Before Social Media, Radio Diaries Gave Us A Glimpse Into The Lives Of Others Surprises and lucky accidents are part of the DNA of audio diaries. There's something magical about handing someone a tape recorder, because you never know what will happen.
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Radio Diaries: 25 Years Of Telling Complex Stories Through Everyday Moments

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

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

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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")

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