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Radio Diaries & Radiotopia

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First-person diaries, sound portraits, and hidden chapters of history from Peabody Award-winning producer Joe Richman and the Radio Diaries team. From teenagers to octogenarians, prisoners to prison guards, bra saleswomen to lighthouse keepers. The extraordinary stories of ordinary life. Radio Diaries is a proud member of Radiotopia, from PRX. Learn more at radiotopia.fm
 
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November 23, 1936 was a good day for recorded music. Two men, an ocean apart, sat before a microphone and began to play. One was a cello prodigy who had performed for the Queen of Spain. The other played guitar and was a regular in the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta. On that day 85 years ago, Pablo Casals and Robert Johnson both made recordin…
 
Every day, we go about our lives doing thousands of routine, mundane tasks. And sometimes, we make mistakes. Human error. It happens all the time. It just doesn’t always happen in a nuclear missile silo. On September 18, 1980, a technician was working in a Titan ll missile silo in Damascus, Arkansa, when he dropped a wrench. The tool fell and pierc…
 
In the first half of the 20th century, the disease known as poliomyelitis panicked Americans. Just like COVID today, polio stopped ordinary life in its tracks. Tens of thousands were paralyzed when the virus attacked their nervous systems. Many were left unable to walk. In the worst cases, people’s breathing muscles stopped working, and they were p…
 
Ever since Texas became a state, the Rio Grande has been the border between the U.S. and Mexico. But rivers can move — and that’s exactly what happened in 1864, when torrential rains caused it to jump its banks and go south. Suddenly the border was in a different place, and Texas had gained 700 acres of land called the Chamizal, named after a plant…
 
Asa Carter and Forrest Carter couldn’t have been more different. But they shared a secret. The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, is an iconic best-selling book, with a message about living in harmony with nature, and compassion for people of all kinds. But the story behind the book is very different. It begins with the most infamous raci…
 
On the 20th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we’re bringing you a story about the World Trade Center. But it isn’t about the attacks, or about everything that came after. Instead, it’s about what came before 9/11. A century ago, before the twin towers were built, the neighborhood now known as Ground Zero was home to the largest collection of ra…
 
Decades before our current debate over critical race theory, the 1968 Kerner Report pointed the finger at structural racism for creating the conditions that had triggered a series of protests in Black communities across the United States in the summer of 1967. Former Senator Fred Harris is the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, a group…
 
During the war in Vietnam, there was a notorious American military prison on the outskirts of Saigon, called Long Binh Jail. But LBJ wasn’t for captured enemy fighters. It was for American soldiers. These were men who had broken military law, and there were a lot of them. As the unpopular war dragged on, discipline frayed and soldiers started to re…
 
This is the story of a song, “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down.” It was written by a 12-year-old boy on what was supposed to be his deathbed. But the boy didn’t die. Instead, he went on to become a Pentecostal preacher, and later helped inspire the birth of Rock & Roll. The boy’s name was Brother Claude Ely, and he was known as The Gospel Ran…
 
One hundred years ago, in 1921, a man named Harry Pace started the first major Black-owned record company in the United States. He called it Black Swan Records. In an era when few Black musicians were recorded, the company was revolutionary. It launched the careers of Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson, William Grant Still, Alberta Hunter and other i…
 
Twenty-five years ago, Josh Cutler was a 16-year old living with Tourette’s Syndrome, a brain disorder that often causes physical and verbal tics. For several months, he recorded cassette tapes of everything from conversations with his parents and classmates, to prank calls. This is his diary, which chronicles his attempts to live a normal teenage …
 
On May 31, 1921, white mobs attacked a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street.” As many as three hundred people were killed, and more than a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. Olivia Hooker was six years old at the time. She remembers watching white men with torches come through her family’s backyar…
 
This week we continue celebrating Radio Diaries’ 25th anniversary by catching up with Juan from the Teenage Diaries series, which first aired on NPR in 1996. Juan was 17 when we first gave him a tape recorder and asked him to record his life for a few months. He and his family had recently come to the U.S. from Mexico, and they were living in a tra…
 
This week marks a very special anniversary for Radio Diaries. It’s been 25 years since we first started giving people tape recorders to report on their own lives. To celebrate, we recently checked in with our very first diarist, Amanda. Amanda was 17 when we first gave her a clunky cassette recorder and asked her to record her life for a few months…
 
One day in 1947, NYC bus driver William Cimillo showed up to his daily bus route, but instead of turning left, he turned right. Over the next week, he traveled 1,300 miles in his municipal bus, ending up in Hollywood, Florida. The bus had broken down, he’d run out of money, and had no way of getting home. Plus, he was now the most wanted bus driver…
 
For the past year, most nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been in lockdown. Residents have been kept apart—not just from their families, but from each other. They ate meals alone in their rooms, met new grandchildren on Zoom, and some were alone when they died. Today many retirement homes are starting to open up again. But the fact …
 
Soon after he entered office, President Biden issued an executive order allowing transgender people to serve in the military. It was the latest in a long series of shifts in who can serve and who can't. Women only recently were able to serve in certain ranks. And it wasn’t until 1993, that congress lifted a ban against women flying in combat. But w…
 
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