Comments by Todd Melby

Comment for "Thanksgiving story"

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I plan on airing this wonderful piece on my show. Great essay. Very personal and moving!

Comment for "Dyana, Goddess Of The Moose Hunt"

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Fantastic piece. Intimate, great conflict, find a place for it on your station.

Comment for "Documentary - Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future"

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Wow! 20 pounds of coal per person, per day

Within the first few minutes of this one-hour documentary on coal, the producers had me reaching for the light switch. According to this report, Americans burn 20 pounds of coal every day. We use it to charge our iPhones, log into Facebook or keep that light on when we don’t really need it.

Other fun facts I gleaned from this documentary: Only 40 percent of the energy in coal is turned into electricity. Coal is cheap. One-quarter of the world’s coal is right here in the USA. Coal miners are paid well, but machines have replaced many of their jobs. And of course, coal pollutes. It’s the number cause of global warming. Plus, it’s kicking out some pretty nasty chemicals that are making some of us sicker.

Like most documentaries, this one is at its best when it’s letting people tell their stories. I liked the interviews with the West Virginia miners at the local Pizza Hut. One of their quotes went something like this: “We don’t want these mountain tops tore down. We want them back also. We like to get out on our four-wheelers and ride around.”

Another favorite quote from the one of the miners: “People make us out to be thus, outlaws. We’re not.”

No matter which side of the energy debate listeners are on, they’ll learn something valuable from this documentary. Including that Thomas Edison was contemplating alternative energy in the months before his death in 1931. Edison, this documentary tells us, believed solar and wind energy needed to be harnessed. How prescient.

Comment for "Scared"

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I heard this piece at Third Coast in 2008. When I listened to it this time, I almost cried, thinking of how my sons are now 21 and 23 years old. Not many radio stories make me do that.

Comment for "The News Plan"

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News Plan

For us news junkies, this show offers a new perspective on the mind-numbing barrage of stories that assaults our brains on a daily basis. I especially like the Joe Frank commentary and the Evolution Control Committee's "Rocked by Rape."

Comment for "I Played D&D on Monday"

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I really liked this piece, especially the repetition at the beginning. "I play D&D on Monday, play D&D on Tuesday, play D&D on Thursday ..." etc. I also feel like I got to know the protagonist's history, current dilemma and personality. Good work.

Comment for "Shades of Gray"

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Review of Shades of Gray

If you're an innovative programmer, you must license "Shades of Gray." This is an expertly woven documentary on a topic I thought I'd never want to read or listen to again: Abortion. Unlike many piece of journalism on this divisive topic, "Shades of Gray" avoids the usual pro-choice, pro-life dynamic by focusing on the stories of individual women (and some men). And it does it without the usual Voice-of-God narrator. In addition to editing this piece, Mitchell composed the music. Give it a listen. Better yet, expand the ears of public radio listeners by airing this unusual piece.

Comment for "City X"

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Review of City X

"Who wants to walk around downtown in the middle of winter?" asks a character in this futuristic, suburban, head-spinning, insightful documentary by Jonathan Mitchell. The answer, of course, is this: "Nobody." In City X, Mitchell masterfully layers interviews with average people, architects, bus drivers (who knows really, none of them are identified) into a mosaic of sound that gives us a clear understanding of why Americans love malls. Here are just a few comments, each delightfully enunciated in the documentary: "It was metropolitan ... When it came, we were hip and happening. We were a real town. We weren't just some little spot in the middle of the cornfield. We've made it!" There's also great stuff in here about mall culture: How the boys go there to scope out girls, how the girls go there to be scoped out by the boys, the mysteries of how to pronounce the "exotic" gyro and a debate about where to find the best parking spot. One person loves the lower level down by Sears. Another absolutely swears by the entrance that leads right into the middle of the Food Court. And to push the narrative forward, Mitchell uses Muzak, real Muzak, as his sole musical accompaniment.

