Archive for the 'radio' Category

Interviewing someone without looking them in the eye


Turns out I’m in good company when it comes to interviewing people without seeing what they look like. Laura Hillenbrand (award-winning author of Sea Biscuit and Unbroken) and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross were both quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story recently saying they actually prefer interviewing people that way.

The article explains that Hillenbrand has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1987. She has been mostly confined indoors ever since, and she doesn’t get out to do face-to-face interviews with the people she writes about. The New York Times Sunday Magazine article says most reporters would regard this as a terrible handicap, . “One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation.” More from the article:

Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote.

Terry Gross told the reporter that she began doing this out of necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Now she believes there is intimacy in distance. “I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she told the reporter. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.”

Hillenbrand never met Louie Zamperini face-to-face but she interviewed him for hundreds of hours over the phone while writing Unbroken, her story about his life. She said that doing the interviews without looking at Zamperini allowed her to visualize Zamperini in the time period of the book. “He became a 17-year-old runner for me, or a 26-year-old bombardier,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at an old man.”

I know what she means. Hearing the life stories of the memoir-writers in my classes every week without looking at them as they read? It has taught me something. Maybe, just maybe, we put too much stock in appearances.

Mondays with Mike: Podcaster for a day

When we lived in Urbana, Ill., I had a morning radio show on a local community radio station called WEFT (WEFT, rhymes with LEFT). WEFT Radio was a nearly anarchical operation, run by citizen volunteers, meagerly funded by donations and grants, but thanks to dedicated people over the years, it
survives to this day.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you'll be glad you did.

Check out Beachwood Reporter, you’ll be glad you did.

WEFT carries some syndicated programming, but mostly it is local volunteers who piece together each week’s shows. You find blues shows, jazz shows, old time country shows, political shows, gospel shows, GLBT shows. It’s sort of a grand mess, the airwaves version of a community parade.

So like I said, back in the 90s (boy, it hurts to write that), I was in the middle of it with a morning show, once a week, that I called Adult Children of Parents (ACOP). You may recall that the terms dependent, co-dependent,
enabling, adult children of (fill in the blank) and recovery-speak was entering the vernacular back then. The title was my snarky response.

I read headlines from the Chicago Tribune and sometimes the local paper, I commented, I played music, I had guests, Beth played the accordion during fundraisers. I came to love it. Put me in front of a large live audience and my palms sweat and my voice cracks like an adolescent. Put me in a studio with a microphone and I become, as one friend once put it, verbally incontinent.

So, last week, when I got an email blast from Steve Rhodes of The Beachwood Reporter linking to his latest podcast – and inviting volunteers to appear as guests on The Beachwood Radio Hour and The Beachwood Radio Sports Hour – I stepped up to the plate.

He wrote back right away and suggested we get together to record a show this past Saturday. Which gave me a quick shot of sweaty palms, I mean, in concept it sounded fun..

About Steve: He’s first and foremost a smart, affable, honest, witty and likable guy. He’s also a superb and accomplished journalist – he’s worked at dailies, at Newsweek, Chicago Magazine, among others. And he cares, deeply, about journalism. That led him to create The Beachwood Reporter, a Web publication that rounds up pivotal Chicago (and sometimes national) stories. (The name is borrowed from a classic old Chicago tavern called the Beachwood Inn, so named because it’s at the corner of Beach and Wood.)

The Beachwood Reporter is an indispensable resource for anyone who cares about public and cultural affairs in Chicago and beyond, and it’s a one-of-a-kind resource for people who care about the state of journalism.
Reading it gives you a sketch of the current news, but also tips you to what the reporter may have missed, the questions they should’ve asked, and what the politicians and bigwigs are getting away with as a result.

We got to know each other years ago when Steve began linking to my now dormant blog called Reading with Scissors. We’ve stayed in touch since. Steve knows I’m a White Sox fan, and with the Sox making a series of big
trades and free-agent signings at Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings last week, he suggested I join him and regular sports contributor Jim Coffman to the Beachwood Sports Hour to add a Sox element. He also
invited me to join the Beachwood News Hour, which I did.

It was a gas. Jim’s a churning, burning urn of Chicago sports, we mostly good-naturedly talked about the Cubs-Sox rivalry, and a good time was had. The News Hour with Steve was a little more serious in tone: We talked about the Illinois Office of Comptroller, Torture, and the Chicago Mayor’s race. Also enjoyed that, but in a different way.

You can listen to the Beachwood Radio Sports Hour (free) here — there’s an audio player plus show notes.

You can listened to the Beachwood Radio Hour (also free) here–Steve also provides show notes for the news.

I’m not sure if or when I’ll be back on, but meantime, I hope you’ll give it a listen, and I hope you’ll become a Beachwood regular.

Life Itself — the movie


A documentary about Roger Ebert called “Life Itself” opens nationwide tomorrow, July4. I just heard the filmmaker interviewed on Fresh Air, and it sure sounds to me like Roger Ebert would give his documentary a thumbs up. Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago, when his memoir by the same name was published.

