Comments by John Biewen

Comment for "Secret Asian Woman"

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Review of Secret Asian Woman

This intensely personal, engagingly produced piece dives into a crucial gap in perception that often separates people of color from white Americans. What constitutes racism? In the day-to-day of race-tinged language, which comments and questions are offensive? Which are harmless -- and "minorities" who object should lighten up and get over it?

Dmae Roberts isn't getting over it. As a multi-ethnic American, half Taiwanese, half white, she's bone-tired from a lifetime of remarks and interrogations that exoticize and marginalize her. "Hai-YAH!" (accompanied by a karate chop). "Do all Asians eat dog?"

As Roberts well knows, some (non-Asian) listeners may bristle or roll their eyes at various points in the piece. Everyone agrees that a cross-burning is an act of racism. In Roberts' view, so is using the term "Oriental" or "Chinese fire drill." (Outdated and insensitive, yes, but worthy of the R Bomb?) In a couple of instances, the piece unintentionally reveals how hard it can be for ANYONE to tread these linguistic minefields, and how embedded in the language some problematic phrases are. Roberts and interviewee Velina Hasu Houston say they object to the term "mixed-race" because "mixed" has historically derogatory connotations. But elsewhere in the piece, each calls herself mixed-race. Dmae tells of having used the term "Oriental" when she was young until a college professor explained its imperialist, exoticizing origins. There's little sign Dmae wants to cut white people slack for needing that kind of education.

If Roberts seems sensitive, I imagine most people of color will understand. Some white folks will, too, to some degree, especially if they've had an extended experience as a racial minority. (Pardon me getting personal for a moment.) I'm white and I lived in Japan years ago. During my two years there, I received several overt expressions of hostility based on my race (or nationality, or non-Japaneseness, or something). But what really wore me out were the casual, almost daily reminders that I was Other, that this was not my place. "You Americans are funny and loud." "Japanese should learn to be more lazy like Americans." "We Japanese are [insert adjective]; you gaijin are [insert opposite adjective]." The chip on one's shoulder does tend to grow. Eventually, a stranger in a restaurant could say, "You use chopsticks very well!" and I'd be ready to take a swing.

I could choose to come back to the U.S. and reinhabit my place in the majority, the default race that doesn't have to explain itself. Dmae Roberts doesn't have that option; the U.S. is her home. Some claim we're in a postracial time, but Roberts insists, rightly, that we've got a lot of work to do. She's angry that she still has to hear this stuff, and she's bravely decided to say so. No doubt she speaks for many. Racism (no matter what you call it) lives, and it hurts. It keeps us apart. I hope "Secret Asian Woman" gets aired, and discussed, widely.

Comment for "A Stitch in Time: Sewing Behind Bars"

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Review of A Stitch in Time: Sewing Behind Bars

A solidly done feature about a manufacturing business based in a women's prison. Without raising the policy question directly, the piece makes a case for giving inmates something productive to do with their time since almost all of them will get out sooner or later and return to society. Rebecca Sheir's writing and delivery are snappy and upbeat. She uses lots of short lines of narration inter-cut with sound and tape from inmates and the plant manager. This is a local feature that could be used as part of a series or call-in on inmate programs or the long-running (though recently neglected) debate over punishment vs. rehabilitation.

Comment for "Coast Guard - a look at homeland security in the San Francisco Bay Area" (deleted)

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Review of Coast Guard - a look at homeland security in the San Francisco Bay Area (deleted)

Maybe it's just me, but in a half-hour documentary on the Coast Guard, I expect to get at least one boat ride out of the deal. This piece is built entirely on interview tape from Coast Guard personnel, sprinkled with tape of President Bush giving a speech to (and about) the Coast Guard. It's produced in a solid, polished way and is chock full of information about how the Coast Guard works in these times of the GWOT. But it's all telling, no showing. Coast Guard members describe their training. Officers outline policies on when and where they can stop foreign ships and board them. Somebody describes how suspicious shipping containers are identified. And so on. Some of these people are standing out in the breeze as they talk, but there's not a single scene. We don't see (hear) any coast guarding happen. It all adds up to a rather, um, dry listen, I'm afraid.