Comment for "Rough Sex With Sam Benjamin" (deleted)

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Review of Rough Sex With Sam Stern (deleted)

Sam Stern wants to be a new kind of porn king. He wants to be one whose work doesn't degrade women. He wants to return to the days when porn wasn't violent, when the men were more important than just their "tool." And yet he found himself making and starring in low budget L.A. porn films that showed violent acts. In this piece, he talks of hitting a woman (as an actor) and strangling her (as an actor). It's fascinating, chilling stuff. It's not really creepy though, because Sam is such a likable young man. He sounds like your best friend's son, a naive 20-something who moved to L.A. and did some weird stuff. Now he's in therapy trying to work it out and he talked to this radio producer about some of the stuff he did. Give it a listen. I'm airing it very soon on the "Listening Lounge" on KFAI. I want to see if the phones light up.

Comment for "This New Game"

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Review of Cutting

I'm not sure what to make of this piece by producer Amanda Wells and that's a good thing. It's eerie. It's educational. It's an inside look at how cutting, or self-mutilation, caught on at one American school. A girl named Christie described her initiation to cutting this way: "I had an eating disorder going on at the time ... I didn't know what else to do. I would binge and purge each night and that didn't help anymore. I needed something more. Why not cut?" The reporter says 1 out of 10 teens cuts. Other reviewers have indicated that this piece appears to be pro-cutting and suggest offering it to listeners as part of a wider discussion on the subject of self-mutilation. That?s a valid point. But it?s seemingly unbalanced ending also serves another purpose: It puts the listener inside a world most of us never would venture. And that opens the door to understanding.

Comment for "Off to the Army"

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Review of Off to the Army

This piece made me chuckle in the first few moments. "Tell me the whole story in one minute," the producer says. So the protagonist, he says, "Got expelled from school. Failed out of JC. Got my ass whupped at a party. Went to Mapp's. Chilled with my girlfriend. Girlfriend cried. Now I'm here." This cool, loping beginning is reason enough to license this piece. It's real. It's not a story trying to be real. The interview continues of the protagonist, a young man, some kid in his late teens and he's telling this story in a lazy, out-of-body way while he's eating a taco or sandwich or something. After a few minutes (and by the title, of course) we figure out that this is a piece about why this boy/man joined the U.S. Army to become a soldier. "Do you think you afraid of dying?" asks the producer. "No. That part I don't mind." And then this tale takes an unexpected turn. It's no longer about war or signing up for the army, it's about something related, but completely different. I'm not satisfied with the ending, but maybe that's the point.

Comment for "Witness to an Execution"

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Review of Witness to an Execution

"You'll never hear another sound like a mother wailing whenever she's watching her son being executed," says reporter Leighanne Gideon. "There's no other sound like it. That wail surrounds the room." At the time this documentary was recorded, Gideon had watched Texas kill inmates on 52 separate occasions. ?Witness to an Execution? weaves the harrowing tales of reporters, prison guards, the warden and others who have observed or participated in state-sanctioned murder. Although Texas kills inmates by lethal injection instead of the rawer electrocution, the result is the same. One of the wonders of this documentary is that it doesn't get political, it doesn't state a position about the death penalty, it simply leads the listener through the process of an execution. One important step in that process is the action of the "tie-down" team. These are prison guards whose job it is to strap the inmate onto the gurney before lethal injection. Kenneth Dean, a member of the "tie-down" team says many inmates thank him after Dean has secured them into place. "After all the straps are done, they will look at you and say 'Thank you.' And here you've just strapped them into the (execution) table ... You know that's kind of a weird feeling." Dean believes in what he does, but another prison guard, Fred Allen, quit the job after the impact of dozens of executions left him in tears one day. Listening to Allen talk, however haltingly, is moving. There are many other great moments here, all worth airing.

Comment for "Tsim Txom: Domestic Violence in Hmong Society"

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Review of Tsim Txom: Domestic Violence in Hmong Society

The main character in this Wisconsin Public Radio documentary is a Hmong woman in a bad marriage. She marries young (age 13), her family doesn't teach her how to cook and her new husband beats her. "They told me to cook a certain meal and I didn't know how so they said, 'How come I'm such a stupid wife. That I was useless.'" In the Hmong language, Tsim Txom means suffering. There's plenty of that in this in-depth documentary produced by Brian Bull. It's a well-reported piece, but it doesn't have the emotional impact one might expect with such a topic. The problem is partly one of style. The storytelling is traditional. The voice of the subject is heard complaining about her husband (who she ultimately leaves) and then we hear the reporter's voice. This might have been more moving if the subject narrated the story (such as in several David Isay and Dan Collison/Elizabeth Meister documentaries) or the reporter created richer scenes, perhaps by leaving in his questions or interactions with the subject. Another idea might be to use music to serve as a bridge between the subject's recollections. Of course, it's incredibly difficult to do all this and share information with the listener about Hmong culture and domestic violence. The quality of reporting on these subjects make this a documentary worth licensing.