Originally posted on Safe & Sound blog:

Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself comes out today, and I’m eager to read it. From what I’ve heard, he writes a lot about his middle-class Midwestern upbringing in Urbana, Ill., a place Mike and I were proud to call home for many, many years, and the town where our son Gus was born. Ebert was born in Urbana in 1942. Early reviews say he glows about his dad, an electrician at the University of Illinois, in his book.

You might remember me glowing about Roger Ebert in a post I wrote when he was given an award from Access Living, a disability advocacy organization here in Chicago. Access Living’s Lead On award “recognizes national leaders who have helped reframe the understanding of people with disabilities and who have helped to remove the barriers–physical and attitudinal–that exclude people with disabilities from career pursuits and everyday life.”

Roger Ebert represents the…

View original 334 more words

Just don’t call me late for dinner

Ten years ago the City of Chicago’s Commissioner on Aging contacted me to lead a memoir class at the Chicago Cultural Center. Soon afterward, Chicago Public Radio asked if I’d write and record an essay about the writers who’d signed up. I used my talking computer to e-mail my rough draft to the WBEZ editor and she emailed back with only one suggestion. “You repeat the word ‘seniors’ too much,” she said, requesting I use a “gentler” word. When I couldn’t come up with one, she wrote back. “How about golden agers?”

That’s writer Hanna Bratman, 94, the matriarch of the memoir classes I lead. Her essays have been compiled in a book called “What’s In My Head.” (Photo by Nora Isabel Bratman)

Golden agers? Was she serious?

She was. My recording of the piece is not available online, but I have a CD of it, and if you listen very closely you can hear me choke every time I call the writers “golden agers.”

Turns out the editor was ahead of her time. Just this week on Morning Edition, NPR’s Ina Jaffe opened a series she is doing about older Americans by explaining how difficult it’s been for her to find the right words to describe people who are over age 65.

“I realized what a minefield this was after I’d been on the beat just a few months,” she said, describing a profile she’d done recently of a 71-year-old midwife who is still up all night delivering babies. The headline on the NPR web site used the word “elderly” to describe the midwife. “Listeners were furious,” Jaffe said. “Maybe once upon a time, ‘elderly’ referred to a particular stage in life, but now people think … it means you’re ailing and you’re frail.” Jaffe said she sometimes uses the words older adults or older Americans but has pretty much given up senior. “I’ve met some older people who don’t like that, either,” she said. “And ‘senior citizen’ really seems to annoy just about everyone now…there really aren’t a lot of widely acceptable terms anymore.”

The piece went on and on, and on and on and on, with all sorts of other ideas:

  • Golden years: Jaffe explained this term came from a sales pitch during the late 1950s, when retirement began to be romanticized as a perpetual vacation.
  • Silver tsunami: I’d never heard of this, but NPR actually referenced a guy named Ashton Applewhite about this one. Applewhite blogs about aging and ageism and argues the metaphor is wrong. The 65-and-over population growth is not a tsunami, he says. “It’s a phenomenon that is washing gently across a flood plain.”
  • Our seniors: A term often used by politicians. Jaffe finds it patronizing. “The only other group we talk about like that is children.”
  • Successful aging: Jaffe is over 65 years old herself and says that although this is considered a progressive term, she doesn’t like it. “I think it just means there’s one more opportunity for me to fail.”

I do not research ageism, and I don’t have a degree in aging. I do lead three memoir-writing classes a week, though, and while a couple of my students are still in their fifties, most are in their seventies. Two students, Wanda and Hanna, are in their nineties and still manage to get to class on their own each week with new essays to share. Listening to all these amazing people read their essays teaches me a lot — far more than any of them will ever learn from me!

So what word do I use to describe the people who sign up for my memoir-writing classes? That’s easy. I just call them writers.

Mim’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated!

Mim's in there somewhere. Click on the link to go to a larger version at SI.

Mim’s in there somewhere. Click on the link to go to a larger version at SI.

My friend Mim Nelson has been on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, she’s been quoted more than once in the New York Times, and she’s been a guest on Oprah. And now, she’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated, too. Continue reading ‘Mim’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated!’

Dad can’t see me

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who’ve been watching hockey, curling and skiing on NBC the past couple of weeks, no doubt you’ve also seen a commercial for a new TV comedy about a father who is blind – a Deadline Hollywood article says 300 promotional spots for the new show will air before the Winter Olympics closing ceremonies this Sunday night.

“Growing up Fisher” has very talented people like Jason Bateman (executive producer) and David Schwimmer (director) behind it, and J.K. Simmons, a fine actor, plays the dad who is blind. It could be good, but if those commercials are any indication, I worry.

That’s Bob Ringwald at the piano.

I’ve run across plenty of people raised by dads who are blind, and they have interesting stories to tell. Let’s start with
Molly Ringwald.. You know, the one in all those John Hughes movies in the 1980s? Her father is blind. My brother Doug is a professional jazz trombonist, and he introduced me to Molly’s father Bob Ringwald, a talented professional jazz pianist, years ago. Molly has written a few novels, and she was asked about her dad during an NPR interview about her books. She told Scott Simon that as a child she enjoyed sitting with him during movies and plays to describe the action. “I actually think that that informed my writing,” she said. “That’s something that I’ve done for so long, that it’s made me, perhaps, observe things in a different way.”