Comment for "Interview with legendary folk singer PEGGY SEEGER"

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Review of Interview with legendary folk singer PEGGY SEEGER

A good interview with an important and fascinating figure. It's unfortunately done over the phone rather than by tape sync, but that's my only gripe. Seeger tells of growing up in her musical family, her mother's early death, her father's victimization in the McCarthy scare, and her move into the Women's Movement. We hear a couple of Seeger's recordings and she reflects on song writing and the enduring appeal of folk music. Seeger points out that despite its progressive image, the Anglo-American folk music tradition is not kind to women. In the vast majority of such songs, women are portrayed in 'unpowerful' positions--as property, victims of murder (by men), or spinsters deserving of ridicule. In her early seventies, Peggy Seeger is still performing and recording. And, yes, she has a Web site. "I'm in very good voice," she declares.

Comment for "MegaCities Series 4: Shanghai, China"

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Review of MegaCities Series 4: Shanghai, China

This report covers interesting and important information, but it feels almost incidental that the piece is made for radio. Admittedly the subject is wonkish, a tough one to make lively through scenes or storytelling: the construction of a planned, environmentally-friendly city at the edge of a mega-city, Shanghai. The fact that the city doesn't yet exist makes the reporter's challenge doubly hard. But hey, I'm something of a wonk on things like urban planning. I've even been to Shanghai. I figure I'd be at least as likely as the average public radio listener to lean in and listen. This one lost me early.

The piece consists overwhelmingly of reporter narration, a compilation of facts and statistics, interrupted extremely rarely and briefly by tape of people in offices. We hear about plans for the new planned city for fully eight minutes before we go there. We finally get some ambient sound and descriptions from the reporter's travels, but it's way too little, too late.

Comment for "The Street of the Cauldron Makers"

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Review of The Street of the Cauldron Makers

A superb piece ostensibly about a single street in Istanbul, but of course about much much more: cultural identity and government's attempts to control it; ethnic "cleansing"; historical memory and forgetting. Elif Shafak's voice is almost as captivating as her observations, memories and metaphors. "Our conversation with the past has been broken, but our history, our stories, lie here, in the layers just beneath our feet." The writer's musings are interwined with sounds and voices (human and feline) of the "Street of the Cauldron Makers." A moving combination travelogue and radio essay, infused with historical complexity, flawlessly produced.

Comment for "Chicago's Memory"

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Review of Chicago's Memory

An interesting experiment that doesn't come off too well. We're taken on an audio walking tour of locations in Chicago where people died in historic disasters. There's music, traffic sound, and sound effects of screams and moans accompanying the descriptions of grisly deaths by fire, drowning and asphyxiation.

Carolina Wheat can write and has a very good voice, but her narrator's tone is hard to decipher. I couldn't tell if I was supposed to feel compassion for these unfortunate victims of mayhem, or whether her persona was meant to be ghoulish as in a deliberately tacky/campy piece for Halloween. The sound effects seem to support the second impression.

The other overwhelming problem is poor production values. There's lots of distortion and p-pops in the narration, and all of the other sound is just as bad. I wanted to give this experiment a chance, but it's just too hard to listen to.

Comment for "New Orleans' Friendly Bar"

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Review of New Orleans' Friendly Bar

It's a challenging task at this point to say something new about New Orleanians and their efforts to rebuild their city and their lives. The idea of focusing on one neighborhood bar seems like a promising approach. Maybe we'll meet an interesting character or two, or hear one unpredictable story, or zero in on a telling detail that reveals something poignant or upbeat. Or maybe we'll get a documentary approach that lets us listen in and feel what it's like to hang out in Friendly Bar. Unfortunately, this piece offers none of the above. It contains a factual surprise or two (housing prices have gone up in some parts of the city), but the reporter uses the prism of the bar mainly to tell us what we already know: that every person in New Orleans and every aspect of life there remains changed by Katrina, that everybody has a Katrina story, that people face tough decisions about their future. The writing and production are fine, but it feels like an opportunity missed.

