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Chapter 4: Radio Documentaries: A "Best Kept Secret" No More

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Independent filmmakers have Sundance. Why shouldn't independent radio producers have their own showcase for exemplary documentaries?

That question came to Johanna Zorn, a senior producer at public radio station WBEZ in Chicago. Zorn thought it was time the genre of radio documentary, which feeds public radio some of its most memorable work, get its due. "I've been in public radio my entire career," she says. "You get a little tired of being a best-kept secret."

Some radio documentarians study pressing societal issues such as poverty, mental illness, or incarceration, while others veer toward the avant-garde, collaging snippets of conversations with sounds from everyday life. Only a handful of foundations support audio documentaries. As a result many independent radio producers rely on grants from the Corporation from Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, state arts councils, and other wellsprings of government funds.

Many independent radio documentarians work alone, and it had been years since they had a gathering of their own. Zorn garnered support from her station's board and management and started to plan what became the inaugural Third Coast International Audio Festival.

Two hundred sixty radio documentarians from around the world flocked to Chicago to share their insights in panel discussions. WBEZ encouraged them to enter their works in a judged competition that culminated in an awards banquet on the last day of the conference. The station worked the winning pieces and other entries into a three-hour program that aired on 150 public radio stations around the country, and even overseas. Finally, a Web site ( extended the conference's shelf life and brought audio files of the documentaries to a wired and even wider audience.

WBEZ's first boost came as a $100,000 challenge grant from The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, a Chicago neighbor. "It was such an unusual project," says Sunny Fischer, the foundation's executive director. "Public radio provides in-depth coverage of subjects that you rarely hear about other places," says Fischer. "Sometimes the first time you hear about an issue is on public radio, and then you start reading about it a couple of months later in the traditional press."

WBEZ found another receptive donor in The Rockefeller Foundation. "When the project came in, it was one of those things where you say to yourself, 'Why hasn't this happened before?'" says Joan Shigekawa, associate director of Rockefeller's Creativity and Culture Program. "It is a very sound investment," said Shigekawa, "because for a very modest grant you can reach many more people in terms of radio with a message, whether it's storytelling from a wide range of ethnic communities, youth, or underrepresented voices."

"It's my hope that the genre will break through, and come to dominate and become a format of its own," Shigekawa says. "Real stories from real people."

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