“Some of the people in Reality Radio I’ve met; some I’ve worked with. Yet much of the wisdom found in these pages is new to me. Each piece taught me something about radio that I didn’t know.”—Starlee Kine, host of Mystery Show, from the foreword

“Somehow in this manic digital age, Reality Radio—a mere book!—is more relevant than ever. Form and function manifest, here is the story of contemporary documentary audio, thoughtfully composed and offered straight from its most respected producers. Reality Radio is required reading for anyone at the beginning of her audio career. Or in the middle. Or finishing up. And for all invested listeners. This is radio canon.”—Julie Shapiro, executive producer, Radiotopia from PRX

Reality Radio is a fabulous book I wish I could have read when I started at NPR. It would have shaved ten to fifteen years off the learning curve discovering how to make great radio.”—Bob Edwards, former host of the Bob Edwards Show and now the Bob Edwards Podcast

“The essays in this book were written by people thinking with their ears.”—Rick Moody, author and audio maker

“How could something so good get better? Well, John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth have managed to do just that. Reality Radio will remain required reading for all my students—especially given the addition of essays from some of my radio heroes like Alix Spiegel, Dave Isay, and Sarah Koenig.”—Rob Rosenthal, independent radio producer and lead instructor at the Transom Story Workshop

“[Biewen] 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. . . . Invaluable and many-faceted coverage of a thriving, populist, and mind-expanding art form.”—Booklist

“What is striking about this collection is how clearly the reader can 'hear' the diverse voices and stories, despite the print medium. . . . A wonderful and accessible read. . . . Highly recommended.”—Choice

“An incredibly important contribution to the field of public media, one that will invite introspection, spark creativity, and hopefully teach people that the first step in learning is listening.”—Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0

“This book is valuable for those who believe radio's future is in the art of storytelling and can be a particularly good resource for students enrolled in radio narrative or radio/audio documentary classes, and a valued tool for faculty teaching documentary, narrative, audio drama, and radio writing.”—Journal of Radio and Audio Media

“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

“In [these] highly autobiographical essays . . . some of the finest practitioners of broadcast aural storytelling describe and celebrate their craft. . . . Though not every documentarian profiled in the book provides equally useful guidance to oral historians interested in transforming their work into aural narratives, they all provide plenty of inspiration and useful general principles.”—Oral History Review


Contributor Bios



Jad Abumrad is the host and producer of WNYC’s Radiolab, an award-winning radio series that explores big ideas through conversation, sound, and storytelling. The son of a scientist and a doctor, he did most of his growing up in Tennessee, before studying creative writing and music composition at Oberlin College in Ohio. Following graduation, Abumrad wrote music for films, and reported and produced documentaries for a variety of local and national public radio programs. Radiolab podcasts are downloaded over 4 million times each month and the program is carried on 437 stations across the nation. Abumrad is also the executive producer and creator of Radiolab’s More Perfect, a podcast that explores how cases deliberated inside the rarefied world of the Supreme Court affect our lives far away from the bench. In 2011, he was honored as a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow.

Daniel Alarcón is the author of six books, including the novel At Night We Walk in Circles, a finalist for the 2014 pen/Faulkner Award. He began working as a journalist in 2004, first in print for Latin American outlets such as Etiqueta Negra, and later for American and European publications including Harper’s, the New York Times MagazineEl País, and Granta, where he was named a contributing editor in 2010. In 2012, he cofounded Radio Ambulante, a groundbreaking Spanish-language podcast, covering Latin America with long-form narrative radio journalism. He teaches radio and reporting at the Columbia University Journalism School.