Comment for "India Rising, program four: Can It All Hang Together?"

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Review of India Rising, program four: Can It All Hang Together?

This is excellent journalism and very good radio. In this segment of the BBC's series on the new India, George Arney explores some of the downsides of India's industrialization and booming wealth. There's pollution, deep inequality, social upheaval.

The program itself manages to hang together very well, despite being recorded almost entirely in the field. As in most news documentaries, the host-presenter is ever-present, setting scenes and providing context and connecting tissue. But while that's typically done in the studio after the fact, Arney seemingly does it all on the fly. In one "scene," for instance, Arney catalogs a range of fissures in Indian society by noisily paging through a newspaper in a coffee shop and crisply summarizing illustrative stories from that day's news.

I haven't listened to the entire series, but in this half-hour Arney comes across an intelligent and fair reporter who digs into complexities rather than flattening them. He gives voice to those losing out in globalized India, but also challenges the critics and keeps his eye on the millions of Indians who've moved out of poverty in recent years. A smart, important and insightful project--one I'd certainly want my local station to run.

Comment for "Interview with investigative journalist JEREMY SCAHILL, author of "BLACKWATER: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.""

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Review of Interview with investigative journalist JEREMY SCAHILL, author of "BLACKWATER: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army."

Americans who pay attention to the news know that for four years, the U.S. has had a military force in Iraq ranging from 120,000 to 150,000 troops. That's half the truth, literally and figuratively. Your tax dollars are also funding a "shadow army" of 126,000 private security contractors, points out investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill in this riveting interview. Neither the deaths and injuries of this private half of the American troop presence, nor the crimes it commits, are part of the official story of the U.S. occupation.

One of the largest and most controversial contractors in this mercenary army is Blackwater USA, the North Carolina-based company best known for having four of its employees killed, burned, and hung from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004.

In conversation with host Tish Pearlman, Scahill lays out in compelling detail the story of Blackwater and its deep ties to both the government and the political right. He describes Blackwater's extensive role in government operations around the world and at home. For a time after Hurricane Katrina, Scahill says, the Department of Homeland Security paid Blackwater $240,000 a day for "security operations" in the Gulf. Blackwater paid its Gulf employees $350 a day while charging Uncle Sam almost three times as much.

Most importantly, Scahill makes a compelling case, grounded in solid reporting, that Blackwater and the rest of the private-sector army represent a threat to democracy, both in the U.S. and abroad. These are, he says, "unaccountable forces, waging war in our name, with our money."

These are strong claims and Scahill clearly has a point of view and, presumably, a left-leaning political bent. He's a reporter with Democracy Now and his book was published by Nation Books. But he mostly comes off as sober and solid, content to let his reporting speak for itself.

In her role as interviewer, Pearlman is not as restrained, and I suspect her tone will mar this interview for many program directors. Pearlman is a good host who asks the right questions, but she occasionally blurts out an emotional reaction. "That is really frightening." "My goodness, this is absolutely unbelievable." "It is very much like 1984." Call me old-school, but I think it's best to leave those reactions to the listener. Terry Gross would.

Comment for "Reimagining a New Orleans Icon: The Shotgun House"

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Review of Reimagining a New Orleans Icon: The Shotgun House

A good piece with a fresh angle (new to me, anyhow) on the rebuilding of New Orleans. This is a straightforward news feature--about a program to build stylish new homes based on the traditional shotgun house--but Eve Troeh does a nice job of giving the piece depth and texture. We hear voices from multiple perspectives and a couple of mini-scenes. Best of all, we meet a character with an emotional story: a homeowner, Timothy Holmes, who's chosen to buy one of the new houses in a tough neighborhood because of his family history there--a history that includes his mother's shooting death. Holmes is a cop who wants to serve as a role model in his community. Troeh returns to Holmes at the end of the piece as he talks about his plans to plant blueberry bushes just like the ones his grandma once had. Real life presented without sentimentality. A good drop-in feature for any news magazine or, say, a talk show on New Orleans or urban gentrification.

