Feet In Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City - A Radio Documentary

For generations, immigrants who came to the US were forced to make a clean break with home. Today, with cell phones, the Internet, videoconferencing and cheap air fares, many immigrants remain in constant contact with their home countries. For them, the key to survival is not just learning how to live in America, but learning to live in two places at once. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes'Tis) and set in New York's immigrant neighborhoods, Feet in Two Worlds is an award-winning documentary featuring stories by reporters from the city's ethnic newspapers, as well as WNYC reporters who regularly cover immigrant communities. Most of these stories have only been available to readers of small ethnic newspapers. Now public radio listeners have a chance to get an insider's perspective on immigrant experiences in one of the world's most culturally diverse cities.

This emotionally charged and sound-rich hour of radio features a soundtrack produced by DJ Rekha, an innovator in the city's music scene.

The program includes introductory and closing essays by Frank McCourt and pieces reported by:
Macollvie Jean-François, reporter, Haitian Times
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska, reporter, Nowy Dziennik (Polish Daily News) 
Marianne McCune, reporter, WNYC, New York Public Radio
Cindy Rodriguez, reporter, WNYC, New York Public Radio
Arun Venugopal, reporter, India Abroad
Producer: John Rudolph
Editor: Karen Frillmann
Technical Director: Wayne Shulmister
Associate Producers: Jocelyn Gonzales and DJ Rekha
Engineers: Rob Christiansen, Curtis Fox, Ed Haber, Jennifer Munson and Rob Weisberg
Project Director: Andrew White, Center for New York City Affairs

Originally broadcast in May 2005, Feet in Two Worlds won two prestigious awards from the Society of Professional Journalists—the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Radio Journalism and the New America Award, "for excellence in collaborative public service journalism during 2005 by ethnic and mainstream news media working together to explore and expose a subject of significance to ethnic or immigrant communities in the United States."

In conjunction with the release of the Feet in Two Worlds documentary, the Center for New York City Affairs hosted a town hall on May 10, 2005 featuring panel discussions on transnational communities in New York City, excerpts from the documentary and music by DJ Rekha. The event was taped for broadcast on The Brian Lehrer Show and aired the following day, Wednesday, May 11, on WNYC 93.9 FM / AM 820 from 10 am to noon. 

Listen to the Feet In Two Worlds radio documentary

Read the Feet In Two Worlds documentary transcript

Listen to the Feet In Two Worlds public forum

Making the Documentary: Essays from the Team

Teaching a Polish Newspaper Reporter to Speak "Public Radio," and other Challenges from the "Feet In Two Worlds" Project 


I'm cleaning up my desk now that all the work has been done on "Feet in Two Worlds." What I've discovered buried under piles of paper and stuffed into plastic bags are dozens of CDs with bits and pieces of the program in various stages from the very early versions to the final mixed program. The CDs are labeled in black marker pen with names like "Arun's Phat Cutz" and "Polish Pharm. long (7:12) and short (6:37)." 

I must have at least eight different versions of the Polish Pharmacy piece by Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska. I know many more versions of that piece were produced over the course of the project. The same goes for the other stories in the program, all of which were continually reworked until everyone was satisfied that they were as good as they could possibly be. All those CDs are a reminder of how much effort was involved in this project, and how much we were able to achieve in a relatively short period of time.

A lot of my colleagues in public radio were skeptical. ‘How,’ they asked, ‘could you take raw recruits from the world of print journalism, and in less than half a year bring them to a level where they could produce radio stories worthy of national broadcast?’ How would we overcome potential language barriers and differences in editorial standards? I didn’t have many good answers to these questions. All I kept saying was, ‘I think it will work.’

It was my idea to take a group of journalists from New York City's ethnic press who had never before produced radio stories, and give them the skills, support and tools they needed to create sophisticated, meaningful and sound-rich audio pieces. This would be a fabulous opportunity to bring new voices to public radio and simultaneously give a small group of talented young journalists new skills that could help advance their careers.

A lot of my colleagues in public radio were skeptical. We only had five months to do the work. "How," they asked, "could you take raw recruits from the world of print journalism, and in less than half a year bring them to a level where they could produce radio stories worthy of national broadcast?" How would we overcome potential language barriers and differences in editorial standards? I didn't have many good answers to these questions. All I kept saying was, "I think it will work."

Five months is a long time to hold your breath. Now, as I exhale, I'm happy to say that it did work. "Feet in Two Worlds," is a beautiful hour of radio, with compelling stories, wonderful interviews and music, solid journalism and a unique style that sets it apart from typical radio documentaries, including a number of programs that I've produced. The program was broadcast on many public radio stations around the country, and was one of the highlights of the 2005 Public Radio Collaboration's week of special coverage "Think Global." More than that, the Feet in Two Worlds project has created a model for bringing print journalists into public radio, especially journalists from the ethnic press.

