ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Chicago-based organization Third Coast International Festival finds sound-rich audio stories from around the world and shares them on a podcast and on the radio. It also hosts an annual competition to highlight the very best of these stories. Our colleague Audie Cornish spoke to Third Coast's executive director Johanna Zorn about some of this year's winners.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: So first, what is the kind of ethos of Third Coast? Like, what are you looking for in this work?
JOHANNA ZORN: We're really looking for work that uses the medium to its absolute best. These are stories that are told best on the radio for the ear or on podcast for the ear. Very often they're intimate kinds of stories. But they're always stories that engage you through the scenes and the smells and the sights that you create in your mind's eye.
CORNISH: So what stands out to you about this year's winners - any themes that you noticed?
ZORN: Well, (laughter) I mean, one thing that's interesting is that most of the winners are women. And perhaps not surprisingly, there's a tremendous amount of interest in mothers and motherhood and connections to mothers. I don't think we've ever had a theme like this come up so many times in so many pieces.
CORNISH: So I want to start with the gold winner for Best Documentary. This is from a piece called "Mariya." It tells the story of a woman's experience with female genital mutilation. It's produced by Mitra Kaboli and Kaitlin Prest. Let's hear a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARIYA")
MARIYA KARIMJEE: When I was 7, my mom told me that I had a bug growing inside of me that needed to be removed. And so she said that we would go and I had to be really brave. And my grandmother told me, oh, you know, so-and-so down the street also got hers removed and she was, like, so happy afterwards and felt so good. And it barely hurt her, and she jumped up and down.
But the night before the operation, I got scared. I didn't like the idea that there was a bug inside of me that someone would have to cut out. So I laid in bed thinking, be gone, bug.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Whispering) Be gone, bug. Be gone, bug.
CORNISH: Johanna, this is a story people do read about quite a bit, female genital mutilation, right? It's been reported a lot. What about the way it's told here struck the judges?
ZORN: Well, I don't think it's been told in such a personal way before - a first-person story of her experience remembering back to what it was like that actual day, that actual moment when it happened. She has a lot of anger and sadness, and we hear it all.
CORNISH: It's also cinematic. There's a dreamlike quality to this piece.
ZORN: That's in the production. The production is very subtle. It's mostly music in the background that takes us from, you know, one chapter of her life to the next. And it's beautifully done. It gives us space to think about what is happening and for us to, perhaps for a very short time, you know, be in her shoes. So what you hear later in this story is her trying to confront her mom because her mother - who takes her to the woman to be cut.
CORNISH: This kind of conversation around mothers in particular carries over to the silver winner in the same category of Best Documentary. And this is a piece called "A Life Sentence" by Samantha Broun and a very well-known radio producer named Jay Allison. Tell us more about it.
ZORN: Well, Samantha Broun's mother, Jeremy, was brutally attacked 20 years ago, and she survived. And her attacker attacked her while he was out on parole after serving time on another violent crime. And it's Samantha who tells the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A LIFE SENTENCE")
SAMANTHA BROUN: Well, I thought today we would talk about September 21. I have to say, I'm feeling nervous about talking about it because I don't know that you and I have ever sat across from each other and had this conversation.
JEREMY BROWN: I guess for me, it's easier when I'm talking to strangers or when I'm just talking about how I survived. But when I tell a loved one, it's much deeper. It just goes deeper into what really happened to my spirit and my soul.
BROUN: Are you OK to do this?
BROWN: I'd like to try. I'd like to try (laughter).
CORNISH: Johanna, hearing that comment in the middle of that cut that it's easier when I'm talking to strangers, I think that's what, like, a lot of reporters feel, actually, right? I mean, that's what's setting some of this work apart.
ZORN: Absolutely, that they're talking to people they know very, very, very well. And it creates both an intimacy that we're listening in on as listeners and we feel sort of privy to something very, very special that we don't get to hear otherwise. One thing you hear in this piece is that her mother cries and then she laughs very shortly afterwards.
And I think that that is the intimacy that you're talking about that you get when you're talking to a loved one.
CORNISH: Now, I have to admit, you've brought us a lot of heavy stories here. Was there anything that made the judges laugh?
ZORN: Well, we have one award called the Skylarking award. It's specifically work that's out for fun. And this year's winner came from the podcast "The Longest Shortest Time." And it's when W. Kamau Bell, the comedian, talks to his mother, Janet Cheatham Bell, about sex and her love life. And she gives it to him straight.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE LONGEST SHORTEST TIME")
W. KAMAU BELL: And I didn't know you were going to clubs.
JANET CHEATHAM BELL: Well, yeah.
W. BELL: Like, would you go out and dance?
J. BELL: Yeah.
W. BELL: What?
J. BELL: Kamau, I was a human being.
W. BELL: No, you weren't. You were a mother.
W. BELL: You would go dancing? I just can't imagine - I mean, I guess I can. But I just never thought of you - were you drinking?
J. BELL: Yeah.
W. BELL: What was your drink?
J. BELL: I used to like Kahlua and milk.
W. BELL: (Laughter).
J. BELL: I mean, I was never a real heavy drinker.
W. BELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
J. BELL: But, yeah, I would have cocktails, yeah.
W. BELL: And you would go to the club and dance and rub up on men?
J. BELL: Yeah.
W. BELL: OK, that's enough of that.
J. BELL: (Laughter).
ZORN: He asks a lot of questions like that. And his mother, who is fabulous, gives him the straight dope (laughter).
CORNISH: Johanna, I understand you received more than 500 entries this year from 17 different countries. Does it signal to you anything about, I guess, people getting back into making radio?
ZORN: Well, we have to credit the podcasting boom for the huge increase in entries. At Third Coast, we honor great audio storytelling and we're happy to have it from podcasts and from radio and from websites like Transom. Everywhere it's being made, we want to bring attention to it.
SIEGEL: That was Johanna Zorn talking to our colleague Audie Cornish about the winners of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. The winning stories are at thirdcoastfestival.org.
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