Comment for "It is To Laugh - Business as Usual"

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Review of It is To Laugh - Business as Usual

You have to admire the hard work that went into this program. Highly produced, energetically acted mock radio ads--one after another. After another. The ads are deftly done and some are clever, but so are many actual ads on commercial radio and TV. Offered a chance to sit down in front of 22 minutes of those ads, most of us would find something better to do.

These satirical ads are reminiscent of those sprinkled through A Prairie Home Companion. These are shorter, more like real 30- to 60-second ads, and more likely to carry a (predictable) political message, lampooning greedy banks, tobacco companies, the U.S. military, macho trucks and George W. Bush. Tucked in between musical performances and meatier sketches (as on A Prairie Home Companion, Saturday Night Live or the Letterman show), the occasional satirical ad might bring a smile. But I've never heard of a program comprised entirely of such bits. I'm afraid this show isn't likely to start a trend.

Comment for "Victoria Secretes"

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Review of Victoria Secretes

"In a nutshell, Victoria is the genteel tourist town that poops in the ocean."

I'm not sure which is the more satisfying aspect of this report -- the appearance by Mr. Floaty, the seven-foot turd with the sailor's cap and the Mr. Bill singing voice, or the discovery that, for once, someone has found a batch of Canadians who appear to be more environmentally careless than Americans. This is a thorough, well-reported and unusually entertaining feature about a policy dispute over municipal sewage. Reporter John Ryan has good (fecal) material to work with and he makes the most of it. There are momentary lapses into scientific journalese: "...source control is not a long term solution for ocean-bound toxic waste...." But for the most part, Ryan's lively tape and dryly witty writing get the job done. The closing "endangered feces" line is a genuine groaner, but truly, who among us could have resisted?

Comment for "Homelands Regained"

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Review of Homelands Regained

An excellent production from the catalog of Homelands Productions. In Columbia's Cauca region in the early 1990s, Paez Indian guerrillas were forcibly taking "back" land that had been controlled for hundreds of years by families of Spanish descent. The story is relatively obscure and is now some fifteen years old, but as told by Cecilia Vaisman and Alan Weisman, it's timeless and universal. Conquerers (or Conquistadors) may claim indigenous lands, but the story does not end there. Twenty generations later, the descendents of those driven off may seize an opportunity and rise up. When that happens, it may or may not be fair.

The story is told in broad, literary terms, almost like a fable, but is also solidly reported with vivid details and sound-rich scenes. Narrator Cecilia Vaisman's delivery is understated but fresh and engaging. An Indian flute provides lovely accents and counterpoints.

Characteristically, this Homelands piece embraces complexity. The Spanish-descended families that have been driven off "their" land are not presented as villains. They express puzzlement and genuine loss. The Paez Indians feel justified in taking the farms away: "Now it's our turn," says one of the Paez. But the story won't end here, either. As the piece ends, the Spanish former landholders are the ones waiting, biding their time until the land becomes available again and they can take "back" what they believe to be rightfully theirs. "Even if we have to wait fifty years."

Comment for "The Roots of Mother's Day: A MOMbo MOMent" (deleted)

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Review of The Roots of Mother's Day: A MOMbo MOMent (deleted)

This "MOMbo MOMent" reminds us that Mother's Day was not originally about brunch at IHOP and a chance for mom to put her feet up. Not that those aren't worthy (in)activities, but Julia Ward Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation of 1872 was an impassioned antiwar statement. She called for an international "congress of women" to convene and settle the world's differences and prevent war "in the name of womanhood and of humanity." In this brief piece we hear the statement read by a variety of female voices.

One quibble: the voices of young children seem out of place in a statement from mothers. But overall this is effectively and movingly done. An excellent Mother's Day feature in a time of war. But then, come to think of think, it's always a time of war somewhere, isn't it.

