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Reality Radio

Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound

John Biewen editor
Alexa Dilworth coeditor
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  • Book Info
    Reality Radio
    Book Description:

    Over the last few decades, the radio documentary has developed into a strikingly vibrant form of creative expression. Millions of listeners hear arresting, intimate storytelling from an ever-widening array of producers on programs includingThis American Life,StoryCorps, andRadio Lab; online through such sites as Transom, the Public Radio Exchange, Hearing Voices, and Soundprint; and through a growing collection of podcasts.Reality Radiocelebrates today's best audio documentary work by bringing together some of the most influential and innovative practitioners from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. In these nineteen essays, documentary artists tell--and demonstrate, through stories and transcripts--how they make radio the way they do, and why.Whether the contributors to the volume call themselves journalists, storytellers, even audio artists--and although their essays are just as diverse in content and approach--all use sound to tell true stories, artfully.Contributors:Jad AbumradJay Allisondamali ayoJohn BiewenEmily BoteinChris BrookesScott CarrierKatie DavisSherre DeLysLena Eckert-ErdheimIra GlassAlan HallNatalie KestecherThe Kitchen SistersMaria MartinKaren MichelRick MoodyJoe RichmanDmae RobertsStephen SmithSandy Tolan

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0420-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword (pp. ix-xiv)
    Rick Moody

    MY FIRST RADIO STATION, let’s see. It was 1975, and I’d gone off to private school in New Hampshire. I didn’t really want to go away at thirteen, because I was morbidly shy. The other kids at my school seemed to have spent their lives in private institutions and knew the sociological nuances therein. That’s the back story, anyway. First day there, in the midst of a tour being given by some upperclassman, I was shunted quickly through the school radio station, wsps. A ten-watt transmitter the size of a refrigerator wheezed in one corner. Whether the signal could reach...

  4. Introduction (pp. 1-14)
    John Biewen

    IT WAS WAY BACK in the last century, around 1998, and some colleagues and I at Minnesota Public Radio were getting ready to launch American RadioWorks, a new documentary production unit for the public radio system. The aim was to make one-hour programs exploring issues and recent American history, with an emphasis on human stories. These programs would be distributed to stations across the country (at that time, by National Public Radio) in hopes they would broadcast them. A manager at a major station offered us some marketing advice. Whatever you do, he said, don’t call these shows documentaries. That’s...

  5. Are We on the Air? (pp. 15-26)
    Chris Brookes

    THERE IS ONE FEATURE that distinguishes me from other radio makers: geography. I am the only one whose production studio is located on the cliff where radio, as we know it, was born.

    Long-distance radio transmission was delivered into the world at the top of my cliff in 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio transmission. So a century later when I sit down to my Pro Tools editing screen I’m conscious of the fact that two hundred feet above me is where Marconi did it, and on a foggy day all I have to do is look...

  6. That Jackie Kennedy Moment (pp. 27-35)
    Scott Carrier

    MY WORK IN RADIO PRODUCTION can be traced to a moment when I was twenty-one years old, sitting in a college auditorium watching the Richard Leacock film Primary, of the cinéma vérité. I have not seen the film since, so my recollection of what happened is somewhat blurry. In my memory there’s a shot about halfway through the film where Jackie Kennedy walks across a hotel room. The lighting is natural, so it’s kind of dark, on old black-and-white film. There are maybe ten people in the hotel room, and they are waiting for the results of the Wisconsin primary...

  7. Talking to Strangers (pp. 36-43)
    The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva

    SOMEONE AT THE STATION taught us how to use a razor blade, and we began to edit furiously. Whittling, honing little snippets of tape labeled with grease pencil, taped to the walls all around us. We began to work in a method that we have continued to refine over two decades. Sure, now it’s digital, but this too will pass. Our techniques seem to endure.

    We do extremely long interviews—our average is two hours, but we’ve been known to go up to sixteen hours over the course of days or months. These epic conversations are contemplated, then cut, recut,...

  8. No Holes Were Drilled in the Heads of Animals in the Making of This Radio Show (pp. 44-53)
    Jad Abumrad

    I HAVE A GREAT DEAL OF TROUBLE describingRadio Labto people. What I usually say is, well,Radio Labis a series of hour-long radio shows where cohost Robert Krulwich and I wrestle with big ideas (the “eternals” . . . like time, space, consciousness) and mash-up all the usual radio forms. Problem is, that description never inspires shivers of delight. Something about “big ideas” feels like homework. So then I say, okay, well, it’s a show about curiosity. And discovery.