Comment for "Movin' Out the Bricks"

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Review of Movin' Out the Bricks

The high rise public housing projects that lined the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago's South Side are widely regarded as a mistake. But does tearing down these high rises and dispersing thousands of people to private market apartments automatically improve their lives? That's the question that producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister attempt to answer in this half-hour documentary. Coco is the focus and narrator of this program. She's immediately impressed with her new apartment, which by most standards is humble: "This is like the Bahamas. This is literally like the Bahamas compared to Stateway ... I don't see no thugs hanging out on the corners." However, a few weeks later, she's admits to being bored with her new surroundings because there are "no friends around. It's boring. I miss Stateway." She also misses the beer drinking and pot smoking. Soon, her landlord scolds her for having too many people hanging outside the apartment. "I guess we just need to get out of our ghetto mentality," Coco says. This is an inside look at a person who is trying to turn her life around. It's done without expert interviews and without narration by the producers. It's sad, touching and insightful.

Comment for "House of Pain"

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Review of House of Pain

If you've ever driven through Chicago's South Side on the Dan Ryan Expressway, you've seen the towers. The high-rise public housing that dominates neighborhoods and imprisons people. What's it like to live there? This documentary takes you there. Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister of Long Haul Productions produced this piece, which won an Edward R. Murrow award a few years ago. The story is narrated by a man who lives there. His name is Andre Williams. When you listen to his story, you get closer to the people who lived in the place that gangbangers call "The House of Pain," also known as Stateway Gardens. This piece originally aired in 2002. (One year later, the producers returned to Stateway to find out what happened to people forced to leave. That doc is called "Movin' Out the Bricks" and also originally aired on Chicago Public Radio.) Andre is an affable guide. We meet an older woman named Gloria Dixon, who lives on the eighth floor and prays for a working lift: "Lord, let this elevator work because I'm tired and I don't feel like walking." We meet Patricia Davis, her two kids and five grandkids, who live as squatters in Apt. 703. "They keep the place pretty clean," Andre says. And so on. There's a lot of great human detail here. And it's mixed with complex public policy questions: Should the Chicago Public Housing Authority demolish a place that is home to so many people? Was it racist and wrong-headed to put all these poor people together in the first place? Did the government do enough to help the people displaced by the destruction of the "House of Pain" find a new place to live?

Comment for "The Jesus Plan"

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Review of The Jesus Plan

Way out in Montana, at a little radio station called KGLT, independent producer Barratt Golding produces some very fine work. It's also a bit strange and that's why I like to air it. He's fond of quirky, creative producers. In this show (his new series is called "The Plan"), Golding focuses on the life of Him. (That capital "H" is intentional.) Him, of course, is our Lord and Savior, Jesus. This piece includes an excerpt from the band King Missle and a song called "Jesus Was Way Cool." Sample lyrics: "He turned water into wine. And if he wanted to he could have turned wheat into marijuana or sugar into cocaine or vitamin pills into amphetamines." You get the idea. This show varies from Golding's usual offerings, which are mostly short pieces of reporting or essays linked together with a theme. "The Jesus Plan" is music for the first 16 minutes or so. This show also includes a story from the legendary Scott Carrier.

Comment for "Prairie Burn Audio Postcard"

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Review of Prairie Burn Audio Postcard

This is one of those stories I wish I had created. Mark Brush of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium successfully produces a story on a controlled prairie burn without narration. This is no easy feat. One has to prod the subject to describe what they are doing, what they are wearing and what things look like. That's tough to do well. After a minute or so of setting the stage, one begins to hear the crisp sounds of fire and the voices of workers squawking over radios. According to a story I read in the Economist the other day, there has been a fourfold increase in the number wildfires in the U.S. Those fires are also burning longer and are more difficult to control. With fires raging throughout the west during another hot, dry summer, this would make an excellent companion piece to --- dare I say it? --- another dry news story on those blazes.