Comment for "Passover candy - an audio tour of a Lower East Side candy store"

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Review of Passover candy - an audio tour of a Lower East Side candy store

This podcast installment is an entertaining visit with your basic New York character, candy man Jerry Cohen. He's engaging and a bit crusty, blithely undermining the focus of the piece by saying he doesn't like Passover candy--though he eats candy all day and loves eating the ears of broken chocolate Easter bunnies. Host Blake Eskin does a nice job as the curious, good-natured straight man. Nicely produced, a quality production.

Comment for "Behind the Slamming Door"

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Review of Behind the Slamming Door

A skillfully-done feature about a retiring juvenile justice official--himself a one-time "delinquent." Rebecca Sheir has put evident energy into making the most of a simple assignment: profile Gary Caddell using just sit-down interviews with him and with a former client from his time as a probation officer. The piece is assembled with quick pacing and back-and-forthing between the narrator and the interviewees. It's marred a bit by occasionally cliche'd writing. The former delinquent girl had "fallen in with a bad crowd" that committed assault and other "extracurriculars." The piece opens with the inevitable slam of the prison door, but in what I suspect is a sly acknowledgment of that sonic cliche, Sheir lets us hear her asking Caddell to "do that again." And he does.

Comment for "Out of Their Hands"

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Review of Out of Their Hands

This documentary is desperately sad--and flawlessly done. It consists entirely of the voices of four women. They tell the stories of the deaths of their children a quarter century ago, and of the support group they founded together as a result. These are thoughtful women with broken hearts and cracks in their voices. Teresa Goff has captured them in the act of remembering, and of articulating unbearable feelings. They talk in poems.

"I wasn't there when he died, but I had to be there for everything else," one mother recalls in explaining why she insisted on going to the morgue to identify her son's body. "I remember taking a sweater because he'd be cold."

"I really wanted to die," says another, "and I couldn't. Heartache doesn't kill you."

There's a lovely sequence when the women talk among themselves from a distance of twenty-five years about their own sorrow--and their anger on behalf of their children, who were cheated out of life. They also talk of being saved by one another and other bereaved parents from having their lives truly crippled by grief.

"At this stage of my life I feel fortunate," one of the women says convincingly.

"Life is beautiful. It is. And it's precious."

Comment for "HEAT -- Visions of Armageddon"

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Review of HEAT -- Visions of Armageddon

Back in 1990, a new public radio show appeared. It was a live, two-hour show, smart, playful, unpredictable. It had a bit of this, a bit of that. It created a lot of buzz, then it disappeared. Well over a decade later, Heat is back, shined up and re-packaged thanks to PRX's Reversioning Project.

One first impression is that the show is, well, not all that hot, if by hot you mean snappy and quick. Heat ambles along at a thoughtful, very public radio pace. Which is just fine, though the show could just as well have been called "Cool."

It's hard to avoid comparing Heat to public radio shows that came later--most inevitably, This American Life. In fact, Heat is more cerebral that TAL, not so concerned with narrative and more interested in ideas--including, of all things, politics. Studio 360 is a closer cousin, but Heat is less canned, less produced, more freewheeling than anything now on public radio.

This hour, tied to Earth Day, opens with a small slice of radio drama by Hockenberry: a transmission from the moon after Earth's become uninhabitable. Then a complete pop song: "Waiting for the End of the World" by Elvis Costello. Next, a poetry reading and a bit of vox pop about what the end of the world might mean. Later, a commentary on the origins of Corn Flakes as a food source designed for the apocalypse, and a 1950's "duck and cover" PSA aimed at children. And so on.

So you might think that this is what a typical hour of Heat is like: a series of smart and witty takes on a given theme. That would be wrong. Another hour, here called "The Contenders," has no overarching theme and consists of several leisurely interviews. The only constant is Hockenberry--his keen intelligence and improvisational spirit.

