Radio Diaries: 25 Years Of Telling Complex Stories Through Everyday Moments

Apr 30, 2021
Originally published on May 1, 2021 5:49 am

Radio Diaries launched 25 years ago, bringing the voices of teenagers documenting their lives to All Things Considered. Founder and producer Joe Richman looks back on a few diaries that were recorded at the beginning.

Amanda Brand was 17 when I gave her a big clunky cassette recorder and asked her to record her life for a few months. She didn't know what to expect. Neither did I.

Amanda was the first diarist I ever worked with. She had recently come out to her parents. They were Catholic and didn't know anyone who was gay; they did not take the news well. That's what her story was about. But, it was the scenes and sounds, all the everyday moments she recorded that got me really excited.

It turns out teenagers are exceptionally good at recording these moments. Amanda — in her self-described "industrial gothic" style — drove around with her friends aimlessly on a Friday night. She burped while walking around her house. She called her girlfriend on the family's old rotary phone. She recorded an intimate and difficult conversation with her parents about her sexuality.

At the end of her diary, Amanda says with teenage bravado: "My parents...they're going to have to get used to it. Because pretty soon when I bring my wife over to their house to eat dinner, you know, with my kids, they're gonna be like: OK fine. That's how it's gonna be."

Twenty-five years later, that's exactly how things have turned out. Amanda is married — her last name is Katz now. She and her wife have 9-year-old twins, and they regularly visit Amanda's parents for dinner. These days Amanda says her mom brags that her daughter is gay.

Juan was an undocumented 17-year-old who had recently crossed the Rio Grande river into Texas when he recorded his audio diary. Today, Juan has a family and his own business. He remains undocumented.
Juan

Juan was another one of the first teen diarists. At the time, Juan was an undocumented 17-year-old, who had crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. Today, Juan has a family and his own business. He's living the American dream and remains undocumented.

Then there was Melissa Rodriguez, a teen mom living on her own. And Josh Cutler, who has Tourette Syndrome. We've shared diaries from prison, diaries from a retirement home, and a diary from Claressa Shields, a young woman boxer from Flint, Mich., who went on to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

Doing journalism this way doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The diarists record for a few months or a year. They usually collect 20-50 hours of tape. Often, the difficult part is finding the narrative buried in the raw material. Ordinary life rarely unfolds as a coherent narrative. And most of the time it's boring. But I believe these stories are worth it.

I have an image of someone listening to the radio while driving home from work. I'm in the passenger seat telling you about Amanda or Juan. Or Amanda or Juan is in the passenger seat, telling their own story. I think that's the real superpower of radio: letting us hear and feel what it's like to live someone else's life.

If Radio Diaries has a mission, it's to break down stereotypes and stigma, to understand issues in the news differently by telling the complicated, complex stories of everyday people going about their lives. Like a Trojan horse, these stories get past our defenses.

Thembi Ngubane was willing to speak out at a time when few South Africans were willing to say, "I have AIDS." She carried a tape recorder from 2004 to 2005 to document her life. She died in 2009.
Sue Jaye Johnson

For me, the diarist that best captures this spirit is Thembi Ngubane. Thembi was a teenager living in one of the largest townships in South Africa. She was HIV positive. For two years, Thembi carried a tape recorder to document her struggle with AIDS. She collected about 50 hours of tape: interviews with her family and friends; late-night dancing with her boyfriend, Melikhaya; the sounds of her baby, Onwabo; and the moment when she told her father she had AIDS. One of the first things Thembi recorded for her radio diary was something she called her "HIV Prayer."

"Hello, HIV, you trespasser. You are in my body," she said. "You have to obey the rules. You have to respect me. And if you don't hurt me, I won't hurt you. You mind your business. I'll mind mine. And I will give you a ticket when the time comes."

Thembi thought the virus should be scared of her, rather than the other way around. She gave human form to a dehumanizing, stigmatizing issue. Thembi wasn't even 5 feet tall, but she had a big presence. She was brave, open and funny, with a charming smile. Thembi thought about death almost every day yet she was the most alive person I've ever met.

In 2009 – three years after her story aired – Thembi died from drug-resistant tuberculosis. At the time, more than 5,000 people were dying every day from AIDS in South Africa. Somehow, it never seemed Thembi would be one of them.

