NYF’s weekly Open Mic Spotlight interview features prominent award-winner’s from the wonderful world of radio. This week, NYF interviews Sarah Kate Kramer, Producer for Radio Diaries. Radio Diaries took home the New York Festivals Gold Trophy at the 2017 Radio Awards Gala in New York City for their program Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl.
Sarah has produced multi-award winning radio documentaries and first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator. She traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown, New York City. Sarah produced radio stories and an oral history project while in Morocco as a Fulbright Fellow. Prior to joining Radio Diaries, she served as editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and as a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio where she created “Niche market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York.
In the interview below, Sarah shares her creative process, logistical challenges she encoutered when producing her documentaries, her thoughts on how becoming a radio diarist changes the lives of the diarists, her personal dream project, and much more.
NYF Radio: Radio Diaries earned the Gold Trophy for their outstanding programs Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl, to what do you attribute the success of this program?
Sarah Kate Kramer: I think that one reason listeners responded so much to Majd’s Diary is because it’s rare for outsiders to hear a personal story from a woman in Saudi Arabia. Much of the international news coverage of women there focuses on a limited number of issues: the veil, and the ban on women driving. Because women’s voices are not often heard in the public sphere, there are a lot of misperceptions about what life for young women in Saudi Arabia is really like. Majd brought listeners inside her world, and even though the details of her life were foreign, Majd was able to create an intimacy that made it easy for people to relate to her. Listeners could understand her life and choices in a genuine way.
NYF Radio: How did you come up with the idea for this Radio Diaries project and to what efforts did it take to connect with Majd to create this program?
Sarah Kate Kramer: The very first Radio Diaries project was called “Teenage Diaries.” We gave tape recorders to teenagers around the country and asked them to document their lives for NPR. 16 years after that series aired, in 2013, we produced a new series with five of the original diarists called “Teenage Diaries Revisited.” At the same time, we partnered with NPR and Cowbird.com on a contest to find the next Teenage Diarist. We solicited stories from teenagers around the world, and we selected Majd as the winner. We had almost 1000 entries, but her story really stood out.
NYF Radio: What creative and logistical challenges were involved and how did you utilize technology to solve those challenges?
Sarah Kate Kramer: We are based in New York City, so working with a diarist in Saudi Arabia was definitely a challenge. We didn’t actually meet Majd in person until a year and a half into the project! Majd would record “diaries” and upload them to us using dropbox. We would communicate on skype and through WhatsApp. Luckily she is a very tech-savvy individual.
The other challenge comes with the territory of producing an audio diary. We invariably end up with tons of raw tape that we need to sift through in order to construct a radio story. Majd recorded almost 100 hours over two years. Her story ended up being 25 minutes long, so editing everything down was tough. But that’s our specialty here at Radio Diaries.
NYF Radio: Radio Diaries continues to rack up every major award in broadcast journalism for their extraordinary stories of ordinary life, what is involved in finding these exceptional people to share their stories?
Sarah Kate Kramer: There’s no one way that we find stories, it’s different every time! But I would say that the success of any story really comes down to the characters in it. As my colleague Joe Richman says, “you can make almost anything into a good story. What you can’t do is make anyone into a good storyteller.”
NYF Radio: Your team has produced some of the most memorable documentaries ever heard on public radio broadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered, This American Life, BBC, and on the Radio Diaries Podcast. How does creating a radio diary change the lives of your diarists?
Sarah Kate Kramer: I’d like to forward this question onto the diarists themselves, so they can answer. But I will say that the process of keeping an audio diary is a big commitment. Many of the people we’ve worked with have said that it’s helped them get to know themselves better.
NYF Radio: Where did the idea come from to create stories that incorporate citizen journalists? Can you talk about your creative process?
Sarah Kate Kramer: Since 1996, Radio Diaries has been giving people tape recorders and working with them to report on their own lives and histories. We’ve collaborated with teenagers and octogenarians, prisoners and prison guards, gospel preachers and bra saleswomen, the famous and the unknown. We give people recorders so they can tell their own stories in their own words, directly to listeners, without the mediation of a third-party narrator. We like the intimacy of the form, and the way it creates empathy between people who would otherwise never meet. If you want to know more about our creative process, I’d strongly suggest reading Joe’s Transom.org manifesto.
In the handbook, Joe said “I enjoy the puzzle-like challenge of making stories out of found objects.” Please elaborate on your enjoyment for creating stories out of found objects and how you ultimately take all those elements and transform them into riveting award-winning stories?
Sarah Kate Kramer: We made the handbook because we want to encourage people to tell their stories through radio. Why? It’s fun! We love the medium. And we’re living in an age when it’s more accessible than ever before.
“Making stories out of found objects” is a metaphor for producing stories out of the raw sonic material of people’s lives. When diarists record themselves for months on end, they capture all kinds of things: intimate confessionals, riveting conversations…and a lot of boring moments. In fact, the vast majority of what people record ends up in the trash. At Radio Diaries we mine the tape for the hidden gems, the moments that really bring you inside someone’s life. Those are our building blocks.
NYF Radio: What is your personal dream project that you’d like to create? Or have you already created it and if so, what was it?
Sarah Kate Kramer: We feel really lucky every day to do what we do.
For more information on New York Festivals International Radio Awards, please visit: http://www.newyorkfestivals.com/radio/