Radio Diaries, ‘Radiolab’ team up to produce their own documentaries on Black Swan Records

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Radio Diaries

Managing Producer Nellie Gilles and Joe Richman work on Radio Diaries' documentary on Black Swan Records.

Two pioneering public radio producers are wrapping up their first-ever partnership, a multiplatform project on Black Swan Records, an African-American label that was active in the 1920s. 

Harry Pace (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Radiolab is releasing the first two episodes June 17 of The Vanishing of Harry Pace, its five-part podcast series on the record label and its founder. A two-part Radio Diaries piece is tentatively scheduled to debut on NPR’s All Things Considered next week.  

Jad Abumrad, creator and co-host of Radiolab, described Pace as a man who “lived six lifetimes in one lifetime” but lived only to the age of 59. Besides creating and running Black Swan Records, Pace worked to desegregate a huge swath of Chicago through his involvement in the U.S. Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee. He also started an insurance company that catered to African-Americans. Amazingly, some of Pace’s modern-day descendants knew nothing of his accomplishments.

“Black Swan completely changed the direction of American culture,” said Abumrad. “How did we not study this in school? It’s just a truly amazing and truly American story. I can’t wait to get it out there.”

Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, communications VP at New York Public Radio, said the series may be broadcast on Radiolab later this year.

Radio Diaries originally wanted to do a 15- to 17-minute ATC “format-breaker,” with NPR notifying stations to adjust timing of their local cutaways, Richman said. But format-breakers are harder to get on the show these days, he said. Each of the two installments will likely run 11 minutes each.

Black Swan had been “on our story list for years as just a traditional piece about the first Black record label,” Richman told Current. “That was before we knew about the more mysterious story of Harry Pace.”

When Radio Diaries Managing Producer Nellie Gilles talked to Eric Pace, the great-grandson of Harry Pace, she learned what the family had recently discovered about their racial heritage. “That’s when we picked up the story again [and decided] to do it as two stories: the history of Black Swan and the story of Harry Pace and his family up until today,” Richman said.

Radio Diaries and OSM Audio, Abumrad’s independent production company with producer Shima Oliaee, had been separately pursuing the Black Swan story, unaware of each other’s efforts, until October 2020. They decided to team up rather than race to release their own versions. 

Both Richman and Abumrad said the partnership didn’t affect how their stories sound. Richman is sticking with his unnarrated form of storytelling. As the trailer for The Vanishing of Harry Pace clearly demonstrates, Abumrad has not abandoned the highly edited, tightly mixed production that Radiolab is known for.

Richman and Abumrad have been good friends since meeting some 20 years ago, when Abumrad attended the Public Radio Conference on a scholarship and Richman was assigned to be his guide. “He was this established, independent guru figure for me,” Abumrad recalled. “He took me around the conference, and I remember just being completely in awe of him.”

As friends they “had always talked about working together on stuff going back years and years,” Abumrad told Current.

Abumrad

Their work together had been limited to college lectures and public talks until Abumrad and Oliaee discovered through a source that Richman and Gilles were also working on the Black Swan story. Shortly afterwards, they agreed to share tape, research and analysis of Black Swan’s impact on American culture. 

The two-parter from Radio Diaries includes portions of a Radiolab interview with Emmett Price III, a scholar focused on African-American music and religion, for example. Radiolab’s podcast incorporates part of a Radio Diaries interview with jazz musician Willie Ruff.  

The first three episodes of Radiolab’s series are an in-depth mirroring of Richman’s ATC pieces, according to Abumrad. One of the last two episodes focuses on Black classical concert singers of the early 20th century. The other delves into the history of the Black Swan recording of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has been referred to as the Black national anthem. A recording of the song was played on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2005.

From the outset of its original production, OSM Audio intended to create a multipart series on Black Swan, Abumrad said. He and Oliaee learned about the label from a British music journalist who was involved in Dolly Parton’s America, the 2019 podcast they co-produced with WNYC Studios.

George

Radio Diaries had been working on its Black Swan documentary for a few years and had always intended to produce it for ATC, Richman said. Ben Shapiro, a filmmaker and Radio Diaries contributing editor who is working with Richman on the piece, found the story. 

Contributing Editor Deborah George, who along with Shapiro has worked with Radio Diaries since it started, believes not having to contend with tight deadlines has been key to the team’s ability to produce award-winning audio documentaries.

“We pore over the tape,” George said. “We can discuss a phrase for an hour or most of the day. It’s a luxury.”

“The best things we do are things that are carefully crafted, and I think that’s what makes Radio Diaries stand out,” George said. 

Model of ‘how to work in this world’

Richman and his small team of five recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of Radio Diaries’ first broadcast on All Things Considered, the 1996 series Teenage Diaries. With its intimate stories crafted from audio diaries and conversations recorded by teens, it broke new ground for public radio storytelling. 

Over the years Richman has put recorders in the hands of prisoners, a judge, correction officers and retirement home residents. His colleagues praise his ability to find diarists and bring them into the storytelling process. Radio Diaries has also produced scores of unnarrated historical audio documentaries, many of which dealt with topics of war or race. 

Abumrad started Radiolab as a one-man operation in 2002 and built it into one of the most–listened-to and acclaimed public radio shows and podcasts. Known for the hyper sound design it brings to explorations of strange phenomena in the natural world, Radiolab has also been credited with creating a new aesthetic for the medium of radio.

Abumrad described Richman as a key influence. The Radio Diaries Handbook, which Richman wrote for diarists and producers, was the first text that Abumrad read about radio journalism, Abumrad said. He has also been inspired by Richman’s track record as an independent producer and for showing him that “you can be independent and have your own independent operation.”

“You put a few people in your mind as models of not just how to work in this world but how to live in it,” said Abumrad. “And Joe has always been one of those people for me.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Radiolab and Radio Diaries pursued the Black Swan story independently until October 2020. OSM Audio, Abumrad’s independent production company with producer Shima Oliaee, was pursuing the Black Swan story. In addition, Abumrad and Oliaee discovered that Radio Diaries was working on the story, and OSM Audio intended to create the multipart series about the label.

One thought on “Radio Diaries, ‘Radiolab’ team up to produce their own documentaries on Black Swan Records

  1. My grandfather was among many incorporators of Northeastern Life Insurance with Harry Pace in New York and New Jersey in the 1920’s – I have searched in vain for more detailed information about the incorporateors. Mr. Pace is a major figure.

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