"Getting usable tape from a three-person, two-language conversation can be a culturally, linguistically, emotionally, and ergonomically complicated business," says Jonathan Miller.

Jonathan Miller interviews marathoner Selena Kosgei and her mother in western Kenya. “Getting usable tape from a three-person, two-language conversation can be a culturally, linguistically, emotionally, and ergonomically complicated business,” he writes on Transom.org.

More than 1 billion people in the world speak English. You could interview one of them every day for 30,000 years and still not exhaust your supply. So why worry about translating foreign-language voices for the radio?

Homelands’ Jonathan Miller tackles this and other thorny questions in the latest “Thoughts on Translation” column on the public radio website Transom.org. Previous contributors were independent producer Ann Heppermann and NPR East Africa correspondent (and honorary Homelander) Gregory Warner.

A listener contacted us after our story aired on PRI’s The World about entrepreneur Charles Mulamata’s effort to start an aquaponics business in his native Uganda. (Aquaponics is a combination of fish and vegetable farming that promoters say is more efficient and productive than conventional methods.) Geoff Platt, who develops aquaponics systems in Arizona, asked us to forward his contact information to Mulamata. Here’s what he wrote today:

Does good journalism change anything? Can words make an impact? Through this interview you may well have started something much larger than you could have imagined….

I am currently helping [Charles] develop several businesses. A mobile aquaponics van, a vertical farming system capable of much larger yields, a wood gas stove designed to reduce eye problems related to smoke exposure, and a bamboo farm to provide cheap, renewable wood to burn as well as continue to build the bicycles they make out of bamboo.

Charles Mulamata surveys a plot of land where he hopes to build an aquaponics facility.

Charles Mulamata hopes to build an aquaponics facility on this plot near Kampala. Photo by Jon Miller.

He goes on to report that Mulamata, an engineer who has started several small businesses, has petitioned the Ugandan government for access to land on an island in the Nile to start an aquaponics research facility and tilapia nursery.

We have no idea how this will all turn out, but it’s great to be reminded that a six-minute radio story can catalyze real action on the other side of the world. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.

Please check out our friend and colleague Ingrid Lobet’s remembrance of two courageous men she encountered as a reporter working in Mexico, both of whom were murdered in 2009. Her piece, “Brave and Dead,” airs on Living On Earth this week. Ingrid is the show’s west coast editor. The essay remembers self-taught lawyer Marco Antonio Armendáriz Vega and environmental journalist Jose “Pepe” Galindo Robles. Both men were brutally killed in their homes late last year. No one has been arrested in either murder. Marco Antonio, known as Marcos, was featured in Ingrid’s profile of Vicki Ponce, a middle-aged woman from Sonora who joined a group of unemployed friends to start an electronics recycling business. The profile was part of Homelands’ WORKING series.

If you love radio documentaries and you’re anywhere near Chicago on October 23, you should check out the Third Coast International Audio Festival‘s annual awards ceremony. It’s a celebration of the extraordinary work being done by audio producers around the world. The winners have been announced and the award-winning audio is up on the Third Coast site. The drama of the ceremony is finding out who won what; the joy is in hearing powerful pieces and getting to meet the makers.

Homelands’ co-founder and board president Cecilia Vaisman will be there to pick up an award for Gregory Warner, who won for his profile of Fidele Musafiri, an artisanal miner in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As faithful readers of this blog will know, the piece was part of the WORKING series.

I’m tickled to report that Homelands has won the 2008 Sigma Delta Chi Award for Radio Feature Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. This is for the WORKING project, our collaboration with Marketplace about workers in the global economy. It’s Homelands’ 20th national or international award.

The SDX Awards, given annually since 1939, are for “excellence in journalism.” This year’s winners include NPR, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The WORKING project is almost over – just four more profiles scheduled, then we fold the tents. We’re busily putting together a proposal for a series on hunger. We’ll keep you posted on that. If you have any ideas about sources of funding, please let us know!

Best wishes from Nairobi,

Jon

I wanted to make note of two things I heard on the radio this afternoon. The first was an obituary of John Updike, on All Things Considered, that included Updike’s observation that “the big problem for a fiction writer is… how do you deal with ordinary life, that is not extraordinary, that does not involve heroism, that does not involve crisis.” The show then replayed Updike’s 2005 This I Believe essay, in which he argues that the difference between fiction and factual reporting “is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.”