During an interview with Spalding Gray (in "The Contenders"), Hockenberry asks Gray how the interviewing process would be different if their roles were reversed. So Gray starts interviewing Hockenberry, starting with, "Why are you in a wheelchair?" Hockenberry tells the story of the car accident that left him paralyzed and answers Gray's followup questions...for seven minutes. In that same hour, Hockenberry gets Joyce Carol Oates in the studio and George Foreman on the phone, and soon Oates is interviewing Foreman about his strategy if he ever faces Mike Tyson.

The fact that much of the material in these shows is dated strikes me as a non-problem. Certainly the late Spalding Gray has not lost his relevance. The reversioning allowed for inserts in which Hockenberry tells listeners about Heat's 20th century vintage and makes updated allusions, such as a reference to Global Warming during the show about environmental apocalypse.

Should stations put this 1990 series on the air? Absolutely. Your 2007 listeners will thank you.

Comment for "Subway of Mind"

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Review of Subway of Mind

Human voices -- some in English, reflecting on the experience of riding the subway, others in a variety of other languages, layered over one another. Compelling sounds in vivid stereo, some identifiable (the flapping of a bird's wings), others ambiguous (the oars of a rowboat?). Droning music.

Radio listeners trained by the linear, informative fare that dominates public radio in the U.S. will struggle with this piece, lose patience, roll their eyes, punch the dial -- or, just maybe, will sit back and take the ride on a different sort of audio experience. And, almost certainly, will pay a different kind of attention on that next subway ride--or bus ride, or commute, or walk through the airport or even the mall. A nicely crafted piece of audio art.

Comment for "Rough Sex With Sam Benjamin" (deleted)

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Review of Rough Sex With Sam Stern (deleted)

Strong piece. It's simple--an edited interview with various bits of music beneath it. Sam Stern's story of his foray into the porn business begins lightly, then (not surprisingly) turns dark. He describes finding himself doing things he never thought he'd do, like paying for sex and smacking a woman around.

You could say that the arc of the story is entirely predictable. Stern concludes that "the L.A. heterosexual porn industry is pretty troubled." (You don't say.) But in the journey and the details, the piece is disturbing and thought-provoking. It's finally a piece about the abuse of damaged people. Maybe there's more violence in porn than there used to be, Stern speculates, because "the girls will let you do it now." Thus my choice of the adjective "sad," above.

Comment for "Revolutionary Community Radio, Venezuelan Style"

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Review of Revolutionary Community Radio, Venezuelan Style

Emily Howard has an interesting and important story to tell about the proliferation of community radio stations in Venezuela. The piece is well-written and -recorded, though Howard makes no secret of her political sympathies.

More problematic is the loose, tacked-together presentation. The narrator first appears in a host-like role, then as a reporter describing a scene (sans natural sound) as she makes her way to a radio station. She then disappears for minutes at a time as we hear the strung-together remarks of interviewees and translators. The result is a piece that feels shapeless and hard to stay with, at least for this listener. A story of this significance would benefit from a good, rigorous edit--a much tighter structure and about half the length.

Comment for "Barbara"

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Review of Barbara

Lots of us like to talk about radio's power as a "visual medium," but let's face it, sometimes the fact that you can't just show the listener a picture becomes a noticeable handicap. Or it seems to. There's no tougher thing to do on radio than a piece about visual art. During one stretch in the middle of this fine piece, I found myself just wanting to SEE the pictures that Lu Olkowski was describing.

But that urge soon dropped away. First, because of Lu's descriptions, evocative and packed with meaning, of young Barbara in these photos. "She looks like Humpty Dumpty before the fall, as if she might roll backwards if given just a little nudge."

More than that, I was content not seeing the images because in the end the piece is not about the pictures. It's about a relationship. For the photographer, Andrea Modica, making pictures of Barbara is a way to be with the girl. It's also a way to keep her around--almost--after she's gone. That's something that, at least in this deftly-drawn piece, radio can get across just fine.