All of my partners in this project deserve credit for its success. They include WNYC, New York Public Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, the Center for New York City Affairs at the Milano Graduate School of The New School and three journalists from the city's ethnic press—Macollvie Jean-François of the Haitian Times, Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska of thePolish Daily News, and Arun Venugopal of India Abroad.

The system we developed is based on a few simple concepts:

  • Each of the print journalists was assigned a mentor--an experienced public radio producer who worked closely with them through the entire project. The mentors served several roles. Sometimes they acted as field producers during field recording sessions. They helped develop story outlines and scripts. They frequently gave technical advice. They also helped the print journalists navigate the world of public radio.

  • After interviewing more than a dozen candidates from New York's ethnic press we settled on three journalists. Although they came from very different backgrounds, what they had in common were—good story ideas, good writing skills, good English language skills, huge enthusiasm for the project and a willingness to be flexible with their schedules. Almost everyone involved with this project had a regular day job. Much of the work was done at night and on weekends.

  • From the outset we emphasized that the project would be extremely labor intensive and that it would involve a more rigorous editorial process than the journalists were accustomed to. We were equally emphatic about honoring the qualities that made each journalist and each story unique. Our aim was to create something new, not to force the journalists to conform to typical public radio reporting styles.

  • Finally, radio is a wonderful medium for story-telling. That's one of its greatest strengths. Radio is less effective in conveying statistics and numbers, the kind of information that newspaper reporters often rely on to illustrate their stories. Making the transition from print to radio can be difficult for some journalists. We asked the three print journalists to build their pieces around strong, compelling characters, and allow the facts of their stories to emerge through the story-telling process.

The project began with a one-day intensive introduction to radio production. Arun, Ewa and Macollvie got to listen to and comment on several pieces representing different reporting and production styles. We drew diagrams for them to show the production flow of a typical radio story and the way sound elements—voice-tracks, actuality and ambiance—are mixed to create a piece. We described various approaches to building a story such as working from an outline or using a diagram where the essence of the story is at the center and the various characters and scenes are represented by "arms" branching out from the center. We showed them how to use a minidisc recorder. We gave them so much information that their heads began to spin.

Each reporter was given a kit consisting of a minidisc recorder, a mono microphone, headphones and a box of minidiscs.

The reporters followed different paths to develop their stories. Ewa was the first to submit a script. It looked a lot like a newspaper article with audio clips added. I was interested in a more natural approach to story telling. So Ewa agreed to sit in a studio and tell her story.

Facing a microphone for the first time, her inclination was to speak the way she thought a radio reporter should sound. Her presentation was very formal, not at all like her warm and friendly personality. The program's editor, Karen Frillmann, then asked Ewa to tell her story they way she would tell a friend. With this idea in mind, Ewa began to describe the look and feel of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, and the Polish pharmacies in the community.

As she spoke, we transcribed what she said on a computer screen. Ewa then edited the transcript to make it flow more naturally to her ear. She then re-recorded the edited transcript. The result was a story told in a conversational and very personal style.

In the end, Ewa didn't use the script from that first studio session. But the experience gave her confidence, and showed her what to aim for in creating a radio piece. It also demonstrated that she had a wonderful voice for radio.
Macollvie wanted to bring the sounds of the Haitian business district on Church Avenue in Brooklyn into her piece about Haitians who regularly send money back to Haiti. One cold winter evening she and I went to Church Avenue, and while I (her mentor) held the mic she did a stand-upm— an unscripted description of the scene, as street vendors sold their wares and people stopped at store-front money transfer offices to send money back to Haiti on their way home from work. Again, the stand-up didn't make it into the final version of the piece. But the experience helped Macollvie understand how evocative language and ambiance could draw in someone listening to her story.

Both Karen Frillmann and I spent many hours working with the reporters, sharpening their scripts and helping them choose and edit their audio clips. Frequently Karen or I would ask a reporter to describe the context of what they had written. This led to some great conversations in which we learned a lot about the lives of immigrants in New York. It often produced new language, or led us to previously-overlooked pieces of tape that more precisely and effectively revealed the emotions and facts of the story.

I'm always surprised by how much time it takes to produce good radio. This project was no exception. Everyone involved put in many more hours than they had anticipated. I'm absolutely convinced that it was worth the effort. We met our goals—to produce a compelling documentary about immigrants in New York, bring new voices to public radio and create a system to forge relationships between public radio and the ethnic press.

The Translation Dilemma

As soon as the "Feet in Two Worlds" project began we realized that we had to come up with creative ways to deal with people in the program who spoke little or no English. The challenge was to present people speaking their native language on the radio as seamlessly and naturally as they would be heard on the streets of New York. At the same time we needed to faithfully convey to an English-speaking audience the ideas and emotions expressed by non-English speakers in the program.

