NPR & Storytelling: The Moth Radio Hour

September 1st, 2010 by

Here in the United States, National Public Radio broadcasts several great series that feature stories and storytelling, and as such are an excellent resource for writers. Each day this week, I’ll look at a different series that is aired on NPR. Today: The Moth Radio Hour (produced by The Moth, Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media. Presented and distributed by the Public Radio Exchange).

From the series’ website, here is how they describe “The Moth Radio Hour”:

What is The Moth?

The Moth, a not-for-profit storytelling organization, was founded in New York in 1997 by poet and novelist George Dawes Green, who wanted to recreate in New York the feeling of sultry summer evenings on his native St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where he and a small circle of friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales on his friend Wanda’s porch. After moving to New York, George missed the sense of connection he had felt sharing stories with his friends back home, and he decided to invite a few friends over to his New York apartment to tell and hear stories. Thus the first “Moth” evening took place in his living room. Word of these captivating story nights quickly spread, and The Moth moved to bigger venues in New York. Today, The Moth conducts eight ongoing programs and has brought more than 3,000 live stories to over 100,000 audience members.

Why “The Moth”?

The screen around Wanda’s porch had a hole where moths would flutter in and get trapped in the light. Similarly, George and his friends found that the characters in their best stories would often find themselves drawn to some bright light—of adventure, ambition, knowledge—but then find themselves burned or trapped, leaving them with some essential conflict to face before the story could reach its conclusion. So George and his original group of storytellers called themselves “The Moths”. George took the name with him to New York, where he hoped that New Yorkers, too, would find themselves drawn to storytelling as moths to a flame. They did. With no advertising, through sheer word of mouth, every show to date has sold out in 48 hours or less.

The first three seasons of “The Moth Radio Hour” blew me away with some incredible stories. Here are the overviews of each of the hour-long episodes:

Moth Radio Hour 101

A batboy for the New York Yankees goes on a wild goose chase for a left-handed bat-stretcher; an Irish-Catholic family obsessed with the Kennedys dedicates a summer to spying on their idols; a comedian experiences the ultimate heartbreak; and a drill sergeant faints at the sight of blood.

Moth Radio Hour 102

A severely stuttering child finds solace in speaking to animals and vows to speak for them if he grows up to find his voice. Years later we find him as the world’s premier jaguar expert, having a face to face with an animal in the jungle of Belize. Plus, a Texas tale of moon pies and bedazzlers, and the surprising story of a Harlem man who ends up at a rodeo in Oregon.

Moth Radio Hour 103

Hear how celebrated author and writer Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon, The New Yorker) embarrasses his son and offends other loved ones by getting lost in the new world of Instant Message abbreviations. Also, stories of first love and unlikely pen pals, and the sad tale of gay man who comes out to his parents with dramatic consequences.

Moth Radio Hour 104

This episode of The Moth Radio Hour includes stories from beloved author Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point) about a wedding prank gone horribly wrong; an African-American home care attendant caring for a dying Klansman; and a miracle survivor of a gang initiation.

Moth Radio Hour 105

A man is instructed not to fall in love with his monkey, but fails; renowned performer Sarah Jones (Bridge and Tunnel) finds herself the subject of racial profiling; and the inventor of the Baby Calzone runs into trouble with the Mob.

Moth Radio Hour 201

A prisoner in a small town lock-up gets sprung on a promise; a man desperate for a cure for depression travels to Africa to try a tribal remedy; and novelist/screenwriter Richard Price (“Clockers,” “Lush Life,” “The Wire”) gets a lesson in interrogation in the back of a NYC cop car.

Moth Radio Hour 202

Geneticist Paul Nurse, a Nobel Laureate, learns the shocking truth about his origins; a nine-alarm blaze in Boston’s Chinatown teaches a daughter about her father’s wisdom; and a cop makes an erroneous ID on a stakeout.

Moth Radio Hour 203

A man in a mid-life crisis takes a terrifying parachute jump; an Iraq war veteran comes out of the closet; a daughter “pulls the plug” on her ailing father; a fireman tries to save two children; and a would-be Romeo laments the agony of platonic love.

Moth Radio Hour 204

The editor-in-chief of French Vogue rents a haunted flat in Paris; a man takes his wife on a final motorcycle ride; legendary rapper Darryl “DMC” McDaniels admits his Sarah McLachlan obsession; and a high school sophomore is put to the test when he comes out of the closet.

Moth Radio Hour 205

A retired felon remembers his tenure in pickpocket school; a Mormon virgin gives us an episode of No-Sex in the City; and the victim of a random stabbing has his day in court.

Moth Radio Hour 301

A young woman meets her brother for the first time at their father’s funeral, a professional blackjack player faces down his gambling demons, and Colin Quinn (Weekend Update, SNL) is hired to do comedy for Robert DeNiro’s birthday party…and bombs.

Moth Radio Hour 302

An evangelist searches for souls — and customers — in the aisles of a Target store, an adolescent money-making scheme is hatched in 1970s Spanish Harlem, filmmaker Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) pays tribute to his father, and an unforgettable therapy session with a social worker named Milton.

