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Radio Diaries at a Quarter Century

Radio Diaries, the documentary production nonprofit most known for the audio-diary format, turned 25 in April, which, frankly, is a lifetime when it comes to a small, lean, independent media operation. The team, nowadays affiliated with the Radiotopia collective, has been getting up to a few things to mark the anniversary, including a batch of online events revisiting past diarists as well as an All Things Considered segment that checks back in on the show’s first diarist, Amanda Brand. More such events are likely to come.

I’ve long admired Radio Diaries. For one thing, the format that is its calling card — the first-person diary — strikes me as some of the hardest stuff to construct, let alone execute in fulfilling and interesting ways, as Radio Diaries consistently does. Of course, that’s not the only format that the team engages with, as they have long expanded out into other styles: sound portraits, archival deep dives, more conventional historical audio documentaries, all of which share the same throughline of unearthing, preserving, and documenting what the show describes as “the extraordinary stories of ordinary life.”

But it’s the audio diaries that I keep coming back to most of all whenever I think about this team, in part because, well, it’s in the name, but also because the first-person diary concept that it champions is one that continues to feel so uniquely resonant with what this audio stuff can do so well: offer audiences a direct window into someone’s inner experience of the world and of their lives.

I got to speak with Joe Richman, the creator and lead producer of Radio Diaries, a few weeks ago about the quarter-century milestone. We covered quite a bit of ground. Richman, who is now 56, tells me he’s wary about nostalgia, but we looked backwards nevertheless. We talked about how the project started, the centrality of teenagers to the show’s concept (a quality that’s only become increasingly interesting in a time where digital self-documentation is much more present in a teenager’s life), how the show has changed over the years, how he thinks about the shifting audio business, and so on.

I could, maybe, run that conversation as a straightforward Q&A. But I figured, why not pay a slight homage to the Radio Diaries’ most recognized style? Here is Richman’s side of our chat, edited, reorganized, and stitched together in a faux-“As told to” format.


Radio Diaries began as something I was just trying out.

If you’ve heard Amanda’s story — Amanda in Queens, she was the very first one — it was actually going to be a story about her and her sister, how the two were different… but that idea fell away pretty quickly because Amanda’s sister wasn’t interested. Amanda herself was really wonderful on tape. So, as a proof of concept, I gave her a tape recorder, and what she made was so, so good. It felt like an experiment that just worked. That became the pilot for Teenage Diaries, which was this ongoing series for NPR back in ‘96.

The concept moved around after that, expanding on the idea of diaries. We did a diary in a retirement home, a whole series in prison. We always come back to teenagers, though. They just work really well for this format.

There are lots of reasons for this. Teenagers have a lot more time. They’re usually game. But the more important reason is that they’re in a moment of transition and questioning in their lives. Teenagers have this very useful idea that everything they say is important and interesting. That’s an incredibly important trait for a character and a diarist. There are so many ways you can read between the lines; sometimes you have an unreliable narrator, where you hear things in what they say that aren’t so explicitly literal in what they’re saying. Like I mentioned earlier, we did this project in a retirement home, and that simply didn’t work in terms of completely being audio diaries. There was a reluctance to talk about one’s self. Part of it is self-consciousness and inhibitedness, but part of it is humility or whatever it is. It’s just hard to get the same quality of diary from the retirement home, so I had to supplement that with interviews. They really wanted to be asked questions about themselves. Teenagers don’t seem to have that problem as much.

Me? That’s a good question. I tend to be more comfortable talking about people than about myself. [laughs] I’m more comfortable asking questions, and I feel more comfortable in my curiosity about others.

It wasn’t until around ‘99 that Radio Diaries became a non-profit. That was the beginning of me thinking about this as an organization, so that we could keep going [with] this kind of stuff. Until then, I was working more like a freelancer. Forming an organization actually wasn’t rare at the time. There wasn’t a way to support this stuff commercially. It had to be through grants, so becoming a nonprofit was a sensible move — not uncommon at all — in order to apply for those.

We’re a little bigger now than we were then, but we’ve always been small. I’ve always worked with the same two editors for the past 25 years, Deborah George and Ben Shapiro, who’ve been contributing editors to everything we’ve ever done. Being a small, lean non-profit felt right in a philosophical sort of way: bringing in the money to the work rather than doing the work to bring in the money. That’s the world I came out of. The world of mission-driven media.

There’s no template for building an organization like this, so it’s always been a bit of making it up as we go along. Radio Diaries is more like a documentary film production company than anything else.

The truth is: In some ways, what we do as an organization doesn’t make sense. We spend a lot of time and resources on each story, and we have to balance two operations at once. We occasionally do these big stories for NPR that reach a lot of listeners over broadcast, but we also have a regular podcast that comes out every two weeks. There are ways those two things amplify and support each other, but they have really different demands. That can be challenging.

As far as the podcast goes, it’s great to have this playground where we can have our own audience and the stakes aren’t as high. We can try different things and take a little more risk. We could pull back the curtain a bit, or interview someone who we did a story with years ago and reopen the story again. So that’s exciting, to feel like we have our own show. For so many years, it was like we were just a content-delivery person for NPR.