Then, on The Treatment (a show about movies out of KCRW in California), this line from an interview with Edward Zwick, director of the film Defiance: “You find your way to the epic through the specific.”

Both ideas worth thinking about as we go about our business of describing the world.

Jon

One of the perpetual challenges for any journalist is to figure out when a person or fact or event is somehow representative of some larger reality, and when the personality or information or situation is so specific that it only really tells us about itself. It’s a constant question when we go out into the world to do radio stories about workers and their jobs. We’re trying to help our listeners understand what life is like for people they might otherwise never meet. And we’re trying to build a portfolio that, taken as a whole, reflects the richness and complexity of the world as it really is. But we’re also looking for good stories, with tension and conflict and drama – stories that will draw our listeners in, and make them care and remember.

Let’s say we want to profile an oil worker, or a miner, or a mail carrier, or a sex worker. Should we look for someone who is typical? Or someone who is remarkable? Or someone who is typical but especially articulate, or whose life is especially dramatic, or whose situation illustrates a point we want to make?

I did a profile of my Peruvian friend Marco, who had worked in textile factories since he was a teenager. Now he was trying to start his own business. I was there for the opening of his little factory, then followed up a year later to see how he did. It made sense thematically – Marco was a minor player in a huge global industry. And although his story wasn’t exactly action movie material, it had its dramatic elements – a main character who was trying to accomplish something, who faced serious obstacles, and whose situation developed over time. Because I knew him, I had a level of access I might not have gotten with a stranger. I think the story “worked.”

But if we’re producing a series about work in the global economy, and we’re going to do just one piece about a textile worker, is Marco really the person we should feature? Wouldn’t it be better to find, say, a female sewing machine operator trapped in a sweatshop somewhere? Marco was ambitious and highly skilled. He had three brothers who more or less shared his dream. He had an intelligent, strong-willed wife who was determined to rise above her own peasant origins. He had an aunt who was willing to give up the first floor of her house. He had cancer, which gave him a heightened sense of urgency. Every one of those details mattered. I wouldn’t say Marco was remarkable, really, but he wasn’t typical either. Should we have chosen someone else?

On the same visit to Peru I traveled to La Oroya, a town in the high Andes that is dominated by a giant smelter. La Oroya is one of the most polluted places on earth; in some neighborhoods, more than 90 percent of the children suffer from lead poisoning. But jobs at the smelter pay well and are highly coveted. I decided to look for someone who could shed light on the trade-off that so many workers face, not just in La Oroya but around the world, between a steady paycheck and personal hardship. I’m an experienced reporter, and it seemed like a clear enough brief.

There was, I soon discovered, a complicated back story. The US company that owned the smelter only bought it ten years before, and much of the contamination was caused by earlier owners. There had been significant improvements, and more were promised. The great majority of townspeople were fiercely defensive of the plant. In fact, the day I arrived, an angry mob tried to throw government inspectors into the river. But activists insisted that the company wasn’t doing nearly enough. The government, too, was losing patience. If I had been doing a standard feature story, it would have been fairly easy to present all this information and take a stab at sorting it out. But we were doing profiles, and our topic was work. I needed to find someone who worked at the smelter and who struggled to balance, every day, the benefits with the risks.

The company provided me with workers to interview; not surprisingly, they thought things were pretty peachy. Union leaders weren’t eager to help – they were more concerned that nosy journalists and government do-gooders might shut the plant down. Few of the smelter workers lived in the affected neighborhoods anyway. (Those were populated by the poor and the unemployed.) It took me four days to find a man who worked at the plant, who lived very close, who was suffering from a serious lung ailment, and who was willing to speak up about it. His story was true, and it was dramatic, and it spoke to the larger issue of trade-offs that we were determined to address. But Pedro Córdoba wasn’t typical, at least for that town. I tried to make that clear in my radio piece, but the fact remains that the only metal worker in our series is a man whose situation and attitude were different than those of most of of his coworkers. Was profiling him a responsible choice?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Certainly it would be irresponsible if all the workers in our series were dying of incurable diseases or toiling in subhuman conditions (or, for that matter, finding personal fulfillment). But it would be just as irresponsible to choose all our subjects for what they represent rather than for who they are. Because the fact is no one is typical. And that may be the most powerful point we can make in this series. The woman on sewing machine 7, row 15, is a different person from the woman on sewing machine 11, row 9. People aren’t types. Personalities matter. Circumstances matter. Details matter. For as literature shows us again and again, it’s only when we understand the particulars that the general becomes, well, true.

Jon