First-Person Narratives on Radio Document Historic Memory: While Emotionally Powerful, Their Production Presents Journalistic Challenges. (Radio and the Internet)

By Tolan, Sandy | Nieman Reports, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

First-Person Narratives on Radio Document Historic Memory: While Emotionally Powerful, Their Production Presents Journalistic Challenges. (Radio and the Internet)


Tolan, Sandy, Nieman Reports


Some stories are so good you just want to get out of their way. Or so it seemed with "The Lemon Tree," a documentary that captured, with two deeply personal stories, a slice of the last 50 years of Middle East history.

In July 1948, at the height of the Arab-Israeli War, Bashir Al-Khayri, six years old, fled with his family from their stone home in old Palestine. The family made its way on foot from Ramle to the tent-covered hills of Ramallah in the West Bank. They were among the 700,000 Palestinian refugees in a growing Middle East Diaspora; they lived in shelters and crowded into relatives' living rooms, determined one day soon to return to the family's home.

Three months later, Dalia Ashkenazi, six months old, embarked on a journey to the new state of Israel. The family, Bulgarian Jews who'd escaped the Holocaust, arrived in Ramle, now an Israeli city. Dalia would later be told that she was the only one on the boat who didn't get sick. Israeli resettlement authorities gave the family a stone home in the center of town.

For 19 years, Bashir's family lived as refugees in the West Bank, always dreaming of the future, when they'd return. Dalia's went about forging a new society, always haunted by the past, which they'd barely survived.

In the summer of 1967, just after the Six Day War, Bashir decided to try to visit his house--for which his father, now blind, still had the key and the deed. Bashir made his way to Ramie and to the front step of the family's home.

Bashir rang the bell.

Dalia answered.

Thus begins "The Lemon Tree," a 43-minute radio documentary broadcast on "Fresh Air" for the 50th anniversary of Israel's birth and the 1948 war. The story chronicles a slice of Middle East history through a difficult friendship, which began when Dalia invited Bashir in with the words, "This is your home."

This was precisely the kind of story my Homelands Productions colleagues and I were seeking when we embarked on "World Views," a series of first-person documentary narratives for public radio. Frustrated with the rise of corporate infotainment, my colleagues and I were looking for a way to cut through the stream of information and dehumanizing images absent of meaning, understanding or deeper context. Most absent, it seemed--and what radio was best at providing--was voice: stories told by ordinary people from the depths of their experience.

We started thinking about a series of stories to be told directly by the people in the midst of the news. These would be perspective-based narratives getting beneath the surface of daily events, telling the story from a deeper place than conventional reporting could. At this point (1993) there were a few examples of this emerging in public radio--Jay Allison's "Life Stories" series, Dave Isay's "Ghetto Life 101," along with public television's "P.O.V." and the BBC's "Video Diaries"--but our idea was to get reports from the ground, throughout the world, as stories unfolded and historical events were recalled.

We imagined, for example, a Cuban narrating her story from a raft bound for the United States. Or an African American traveling to the old slave house on Senegal's Goree Island, reversing the journey of his ancestors. Or a Moscow investigative reporter, one of the first to write publicly about the KGB, telling a personal history of the dissident movement in the former Soviet Union. Or a Ukrainian nuclear physicist recording an audio journal of day-to-day life in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Or a New Delhi poet and an "untouchable" rickshaw driver describing their chance encounter across vast barriers of caste, culture and life experience. (Some of these ideas were inspired by experiences of my 1993 Nieman colleagues.)

But what we didn't anticipate was how much the series--indeed the entire genre of first-person narrative--would present significant challenges not to be found in the standard news documentary.

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First-Person Narratives on Radio Document Historic Memory: While Emotionally Powerful, Their Production Presents Journalistic Challenges. (Radio and the Internet)
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