Comment for "How Long Do You Keep a Polluting Heap?"

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Review of How Long Do You Keep a Polluting Heap?

Few Americans are willing to ride public transit. Fewer still are willing to give up their cars. So that means our wear-and-tear on the environment will mostly likely be felt through the kind of car we drive. Rebecca Williams drives a 1989 Toyota with 188,000 miles on it. "Pieces of plastic trim fly off when I drive down the highway," she says. But that's not the worst of it. Her beater leaks oil. A lot of oil. Williams has to add one quart of oil every two weeks to keep the junker rolling down the road. So what's the environmental impact of that? That's the point of this piece. Williams checks with her mechanic and then a few scientists. It's a great journey and a pretty darn good story because it is something most listeners can relate to. If they ain't driving a junker now, chances are they did at one time. And my God, the environmental consequences of that are more than just an inconvenient truth, they are expensive to remedy.

Comment for "Urinals: Can't Flush This"

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Review of Urinals: Can't Flush This

The Great Lakes Radio Consortium seems to be on a roll. The Michigan Radio-based environmental news service is posting a lot of quirky stories on PRX. And I like them. This one is on waterless urinals. Producer Lester Graham interviews a salesman in an echo chamber of a men's WC as he explains how it works, and then the man says, "As a result, you have no odor." So Graham rings up a kidney specialist to get an explanation on why urine smells. So why is this an environmental story? The "no-flush, no-water urinals" save water ... a natural resource.

Comment for "Legal Status"

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Review of Legal Status

Here's another excellent piece from the "Radio Rookies" in New York City. Veralyn, a native of Sierra Leone, has lived in the U.S. almost her entire life. And that's the hitch. She wasn't born here. Her parents never got around to filling out the proper paperwork to make her official in the eyes of the government. "I've lived in American nearly all my life but it feels like I don't exist," she says. So Veralyn, a feisty teen, begins questioning the adults in her life. Her Dad admits to being "really laid back" when it comes to helping her secure citizenship. Her uncle yells at her about exploring the topic on the radio: "You could get yourself deported. Do you understand that September 11 has changed the rules of the game?" Her siblings, all born in the U.S., shrug their shoulders. What's the big deal? Get the green card, they say. A programmer looking to put a personal face on the country's immigration debate should strongly consider airing this story. At just over 10 minutes long, it eats up a lot of airtime, but listeners love well-told personal stories and this is one of them.

Comment for "In a Bubble"

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Review of In a Bubble

As a radio producer, I'm attracted to people who are outgoing, talkative and opinionated. The reason is simple: When I place my microphone nearby, they don't flinch. Which bring us to the topic of this delicate story by Hillary Frank. Produced for Chicago Public Radio's "Chicago Matters" series on education, Frank stalks the crowded, noisy school hallways and finds the shy kids. And then she succeeds in getting them to talk about themselves. "Some people don't realize I'm there until I leave," says one girl, very gently and slowly. And then there's this from a boy: "They call me the stupid, quiet kid." These teenagers worry about how their shyness will affect their ability to get dates, talk in front of a class and all kinds of stuff. It's easy to forget the struggles some people face when you're naturally outgoing.

Comment for "A Tribute to Spalding Gray"

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Review of A Tribute to Spalding Gray

Storyteller Spalding Gray killed himself in 2004 by jumping off the Staten Island ferry. Best known for the monologue and movie "Swimming to Cambodia," this documentary focuses on the period of Gray's life after a life-threatening car accident. Using audio from his one-man performances and several personal interviews, New York City producer Jon Kalish presents a portrait of Gray's personal struggles and work, which many people believed were the same. "He questions everything and ends up more exhausted than satisfied," wrote Michael Kuchwara, the Associated Press drama critic. To do that, Gray dwelled on yesterday's troubles. "One of the hells that I suffer is that I live in the past a lot of the time," he says at one point in the documentary. The strongest moment of this piece is Kalish's conversation with Gray near the end of his life. The actor sounds unhinged as the pair stroll around the grounds of a college campus. The only downside to this doc are the time references (there's a reference to January, which might make the listener believe Gray died recently, not in 2004) and a mid-documentary reference to the radio station on which the piece originally aired.

