About Reality Radio
Telling True Stories in Sound
by John Biewen, editor / Alexa Dilworth, coeditor
In the series Documentary Arts and Culture
Published by the University of North Carolina Press and CDS Books at the Center for Documentary Studies in March 2010
$22.95, paperback | ISBN 078-0-8078-7102-7
$45.00, hardcover | ISBN 078-0-8078-3357-5
Available at bookstores or from the University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: March 2010
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 including This American Life, StoryCorps, and Radio Lab; online through such sites as Transom, the Public Radio Exchange, Hearing Voices, and Soundprint; and through a growing collection of podcasts.
Reality Radio celebrates 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 twenty essays, documentary makers 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.
With essays by Jad Abumrad, Jay Allison, damali ayo, John Biewen, Emily Botein, Chris Brookes, Scott Carrier, Katie Davis, Sherre DeLys, Lena Eckert-Erdheim, Ira Glass, Alan Hall, Natalie Kestecher, The Kitchen Sisters, Maria Martin, Karen Michel, Rick Moody, Joe Richman, Dmae Roberts, Stephen Smith, and Sandy Tolan
John Biewen is audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he teaches and produces documentary work for NPR, PRI, American Public Media, and other public radio audiences. Alexa Dilworth is publishing director at the Center for Documentary Studies.
Praise for Reality Radio
“Radio has suffered corporate deadening just like other ‘traditional’ media, yet it retains an edge thanks to public, community, and college stations and the popularity of radio documentaries. Biewen, audio program director for Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, offers a lively history of creative documentary radio in his introduction to 19 passionate, instructive, and unexpectedly moving essays by innovative audio journalists and artists who ‘use sound to tell true stories artfully.’ Such artists include the Kitchen Sisters, who write about their ‘deep need to bear witness and try to heal the culture through stories and revelations,’ and Ira Glass, who generously reveals just how much patience, effort, and luck are involved in creating This American Life. Jad Abumrad’s description of his work with Robert Krulwich on the wacky Radio Lab series is matched by provocative accounts of radio diaries and bold audio performance art and Katie Davis’ beautiful essay about her collaborations with Washington, D.C., teens in Neighborhood Stories and the practice of ‘deeper listening.’ Invaluable and many-faceted coverage of a thriving, populist, and mind-expanding art form.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist
“A powerful and illuminating anthology about our most powerful and intimate medium. Reality Radio is a must-read for anyone who feels called to make documentary work or whose imagination and heart are stirred by the sounds of nonfiction storytelling on the radio. A wonderful book!”—Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps and Sound Portraits Productions
“Reality Radio is a fabulous book I wish I could have read when I started at NPR in 1974. It would have shaved 10–15 years off the learning curve in discovering how to make great radio.”—Bob Edwards, host of The Bob Edwards Show on Sirius XM Radio
“The producers who wrote these essays prove that there’s nothing more moving than real, truthful radio. I read a lot of the book in bed and soon heard the voices whispering in my ear: ‘Get up. Go record something. Now.’ You will feel the same.”—Neenah Ellis, independent radio producer and author of If I Live to Be 100: Lessons from the Centenarians
“Reality Radio is a collection of masterful essays by radio’s best producers; I feel as though I’ve had a personal, one-on-one conversation with many of the medium’s contemporary heroes. This book will stoke the ‘radio fire’ in the bellies of its readers.”—Rob Rosenthal, independent radio producer and director of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies radio program
“The essays in this book were written by people thinking with their ears.”—Rick Moody, from the foreword
“True or false: the difference between reality television and reality radio is that the latter tells “true stories.” The contributors to this book do not claim that specific point, but the title begs the comparison. Biewen and Dilworth (both, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke Univ.) collected essays by journalists, documentarians, and artists who have chosen radio as a primary medium for reporting audio that takes one inside a topic rather than offering 15-second sound bites. The names of the contributors will be most familiar to the public-radio listener, but their work has infiltrated a variety of old and new media, demonstrating its relevance. What is striking about this collection is how clearly the reader can “hear” the diverse voices and stories, despite the print medium. Biewen comments on the difficulty of “coaxing [the contributors] to articulate on the page what they do with sound.” But the book succeeds admirably. It is a remarkable collection that reveals the process, creativity, and purpose behind stories designed to help listeners “feel something.” It also provides lessons in journalistic decision-making, editing, and attention to detail — how to keep listeners listening, and affect their understanding of the topics treated. A wonderful and accessible read. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates; technical students; general readers.—F. Tavares, Southern Connecticut State University, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries