Comments by Aaron Henkin

Comment for "For a Deaf Uncle"

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Review of For a Deaf Uncle

This short piece from producer Judah Bruce Leblang addresses an ironic issue, considering that it's a radio essay: hearing loss. Judah is currently in his late forties, and he's confronting the prospect of going deaf. He's seeing doctors, getting discouraging audiograms, and being presented with dispiriting diagnoses. The experience has given Judah occasion to remember his late Uncle Jerry, who decades ago confronted the same scenario and who (it seems) met it with some stubbornness and denial. This essay comes with a beautiful economy of words and a delivery that makes it feel more like poetic free verse than prose. I think it would make a great companion piece to go along with any radio feature dealing with hearing loss or the challenge of facing a disturbing medical diagnosis. The producer, Judah Bruce Leblang, is obviously a talented and versatile writer... he's got thirty different essays posted on PRX, dealing with topics ranging from family to aging to national politics.

Comment for "The Latvala Files: Hangin' Out in the Vault"

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Review of The Latvala Files: Hangin' Out in the Vault

This piece is grand gift to Dead-Heads everywhere... I've never really understood the whole phenomenon myself, and it's so a testament to the excellent production of this radio story that I was able to get into it as an outsider. Everything about the structure of this half-hour documentary is admirably smart: the tape cut selection, the music segues, the story progression... And just listening to the incredible voice of Dick Latvala, the late Grateful Dead archivist, is enough to keep you glued to your headphones. This guy sounds every bit like the veteran acid-dropping, tie dye wearing Dead fan that he is!

Program directors would do well to find a Grateful Dead anniversary date of some sort and set aside half an hour for this package. It's got everything a die-hard fan would want, along with a narrative elegance that makes it a great story in and of itself. (?even for people who haven?t got a clue about the band!)

Comment for "Blues File: Snooky Pryor"

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Review of Blues File: Snooky Pryor

Meister distinguishes himself with excellent writing in this essay delivered over a collage of Snooky Pryor's music. The thirty-year WXPN veteran gives us a nice, short history lesson with a narrative that's engaging, even for non-blues-fans. There's a great moment mid-way through this piece when we hear a recording of a few words to the audience from Snooky Pryor on one of his old albums. If you check out Jonny Meister's PRX profile, you'll find a lot of other good stuff, too --- he has more than a hundred and sixty pieces uploaded to PRX!

Comment for "Guerilla Gardeners" (deleted)

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Review of Guerilla Gardeners (deleted)

There's a choppy editing technique in this piece that's admirable in its originality, but a bit rough on my ears, personally. But there's a great variety of voices, though, in this collage of guerilla gardeners from England to New York sharing their testimonials about adventures planting seeds illicitly around their urban environments. This piece shifts gears about two thirds of the way through, and we hear a reading of a poem inspired by reports that Guantanamo detainees have been doing guerilla gardening during their imprisonment. This is a thought-provoking piece of radio, all in all, if a bit irregular in its execution.

Comment for "Silvio"

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Review of Silvio

WDET producer Zak Rosen has been working on putting together a series of profiles of 'outsider artists' in his area, and this one introduces us to an eccentric Italian / American sculptor and poet named Silvio Barile. What Silvio lacks in coherence he makes up for in enthusiasm, and producer Rosen does a yeoman's job of cutting Silvio's inspired ramblings into a quasi-logical narrative. I think the interesting thing in this piece, which contains no narration, is that Sylvio's comments are presented to us in such a way that we learn a little sequence of revelations about him, clues that force us to continue to re-evaluate our impression of the guy: He's ecstatic, but he's lonely; he's an artist, but he's a radical conservative; he's loving, but he's had bad luck with women... After getting beyond the perfunctory label of 'kooky,' we learn a lot about the psychological dimensions of this character in just a few minutes. This is very original work.

Comment for "Recruiting Musician Soldiers"

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Review of Recruiting Musician Soldiers

Man, the stuff you can find on Craigslist! This piece starts off sounding almost like one of those mockumentaries you might hear on Morning Edition on April Fool's Day. But this is the real deal, and as the piece progresses, producer Nathanael Johnson takes us into some thoughtful philosophical territory. I love Nathanael's treatment of this piece. He takes a few well-chosen opportunities to hit comic home-runs with his narration, but he also treats his subject with journalistic due-diligence and respect. This is a really well done story on a thought-provoking topic.

Comment for "Gems of Bluegrass # 640 notes on bluegrass evolution" (deleted)

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Review of Gems of Bluegrass # 640 notes on bluegrass evolution (deleted)

Bluegrass enthusiast and musicologist Phil Nusbaum has produced hours upon hours of programming about the music he loves. He puts together a weekly one-hour show called the Bluegrass Review, and he also produces these shorter "Gems of Bluegrass" drop-ins. In these pieces, Nusbaum gives a series of miniature bluegrass history lessons by creating scripts that connect and contextualize successions of song clips. Nusbaum's encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and his vast record collection work together to make these modules unlike anything else you'll hear on the subject. In my estimation, the Gems of Bluegrass pieces achieve a nice balance between pleasing die-hard bluegrass fans and casual listeners alike.

Comment for "Buddy Holly Profile"

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Review of Buddy Holly Profile

This piece starts with an old-time musician by the name of Tommy Hancock speaking in a great southern accent about his memories of seeing a young Buddy Holly perform at a dance. It sets the tone for a really nicely paced, thoughtfully narrated, and expertly mixed profile of the rock and roll icon. During this piece we hear a variety of voices sounding off about Buddy Holly - a music historian, a biographer, a music journalist - but I think the crowning moment, the moment when this piece goes from good to great, is when we're introduced to a Buddy Holly impersonator and we hear him sharing his thoughts on his hero.

Producer Andy Uhler put this piece together for the program "Texas Music Matters" at KUT... This station on the whole is a treasure trove of excellent music programming. Whatever's in the water down there, keep drinking it, KUT!

Comment for "Second Line in New Orleans"

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Review of Second Line in New Orleans

This radio portrait of a New Orleans jazz funeral, from Baltimore-based producer Mary Rose Madden, captures the excitement of an outsider taking in a new cultural experience for the first time. Madden narrates this sound-rich feature with a contagious enthusiasm and a great eye for detail. She's not afraid to include tape of herself interacting with the musicians and dancers in the Second Line, and the result is a very personal piece, as much about the kindness of strangers as it is about the funeral procession. And then there's the live music, recorded expertly and embroidered throughout the story with great effect. All in all, this is a very original piece from a promising new voice on the scene.

Comment for "Small Stuff Democracy"

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Review of Small Stuff Democracy

This piece from veteran Michigan Radio producer Tamar Charney explores a variety of spontaneous everyday moments, decision-making moments when we Americans unconsciously lean on our collective affection for basic democratic principles. Charney spends some time with a typical American family as they use 'majority rule' to make domestic decisions, and then the piece moves to an interesting interview with a grocery worker who expresses doubts about whether or not our votes really count.

The idea that we simultaneously trust the principles of democracy and distrust its application, that's the crux of this piece. Charney puts it succinctly when she says, "We vote characters off islands and pick the next American Idol using democratic principles, but we don't think it works for politics."

This is a thoughtful and nicely produced segment, especially for election season.

Comment for "Grease My Ride!"

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Review of Grease My Ride!

Gas prices aren't getting any cheaper soon, so this story from WAER will make for a pertinent drop-in on any program about the continuing search for alternative fuels. Producer Catherine Komp introduces us to a mother-daughter team who are about to take off on a cross-country road trip together in a bus powered by restaurant grease.

From a production standpoint this piece is well-crafted, but I think there might be a few missed opportunities here, moments that could have really made this story memorable... How about pulling up to a gas station in the bio-diesel-fueled bus and asking the folks at the pump if they'd be willing to switch over to such a vehicle? Or how about talking with fast food restaurant managers about the fact that their waste can propel a bus across the country?

