Radio Students Document a Day at a Diner in “This American Life” Style
By Justin Mitchell
Class of 2012
Saturday, Apr. 28 was a different kind of day at Chelsea’s la Taza de Oro diner. The homey Puerto Rican eatery was the subject of an innovative project for Jesse Hardman’s Audio Writing & Reporting class, modeled on “24 Hours at the Golden Apple,” an episode of the popular public radio program “This American Life.”
The original broadcast consisted of a series of conversations and profiles at a diner in Chicago over the course of an entire day. Hardman’s class covered a 5 a.m.-11 p.m. shift at la Taza de Oro, with groups of two students taking three-hour shifts interviewing customers, employees, deliverymen, and managers as they went about another day.
Students were not sure what to expect. “When I first started talking to people, I was extremely nervous,” said Oulimata Ba of the Class of 2012. “I honestly expected to get a lot of no’s, and I also felt weird about interrupting people during their meals.”
“It was interesting,” said classmate Rebecca Sesny. “Some people wanted to open up right away, but many people I talked to didn’t really want to open up. It took a lot of prodding.”
As they dug into the experiment, many students encountered interesting, idiosyncratic, and one-of-a-kind people. “I spoke to a gay couple, one of whom was living with HIV. He’d spent the past year in and out of the hospital and had finally been given a place to stay through HASA [the HIV/AIDS Services Administration],” said Kizzy Cox. “Through it all, his boyfriend of only two years stayed by his side. Through tears, Willie — the man living with HIV — expressed gratitude and wished he could ‘pay him back.’ His boyfriend responded that he already paid him back with ‘his company, his smile.’”
For many, it was an overwhelming experience. “I was pretty astounded at how wiped I was after my shift,” said Tom DiChristopher. “I didn’t really feel it in the moment, but afterwards, I was somewhat overwhelmed with all the information I had just taken in.”
Hardman envisioned the project as a way of teaching his students to pay closer attention to their subjects. “I think in modern media we’re often in a rush to get a concise, packaged comment from people that fits nicely into our reporting. But in reality, normal people don’t speak in soundbites,” he said. “So having to sit at a diner, and just listen for three hours is a really important exercise. It teaches us as reporters to invest in peoples’ thoughts and experiences, and to not be in such a hurry.”
Tristan Hallman pulled one memorable audio excerpt from his recordings.
Eric and Mark, two Mormons-turned-atheists, waxed philosophical about life and their attempts to find their way in the world. In search of a stable job when he graduated from Brigham Young University, Eric went into Teach for America and was placed in Arkansas. His best friend Mark went the opposite, less stable route — graduate school for art. After a day around the city, they took time to reflect on life as they sipped café con leches at la Taza de Oro.
Students will produce an hour-long radio program from their recordings. Stay tuned for information on where it will air, and when you can hear it.