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

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 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 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.

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

"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.

Radio Diaries is produced by Joe Richman, Nellie Gilles, Alissa Escarce, Stephanie Rodriguez, and Mycah Hazel. Our editors are Ben Shapiro and Deborah George, who have been working with Radio Diaries for the entire 25 years. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Richman