same way we might care about the sequel to a favorite movie or the city’s sports teams. We acknowledge them; we’re aware of them, but we don’t sympathize and care about the issues we hear in the everyday “journalism”.

But in an episode of This American Life, Glass approached that idea – gun violence, particularly in schools – differently. He forewent the facts and the statistics – you can get them anywhere on the Internet with a few seconds of effort – and instead presented unique, relevant points of view, a result of several reporters living with and staying at Harper High School, a school particularly affected by multiple incidences of gun violence, for a few months. Rather than relaying the information, he told stories, narratives that the average human being could relate to. Because we might not quite understand “a hundred deaths” or “decreasing crime rates in urban and minority-populated areas”, but we do sympathize with the death of a friend or the fear of going to school where, over the past year, more students had passed than we can count on both our hands.

In other words, reports and statistics are tools – we use them to predict and analyze. But we can’t be passionate about a figure on a spreadsheet the same way we can sympathize with other people. And in that way, stories are far more effective at spreading relevant points of view.

Simply put, stories are more powerful than facts. Stories are more powerful than facts because we can engage narratives in a way we can’t with passive pieces of evidence. We already know this – and use it – in education. “Hands-on” labs and studies are increasingly common, especially in elementary grades, because we know we understand experiences better than facts. When you look over the list of bestsellers, chances are high that the top five are populated with authors best at storytelling, getting readers to stand in the shoes of the characters they create, rather than authors best at persuasion or explanation. And even for these occasional blog posts, posts where I tell a story – whether it’s about my experiences in Debate Club or a vacation story – are read far more and engaged with far more often than, frankly, posts like this, where I present logical explanations of ideas. As ironic as it is, the evidence, if I may, is clear: stories are more powerful than statistics.

But one more thing about storytelling: they’re also disappearing from our culture. Not entirely, of course, storytelling is absolutely thriving in broadcast media and fiction books. But in how we talk about spreading information, the idea that objectivity trumps relate-ability is kicking narratives out and replacing it with lectures and reports. From teaching the orbital precession of Mercury in classrooms to a history lecture on Arc de Triomphe, We rarely, if ever, talk about information in the context of narratives. They’re mostly just unrelateable jumbles of numbers and vocabulary, when they could be far more interesting.

Personally, I want do do more of the latter and less of the former. I want to talk about ideas without actually discussing them. I want the audience of the stories I tell to participate in the discussion rather than be subjected to it, and I want to tell more stories, and give less lectures.

Once upon a time, people loved stories. They told it from generation to generation, from teacher to students, from author to reader, and from reporter to investigators. And it’s time we bring some of that back.

The gap

Internet 2.0

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