But there’s also something… I love that we have an audience that comes to our podcast and expects a specific kind of story. I also love when our stories air side by side with the news and reach people who were not looking for it, maybe who don’t want it, and maybe who still don’t want it afterwards. That feels important to me, especially in this world where we’re more and more only getting the kind of media and content and journalism that we think we want.

We do lots of different types of stories, and I think sometimes the people who regularly listen to us can change. I know we have people who really love our history documentaries. I know we have people who think of us mostly for our diaries. Those are maybe different kinds of listeners, and in some ways, that may be a disadvantage in terms of people understanding exactly who we are and what we do. But I like that you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get. I like the idea that we can follow our curiosity and our interests.

When I look at the audio world today, it’s just so exciting that there’s so much happening. There’s been so many experiments in form, so much attention in terms of new listeners. There are, you know, jobs now. I teach radio, and for a very long time, I’d look at all these talented people learning this craft, and it’s like, “Well, what are you going to do after this?” It felt sad. Now there’s jobs for people, which is good.

But it does feel like… well, to be honest, I keep one ear open to the business side of the world, and I keep one ear closed, deliberately. I don’t know if I feel this because there’s been so much consolidation recently, but I do feel it may be harder for small operations like Radio Diaries and small producer-driven networks like Radiotopia to really survive and find their place. There’s always been that tension, of course, but I think that may be happening more and more in the podcast world.

I mostly feel fortunate that the structure we have for Radio Diaries, being a non-profit chasing grants and all that, that we get to do stories the way we want to. I’m grateful that I’m not under some commercial pressure that would threaten the luxury of feeling like you can do stories exactly the way you want to do them.

A few years ago, I would have said it was easier to be independent. There were just so many more opportunities and so much more new demand for content. And that’s still true. There’s an insatiable need for good stories. Whether you’re a freelancer or a small production company or whatever it is, if you produce good content, there’s demand. There’s a need for it.

Being independent is fucking hard. It’s less hard than it used to be, but it’s still very hard. And I think independent journalism is really important. Independent anything is really important, because the very best things come from people who care a lot and put a lot of their own sweat into it, and who give a shit and put a lot of love into whatever they’re doing. Whether it’s a podcast or a restaurant or someone who invented a new umbrella, I support independent creators. The more, the better.

Turning 25 actually feels kind of complicated. In a way, survival as an independent media organization is some measure on its own. For me, as we were approaching this milestone, I was feeling afraid of nostalgia, of looking back too much at what we’ve done. Because of what we do — whether it’s journalism or storytelling or whatever you’d want to call it — you don’t want to feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again.

Luckily, it’s been a year of growth. We’ve added new producers. It feels like we’re heading in some exciting new directions. I feel good that I’m not looking at 25 years and feeling like an old dinosaur.

I have something in me that’s both a misfortune and an advantage, in that every story feels like I have to learn how to do things all over again. That makes for a lot of anxiety, of course, but there’s something great about that, too. It’s being able to bring a bit of a beginner’s mind to every project.

I wish I could say that the process gets easier. It should, but it doesn’t. Each story has its own challenges, and after 25 years, I feel better equipped to know what makes a good story, whether someone will be a good storyteller or something like that. But as far as putting the story together and structuring it and making it good, no matter what, it’s always just hard. More years doesn’t always make things easier, but it does give you a little more faith that you can trust the process. As shitty as it might feel in the moment, you just know that if you keep plugging away, it’s going to get there. And that, actually, feels really useful. It feels important.

We’ve been doing these online events [for the twenty-fifth anniversary] where we revisit old diarists, and gosh, there is something about… To do these follow-up interviews this year with people I’ve done stories with 25 years ago, it’s really emotional. I have kids, and one thing having kids does is that it gives you a built-in calendar in your life. You can’t help but mark the years and the seasons and see time go by, and go by fast. That’s one of the things that this year, going back to these early teenage diaries and doing these updates, has made me feel, too. Time is a one-way street.

I’ve never been someone who’s been able to look past a year or two, so the idea of looking five or 10 years ahead is difficult for me. I don’t know about the future. What I’m looking forward to in the next couple of years is that, with this new team, that Radio Diaries will become less of me, frankly. We have new producers who are going to imprint their new styles, their own interests, their own curiosities on the stories and the podcast. Radio Diaries started out as me working as a freelance reporter and producer. It’s grown a bit, and I hope it starts to take on even more life on its own, and start to take on the voices and interests of the people who are part of it.

In the old days, I used to think about, like, what else do I want to do? Do I want to do a film documentary? Do I want to do a book? Now I think, “Why would I do anything else?” The audience is amazing. There’s nothing better than this form of storytelling to me in terms of reaching a wide audience, reaching people deeply and emotionally. If there’s one thing that’s changed over 25 years, it’s that I have less of an ambition to do other things, because what I’m doing feels like exactly what I should be doing.


You can find the Radio Diaries website here. Its most recent release is a partnership with Radiolab, “The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records,” which is best consumed in tandem with the latter podcast’s current on-going miniseries, The Vanishing of Harry Pace.