An Interview with Radio Diaries' Joe Richman

May 28, 2020

Joe Richman has been gathering as he calls them, “extraordinary stories of ordinary life” since the mid-90’s. Now, in a time when the rhythms of ordinary life feel especially extraordinary, Joe and his team at Radio Diaries are turning the mic to record Hunker Down Diaries, a series of conversations with people in unexpected circumstances because of the pandemic.


On Air Fest:
You recently started a new series of audio stories called Hunker Down Diaries airing on NPR and on the Radio Diaries Podcast. One of the central questions of the series is, “what are we learning about each other as we go through this?” What have you unearthed thus far?

Joe Richman:
Well, the first three stories in the series all happened to be about love. It wasn’t by design, it just happened that way. Two centenarians in lockdown. A married couple living six feet apart. A couple who quarantined together after their first date. A lot of people have been talking about how disasters are ‘relationship accelerators.’ They can cause a spike in marriages and babies, and they can trigger divorce. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to learn a lot about each other - and ourselves. And relationships are a pretty good window into much larger stories.

That said, the upcoming stories are pretty different (a woman who is homeless, a man in prison, a funeral home), we’re moving on from love and relationships!

What drew you to document this moment through audio?

At Radio Diaries we’ve been giving people recorders and helping them document their own lives for a long time. When the world started locking down, it became clear that this approach was going to be a sort of journalistic super power in a pandemic. So we started sending out recorders and training people (and ourselves) about the best ways to have people record on their phones and computers. We’re definitely learning along the way.

More importantly, we wanted to be part of covering this story, and to do it in our way. I love public radio and I love when stories like ours - personal-documentary-narrative - have a home on the news. So it was important that this series air not just on our podcast but also on NPR’s All Things Considered.

People think of investigative journalism as hard reporting and FOIA requests and uncovering corruption. But I believe another important part of journalism is to look at personal stories and investigate how things really feel. It felt to our team at Radio Diaries* that those kinds of stories could be the way we contribute to this moment.

*A quick shout out to the team: Producers Sarah Kate Kramer and Nellie Gilles. Editors Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. And our podcast network Radiotopia!

There’s this moment in one of the interviews you recorded between a wife and husband who have been maintaining distance to protect the man’s health when he asks her, “do you believe you can be intimate without physical touch?” They’re of course talking about their relationship, but it made me wonder how remote-recording very intimate pieces like this has impacted your own process as a storyteller. How have you been able to find proximity without ever meeting the people you interview?

This is such a great question, and it’s something I think about a lot. There’s no substitute for being there with someone while you’re interviewing them. A phone or video interview just isn’t the same. On the other hand, Terry Gross of Fresh Air prefers for her guests to be in a separate studio when she interviews them. She feels it allows for more intimacy when the guest isn’t with her in person.

It’s so important to build trust and a relationship when starting to interview or document someone. But everyone has a different approach. I think this is something we’re all going to be figuring out over the coming year: how do we create intimacy from a distance.

Something so beautiful about your work is how the small interactions you record feel like they represent something larger about humanity. Two point question here -- how does he do it!? And while working on Hunker Down Diaries have you grasped onto a “something larger?”

Well… thank you. But I think that’s one of the great things about audio. Small moments tell big stories. Radio (I like the word radio…. Even for podcasts) has a unique quality that let’s people hear so much more than the words that are spoken; the way people talk, their voice, their accent, what they’re not saying between the lines. Radio is really good and conveying emotion and helping us understand the story in our bodies, not just our brains.

Thank you for your work, Joe. We’re so grateful for what you bring to storytelling and looking forward to future Hunker Down Diaries.

Small moments tell big stories.

Joe Richman