And then there’s Gore Vidal. After the famous writer and critic died in 2012, Bob Edwards Weekend replayed an interview conducted at Vidal’s home in Los Angeles in 2006. Vidal was raised by his grandfather, a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. Sen. Thomas Gore was blind, and Vidal was ten years old when he started reading to him. “I read grown-up books to him: constitutional law, the Congressional Record, American history, poetry,” Vidal said. ”He was extraordinary, he was my education.” Vidal guided his grandfather to Senate hearings, and he said he didn’t dare fall asleep while sitting in the balcony waiting for the session to be over — at any moment his grandfather might give a hand signal to let young Vidal know to skedaddle down the Senate stairs to guide him to the bathroom.

Growing up with a father who is blind can be interesting, and funny, too, at times. A live performance of This American Life opened with Vancouver writer Ryan Knighton telling a story about a walk in the woods he took alone with his young daughter. Knighton is blind, and when she started screaming about a bear, he panicked. After weighing his options, he realized that her frantic cries of “bear!” were only in reaction to dropping her teddy bear on the sidewalk. Knighton’s most recent book C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark is full of funny — and frightening  — stories of his first years as a father. His daughter Tess is seven years old now, and I’m sure she has some very entertaining stories to tell.

My friend Colleen was the first to call and tell me about the ads during the Olympics promoting the new blind dad TV comedy. My husband Mike confirmed that the commercial shows one scene of the father cutting a tree down with a chainsaw, and then another of him driving a car. I’m sure there are plenty of people who are blind who are looking forward to the premiere, I’m just not one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I do hope Growing Up Fisher  is good, and that the storytelling and substance outweighs the over-the-top driving and chainsaw gimmicks featured in the trailers, but I’m not going to count on it. When I really want to learn about what it’s like to be raised by fathers who can’t see, I’ll turn to the day-to-day stories of the Ringwalds, the Knightons, and the late Gore Vidal.

Now on video! See what it’s like to go blind!

I was tickled to discover my What’s it Like to go Blind segment up on The Good Stuff channel this week.

Check out  "The Good Stuff

Check out “The Good Stuff”

Funny thing, though. I can’t see the video!

I can hear the show on YouTube, though, and, really, all you have to do is listen to know how much fun my Seeing Eye Dog Whitney and I had earlier this month when four guys from The Good Stuff spent an afternoon with us taping this week’s segment. Friends and family members who have seen the finished product on The Good Stuff this week have written me and posted links on Facebook – they all give the What’s it Like to Go Blind segment a hearty thumbs-up.

Craig Benzine, the guy who conducted my interview on The Good Stuff, is very familiar with YouTube: he already has an uber-popular vlog there called Wheezy Waiter that has half a million followers. In a blog post on Wheezy Waiter, he explained why he decided to start The Good Stuff channel now, too:

“There’s this type of entertainment I enjoy that I can only really find in podcast form, specifically from the shows Radiolab and This American Life. They take a topic and delve into it from all sides. That could be short stories, news stories, stand up comedy, interviews, etc. These shows give me a certain feeling when I’m done listening to them that I really don’t find much on YouTube. I guess it’s sort of a feeling that everything’s connected and you can find interesting things and people everywhere you look. With The Good Stuff, we’re attempting to get at that feeling, at least a little, and do it with video.”

The theme for the show I’m on this week is Senses. Before shooting a single frame for my segment, Craig and fellow Good Stuff staff members Sam Grant, Matt Weber and David Wolff spent nearly an hour figuring out the ideal way to film inside our apartment, which angle to shoot from and where the lighting would look best. From what my husband Mike Knezovich says, their fussiness was worth it. “They make our apartment look great!” he marveled. The Good Stuff puts tons of time and scientific research into all its video segments, and this one does not disappoint. A graphic of the inside of an eyeball shows up on screen while I explain retinopathy (the disease that caused my blindness), they got down on Whitney’s level to film shots of her working outside, and they fade to black at appropriate times while I try to explain how I picture things I can’t see.

The video sounds good, too. Mischievous music that sounds like it’s from a Three Stooges episode plays while I take Whitney out to “empty,” and if you listen closely you’ll hear me playing Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues on the piano for a few seconds, too.

But wait. Why describe all this to you? You all can check out the What It’s Like to Go Blind video yourself. If you like what you see/hear, I hope you’ll consider donating to The Good Stuff. The videos on The Good Stuff are all available free of charge, staff members fund their work with day jobs: waiting tables, doing other film work, and one guy works at a family shoe store. Craig says they feel fortunate and extremely grateful to have received a grant from Google earlier this year, but that money will run out soon, and it sure would be swell to keep The Good Stuff going. Just think. With our help, The Good Stuff can get even better.

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