It was clear that the typical public radio approach would not be adequate. Using voice-over translations seemed too clunky and obvious. We settled on an approach where the words of non-English speakers were paraphrased by the reporter. Literal translation was reserved for key phrases.

WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez used this technique effectively in both of her pieces about Ecuadorian immigrants living in Queens. In her story about a couple that paid smugglers to bring their children from Ecuador to New York, Cindy states:

Esther and Jose came to New York from Ecuador to get jobs to support their family back home. Jose, who like his wife asked that his real name not be used, was the first to arrive in 1995. He works construction. Esther followed six years later. She has a job in a sewing factory. 

Jose says many Ecuadorians,"tienen la idea de reunir," or, "have plans to reunite," because to be far away from their families doesn't feel right.

After this introduction the listener then hears Jose speaking in Spanish about why he and his wife risked hiring smugglers to bring their children to the US. Most non-Spanish speakers can understand him when he uses the phrase, "tienen la idea de reunir."

To emphasize the multi-lingual world that many immigrants live in we used actualities where people translate their own non-English words for the listener. For example, in Arun Venugopal’s piece on gay South Asians he includes an interview with Ms. Zina Divani, a drag queen who grew up in Pakistan.

ZINA DIVANI: When I was baby, when I used to dance, I used to get hit by my parents, my brother, my cousins. "Oh, no, you can't dance to that music, because it's very khusraaz," means it's very queer. I-, I don't know the difference. But when I moved to New York that I learned, and I danced, and I'm the most famous drag queen in New York.

The only place where we used a typical public radio voice-over is in Macollvie Jean-François' piece about Haitian immigrants who support family and friends in Haiti. At the end of the piece Macollvie interviews her mother in Creole about her mom's desire to return to Haiti. Macollvie does the voice over herself giving this section an intimacy and warmth that is would have been difficult to achieve using an actor performing a voice-over.

Talking Hearts: My First Radio Experience


Some time last year, I was listening to one of NPR's segments. It was a Sunday morning, I think, and I was driving into Manhattan. Maybe it was to interview a photographer who had just released a new book of Haitians landscapes.

A reporter came on to guide us through the emotions of Mexican cattle ranchers living in some western state who had finally been granted their ancestral farmland after more than a century fighting to reclaim it from the U.S. government.

I was blown away by the ranchers' relief and joy; their tearful, joy-filled voices vibrated inside my own chest. I felt happy for people everywhere who had fought righteously for something and won. 

I don't remember the specifics, but I remember the feelings. I thought, 'Wow, I want to do that. How can I do that in my stories?'

When Minnesota Public Radio's "Feet in Two Worlds" came along, I got tingly over the possibility of learning how that show was produced and experiencing another aspect of journalism. I didn't get excited for nothing.

Simply put, radio broadcasting is fun. You look like even more of a journalist with a microphone in your hand instead of only a notepad, as we print people do. 

Appearances aside, reporting for radio allowed me to see clearly the value of what my editors are telling me: let's talk and tighten it up. I could go on and on with a story, trying to describe what I've seen or want to get across to people. I've failed partly because it is just so much harder to do in writing--unless you're writing a novel--and also because my thoughts are often jumbled.

John Rudolph and I spent most of our time talking, talking, talking. Then the two of us talked some more with the program's editor Karen Frillmann, after she and John had talked on their own, of course. Having these two-hour chats--sometimes held late at night after most people had left WNYC's south tower--brought out so many ideas, opinions and counter viewpoints. It seems simple now: Haitians support their families back home, even as they struggle themselves to adjust and thrive in America. Yes, I know that; what West Indian immigrant doesn't? How much easier all of our lives would have been if we'd figured this out from the beginning?

And the 13 versions of this five-minute script that we went through? My initial seven-page "manuscript" was reduced to a mere two-and-a-half page document, about 1,000 words I could have written in my sleep.

Yet, it is so much richer than what I could type up. The clips in between my narration tell the story. Their hearts speak directly to the listener, the emotions unmistakable.

Jovens Moncoeur's voice choked as he described the poverty he saw when he visited Haiti. He got lost in the memories, recounting them as if he were still in Carrefour, watching his little cousin shine shoes. People can hear that for themselves, the way I did when I heard those cattle ranchers' perseverance, relief and gratitude.

For that, I forgive John and Karen for shortening the script, for suggesting that I rewrite it and for insisting that I redo my voice tracks so many times.
Regrettably, I could not spend as much time in the studio as I would have liked. But I had time to observe, ask questions and understand the technology. 

I had not even entertained the thought of buying a minidisc music player when they were all the rage. Little did I know that the minidiscs serve so many functions. All of a sudden, the MDs and recorder became additional fixtures in my already heavy backpack.