When Radio Diaries first started these stories sounded different. They stood out. They might have seemed a bit shocking alongside the news. These days, we all have recorders in our pockets and many of us are sharing the intimate details of our lives on social media. So, is it still worth doing these diaries today? That's a question I'm asking myself a lot lately.

I think Radio Diaries live in a unique space between biography and autobiography. When we tell our own stories, we often go for the big moments, our conclusions and realizations. We might not see our blind spots or our blemishes. Most of us can't fathom that the detritus of our lives — the everyday sounds of hanging out with friends, a conversation at the kitchen table — is the raw material of our story. It requires a witness, a curator, an editor — someone to see the bigger picture and put a frame around it. It's easier to recognize a moment when it's not yours.

The other day I interviewed Amanda for our podcast, to ask how it felt to document her life for all these years.

Amanda in 2021 with her wife Betsey Katz and their children Grace and Benjamin.
Amanda Katz

"It is a strange thing," she said. "You know, your diary that you write in doesn't ever talk back to you, or fall off the bookshelf when it's 10 or 25 years later because it wants you to read it again. It's like, you're almost forcing me to take a look back and reevaluate, like, where I am. How did I get here? It's intense. But I like it."

A lot has changed in the 25 years since Amanda recorded her diary: from cassettes to hard drives, tape recorders to iPhones, broadcasts to podcasts. But one thing hasn't changed. A microphone is still a passport to places and people we might not otherwise meet. That still feels as important as ever.

You can hear all the stories on the Radio Diaries Podcast. In the most recent episode, Amanda revisits her teenage diary from 25 years ago.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you had been listening to this program 25 years ago this month, you would have heard about the arrest of the Unabomber, about worldwide concerns over mad cow disease, about ongoing Middle East peace talks. Also in the mix, the voices of teenagers who were given tape recorders to document their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hello? Nope. Wrong button.

KELLY: A high schooler coming out to her parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AMANDA: I don't do what I do with Dawn (ph) with friends. You don't do what you do with Dad with friends.

KELLY: A teenage mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: We would have recorded the birth, but it happened so fast.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: About half an hour.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Laughter).

KELLY: A boy with Tourette syndrome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Most of the time I can't control what comes out of my mouth. I control what comes out of my ass better than what comes out of my mouth.

KELLY: And an undocumented teenager who crossed the Rio Grande into Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: You see, we came all the way from Zacatecas, about 18 hours, just to come 300 feet into the United States.

KELLY: Those stories were the launch of Radio Diaries. Its founder and producer is Joe Richman, and he is here to look back on 25 years of diaries. Joe Richman, 25 years - how did that happen? Amazing.

(LAUGHTER)

JOE RICHMAN, BYLINE: Oh, my God. How did that happen? I don't know.

KELLY: Take us back to how all this got started.

RICHMAN: I think it started as an experiment, really, with one teenager, Amanda, who I gave a tape recorder to when she was 17. And she was doing this story about coming out to her parents who were Catholic and pretty conservative and were having a really hard time with this issue. The idea wasn't just to record sort of late-night journal entries but to really have the tape recorder along for her life, recording sounds and scenes, you know, all the way up to, like, driving around with her friends late at night and, you know, the clothes that she was wearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AMANDA: Basically, I wear, like, a cross between skater clothes and, like, industrial gothic. I think it's a neat combination. My parents think I should dress more feminine. But what do they know, right? They grew up back in ancient times.

KELLY: Back in ancient times - I mean, that's Amanda talking about her mom. But at the time you were recording this, she was in the middle of really difficult conversations with her parents. Did you get any of those on tape?

RICHMAN: Yeah. I mean, Amanda probably recorded, you know, 20 hours of tape, you know, over a period of months. And, you know, and the lesson for me just in that first experiment was that usually the beating heart of the story is a conversation - you know, in this case, a conversation with Amanda and her mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's not natural. And I mentioned that to you several times. That is not what God intended.

AMANDA: You don't know this, but how come when I was, like, younger, I felt this way?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All girls feel that way.

AMANDA: Since I was in first grade?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes. There's just not enough life that you've seen. You haven't seen enough. You haven't done enough. You have not lived.