Comment for "RN Documentary: Seamus Heaney: Bogging In Again"

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Review of RN Documentary: Seamus Heaney: Bogging In Again

You can't go too far wrong with this material: Seamus Heaney's closely-mic'd voice in conversation--a voice that takes hold of words with an unusually strong grip before letting them go. Seamus Heaney reading his own achingly beautiful, soul-disturbing poems in a reverberating hall in Rotterdam. Stir in atmospheric music and intelligent narration by the interviewer. I suppose you could go wrong with any material, but the folks at Radio Netherlands, as usual, get it right.

This is not just any old piece about any old poet. Heaney's talk and his poetry are not *about* poetry but about the world--the world of spit and dust and cast iron but also of falling Twin Towers and our "virtual city." One of the most important poets of our time, an Irishman who came of age writing about the Troubles as "time out of joint" in his own small country, now reflects on a whole world out of joint. A world of "deep, deep, deep unease" where "war is waged almost casually."

Comment for "Blue: A Mother's Grief"

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Review of Blue: A Mother's Grief

Too often the murders of kids in urban neighborhoods aren't seen as news at all, so I appreciate the impulse behind this piece. Baltimore had 278 homicides in 2004, the year "Blue" died. I've long wondered how things might change if newspapers and stations like WYPR did prominent reports on each murder victim. The piece has some pretty good tape with the grieving mother and a neighborhood activist.

On the other hand...the producer describes himself as being relatively new to radio, and it shows--in the cliches ("...every mother's worst nightmare....), the wooden delivery, and the compulsion to open with sound in the first scene even though the fish tank is irrelevant and barely makes any sound at all. In short, the piece sounds just like stuff I did as a young reporter! If only we'd had PRX back then. If I'd had the guts to post my work and get it critiqued, I might have stopped doing such stuff sooner. Keep at it, Justin.

Comment for "Voices on Antisemitism: Gerda Weissman Klein (Holocaust Survivor)" (deleted)

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Review of Voices on Antisemitism: Gerda Weissman Klein (Holocaust survivor) (deleted)

Another pretty good audio piece produced by (or for) an institution with a stated agenda. In this case, it's the podcast of the United States Holocaust Museum. By "agenda" I don't mean anything pejorative; to point out, object to, and reflect on anti-Semitism is precisely what you'd expect the Holocaust Museum to do in its podcast. It's an entirely honorable agenda. Nonetheless, this piece would sound odd on most radio stations.

That said, the piece is nicely done. Ms. Klein says thoughtful things in a lovely, world-weary voice. In saying she believes "in the basic goodness of people," she sounds like the surprisingly optimistic elderly woman that Anne Frank might have become. She reflects in familiar terms on the misuse of religion to justify Islamist terrorism. The piece is simply constructed with music that comes and goes.

Comment for ""The I Hate Poetry Poetry Hour Half Hour' Show #27 on Being a Slob" including Where are My AWOL Housekeepers Now, Passage to Adventures on Joel's Living room floor,"

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Review of "The I Hate Poetry Poetry Hour Half Hour' Show #27 on Being a Slob" including Where are My AWOL Housekeepers Now, Passage to Adventures on Joel's Living room floor,

Amusing. Quirky. Rough. Sometimes you just have to make do with PRX's pull-down list of adjectives to describe a piece. The list doesn't include the words "Bent" or "Cracked." Or "Likely Produced On Crack."

Give Joel Brussell credit for courage. Don't know about you all, but for me most attempts to be funny rely largely on the element of surprise. You go around being earnest and serious and once in a while you sneak in a mild witticism. With luck, you'll startle your companion into a chuckle, nervous or otherwise. Brussell is taking the much harder route of declaring himself an "edgy comedy writer." And he's doing so on public radio, where most listeners aren't used to real humor. A Prairie Home Companion was last funny in 1994. Car Talk? Early '98, I think it was. Brussell is daring us to find him unfunny, too.

My other disclaimer (and then I'll stop with the preamble) is that humor is notoriously subjective. I might guffaw at something you find lame, or vice versa. It doesn't do much good to explain the merits and tell you why you should have laughed. The thing either struck you as funny or it didn't.

