Joe Richman & Radio Diaries Celebrate “Sweet Sixteen” at CUNY

By Shannon Firth
Class of 2013

In 1996, radio producer Joe Richman handed a mic and tape recorder to a handful of teenagers across the country, entrusting them with a seemingly simple task: Show me your world.

It took between five months and a year for Richman’s fledgling biographers to share their life stories, eventually recording 30 to 40 hours of tape each. Throughout this period, Richman trawled through reels and reels of tape for scenes and stories, humor and gravitas, and ultimately transformed the tape into the exceptional short narratives known as the original Teenage Diaries series. This spring, National Public Radio and Richman released updated stories with five of the original biographers who documented their lives 16 years later.

To end the semester, the radio program invited Richman to speak about both series with Alex Goldmark, CUNY radio instructor and a senior producer at WNYC.

‘Radio Diaries’ Founder Joe Richman – May 17, 2013 from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.

He sat down with Richman, now a multiple award-winning producer, to find out how the Teenage Diaries were made and what it was like connecting with these same diarists over a decade and a half later. The event was attended by students, alums, and members of the NYC radio community. It was held in the J-School’s newsroom and streamed live online.

Richman said he learned a great deal from producing Teenage Diaries, but one thing he still struggles with is anticipating who will make a good subject. “In the beginning, I thought the funny extroverted talkers were the good ones. But sometimes it’s better to have people who make you kind of lean in and listen a little harder.” Some diarists, he explained, thought like producers, noticing sounds, setting up scenes, and interviewing other people. The introspective ones shined in quieter moments, trying to make sense of their problems or thinking aloud about their future. “There are so many different kinds of good,” he said.

The audience may have been surprised to learn that the diarists were paid a nominal fee for their stories and that they retained editorial control. Richman said he wouldn’t let the diarists review a story in its entirety but he would tell them what was included. In order to keep subjects from self-censoring, he told them ahead of time that they could exclude any piece of tape they wanted. “They are the reporters, and I am the producer, editor,” he said simply.

Richman presented a few of the diarists’ stories, including 17-year old Amanda Brand, his very first collaborator. Amanda is a tough girl who smokes cigarettes and cruises her Queens neighborhood pretending not to care what anyone thinks. But at a kitchen table confession, Amanda’s voice breaks for a single aching moment, as she tells her mother about Dawn, the girl she loves. “We’re really close. There’s like a love there. More for me towards her than for her towards me,” she said. In this moment, Amanda sounds childlike, scared and frustrated. Her longing to be accepted is apparent to everyone, but her mother.

Josh Cutler, 17, another teenage diarist, records crank phone calls then waxes poetic about merengue music. After some prodding from Richman, he reluctantly brings his tape recorder (at first hidden in his book bag) to school to talk to students about his Tourette’s syndrome. But the most striking moment of tape happens when his mother asks him to speak honestly about his disability. Josh lashes out at her. His loneliness, fear, and frustration are barely concealed behind sarcasm.

The fact that a microphone can be a catalyst for these rare, raw moments is something that still amazes Richman. “The real heartbeat of a lot of these stories are the conversations between child and parent then, and now sometimes between the diarists and their own children now,” he says.

Richman also presented the diarist, Melissa Rodriguez, who grew up in nine different foster homes before running away. At 18, she describes how she got pregnant and what having a baby will mean for her. Sixteen years later her son Issaiah listens to the recording of his own birth. The soft-spoken Issaiah asks his mother how her life would have been different if he hadn’t been born.

After hearing these excerpts, the audience was eager to learn how they could use Radio Diaries’ techniques in their own stories. Richman advised “think like a filmmaker,” in scenes. “They need to be distinct chapters of things. Otherwise it’s just one run-on mush and that’s boring to everyone.” This means creating a complete package; he encouraged the reporters in the audience to practice getting subjects to share not only the action of the story but the “messy stuffy that gets you from here to there.” Beginning and endings are critical, he observed. “I get obsessed with getting capital letters and periods.”

As for what makes a story good, Richman says listeners like to feel a range of emotions. “Happy-sads” is what he and his team started to call these stories. “There are just moments of both. And both isn’t even both. There are moments of like eight different [emotions]. That’s just like life.”

The event wrapped up with a “Sweet Sixteen” celebration for Radio Diaries, a media organization just in its teen years.

The Radio Diaries team celebrates its "Sweet Sixteen" at the CUNY J-School. Pictured L to R: Joe Richman, Sarah Kate Kramer, and Nellie Gilles. (Photo by Rachel Bryson Brockman, '14)

The Radio Diaries team celebrates its “Sweet Sixteen” at the CUNY J-School. Pictured L to R: Joe Richman, Sarah Kate Kramer, and Nellie Gilles. (Photo by Rachel Bryson Brockman, ’14)