Kitchen Sisters Revive the Lost Art of Listening

Jan Term Speaker Shares NPR Documentaries with SMC Audience

"You really are building community when you take the time to tell someone's story," says Nikki Silva, a trailblazing documentary radio producer who spoke Wednesday as part of the Jan Term Speaker Series at Saint Mary's College.

Under the name the Kitchen Sisters, Silva and her sister, Davia Nelson, have produced a string of award-winning radio series for NPR, including "Hidden Kitchens," "Lost and Found Sound" and the "Sonic Memorial Project." Their current collaboration, "The Hidden World of Girls," can be heard on NPR's "Morning Report" and on "All Things Considered."

Silva took the audience on an engaging multimedia tour of her career, playing audio clips and showing slides from a handful of more than 200 programs the pair have created. The sisters started interviewing people right out of college in the late '70s for radio station KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz. Later, they stumbled on the idea of asking "How do communities come together through food?" They set up a radio hotline and invited listener participation.

The idea resonated with the community, and their "Hidden Kitchens" show caught fire. Silva played excerpts from one of the amusing – and moving – programs that came out of that experiment, "The George Foreman Grill." In it, homeless people told how they used the grill to cook in their encampments. One woman said her bedridden mother used it to cook the hoagies she couldn't go out for anymore. And George Foreman himself told the story of how he grew up so poor that he pretended he had eaten his lunch on the way to school so he wouldn't have to admit to his classmates that his family couldn't afford to feed him.

The Kitchen Sisters work ties in with this year's Jan Term theme of "Remaking History," Silva says. "We try to tell stories in new ways so people can think about them in new ways."

In one project, they told the story of "the first all-girl radio station" in America, WHER, through the recollections of the women. The station was created in 1955 as a novelty by Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis Presley, but it ended up breaking social barriers when the women reported on major news events, like the battle over segregation and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In addition to their radio work, the Kitchen Sisters are also teachers. They have taught at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the University of California Santa Cruz Social Documentary Graduate Program and for Youth Radio.

Their programs exhibit one of the hallmarks of the best documentary work -- they convey the feeling that you truly know the person who's talking. There's an honesty in the voices they record, whether the subject is humorous or tragic.

Near the end of the presentation, Silva played a tape of a woman remembering her mother, who was killed on April Fool's Day by a contract killer. "She had a way of looking right into people," she recalled. "She could see the bottom of people."

The same could be said of the Silvas. The key, Silva says, is really listening. Then "you take these 30 hours of tape and distill them like espresso." The result is a potent brew.

The sisters' gift for collaboration with the audience is a big part of the genius behind their work.

After 9/11, the Kitchen Sisters created the "Sonic Memorial Project" to commemorate the life of the World Trade Center and the ordinary people who were touched by the attack. They interviewed the piano player who had entertained guests at the Windows on the World lounge, for instance, and created an audio archive. Then they recovered phone messages from the Twin Towers – not panicked calls from the moment of the attack but mundane calls made in the days before it – and gave them to family members so they could once again hear their loved ones' voices.

As Silva played a tape of a survivor listing all the people she'd never see again and then adding, "I can no longer take my life for granted," the audience listened intently. It was almost a religious experience – a reminder that in the world we live in, with its constant barrage of sights and sounds, we seldom take the time to really listen.

Listen to the Kitchen Sisters programs:

Hidden Kitchens

Lost & Found Sound

The Sonic Memorial Project

The Hidden World of Girls

Teresa Castle
College Communications

Photo by Thomas Vo '11