I wanted to record everything. My little brother singing, my mother's phone conversations and the sound of me folding laundry. Silly, but it helped me feel comfortable when I interviewed people. Speaking of which, half of the people I recorded did not make it into the story. One of them was a colorful and candid money transfer agent by the name of Gary Rosen. Another was David Landsman, president of the National Money Transmitters' Association. Another was Dr. Manuel Orozco, a remittances expert at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Unfortunately, there wasn't time to fit them in, but great quotes like Landsman's "the reason people come here is so that they could send money back home" said it all. 

The way Orozco explained just how important remittances are to sustain Haiti was also priceless. As luck would have it, however, I recorded him in mono instead of stereo. Why? Because on that brisk Sunday in December, when I trekked to City College, to record someone other than my family for the first time, the mic cable malfunctioned and I could not hear him over the headphones. 

In a panicked state, I started pressing all the buttons—while he kept talking —and somehow changed the settings. If only I had known. If only I had asked John to check my equipment—just to be sure—before I got on that 1 Train. If only.

I learned though. After sound engineer Wayne Shulmister fixed it and showed me once more how to yank instead of twist the cable out of the recorder I was set. 

The result of my five months as a sometime radio broadcaster did not make me want to cry like the ranchers did. While listening to the final edits, I noted at least half-a-dozen places where I could have either used a stronger adjective, enunciated, projected more or used different tape to make it better. 

I'm not 100 percent satisfied and wish I had spent more time in the studio, but the money transfer piece is decent. Perhaps, someday, I may deliver a piece in print or on radio that hits someone, driving around somewhere, straight in the heart. But I know that this one should resonate with immigrants like myself straddling two worlds.

How to Tell a Story on Radio?


How to tell a story on radio? It's really not easy for the reporter used to print journalism. First of all, radio appeals to different senses. The ear in our culture is much less sensitive than the eye and therefore the spoken story requires more details than print to create a full world.

Place: In an article the journalist can easily switch places he describes. He can go from the mayor's office to the Greenpoint waterfront to Harlem projects, as long as there is some logical link that connects all of those places. On the radio, the process of communication is different. Here the story has to be set up very carefully. The narrator has to take the listener to the place where the action takes place. In between the lines the listener should be able to find the answer to following questions: why he is taken to that particular place, how the narrator arrived there, what he sees around him and—most important—what he is able to hear around him. The same questions have to be answered when the narrator leaves one place and moves to a different one.

I approached many pharmacists and doctors but when they found out that the program was to be taped for an American audience nobody wanted to speak up. [They] usually said, ‘If this was for Polish paper, maybe I would talk to you, but this is for American radio. You never know who can be listening.’

Characters: On the radio when a new character is being introduced, he has to be described very accurately. In order to touch people and be remembered, the story has to appeal to emotions. The characters as well as places have to be realistic and listeners should be able to connect to them emotionally. The emotional connection is not necessary if a character serves as an expert.

Quotations: A great quotation one uses in a print story might be useless on the radio if the speaker does not have appropriate intonation or expression. On the other hand, sometimes quotations that barely touch the subject are used on the radio even though they do not move the story forward, but are said in a nice and pleasant voice.

Reporter as a character: In print it is very rare for the reporter to reveal himself as a character. Unless he is an activist personally involved in a story, the reporter should serve as a cold observer who contemplates all sides of the story. On the radio one has to be more personable and should describe more fully his feelings and emotions.

Different audience: Taking part in a public radio project for ethnic journalists means switching audiences: in my case from Polish to American, from a limited audience to a large one. In my ethnic paper I don't have to create a sense of ethnicity for my readers, and the purpose of my writing is primarily to give a practical advice on how to solve particular problems or where to go for help. But in the radio project I tried to show the world of Polish immigrants to an American audience. I wanted to show what it's like to be an immigrant and the kinds of problems Polish immigrants are dealing with. How is their average day different from the average day of an American?

My own experiences: My biggest difficulty was to find people willing to talk to me. I approached many pharmacists and doctors but when they found out that the program was to be taped for an American audience nobody wanted to speak up. The pharmacists were afraid that some of their activities which are not always legal might be revealed. The doctors were afraid of getting into a conflict with pharmacists--in ethnic neighborhoods the two professions compete with each other. Another problem was that in Greenpoint everybody knows each other and no one wants to get the others into trouble. The pharmacists and doctors usually said, "If this was for Polish paper, maybe I would talk to you, but this is for American radio. You never know who can be listening." When I finally found the pharmacy that agreed to participate in the project I had a hard time interviewing the customers, since they were afraid to talk too, especially those who are undocumented.

Speaking into the microphone was very stressful for both my interlocutors and myself. But after practicing the interviews with my friends I somehow got used to it, even though I used to hate my voice. I thought it was not very feminine and too hoarse. