Monday, May 11, 2009

A Disappointing Evening

I'm as big an NPR nerd as the next Ivy Leaguer. It's always the first button on my car radio. I cried when Susan Stamberg retired and smiled when Scott Simon married. I was as proud as his mother must have been when Jason Beaubien went from KQED to NPR's Foreign Desk.

I've inculcated the love into others, too. There's a generation of girls who played soccer in Northern California between 1992 and 2003 who will forever associate Car Talk with riding in my car to early Saturday and Sunday morning games. The Big Cuter and I still laugh about "driveway stories" - the ones that force you to stay in the car so you can hear the end, whether you're in the driveway at home or the parking lot at the Santa Cruz Beach/Boardwalk.

My email describing Middle Brother's "real lawn" lawn furniture - made on his lawn with grass seed over chicken wire - was the closing item read by Neal Conan on a Talk of the Nation program on Do-It-Yourself projects. My voice asking "Where did my dollars actually go?" on a post-dot-com-bust edition of All Things Considered caused fingers to be sliced and cars to swerve into other lanes in kitchens and on bridges all over America.

So, maybe I'm just a little bit more of an NPR-aholic than most. In any event, when I read that Ira Glass was coming to town I bought 4 tickets and invited a couple of Minnesotans to join us. This American Life has had more than its fair share of driveway stories - the flaming squirrel being, perhaps, my favorite all-time NPR experience. Ira Glass has a disarmingly boyish reticence in his voice which never intrudes into the pieces. He has an unerringly fine ear for chosing stories that deserve telling. He must be a great listener, because people talk beautifully when he and his microphone are around.

The interview in the paper that morning made me a little nervous. He was going to talk about how he puts together his program. I had been hoping for stories and reminiscences and behind the scenes insights. But, just as I would take any course that a good teacher was teaching, I was sure that just by his presence the night would be wonderful.

Not. Not even close.

On the radio (I've not watched the new tv show), Ira's voice provides the introduction, the interludes and the conclusion to the weekly topic. During the pieces themselves, the interviewer is rarely the dominant presence. I think that's the answer right there - know your limits.

He lacked the gravitas to have his pronouncements taken seriously. His delivery was stuck somewhere around the 10th grade. "Like..... um..... hmmm......(pause)........" just doesn't cut it for 90 minutes in the world's most uncomfortable seats (we were in the balcony; the seats are much nicer on the main floor). What allows you to stop and think on the radio - a pregnant pause, noticing the void - is annoying in an oration.

Every so often he'd touch on an interesting point, but it never went anywhere. The notion of telling small stories as a window into a larger issue was worthy of more than its use as a topic sentence. His theory of story-telling seemed to boil down to having each segment advance the plot. Really? I can't believe I never thought of that before.

He ended the evening by retelling the story of The 1001 Arabian Nights. Had I been the emperor and he Scheherazade, I'd have decapitated him by 10:15 the first night.

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