AMANDA: Well, over two years and five months have gone by, and that's what I believe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think if a good fella came by and really treated you right, your mind will switch.

AMANDA: My mind will switch. So it's all in my mind?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is. It's all in your mind right now.

KELLY: Gosh, it's hard to listen to, Joe. I'm wondering - you've stayed in touch with Amanda - right? - who must be in her 40s now. How has life turned out?

RICHMAN: Well, you know, at the end of her diary, Amanda recorded this thing where she's imagining her future self married to a woman with two kids and bringing them all over to dinner at her parents' house, and that's exactly the way things are. Amanda is married. They have two 9-year-olds. You know, Amanda says these days her mom brags about her being gay. You know, it's been a turnaround in her family, as I think it has been in the country to a large extent over the last 25 years on this particular issue.

KELLY: Things changed for her family, for the country. Was that always intentional, to try to cover big news events shaping our lives but in a very small, human way?

RICHMAN: I think you said it pretty well. Yeah (laughter). I mean, you know, I think that, you know, radio is just a really good medium for humanizing stories. It's, like, one of the superpowers of radio, is that it's intimate, and it feels like we get to know people. And I think this always felt like a way to make people that we might hear about in the news become three-dimensional, real people in our lives.

KELLY: One of the other teenagers whose diary you share is named Thembi. And Thembi was keeping a diary and recording with you about having AIDS.

RICHMAN: You know, AIDS at that time in South Africa was one of those completely dehumanizing sorts of issues and maybe more in need of humanization than anything else. And I remember meeting Thembi, and she told me about her HIV prayer that she did every morning, which meant looking in the mirror and talking to her HIV

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THEMBI: Hello, HIV, you trespasser right in my body. You have to obey the rules. You have to respect me. And if you don't hurt me, I won't hurt you.

KELLY: Thembi was 19, I think, when she recorded that. She had a boyfriend. She was trying to figure out how to talk to him about all this.

RICHMAN: Yeah. I mean, Thembi recorded over almost two years and scenes of - you know, with her boyfriend, dancing and singing and all sorts of things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THEMBI: (Singing in non-English language).

RICHMAN: And just sitting down and coming together to talk about a situation they were both facing at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THEMBI: I'm the one who's infected you.

MELIKHAYA: I don't want to blame you.

THEMBI: We are not going to die the same time, if we die.

MELIKHAYA: I know that you think if you die first, I'm going to have another girlfriend.

(LAUGHTER)

THEMBI: No, I'm not thinking thoughts like that. No, I'm not thinking about that. At least if we were going to die, die at the same time.

MELIKHAYA: Die at the same time.

THEMBI: (Laughter).

MELIKHAYA: Give me a kiss for that.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHMAN: I've always loved that scene because it's so complicated.

KELLY: It's so sweet and so sad listening to them laugh and joke about - they clearly love each other, and this is so hard. What happened to their story?

RICHMAN: Well, those two were totally inseparable. They ended up having a child, and she was HIV-negative. About three years after Thembi's story aired, she died of drug-resistant TB. Her boyfriend Melikhaya and her daughter Onwabo are still living, you know, in the same area outside of Cape Town, and they're healthy, and they're doing well. Onwabo is kind of an amazing little mini Thembi these days - 15 now.

KELLY: Fifteen now - wow. I have to ask, would a teenager today need you for this project? I'm thinking about the fact that teenagers are - you know, they're all on social media all the time, telling their story. They're all carrying around, basically, a tape recorder in the form of their cellphone in their pockets. How has everything changed?

RICHMAN: Yeah, I think they've changed a lot. I mean, that's something I've been thinking about a lot over the last few years. You know, these stories sounded really different 25 years ago. But I think there's something different about the stories that we tell about ourselves versus the stories that are told about us. And, you know, these diaries, they're kind of a funny combination. They're not just autobiography, and they're not biography; they're something in the middle. They're kind of a collaboration. And I think there's still just so much need and value in trying to understand each other. And if the mission of this project was - I think it still is - to try to understand what it's like to live in someone else's shoes, to live someone else's life, in some ways that's more important than ever.

KELLY: So powerful. That is producer Joe Richman, looking back on 25 years of Radio Diaries. Thank you, Joe.

RICHMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "LITTLE'S THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.