Comment for "The Whale Plan"

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Review of The Whale Plan

A whole lot of people have gone whale watching. But not many folks have gone whale listening. In this half-hour "Plan," Barrett Golding of Hearing Voices does just that. With the help of radio veteran Jay Allison, performance artist Laurie Anderson, Mr. Scruff and independent producer Molly Menschel, Golding has put together an impressive lineup of sounds, music, essays and experimental radio. My favorite contribution is Molly Menschel's "Just Another Story About a Fish," about a dead whale that washed up on a Maine beach. It's a complex piece that bobs and weaves, collapses in on itself and ultimately, shines. I wasn't crazy about the National Lampoon piece that's included here, but that's a minor complaint. Menschel and Allison make it worth licensing.

Comment for "75 State Street Salon" (deleted)

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Review of 75 State Street Salon (deleted)

Why pay a psychologist $140 per hour when you can just go get your hair done? This story follows Margo Hubbard, a woman who cuts hair at 75 State Street Salon, a place that caters to older people. "You can feel down in the dumps. And you come and have your hair done and you can feel on top of the world," says one customer. She washes hair, cuts hair, but most importantly, she listens. "People come to you and you might have been the first person they've seen in a week," Margo says. "And that's part of being a cosmotologist, too." By the end of this piece, which at 4:04 is just the right length, I feel like I know Margo and I appreciate the great work she does to make the world a happier place. And that ain't easy. (Or maybe it is, and that's the message of this little gem.)

Comment for "Just Another Fish Story"

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Review of Just Another Fish Story

On the face of it, this is the story of a big, stinky whale that washed up on a Maine beach ten years ago. The people who lived there had to figure out how to dispose of its rotting carcass. But dig a little deeper and this is the story of the unreliability of witnesses and mortality. In the documentary film "The Thin Blue Line," director Erroll Morris shows how people who see the same event can have vastly different interpretations about what happened. Producer Molly Menschel makes the same revelation here. She quotes people describing the color and position of the dead whale, but the descriptions vary greatly. "Just another Fish Story" also questions the meaning of life in an unromantic manner. Near the end of the piece, a grizzled old man says this: "There's a lot of people who think 'I'm so big. I'm so great.' No matter how powerful they are something will happen in life that will cause people to say, 'How small am I anyway?'" Amen.

Comment for "True Story of St. Patrick"

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Review of True Story of St. Patrick [BG]

During the first few minutes of this piece, I thought the reporters just took tape recorders around to bars in Butte, Montana and that was the whole story. We hear happy drunks, incoherent drunks, fighting drunks, drunks of all kinds. And why not? It's St. Patty's Day, for gosh sakes. Fine, but predictable. And then the story takes a fun turn. The guys with the recorders decide to climb a fire escape and kick in the door of an abandoned building. They get arrested. They spend the night in jail. And then they learn some old guy lived in the first floor of the "abandoned building." Some old guy with a gun. He had it pointed at them as they were exploring the building. Yikes! Great tape of the old guy ... and a great turn of a story. Might be fun to play it on the morning of March 18 so the public radio listeners with hangovers can have a good scare.

Comment for "The Plan- Race"

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Review of The Plan- Race

"February is Black History Month and we are playing the race card." With those words, producer Barrett Golding begins this 29-minute show on America's most taboo topic: Race. The first piece is funny and chilling. It tells the story of a black woman who likes to sit on city sidewalks and ask white folks for money: "Do you all want to pay some reparations?" The scene made me wonder what I would do as an uptight whitey strutting down the street. Would I ignore her? Would I stop and talk? Would I give her money? And if so, how much? The woman asking for reparations for slavery is damali ayo, an engaging artist who interacts easily with strangers, both black and white. She's polite, yet her direct questions ("What do you think about reparations?") get passers-by pondering our shared history. The other two pieces in this show --- a radio diary by a mixed-race Boston teenager and college students reflecting on what it means to be black --- aren't as provocative, but how could they be? A couple of notes on the music: There's a great music/poetry piece in the show, something by Ruth Forman called "Stoplight Poetry." It's funky and fun. In short, I have three words to stations: License this piece.

