The Audience Wants to Know the Significance

One night in the historic United Artists Theater in downtown Los Angeles, I had the privilege of watching a live show put on by Ira Glass, host of the radio documentary show This American Life on NPR. Part of the show was a reflection on how he got into a career in documentary radio and learned about storytelling.  Glass has often spoken about how there are two parts to all of his stories. There’s the on-the-ground event or the “anecdote” (usually in the form of interviews) and the reflection on those anecdotes (usually in the form of his own voice over). The idea, thinks Glass, is that the audience wants to know the significance of what they are listening to, or the meaning. When he is investigating a story, and gathering his anecdotes, he always has this notion of significance or meaning in mind. This illustrates the two kinds of value at play in recording and then presenting aspects of the world (whether in radio or film), truth and meaning. As I noted above, the truth can take on various aspects, or focuses, but the task of the documentarian is to frame these events in such a way that meaning is generated. In other words, the audience should get a sense that what they are watching has some significance, that the piece is saying something.


– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Spring of 2018 by Wipf & Stock