Comments by John Biewen

Comment for "Photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado"

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Review of Photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado

Documentary work is sometimes described as a blend of journalism and art. It's certainly a fitting description of photographer Sebastiao Salgado's work. The Brazilian artist has traveled the world taking hauntingly beautiful pictures of the world's poorest people, including those dislocated by need or war. This thoughtful piece explores Salgado's work in the context of a traveling exhibition.

There's nothing fancy here but the piece is done with care and quality. Jenny Brundin interviews Salgado, the exhibit director and several other observers of the photographer's work, and carries the piece with well-written narration. The piece makes sporadic and evocative use of background music.

A fine NPR-style arts feature that would enhance any magazine show.

Comment for "Mom's Good Move II"

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Review of Mom's Good Move II

This piece by Dan Collison is an update on a three-part series he produced with his mother, Peg Collison, in 2000, on her move into a retirement facility. That earlier move marked an important step into Ms. Collison's last phase of life, but she made it in a spirit of optimism. This time, things aren't going well. Since 2000, Peg's partner has died and she's battled breast cancer, depression, the debilitating failure of her knee and back, and the onset of dementia. Now she's had to move from her assisted-living apartment into the skilled-nursing facility.

This is dicey business for her son, Dan, considering the risk of exploitation inherent in documentary work--a risk with heightened stakes when documenting one's family member. Peg's radio-producer son has come halfway across the country for his first visit in six months, at a hard time for her, and he's walked in with his recorder rolling. "Take it away," she tells him at one point. Dan tells the listener that his mom talks more openly off tape.

It's a squirm-inducing moment, but, intentionally or not, it serves to strengthen a lesson of the piece: that those of us who plan to grow old won't get to write the script for our last years. Chances are we'll endure a not-so-dignified decline.

Comment for "Off to the Army"

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Review of Off to the Army

This piece is smoothly produced, evocative, and elliptical: a series of recorded conversations, over a musical soundtrack, involving young Sean and a couple of friends who are trying to decipher Sean's decision to join the Army.

Sean begins by telling of a day and night in which he got kicked out of junior college, got blind drunk at a party, got banged up in a fight, then wound up at dawn running in place and shouting 'militaristic' things. Two days later he signed the papers at the recruiting office. Next, under questioning from his friends, he explains that he's joining the military not because he supports the current war in Iraq (he doesn't) but because he wants to "get my life on track."

The piece then takes a turn. Asked if he fears dying in combat, Sean says matter-of-factly that he "sometimes kind of [hopes] that happens." He describes a suicide attempt with booze and pills. It's not clear when this attempt happened, and the story does not circle back to Sean's departure for the Army -- the premise of the piece. The implication seems to be that Sean has a death wish and that's behind his decision to go military. I suspect some listeners, accustomed to clearer signposts about the significance of what they're hearing, will wind up scratching their heads. It
would help to add a simple host back-announce saying that Sean began his military training in January, '06.

A refreshing piece that feels a bit like an indie movie rather than your
standard public radio piece. It leaves some work for the listener.

Comment for "Four Seconds: Suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge"

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Review of Four Seconds: Suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge

A close friend, a brilliant, 33-year-old doctor, throws himself off the Golden Gate Bridge. He leaves no explanation and has never hinted at being suicidal, although his brother, another close friend of the producer's, killed himself a few years earlier. How to make sense of this loss? Jake Warga doesn't try too hard, and that's one of the many virtues of this affecting audio essay.

Warga succinctly describes his friendship with Phil; he passes on some interesting and amusing facts about the Golden Gate, "the world's most popular suicide destination." He tells a funny story about crying on the bridge after Phil's death and being approached by a law enforcement officer ("call me Ron") who clearly thinks Warga is preparing to jump and has come to talk him down.

The piece's biggest virtue is Warga's writing. Looking at Phils body in the morgue, Jake sees the face of his father and of Phil's late brother. "The dead all have a way of showing up at once," he says dryly.

A longish piece for an audio essay, but a very good one.

Comment for "Active Voices: Nell Bernstein- All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated"

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Review of Active Voices: Nell Bernstein- All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated

This host telephone interview explores the impact of the nation's prison expansion on the children of the incarcerated. At any one time, says author Nell Bernstein, 2.4 million kids have a parent in prison, and one in ten American children have a parent who's locked up, on probation, or on parole. Those children are often overlooked by a system that's quick to lock up drug-addicted parents rather than treat them, and by courts and prisons once their parents are behind bars, Bernstein tells host Chris Goldstein.

Many stations hesitate to run interviews done by hosts other than their own, but for those who will do so, this is a worthy piece. [Full disclosure: This reviewer, like Nell Bernstein, is a former Soros
Justice Media Fellow.]

Comment for "Hobo Confessions" (deleted)

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Review of Hobo Confessions (deleted)

In this first-person monologue, a young college dropout turned "hobo" tells his story. The piece consists of studio interview tape edited together, and accompanying music.? Chris Francis's observations range from the charming ("I thought hobos were cowboys who were too poor to afford horses, and I wanted to
be a cowboy") to the familiar ("I learned more in one weekend out on the tracks than I learned in a year in school.")? The piece is clearly-structured, starting at the beginning of? Francis's train-hopping career, making stops along the way for a few road stories, and winding up with his conclusion that hobo-ing is no way of life for the long haul.? "The easiest way out of everything is just to jump on the train and go. ... Once I get there, the mystery's gone so I want to keep going again. ... And it's a bad cycle to get into."