Jay Allison is an independent journalist and leader in public broadcasting. He produces The Moth Radio Hour and has created hundreds of documentary programs and series. Over the past thirty-five years he has been a frequent contributor to NPR News programs and This American Life, and he is a six-time Peabody Award winner. He hosted and produced This I Believe on NPR and co-edited the best-selling companion books. With the Kitchen Sisters, Allison co-produced and curated the series Lost & Found SoundThe Sonic Memorial Project, and Hidden Kitchens. Through his nonprofit organization—Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts—he co-founded the acclaimed website, which helps people tell their own stories, and the Public Radio Exchange, which helps get those stories to listeners. He also founded WCAI, the public radio service for Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod, where Allison lives with his family.

damali ayo has been featured in Harper’s, the Village Voice, Salon, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Redbook magazine, and on the O’Reilly Factor and Book TV. As a keynote speaker she travels the country, engaging audiences to think, feel, and heal through difficult community and personal challenges. She is the author of two books, How to Rent a Negro and Obamistan!, and has done stories for NPR’s Tell Me More and State of the Re:Union, as well as Public Radio International’s Studio 360. ayo was also a contributor to the reboot of the historic This I Believe radio series, as well as a repeat guest panelist on NPR’s Weekend America. “Living Flag: Panhandling for Reparations,” co-produced with Dmae Roberts, won a 2005 Silver Reel Award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

John Biewen is audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and host and producer of the CDS podcast, Scene on Radio. His award-winning audio work has taken him to forty American states and to Europe, Japan, and India, and has appeared on NPR, This American Life, Studio 360, and the BBC World Service. Biewen started as a reporter with Minnesota Public Radio. He then reported for NPR News from the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains and spent eight years as a correspondent with American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media, before joining CDS. He teaches audio to undergraduate, graduate, and continuing studies students in CDS’s Certificate in Documentary Studies programs.

Emily Botein, is vice president for On-Demand Content at WNYC Radio in New York, where she collaborates with colleagues to identify talent, produce pilots, and launch series, and works closely with such shows as Death, Sex & Money, The New Yorker Radio Hour, and Here’s the Thing. Over the past two decades she has worked with a range of institutions and programs, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Metropolitan Opera, National Public Radio, Studio 360Weekend America, and WNYC’s The Next Big Thing. And before all that, she received a professional pastry certificate from Tante Marie’s Cooking School and made appetizers at the Quilted Giraffe, a four-star restaurant in New York City

Chris Brookes was a theater director before he became a radio journalist. During the 1980s he reported out of war zones in Central America, and was a field documentary producer for the Canadian network radio program CBC Sunday Morning. As an independent radio producer for the past twenty years, he has won international awards including a Peabody and a Prix Italia for his documentaries. Recently, he has created locative audio works, placing interactive documentary and fictional material in physical landscapes. Brookes currently directs the production company Battery Radio with studios at the bottom of the cliff where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Scott Carrier is an independent radio producer and writer who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has contributed radio stories to such shows as All Things Considered, Day to Day, Hearing Voices, Love + Radio, Marketplace, This American Life, and Weekend America, and his print stories have been featured in Harper’s, Esquire, GQ, and Mother Jones. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, Running after Antelope (2001), and a book of essays, Prisoner of Zion: Muslims, Mormons, and Other Misadventures (2013). In 2015, Carrier began producing the podcast Home of the Brave, which combines original stories with work that has previously aired on NPR and other radio shows.

Katie Davis is a writer and broadcaster living in Washington, D.C. Her radio work has appeared on All Things Considered, This American Life, and The Story, among other shows. Davis chronicled her Washington, D.C., neighborhood for the series Neighborhood Stories and has recently collaborated with residents of Washington’s Anacostia community, who received digital recorders, to tell their own stories for Anacostia Unmapped on WAMU 88.5, a project of AIR’s Localore: Finding America initiative.

For two decades, Sherre DeLys’s stories for radio and podcast have been made and played in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. Born in America and now a resident of Australia, her artistic experimentation has earned some of the world’s most respected radio awards for storytelling and sound design. She has exhibited sound installations and “documentary soundscapes” for Paris’s Centre Pompidou, London’s Southbank Centre, and the Sydney Biennale; created sound sculptures for hospitals; and developed sound designs for Sydney Theatre Company. DeLys founded the award-winning participatory media platform abc Pool for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Ira Glass is the host and creator of the public radio program This American Life. The show had its premiere on Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ in 1995 and is now heard on more than five hundred public radio stations each week by over 2.2 million listeners. It’s also heard on the CBC in Canada and the ABC in Australia, and a growing number of listeners (2.5 million each week worldwide as of 2016) download the program as a podcast.

Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions, has been producing radio since 1990 and has built an international reputation for long-form features, music documentaries, and what’s been called “impressionistic radio.” Much of his work has been produced for the BBC, but he has also had programs commissioned and broadcast across North America, Australia, Europe, and the United Kingdom’s arts station Resonance FM. Hall’s nonbroadcast work includes writing, teaching, and, with Eleanor McDowall, sound work for online and art galleries. His programs have received many awards, including two coveted Prix Italias, Prix Europas, Third Coast Festival Awards, and several Sony Radio Academy Awards.

Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and the recipient of numerous broadcasting honors, including six Peabody Awards and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. In 2015, he was recognized with the TED Prize, awarded annually to one exceptional individual with a creative, bold vision to spark global change. Isay is the author of numerous New York Times best-selling books. In April 2016, the fifth StoryCorps book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, was released by Penguin Press.

Natalie Kestecher blends documentary material, performance, fact and fiction, to create unusual stories for ABC Radio National and public broadcasters around the world. She’s won numerous international awards for her work, including the Prix Marulic in Croatia, the Third Coast Festival in Chicago, and several New York Festivals medals. She is currently the host and producer of PocketDocs, a program that features short documentaries, fiction, monologues, and musings. She’s also a marriage celebrant and a fiction writer. She is currently working on her first novel.

Starlee Kine is the creator and host of the podcast Mystery Show, which was named best podcast of 2015 by iTunes. The show has tackled (and solved) such age-old mysteries as “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?” and “Why is Britney Spears carrying my book?” Kine is also a frequent contributor to This American Life, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and the California Sunday Magazine.

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva) are producers of the James Beard and duPont-Columbia Award–winning NPR series Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition; two Peabody Award–winning series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project; and the NPR series The Hidden World of Girls, about girls and the women they become. Their first book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes & More from NPR’s Kitchen Sisters, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Their podcast, Fugitive Waves with the Kitchen Sisters, is part of the Radiotopia collective from PRX. They are currently working on their second book, Show the Girls the Snakes, and their first Broadway musical. The Kitchen Sisters’ national radio collaborations have brought together independent producers, artists, writers, archivists, and public radio listeners throughout the country to create richly layered, highly produced, intimate, and provocative radio documentaries that chronicle untold stories of American culture and traditions.

Sarah Koenig was as a newspaper reporter for a decade, working in Moscow, New Hampshire, and Baltimore, before she switched over to radio in 2004. At This American Life, she produced stories on all kinds of topics: politics, terrorism prosecutions, Guantánamo Bay, her father, coincidences, and what it’s like to live next door to the nation’s number one party school. In 2014, after working with Julie Snyder for ten years, she and Snyder decided to start another audio documentary show together, which became Serial.

Maria Martin began her radio career as a volunteer at the first Latino-owned and operated public radio station in the country—KBBF in Santa Rosa, California. A recipient of a Fulbright and three Knight fellowships, as well as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy, Martin currently directs the GraciasVida Center for Media in La Antigua, Guatemala, a nonprofit organization devoted to the practice of independent journalism in the public interest. For the last ten years, the GraciasVida has worked to improve the working situation for rural, provincial, and indigenous journalists in Guatemala, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, as well as to improve coverage of Central America on U.S. public radio. An award-winning journalist for over two decades, Martin developed such groundbreaking programs and series as NPR’s Latino USA and Despues de las Guerras: Central America after the Wars. In September 2015, Martin was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Karen Michel, based in upstate New York, is an independent radio producer who got her start in media as a guest on Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darndest Things. She has lived and worked in Alaska, Mexico, Japan, Greenland, India, Canada, Kenya, Nepal, Madagascar, and other geographies real and imagined. She is also a photographer, and is interested in developing “performance documentary,” combining visuals, text and sound. She’s received many awards and fellowships—Peabody, Robert Wood Johnson, National Endowment for the Arts, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Japan Foundation, and the Fulbright/Indo-U.S. Subcommission, among them.