Comment for "My Muslim Hairdresser"

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Review of My Muslim Hairdresser

Women often judge a barber's sense of flair by what her hair looks like. OK, I'm a man and I don't know this for a fact. But this is what Shana Sheehy tells me in her essay "My Muslim Hairdresser" and I believe her. This is also the central premise of Sheehy's tale of Alice, her Alaskan hairdresser who converted to Islam before 9/11. Sheehy begins with a set-up: We hear her voice as she describes making the appointment and being told her regular hairdresser isn't available. Instead, she's been assigned to Alice, a hairdresser she hasn't met. As she waits at the salon, we hear sounds of footsteps and nascent chattering. Sheehy describes her first impression of Alice, including what she's wearing: "She was fully covered in loose fitting black clothes and she wore a pretty hair scarf that covered every strand of her presumably black hair." The rest of the piece is all Alice. We hear about her early curiosity with Islam, her struggles with covering up her "moneymaker" (that is, her hair), her decision to stop cutting men's hair (because she didn't want to shampoo their hair --- a violation of her interpretation of the Qur'an). The piece reaches its climax at just after 5 minutes when Alice says, "There's freedom to be able to wear a scarf ... When you see a Muslim woman, you are see a woman who is wanting you to deal with her mind, not her body." Unfortunately, there's another 40 seconds or so still to come. I would have ended with that quote and forced the listener to consider that truth.

Comment for "Frustrated Filipinos"

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Review of Frustrated Filipinos

According to my weekly guide to the rest of the world (The Economist, Sept. 10-16, 2005), "many Filipinos accept the familiar saying that their elections produce no losing candidates, only the winner and those who have been cheated." So goes the current controversy over whether President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo fixed the most recent election (opponents have tape recorded evidence pointing to such, they say). Filipinos have taken to the streets, attempting to spark another "People Power" revolution, which toppled governments in 1986 and 2001.

In her story, "Frustrated Filipinos," Shia Levitt explores why some citizens yearn for a return to an authoritarian ruler "with the people's interest in mind" or at least a strong, democratically elected ruler who wants to shake up the current power structure. Instead, those interviewed complain that the only candidates running are those interested in themselves and their powerful cronies. One man hints that democracy might not produce the best leader when the vast majority of voters are uneducated and money corrupts the political system.

Although I'm usually a fan of "less is more," I wanted just a little more context in this piece. It's professional, informed, but I get the feeling the reporter has internalized knowledge of the situation that she should share with listeners on Filipino history, the current economy and what may happen next in this country of 78 million people. (And on the subject of an "uneducated" populace, the adult literacy rate in the Phillipines is 92 percent, which is higher than I thought it might be before looking it up.)

Comment for "Dying for Water: Indians, Politics and Dead Fish in the Klamath River Basin"

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Review of Dying for Water: Indians, Politics and Dead Fish in the Klamath River Basin

I wasn't prepared to like this piece. Since it was co-produced by Hoopa Tribal Radio, I assumed it would be one-sided and preachy in its telling of the story of an environmental disaster: The killing of 68,000 Chinook Salmon in the Klamath River Basin. While this documentary does indeed present only a single point-of-view, it's not at all preachy. But enough about my preconceptions. The focus should really be on this documentary. So, here goes: The production values are very high. There's a great mix of music, voices and natural sound. It's thoughtful and effective. The narrator is down-to-earth, easy to listen to and very non-NPR (and that's a great thing!). And most important, the content does a great job of telling the listener why the Chinook Salmon are so important to the tribal people in the area. Elders, anthropologists and tribal leaders explain the importance of the historical and cultural importance of salmon, but an average guy, about 19 minutes into this doc, says it best: "The salmon. That's our life ... We live in an area with 90 percent unemployment. Fish is what we eat in the winter time." And then there's this at about 23 minutes: "Fish can't live without water." OK. That's obvious enough. But wait. The government disagrees. At a public meeting, a federal official from the Bureau of Reclamation told a crowd, "We have no scientific proof that fish really do need water." Huh? It's an amazing, funny moment. It draws you in. And you want to learn more about the topic. Many programmers may be reluctant to air this piece in places far from Northern California, but this story --- the fight over water and the importance of natural resources to tribal people --- is universal.