    Too vague. At this point, the expression of the person I’m talking to flips from boredom to confusion....

  9. Harnessing Luck as an Industrial Product (pp. 54-66)
    Ira Glass

    I STARTED WORKING AT National Public Radio’s headquarters in Washington when I was nineteen, but I wasn’t competent at writing and structuring my own stories until I was twenty-seven. I’ve never met anyone who took longer, and I’ve met hundreds of people who work in radio. Back then, I made my living by filling in as a production assistant on the various national news shows, and by taking day jobs as a temp typist around Washington. I was sort of hopeless at all the basic tasks of recognizing and shaping a story.

    If this sounds like exaggeration, here’s a typical...

  10. Covering Home (pp. 67-75)
    Katie Davis

    I HOLD MY MICROPHONE in my lap as the cop turns up Fifteenth Street. “Lots of guns where I’m taking you.” I know he’s not bragging. The year has barely started, and D.C. is counting up shootings—on the streets and in schools.

    The cop picks up Columbia Road, near my home.Don’t know this way.Every morning I take the bus downtown, my pocket radio piping the morning news into my earplugs until I reach National Public Radio. I get to work two hours early to read theNew York Times,theWashington Post, and thePhiladelphia Inquirer. Clip,...

  11. What Did She Just Say? (pp. 76-85)
    damali ayo

    THE FIRST WORK I MADE for radio began with an experiment about race at a very basic level, that of skin color. I wanted to uncover what people see when they look at my skin. Wearing a hidden recorder, I walked into the paint departments of various hardware stores to find collaborators in my experiment. I approached the paint mixer on duty and asked him (or, in one case, her) if he could create a paint to match any color that was presented to him. Paint mixers don’t say no to this type of challenge; my next step was to...

  12. Out There (pp. 86-95)
    Sherre DeLys

    SHERRE: We’ve been traveling for a couple of hours through Yolngu lands, passing by the countries of about fifty different nation groups, each with their own languages and stories but bound together by kinship. On either side of the road—eucalypt trees, native grasses waist high, and cycad palms hinting at a time when dinosaurs roamed. . . . Yingiya tells me that his people used to travel here by foot, following winding ancestral tracks. And all the way elders were teaching . . . the names of plants, stories about their land. In our four-wheel drive we’re ripping along...

  13. Cigarettes and Dance Steps (pp. 96-107)
    Alan Hall

    WALKING ALONG A LEVEE in New Orleans late one afternoon in the summer of 2006, it struck me—just as a match was struck by my companion to light his cigarette—that the smallest details in a radio feature can be the most telling. They can also be the most elusive in a form that is itself somewhat elliptical in nature. Within British radio, the feature—or documentary feature—is a subgenre of “built speech” programming, usually long form and tending to apply the techniques of fiction to factual stories. Its intention—or destiny, to use the words of Laurence...

  14. Unreality Radio (pp. 108-115)
    Natalie Kestecher

    I’ll be honest with you. When I started making my first radio feature I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was in my early thirties, was totally sick and tired of teaching English, and was getting a graduate diploma in communication. My radio production class had been given an assignment—to make a full-length radio documentary.

    Ever since hearing some obscure statistical fact that the men and women who collect coins from motorists as they (the motorists) go through tolls had the most boring job in the world, I’d been fascinated. I was curious to know what sort...

  15. Finding the Poetry (pp. 116-127)
    Dmae Roberts

    Voices have a poetry that is




    The way people speak

    With pauses,

    Stutters, stumbles, abrupt—

    Eruptions and

    . . . pauses . . .

    And Undertones that underlie the words, raised and

    Low volumes

    High and Bass pitch

    When people are excited or tired or perhaps

    . . . lying or telling the truth . . .

    This all makes a difference in the context

    The meaning


    All the variances and nuance give depth and texture to the words they speak.

    The flow. The rhythms.

    The way we over—

    —lap in conversation and...

  16. Diaries and Detritus One Perfectionist’s Search for Imperfection (pp. 128-134)
    Joe Richman

    HERE IS A STORY about a cough.

    It was 1963, in a stuffy courtroom in South Africa, during the trial of Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists for treason. The prosecutor was just beginning his opening statement when somebody in the courtroom coughed. It was an ordinary cough; it lasted less than two seconds. The prosecutor’s words—and the cough—were recorded onto a reel-to-reel tape. At the end of the trial, Mandela and the other defendants were sent to prison on Robben Island. The tape was sent to the basement of a government archives. It remained there, mislabeled and...