These musings aside, this feature is certainly relevant, thoughtfully written, and well-produced.

Comment for "Soybean El Dorado"

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Review of Soybean El Dorado

WILL broadcasts its signal 'over some of the richest soil on earth,' according to news director Tom Rogers. And with a listening audience that includes a sizeable workforce of Illinois farmers, it makes sense that WILL devotes several hours of programming each week to agricultural stories affecting the region.

But like science stories, farming stories can run the risk of making listeners' ears glaze over, and Rogers is obviously aware of this. He turns this story about foreign competition in the soybean market into a larger and more universal story about people facing a paradoxical investment opportunity - the chance to make money by investing in their competitors.

Stories about people are always the most memorable, and Rogers teaches us a lot about an obscure sub-sector of international agro-economics by making us feel invested in the fate of one Illinois soybean farmer.

Comment for "Military Mom"

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Review of Military Mom

BSR producer (and Brown University student) Britt Harwood brings us a story that introduces us to the daily anxieties of a mother whose son is a soldier serving in Iraq. Amazingly, she manages to do this in a way that's neither jingoistic nor politically slanted.

The Iraq war and all of its politics take a back seat to this exploration of the very personal worries of a mother who receives infrequent communications from a loved one in a dangerous situation. Producer Harwood got very honest and candid tape from an interviewee who obviously felt comfortable and at-ease around her, and the story blossoms outward from there.

This piece successfully put me in someone else's shoes for a few minutes and left me understanding something about a person I thought I had nothing in common with.

Comment for "Hmong Funerals"

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Review of Hmong Funerals

This piece takes us inside one of an immigrant community's most intimate religious rituals, and Wisconsin Public Radio's Brian Bull has my full respect and admiration for his ability to succeed in an obviously awkward social situation as a cultural reporter. Bull does a remarkable job of developing a respectful rapport with his interviewees and gets them to speak candidly about very personal spiritual matters.

Hard to believe it, but this was Bull's first feature ever. I've corresponded with him about his experiences putting this story together --- he says he was really inspired by the feeling of camaraderie and community at the Hmong funeral, and that he walked away from the experience thinking that the way we observe death says a lot about our larger values as a culture.

Comment for "Urban Homesteaders"

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Review of Urban Homesteaders

Producer Karen Brown has been making radio stories for WFCR for nine years, and her reporting experience makes this story shine. Brown introduces us to a young family that's made a social and environmental experiment out of their inner-city life together. They grow their own food, they don't own a car, and they light their house with candles at night, all in an effort to prove that living a simple, sustainable life is possible even in the middle of a modern city.

From the opening moments of this piece, we know we're in capable narrative hands. Brown takes us into the homesteaders' backyard, where hens cluck in the background and a vegetable garden sits next to a honey-producing beehive. Brown's writing is crisp and spatial, her delivery is a pitch-perfect combination of 'warm' and 'reporterly,' and on the technical front, this piece is mixed flawlessly, with plenty of ambient sound and a wide array of voices.

I really like the inclusion of the idealistic homesteaders' older, less 'visionary' relatives, like the uncle who points out that he has to drive them around because they don?t have a car! By the end of this story, I feel like I've been given a thorough, balanced introduction to the goals and the limitations of urban homesteading. It leaves me feeling inspired to try it myself one day, (like all the other things I'm going to do if I ever get organized).

Comment for "An Unlikely Partnership"

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Review of An Unlikely Partnership

This piece grabbed me as soon as I heard the opening lines from prisoner/poet Spoon Jackson. Jackson is the much more inherently intriguing half of the 'unlikely partnership,' which makes for an interesting challenge for this story's producer, KVMR's Mike Thornton, because the person he interviews is the other half of the collaboration, a Swedish composer named Steffan Safsten.

