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June/July 2006
Behind the Scenes
The Satya Interview with Joe Richman

Finding extraordinary stories in ordinary places, Radio Diaries is a not-for-profit organization that helps people record their lives for public radio: teenagers, prison inmates, seniors and others whose stories are rarely told. With a tape recorder provided, diarists conduct interviews, maintain an audio journal, and capture the essence of daily life. Radio Diaries offers a bit of history, a bit of life—evocative, extraordinary and everlasting. The documentaries are aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

Radio Diaries producer Joe Richman is an award-winning independent radio producer and reporter for public radio. In addition to his work with Radio Diaries and NPR, Joe teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, helping to train future generations of radio documentarians. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to speak with Joe Richman about his experiences in documenting inspiring voices.

Tell us about Radio Diaries and how you became involved.

I started doing the Radio Diaries series—Teenage Diaries was the first project—in 1996. And Radio Diaries became a non-profit organization in 1999. The goal is to help people document their own lives for public radio—to add an intimate and human perspective on the issues we hear about in the news every day.

You give people whose voices are rarely heard a chance to document their own lives for public radio. Do you consider your work a form of activism?
I don’t consider this activism in the political sense. But in some ways it’s like emotional activism. People feel differently about a subject like AIDS when they know someone who is affected. When a listener hears an audio diary from a young girl with AIDS, and she’s speaking directly and intimately through the radio speaker, by the end of the story I think the listener feels that they know and care about someone with AIDS. That’s an important first step.

How did you pick the subject of a teenager like Thembi Ngubane, who is facing a life with AIDS in South Africa?
This form of documentary—giving people a tape recorder to tell their own story—works particularly well with issues that are large, faceless and incomprehensible. The goal is to bring it down to a human scale. I don’t actually think that AIDS is a faceless issue, but I do think it’s a voiceless issue. And it’s important to have someone who is caught up in this huge epidemic speak for themselves.

As for my own interest in the subject, at first I was resistant to the idea of spending more than a year of my life working on this topic. Honestly, I just thought it would be too depressing. But when I met Thembi, I quickly realized that this was not going to be a documentary about AIDS, it was going to be a documentary about her. She just has this intimate way of talking. One of the first things she told me was that she begins every day with her HIV prayer. She looks in the mirror and actually talks to her HIV virus. After I left her that day, I just kept thinking about that, and it helped me realize that this is someone who had poetry about the way she approached her disease. She was my access point to the larger issue of AIDS. And judging by the many hundreds of emails and letters we’ve been getting from listeners, I think she has been the access point for many people.

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