From Ink to Airwaves

How does a longtime print journalist make the switch to audio? Debbie Nathan, an alumna of the 2013 Full Spectrum Storytelling workshop, has written for publications including The Village Voice and The Texas Observer since 1980. Nathan’s reporting often challenges popular ideas about subjects like pornography, immigration and mental health. Her most recent book, “Sybil Exposed,” received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, which praised Nathan’s “steady eye on her oft-sensationalized subject,” and noted that her reporting “serves up a tale just as shocking as the famed original.”

Nathan describes her venture from the page into storytelling for radio. This interview has been edited and condensed:

 It’s funny: Even back in the ’70s, I always had a micro-mini-cassette tape and I’d tape all kinds of stuff. I was trying to study dialogue by taping conversations and transcribing them. I have boxes of tapes. I never thought about doing radio, and never did anything with those tapes.

I was down in Texas in 2012 on a staff job for a start-up newspaper that really thought of itself as a new, online, postmodern community paper. Unfortunately, it was a total disaster, but the one good thing about it was I had interns and they were very young, and the publisher was a lot younger than me. She said, “You need to start carrying around a tape recorder and think about supplementing your print with audio.”

She gave me a schlocky little recorder. I thought it was the cat’s meow. I started carrying that around and I was really thrilled.

One of my other interns introduced me to Audacity. I freaked out. I had this mystical moment. I would sit there for hours and listen to these tapes and edit them, and it was hypnotic. I was on the border and the accent there, the way people speak English, is so beautiful.

Ann Heppermann was a friend of a friend of mine. I wrote this book that was published in 2011 [“Sybil Exposed”]. Ann was interested in the book and in the way I think about finding and getting stories.

When I was down in El Paso, we were in touch, and she was really turned on by this story about Juarez, that very dangerous city that’s just across the border, and I said, “Come down here, let’s work on this story together.”

So then I was introduced to the H4 Zoom [recorder], and she introduced me to Pro Tools. 

So we worked on this story and it came out in the summer last year on “This American Life.” Ira Glass gave me a mention, and I was so very happy. [“The Real Housewife of Ciudad Juarez”]

[Ann] recommended me for Full Spectrum and I was in way over my head. I didn’t have any technical skills and I was a little humiliated because everyone had been in this field for years, but I thought, “Wow, everyone should do this from the beginning and get this understanding, this idea that a program is a song.”

I read the Mexican press every day in the morning. I read about a guy in Ciudad Juarez who goes to a shelter every day and massages the feet of the immigrants who have been deported or who have come up through Central America on the train.

I thought, “Who is this guy? Is he a foot fetishist or a leftist?” They said he was very devout, and it was the Lenten season, and that’s a thing where Jesus washes the apostles’ feet.

Just recently I decided I’m going to jump in and see if “Latino USA” will take a pitch, and I used the AIRdaily bulletin for advice. It’s my first piece on my own, my first piece without Ann. I’m just finishing.

I spent some time with the man at the shelter and spent many hours while he massaged people’s feet, and talked to people about their experiences about coming up from Central America on that horrible train, or people coming back from the United States who had been deported. 

It was so intimate, the sound of people breathing and the rubbing of the feet, and although the city is very busy, it’s in a peaceful place, and there’s the sound of birdsong. It’s very beautiful. There was crying, from men, which I find very touching.

The thing is, I don’t want to be dishonest about this: I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make a living at this. I’m almost about to get Social Security, so I don’t know if I’ll think about this as an economic choice. I can still make more money in print. 

I’m in my dotage. I’m 63 years old. As you go on and on with journalism, you pay more attention to narrative, and I have learned that audio is so much more intensely about narrative than print, at least for me. It’s just so rich.

As I was working on this “Latino USA” piece, I started crying. I haven’t done that since 1990. The last time I was so moved by the stuff I’m getting from sources that I cried, it was so long.


AIR’s Full Spectrum Storytelling intensive workshop will be July 7-11, 2014 at Union Docs in Brooklyn, N.Y. Applications for the July workshop are due by June 15 for regular registration fees or July 1 for late registration.