Thornton has put this story together with a lot of skill --- it has a nice flow, a thoughtful array of Jackson's poetry, and well-selected pieces of interview tape from composer Safsten --- but as I listen, I find myself wishing over and over that Jackson was interviewed as well. What's Jackson's back-story? What did he think when a Swedish composer wrote him out of the blue asking to put his poetry to music? How does he think the composition turned out?

I find myself especially wanting to hear from Jackson when composer Safsten suggests that a prisoner is likely to have a 'freer mind' than the rest of us. What does a man who's been imprisoned for 28 years think about a statement like that?

Comment for "No Depression"

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Review of No Depression

When it comes to writing for radio, I personally don't think anyone can do it as well as David Brown. The man always manages to sound like he's a longtime friend, sitting across the kitchen table, sharing a favorite story. I've got to say I could listen to his work all day, regardless of what it's about. Fortunately, he's been busy producing stories about a really fun subject... Brown heads up a project called "Texas Music Matters," where his basic idea is to approach the subject of Texas music with all of the journalistic values normally associated with public radio new coverage at large. This piece, about the history of the music publication "No Depression," is inlaid with great music, built around thoughtfully selected pieces of tape from No Depression editor Peter Blackstock, and of course accented with the inimitable writing of our narrator, the 25-year public radio veteran, Mr. Brown.

Comment for "Sylvie, On Love and Mallards"

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Review of Sylvie, On Love and Mallards

This essay is a great example of radio storytelling in its purest and simplest form: one voice, subtle and intimate, painting a verbal portrait and allowing us to reflect on a topic that's near and dear to anyone who's ever been a parent. I've corresponded with Hitchcock and she says her biggest fear about this piece is that it comes off as over-sentimental, but she gives thanks to her KUAC producers for a series of edits that have given the essay its careful pitch and restraint. This would be a nice addition to any longer-format talk program about childhood development and/or the inner-workings of family dynamics.

Comment for "Part 1: Making Ends Meet"

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Review of Part 1: Making Ends Meet

When you think of local public radio reporters stationed around the country at their affiliate stations, you assume they're making local radio stories about what's going on in their listening areas. But VPR's Steve Zind didn't get the memo on that one. This enterprising reporter took on the very ambitious task of traveling from Vermont to Iran with the goal of producing a five-part radio series about Iran's internal political, social, and economic upheavals. The result is a series of reports that are as deep in substance as they are wide in scope. In a news culture where we receive such a narrow stream of information about Iran, reports like Zind's "Making Ends Meet" are all the more valuable for their window onto the struggles of everyday Iranians, citizens who are searching for stability and justice in a constantly mutating political climate.

Comment for "Julie the Amtrak God"

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Review of Julie the Amtrak God

This radio experiment is unlike anything else you'll hear on the airwaves. It's a refreshing example of what can be accomplished when someone with an artistic mind (and a penchant for abstraction) approaches the radio medium as a blank canvas. Producer Jenny Asarnow manages to evoke a wide range of emotional responses from us, ranging from melancholy to hilarity, by simply attempting to conduct a philosophical conversation with a computerized voice-recognition system.

Some listeners might be put off by the non-linearity of this piece, but a patient listen will restore your faith in the power of the abstract in radio.

Comment for "Music At Sea"

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Review of Music At Sea

This short radio history explores a topic as obscure as it is absorbing ? ocean liner and cruise ship musical entertainment. Amber Edwards' story features interviews with a maritime historian and a cruise ship entertainment director, and she decks out the production with a rich array of musical selections that have been played aboard famous ocean liners over the past century.

The history is nice and the music is evocative, but I think my favorite element of this piece is its when it takes a turn to explore a modern-day cruise-ship dilemma: The industry is constantly working to make its cruises seem young and hip and vibrant, but they're not blind to the fact that their clientele tilts more toward the 'senior citizen' end of the spectrum. Edwards' story could have stood on its historical merits without the benefit of this extra avenue of analysis, but it?s these sorts of unexpected moments of insight that make a piece memorable in the long-run.