Francis is a thoughtful describer of this way of life, but you get the
impression that the heart of the story is missing.? Why did this young man leave art school to ride trains and sleep in dumpsters?? The piece also suffers a bit from the narrator's monotone speech pattern combined with equally low-key music that repeats throughout.

Comment for "Darwin Exhibit"

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Review of Darwin Exhibit

This audio essay by Stephen Cherry is a rather charming bait-and-switch. You may think you're about to get a straightforward visit to the Charles Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, with accompanying discussion of the exhibit's place in the currently-hot debate over Intelligent Design. Instead, Cherry's visit becomes a nostalgic trip to his own childhood, when he relished visits with his father to the same Manhattan museum. He describes the painted wooden masks and animal-bone fishhooks and dinosaur bones that he remembers peering at as a nine-year-old and which remain in those same glass cases today. He even gets sentimental about the macaroni and cheese lunch he and his father used to eat, and his inability to find the same diner in the neighborhood this time around.

The strength of the piece is Cherry's ability to evoke a sense of wonder at the natural world and the sensuous pleasure of discovery through physical objects, dead and alive: the new Darwin exhibit features live animals, a tortoise and an iguana, like those Darwin saw on the Galapagos Islands. Cherry does something that public radio voices don't do enough: he marvels unabashedly. A good feature for a magazine show.

Comment for "School of the Americas" (deleted)

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Review of School of the Americas (deleted)

In this student piece, Ben Hurst takes the listener along on a school-sponsored trip to Fort Benning, Georgia, to join a protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, more commonly known as the School of the Americas. The 59-year-old U.S.-government sponsored school trains military personnel from Latin America. Its original mission was to promote stability in the region and combat communism. But, as Hurst explains, the school's graduates have been implicated repeatedly in torture, military coups, and murder, including the 1980 assassinations in El Salvador of archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. churchwomen.

This sound-rich piece features interviews with fellow students from Hurst's Jesuit high school, and snippets of protest speakers including the iconic activist Helen Prejean. The mix is a bit choppy, perhaps predictably for a student production.

There's no pretense of journalistic objectivity. This is ultimately a personal journey. In the end, Hurst concedes that he's not Catholic or "even too much of a Christian." But watching committed activists, including nuns and priests who've gone to prison for civil disobedience at the School of Americas, has inspired him to feel that "social justice is worth spending a lifetime for."

Comment for "Unplugging a Media Giant" (deleted)

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Review of Unplugging a Media Giant (deleted)

This half-hour program casts a critical eye on media giant Clear Channel, and on the alleged failure of the Federal Communications Commission to hold the company accountable for its "monopolistic" practices and its tolerance of racist, xenophobic and homophobic shock jocks. The piece profiles activist groups in the Bay Area and in San Antonio that are campaigning against Clear Channel. Between those profiles, a co-host interviews the head of Media Alliance, yet another Clear Channel critic. Clear Channel is not heard from, nor is anyone who defends the company.

"Unplugging a Media Giant" asserts that Clear Channel, aided by media deregulation and a compliant FCC, tolerates racist and anti-gay rhetoric on the air (most notably by host Michael Savage) and fails to serve community interest by playing a narrow range of music at the expense of local and independent musicians. There may well be merit to these claims, but anyone with any doubts will have to consult other sources of reporting. "Unplugging a Media Giant" would be much stronger if it made more effort to build a case for its conclusions. Instead it simply asserts them and asks the audience to believe and be outraged.

Comment for "The Other Dead Sea"

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Review of The Other Dead Sea

This is an interesting attempt that for me is a moderate success. Framed by some lyrical writing and evocative imagery, the piece describes how the former Soviet Union destroyed one of the world's biggest lakes with a thoughtless, aggressive agricultural scheme. We hear no audio from the place being described except for the whoosh of the wind; this is essentially a print travel essay read with accompanying music. It?s a tough thing to pull off for more than a few minutes, but Ms. Dornhelm makes it work pretty well thanks to her fine writing and engaging delivery.

Comment for "You Only Have To Look and See"

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Review of You Only Have To Look and See

This is a lovely, moving piece of radio. Martha Solomon, a budding documentary filmmaker, tells of her explorations into the life and work of her late father, a photographer who died when she was a baby. (Interview tape from Ms. Solomon serves as the story's narration, accompanied off and on by gentle, unobtrusive music. The producer, Kent Hoffman, does not appear.) Solomon examines favorite photographs taken by her father, interviews her mother and others about him, and reads letters written about her father by other photographers that he influenced. It's a piece about
paying attention, about being quiet and attentive and really seeing. And without needing to say so, the piece is about hearing, too. It displays the kind of quiet, respectful attention that it celebrates in the work of the late photographer and his reflective daughter. Would work nicely on a weekend program.