So is this show funny? Well...yes, occasionally, in a cracked, bent way. No guffaws for me, but I chuckled a couple of times and smiled a few more, most often when Brussell wandered into song with his laconic Tom Baudette voice and goofball lyrics or turned on his ridiculously bad British accent. Perhaps the closest comparison on public radio is Le Show (for those lucky enough to hear it), though Brussell is not in Harry Shearer's league as a performer. The "I Hate Poetry..." show's production values are spotty and the pop songs, played in their entirety, feel like padding. But Brussell does some creative and funny bits. I'm glad he's trying radio and I hope he'll keep at it.

Comment for "Cancer Anxiety Study" (deleted)

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Review of Cancer Anxiety Study (deleted)

A strong, well-crafted piece about a fascinating and important subject.

58-year-old Pamela Sakuda has terminal cancer but she doesn't sound like a dying patient. Her voice is strong. She's sharp and upbeat. She laughs. She's a participant in a study in which terminal patients are given Psilocybin, the hallucinogenic ingredient in 'shrooms, to test whether the drug can relieve a dying patient's mental and emotional suffering.

With help from her husband and the doctor who runs the study, Ms. Sakuda takes us through her diagnosis and her experience with the drug. It's tempting to quibble about some contextual stuff that's left out in this anecdotal approach to the story. Does everyone in the study have such positive results? What about the inevitable allegation that this woman is able to face death with a smile because she's simply high?

The last question gets answered indirectly by Ms. Sakuda herself. As she articulates it, the drug did not send her into the clouds but rather cleared away the fear and panic so she could think more rationally about her situation. The implication is that she's fully present for this last stage of her life while suffering far less than she might have been.

A thought-provoking piece worthy of any news magazine.

Comment for "Paper Trail"

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Review of Paper Trail

This is an affecting and nicely drawn story about a story. In the 1990's a German collector finds himself in possession of a set of letters, dated from the late 1930's, from a German Jew to the Swedish woman he loves. The two had met and shared a romantic couple of days together and are now separated but are trying to find a way to be together. Needless to say, that's a problem, given the times.

The collector, Reinhard Kaiser, became obsessed with the love story and took his research beyond the letters; he's now published a book telling the story of Rudolph and Ingeborg. Through interview tape with Kaiser, narration, and excerpts from the letters (read unusually well by a third voice), Julie Subrin weaves a story that, while not extraordinary in the context of its time, drew me in entirely.

I was momentarily exasperated by Subrin's decision not to tell us the how the story came out so as not to give away the end of Kaiser's book. In fact, though, Subrin tells us that what became of Rudolph Kauffman during the war years is "not a happy story" and makes clear that Rudolph and Ingeborg did not get to share the future they dreamed of. We get it.

This is a simple, touching piece of radio that reminds us of the power of the story: one sad story among millions about people far away whom we can't know, but for some reason we care.

Comment for "Women of the YW"

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Review of Women of the YW

This piece offers the voices of women talking, over uplifting music, about harrowing experiences of domestic violence and illness, and about the haven they've found living among other women in the Lynchburg, Virginia YWCA. A couple of minutes in, the piece begins to sound like a promotional bit for the YWCA. No wonder: that's the purpose for which it was originally produced.

This raises an intriguing question. Public radio reporters routinely produce earnest, positive pieces about non-profit service organizations and the people they serve. Sometimes those organizations wind up linking to such pieces on their Web sites, effectively using them as promos. Why shouldn't things run in the other direction? Why can't an audio piece produced for a non-profit, especially a piece made pro bono by an independent media-maker, double as a bit of impressionistic journalism?

With some more editing, it might have worked better in this case, at least on the surface. The recordings are good and the women's stories are compelling and well put-together. Trouble is, there are a few too many direct references to the blessings of the YW, and, just as jarring, the music is the light and "healing" sort routinely heard in PSA's and hospital ads. These factors, combined with the knowledge that the piece was in fact done as a promo for the YW, would put me off if I were a station PD. At the very least I'd think that the origins of the piece should be disclosed to the audience.