Comment for "Sweet Phil from Sugar Hill"

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Review of Sweet Phil from Sugar Hill

In this first-person radio exploration, a young woman makes her way through a series of interviews with extended family members in an attempt to better understand her father, a man of mystery, much charisma, and a questionable moral compass. I'm hesitant to say too much about what producer Phyllis Fletcher learns along the way because one of the most captivating things about this story is the sequence of perfectly-paced revelations that get dropped on us as the narrative progresses.

Fletcher talks to almost 20 different relatives during her quest, and she boils it all down to a half-hour radio story (I can only imagine how much tape must have ended up on the cutting floor). The result is a tight, fast-moving tale with a lot of twists, turns, and emotional highs and lows, seasoned throughout with interludes of vintage soul, rock, and Latin jazz music? Can you believe this piece was a debut effort? Really nicely done.

Comment for "It's a Pan Peninsula"

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Review of It's a Pan Peninsula

This piece takes us to an unlikely part of Maine, where the locals have fallen in love with the sounds of Caribbean steel drum music. Producer Tina Antolini came to radio with an ethnomusicology degree, and she frames up this story around the idea of cultural appropriation. There is, shall we say, a certain 'racial homogeneity' in Maine, which gives this story a bizarre hook and an element of the absurd. But the enthusiasm of the steel drum players is sincere, and it remains unhampered by the skeptical reactions they?ve gotten at steel drum conventions around the country.

With a smart economy of words, Antolini takes great care in this story to paint scenes that transport the listener to Blue Hill, Maine, and she has a good knack for writing for the ear -- my compliments on a very thoughtful treatment of what could have been considered a less-than-serious subject.

Comment for "Andrew Bird"

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Review of Andrew Bird

This story about a reclusive musician comes to us from producer Jonathan Menjivar. Menjivar currently works at WHYY's Fresh Air, but he put together this 5-minute piece when he was working as an independent producer. He's given us a carefully designed story that not only suggests the sense of solitude that musician Andrew Bird must experience when he creates his music, but that sense of solitude is amplified as we hear from Bird only in his own words, without the mediation of a narrator.

This piece works well as a stew of unmitigated thoughts in a suspension of music, and it should serve as a ray of hope and to producers who struggle to put structure to un-narrated radio stories. Menjivar shows us that it can be done, if we keep our ears tuned to pacing and we can bear to pare our tape down to the bare essentials.

Comment for "Tom's Story" (deleted)

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Review of Tom's Story (deleted)

This piece strikes me as a really effective story, not only because of Tom's candor and self-examination when he talks about his alcoholism, but also because the story is told to us in reverse. It starts with Tom's most recent life-events and moves backwards from there. It's sort of like hitting the 'rewind' button at the end of a disaster movie --- it gives a whole new poignancy to the protagonist's sequence of mistakes.

This story manages gracefully to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentalizing the subject or being preachy or didactic. In fact, the whole NHPR four-part series "Overlooking Alcohol" does a great job of addressing the issue of alcohol in an even-handed and neutral way.

Comment for "The Silver Leaf Gospel Singers"

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Review of The Silver Leaf Gospel Singers

This piece is simple and powerful. Producer Kerry Seed introduces us to a very charismatic deacon Randy Green, and after rolling a few brief and judicious pieces of tape that give us the requisite background on Green, our producer invites us to sit in on a live presentation from the venerable deacon in front of a large crowd at Portland, Maine's, 2006 Martin Luther King, Jr., Gospel Concert.

As listeners, we get the privileged feeling of eavesdropping on a momentous event. We can hear the deacon playing to his audience, provoking spirited reactions, and basically demonstrating what charisma is all about. Deacon Green proceeds to rev up his audience for a solid five minutes. And then the singing begins. And that's when we realize what this piece is all about.