Moth Radio Hour 303

Comedian Mike Birbiglia is a hypochondriac who hears the news he’s been dreading for a lifetime, two women meet by chance on a dark street and share secrets, public radio’s Al Letson admits he was not quite ready for a second child, and a live calf shows up for Thanksgiving dinner.

Each tale told live, all without the benefit of notes. You can hear these stories by going here.

The founder and often the host of “The Moth” live events George Dawes Green is himself a writer with three published novels, two of which were made into movies.  More about Dawes in August 8, 2009 article from the The Times:

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re reviving the ancient art of storytelling’,” he says. “But the art of the raconteur has never been publicly celebrated. When Homer told stories, they were memorised poems; when Mark Twain went on lecture tours, he was reading. So the idea of standing up in front of a group and telling a story is actually pretty new.”

Talking about The Moth makes him excited, and listening to him talk about anything is a kind of delight — he is lyrical, thoughtful and droll as a riverboat dandy, even when, like today, he is plainly exhausted. Dawes Green suffers from hypernychthemeral syndrome, a rare condition that means he operates on a 25-hour cycle, sleeping for eight hours a day, then being awake for the next 17, thus slowly being pulled in and out of sync with the rest of the world. Growing up on St Simon’s Island on Georgia’s Atlantic coast, the condition made high school impossible, so he dropped out, holding down security and construction jobs while writing poetry. By the early Nineties he was working in New York, having set up a successful clothing company with friends.

After selling his stake, he wrote two novels, The Caveman’s Valentine and The Juror (“sort of thrillers, I guess”), both of which were made into Hollywood films. This success afforded some freedom. What struck him about New York was that it was full of great raconteurs, but there was never any time to tell stories. So he set about introducing a favourite pastime from home.

“A group of us would go to my friend Wanda’s house,” he explains. “We’d drink Jack Daniel’s and stay up all night, telling stories. Because the moths kept coming through the broken screen on her porch, we called ourselves ‘The Moths’.”
Inviting friends and acquaintances to his apartment, he gave it a go, using the rule that the stories had to be true and about themselves. Soon the storytellers began to include those who understood the qualities of a raconteur — “understanding that you have to expose yourself and be vulnerable. All great storytellers are also hilariously funny, but there needs to be some of that strain of hopelessness”. Having moved into a bar, The Moth became more formal, with tickets sold and storytellers invited to perform. “Everyone who goes up says it’s probably the scariest and most profound experience of their lives,” says Dawes Green. “Because they suddenly have this very simple connection with a group of people where they’re just telling them who they are … but it’s not just coming through their words, it’s coming through every pore of their body.”


The Moth, with its emphasis on human contact and listening to others (rather than, say, tweeting about oneself), represents a tonic to this, he says. He thinks The Moth ties into “what has become sort of the predominant movement of our day, like people wanting to know where their food comes from and not just accepting the word of big corporations”. Then he puts his project into the simplest, truest terms possible. “Really, there aren’t more fun nights to be had,” he says, “than gathering with your friends, drinking and listening to stories.”

The list of ‘name’ storytellers who have performed at “The Moth” is impressive and includes many TV, film writers, and playwrights including Cindy Chupack (“Sex and the City”), the late Spalding Grey (Swimming to Cambodia), Buck Henry (The Graduate), playwright Sarah Jones (“Bridge & Tunnel”), James Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and Richard Price (“The Wire”), but so many of the best stories I’ve heard on “The Moth” were from unknowns (at least to me).

“The Moth” has been a wonderful revelation, something every writer should definitely check out.

4 thoughts on “NPR & Storytelling: The Moth Radio Hour

  1. Matteson says:

    The Moth is really great, and if you want to get involved there are several monthly Moth Story Slams in LA, NYC, and elsewhere. Every show people can put their name "in the hat" and 10 people get drawn out, so anyone can get up and tell a story. As a loyal GITS reader, and a sometimes host of the Moth Story Slams, I'm happy to see you feature something else I'm passionate about.

  2. Matteson says:

    Forgot – for more info on the Story Slams.

  3. Josh K-sky says:

    Add me to the list of Slam fans. I've gone four times, three times with a story, once been drawn from the hat. Preparing for The Moth is a great writer's exercise: you take your sloppy, breezy personal anecdotes and forge them into real stories with a beginning, a middle and an end and high stakes. There are slams at three different L.A. locations every month.

  4. Just_Hiltz says:

    Glad the new set up of your office is working for you. It's about time someone with YOUR VOICE acknowledges "The Moth Radio Hour" and "This American Life". These are a part of the subliminal things which make my mind click into-"story-mode". NPR is on in our house everyday!! and we look forward to many of theses programs because they take you out of "your miserable petty problems" and open up a whole new world of OTHER People's problems. But for us more importantly, it helps us to think in terms of the very basic creature which we are: the story-tellers!!! We all have lives and actions and it is the duty of the storyteller to find the "unique-ness" in all of these stories.
    Also I like the Farmer's Market reports and "Click and Clack- the Tappet brother's" on Car Talk. They are always a down to earth grounding!!!

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