  17. Living History (pp. 135-146)
    Stephen Smith

    WHEN IT’S DONE WELL, history on the radio is like a ride in Mr. Peabody’s wabac Machine: you end up somewhere you’ve never been before and meet characters you never quite imagined—and it’s all in color. To explain: on the 1960s television cartoon showRocky and Bullwinkle, the canine genius, Mr. Peabody, would instruct his pet boy, Sherman, to set the machine for a given date. A big “danger” sign on the wabac (pronounced “wayback”) suggested time travel was no trifling matter. The pair would wander across the centuries getting in scrapes and meeting historical characters like Cleopatra, Ludwig...

  18. The Voice and the Place (pp. 147-156)
    Sandy Tolan

    IN THE SUMMER OF 1982, wide-eyed and pumped with a post-Watergate journalistic fervor, I climbed into a borrowed, beat-up Datsun and headed north out of Flagstaff, Arizona, into Navajo country.

    I was drawn there by two stories that astounded me both in their intensity and their near invisibility to people outside the reservation. One was about the Navajo uranium miners—foot soldiers of the Cold War and the U.S. atomic weapons program, who had worked in the unventilated “dog holes” across the reservation, chipping at rock and breathing in radioactive dust. Now many of these men, who had never been...

  19. Crossing Borders (pp. 157-164)
    Maria Martin

    MY MOTHER WAS ADELA GARCIA RÍOS, whose family came from the indigenous community of Texcoco and who worked as household help in Mexico City. My father, Charles McGlynn Martin, was agringoescapee from a cold climate. He’d ventured south from Chicago after World War II to find sun and cheap living on the gi Bill. The son of Irish immigrants and the Mexico City gal together forgeduna familia bilingüe y bicultural—a bilingual, bicultural family—symbolic of the many connections between the United States and its southerly neighbor.

    We lived in Mexico for my first six years; I...

  20. Adventurers in Sound (pp. 165-170)
    Karen Michel

    ONE OF THE BETTER PIECES of radio I’ve heard in many years was made by a blind teenager in a small town in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Not that I listened to it on public radio; the story was broadcast locally on a—get this—hydropowered community radio station. I heard it presented in a workshop for teenage radio producers at a conference of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. The story was about a blind person’s experience of learning to drive.

    When I met Amanda Martins in that workshop, she didn’t introduce herself as blind (though for the sighted,...

  21. Dressy Girls (pp. 171-175)
    Lena Eckert-Erdheim

    I GREW UP WITHOUT A TELEVISION and, for as long as I can remember, was fed steadily on National Public Radio instead. Because of this, I was pretty much the dorkiest kid I knew all the way through middle school. While my classmates progressed throughBarney, Pokemon,andFriends,I was rushing to my radio at five o’clock every evening and humming along to theAll Things Consideredtheme music. It never occurred to me that I might one day be on the radio until the summer of 2003 while participating in the Youth Document Durham summer program at the...

  22. Salt Is Flavor and Other Tips Learned While Cooking (pp. 176-182)
    Emily Botein

    I CAME TO RADIO THROUGH FOOD. At age twelve I began cooking for a caterer, stuffing chicken breasts, baking chocolate chip cookies, and (this being the early 1980s) making pasta salad. After college I landed a job at the Quilted Giraffe, a four-star restaurant in New York. It was famous, among other things, for caviar beggar’s purses. One of my daily tasks was filling crepes with a spoonful of caviar and a dollop of crème fraîche and then forming each one into a little bundle, tied with a chive bow.

    Not a bad beginning for future years cleaning edits and...

  23. Afterword Listen (pp. 183-196)
    Jay Allison

    WHEN I WAS SMALL, I was quiet. Not shy exactly, but not someone with a radio future either. My father, on the other hand, was a wonderful talker. A big man with a big personality, he was full of funny stuff and everyone enjoyed him, including me. There was no sense in trying to match his affable, amplified self. Instead, I watched and listened. A happy audience.

    Growing up, my sisters and I were sheltered in the sense that my family spent time with other families like us. I suppose many families tend to keep to their own kind unless...

  24. About the Contributors (pp. 197-204)
  25. Editor’s Note Hearing the Documentaries (pp. 205-206)
  26. Acknowledgments (pp. 207-208)