You know, we radio producers can all too easily get caught up in wanting to make everything punchier, faster, always with more and more technical bells and whistles to hold our listeners' attention. But this story reminds us that hearing a simple recording of a meaningful performance, as it happened, uninterrupted and unmediated, can be as powerful as anything else we're likely to hear on the radio.

Comment for "Legal Status"

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Review of Legal Status

WNYC's Radio Rookies recently accepted a Peabody Award for their work, and stories like Veralyn's 'Legal Status' show us why they deserve the recognition. This is a first-person feature about an immigrant teenager's struggle with the bureaucratic hurdles that stand between her and a green card. Through Veralyn's eyes, we learn not only about what it feels like to be a legal outsider as an undocumented immigrant, but also what it feels like to be in cultural conflict with one's own family elders.

Veralyn came to the US when she was a toddler --- it's the only home she knows. But her older family members seem to have trouble accepting her Americanized attitudes. Probably my favorite thing about this story is the intimacy of the very candid family arguments that Veralyn catches on tape. It's a rare thing to hear people butting heads with their loved ones in such an unmitigated and honest way. After hearing this piece, I feel like I've shared some very personal moments with a family I thought I'd have nothing in common with.

Comment for "Episode 5: Acceptance"

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Review of Episode 5: Acceptance

KUOW reporter Ruby de Luna has created a five-part radio series about the cultural history of Washington, and she's done it cleverly, by exploring the culinary traditions that the state's various ethnic communities have brought with them to the region. This story, 'Acceptance,' is the fifth in the series, and it introduces us to a Vietnamese woman named Xinh Dwelly. When we meet her, she's chopping vegetables in the kitchen of her Olympia restaurant, and soon we're traveling back in time with her to her experiences cooking for American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Producer de Luna took obvious care in collecting a variety of ambient sounds for this story, and she lets the natural sounds breathe in such a way that the piece ends up having a very cinematic feel. This is a great, accessible way to look at history, and to keep a listening audience engaged along the way.

Comment for " Women In Science special series: "Girls on the Trail of Biodiversity:Smith College Summer Science and Engineering Program for High School Girls"" (deleted)

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Review of Women In Science special series: "Girls on the Trail of Biodiversity:Smith College Summer Science and Engineering Program for High School Girls" (deleted)

This story, reported by Nancy Cohen and produced by Glenn Busby, is one installment in a ten-part series called 'Powerful Signals: Transforming the Role of Women and Girls in Science and Engineering.' The story unfolds in a sequence of well-articulated radio scenes: First we're hunting bugs in the woods with high school girls on a summer afternoon, next we're talking to an accomplished older female scientist who beat the odds and succeeded in her career path, and finally we're in a lab with an ambitious young female scientist who is benefiting from a more level, modern-day playing field.

This piece makes its points without being didactic. The characters we meet are well-selected foils for each other, and they're introduced to us in such a way the nuances of long-term gender discrimination become clear in their own light.

Comment for "Voices of Iraqi Americans on War and Peace"

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Review of Voices of Iraqi Americans on War and Peace

Miae Kim started at Oregon's KBOO as a volunteer --- nowadays she's the host and founding producer of her own program, 'Radio Beyond Borders.' She says the mission of the show is to open up the airwaves to the voices of immigrants and refugees whose stories are usually ignored by the media. And that's what this radio feature does, in the form of three Iraqi-Americans sharing their experiences and concerns about their home-country on the eve of the third anniversary of the Iraq War. There's no narration in this half-hour piece (an ambitious editorial decision), but producer Kim pulls it off with well-selected pieces of tape and a refined ear for pacing.

If you're looking for the 'pro/con' back and forth that happens in a lot of public radio explorations on political topics, you won't find it here. Kim has chosen three speakers who are all opposed to the US military presence in Iraq --- she said it was actually a challenge, in fact, finding Iraqi Immigrants who were not pro-war. Whether or not you agree with the political slant of this radio piece, you'll definitely have your eyes opened to just how irreversibly disruptive the conflict is to the lives of everyday civilians living day to day in a war zone.