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Joe Richman talks about power of radio storytelling

Storytelling is dominated today by electronic and print media, such as television, the Internet, and magazines, said Ferris Professor of Journalism Joe Richman. According to Richman, however, radio documentary and audio storytelling offer a unique, intimate perspective to the art.

On Nov. 7, Richman shared his many years of experience in audio storytelling with high school students, undergraduates, graduates, and professors at the University. Over the years, he has produced works featured on National Public Radio programs such as “All Things Considered,” and he has founded “Radio Diaries,” an NPR documentary series devoted to sharing the stories of ordinary people.


“Radio storytelling is all about intimate voices and characters,” Richman said. “Because of that, it is more emotional as the listeners create their own pictures of the stories they hear.”

In 1996, Richman’s series “Teenage Diaries,” which documented the stories of various teenagers across the country using sound, aired for the first time on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Before then, Richman had started out in the world of journalism as a freelance reporter and learned about utilizing the radio to deliver news and long-form documentaries.

“The turning point in my career was in ‘96, when I started recording for ‘Teenage Diaries’,” Richman explained. “It was then that I began to turn the microphone towards other people to listen to their stories instead of focusing on mine.”

To share some of his podcasts with the audience, Richman played five different recordings of conversations between people of all ages and backgrounds during the event, including the lives of a seltzer man in New York, a teenage boy living with Tourette syndrome, a female boxer who would go on to win gold at the Olympics, the granddaughter of a black man who was executed by an electric chair in the fifties, and a female teenager living in Saudi Arabia. According to Richman, he looks for details in people’s lives that resemble unique issues that can be shared when searching for subjects to record.

Occasionally, the recording process can be quite therapeutic for subjects, even though it is not intended to be, Richman said, referring to the subject of his second shared recording.

“Josh, who was living with Tourette’s, had the first long conversation of his life because I’d constantly ask him to record conversations with his classmates and family,” Richman explained. “It changed the way he saw himself.”


Many storytelling documentaries also represent the struggles of different groups in society, according to Richman. The third shared recording, featuring the female boxer Claressa Shields, revealed the female standards she had faced as a child when she first brought up the idea of boxing. In the recording, her father had admitted that he originally told her that “boxing is a man’s sport.”

In a similar fashion, to highlight the social standards of Saudi Arabia, Richman documented the conversations between Majd, who was 19 at the time of the recording, and her brother, who, in the fifth recording, indicated that he expected her to marry early. Richman explains, however, that Majd’s goal was to study the sciences at a university.

The process of recording a person’s story can take anywhere from a few months to over a year, according to Richman. To compensate for the time spent recording their personal lives, Richman pays his subjects, but he says that it isn’t an important factor.

“Even though I pay the people I record, money has never really been the incentive for any of them,” Richmond explains. “People just love to tell their stories, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

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Sophie Gregrowski, a junior at Lawrence High School, found the event informative.

“There’s a lot of pressure to decide on a career really early on nowadays, so being able to attend Richman's lecture was helpful in helping me make that decision,” Gregrowski said. “Hearing from such an accomplished journalist inspired me to commit to the humanities as a major.”

Richman is planning to continue recording and releasing podcasts of “Radio Diaries” and historical documentaries, and also plans on exploring inequality as the theme of his next diaries.

The event took place on Tuesday, November 7, at 4:30 p.m. in Aaron Burr Hall. It was sponsored by the Humanities Council’s Ferris Seminars in Journalism and the Department of Anthropology.