Joe Richman, Radio Diaries founder and executive producer,  is a Peabody Award–winning producer and reporter whose pioneering series Teenage Diaries brought the voices of teenagers to a national audience on NPR’s All Things Considered. Before founding Radio Diaries, he worked on the NPR programs All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday, Car Talk, and Heat. Richman, whom the LA Times called “a kind of Studs Terkel of the airwaves,” also teaches radio documentary at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Radio Diaries is a founding member of the Radiotopia Podcast Collective from PRX.

Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody Award–winning writer and independent media producer whose work has aired on NPR and PRI programs. She adapted her Peabody Award–winning radio documentary “Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Song,” a harrowing account of her mother’s childhood in Taiwan during World War II, into a film. Roberts won a second Peabody Award for her eight-hour Crossing East, the first Asian American history series on public radio. Her other awards include the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice, the United States Artists Fellowship, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award. Roberts is also the executive producer of MEDIARITES, a nonprofit organization dedicated to multicultural arts production in radio and educational outreach. Her book The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of a Mixed-Race Family was released in 2016.

Stephen Smith is the executive editor and host of APM Reports, the documentary and investigative series from American Public Media. He has covered a wide range of international and domestic issues, including human rights, education, science, health, race relations, and American history. Smith is the editor or co-editor of four anthologies on American history. He has won numerous national journalism awards, including the duPont-Columbia University Gold Baton, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy, Edward R. Murrow, Overseas Press Club, and Investigative Reporters and Editors awards. Smith holds a BA in English from Macalester College and an MA in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, where he was a William Benton Fellow. Smith teaches narrative journalism at Macalester.

Julie Snyder has been the guiding force behind two of the most successful ventures in audio broadcasting: she is the co-creator of the podcast Serial, which debuted in October 2014 and has been downloaded more than 200 million times, making it the most listened-to podcast in the history of the form; and for many years, she was the senior producer of the public radio show This American Life, which is heard by more than 4 million listeners each week.

Alix Spiegel began her career as one of the founding producers of This American Life and has worked on NPR’s science desk for ten years covering stories on psychology and human behavior. In January 2015, Spiegel joined former Radiolab reporter Lulu Miller to co-host the podcast Invisibilia, a series about the unseen forces that control human behavior—our ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts. Excerpts of the show can also be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Spiegel has received a Peabody Award, a Livingston Award, a duPont-Columbia University Award, a Scripps Howard National Journalism Award, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, among others. Originally from Baltimore, Spiegel graduated from Oberlin College. Her work on human behavior has also appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times.

Sandy Tolan, a professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, is a co-founder of Homelands Productions. Since 1982, he has produced dozens of documentaries and features for National Public Radio, Public Radio International, American Public Media, and other public radio outlets. Much of his focus has been on land, water, natural resources, and indigenous affairs in the United States, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Central Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. His work has been recognized with more than two dozen national and international awards. Tolan has written for the New York Times Magazine, Audubon, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, among many other publications. His latest book, Children of the Stone (2015), a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, grew out of two radio stories Tolan produced in 1998 and 2010 about a young Palestinian viola player who realized his dream of creating music schools for Palestinian children. He is also the author of the international best-seller The Lemon Tree, an acclaimed history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Glynn Washington is the host and executive producer of Snap Judgment, a podcast distributed by WNYC. Washington was born in Detroit and later moved to a farm in rural Michigan with his family. He received a bachelor’s degree the University of Michigan and his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan’s Law School. From 2007 until 2009, Washington served as director of the Center for Young Entrepreneurs at Haas (YEAH), a program at University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In 2008, Washington won the Public Radio Talent Quest sponsored by the Public Radio Exchange and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which had more than 1,400 entries. Shortly after winning, Washington developed Snap Judgment, which first aired nationally in July 2010.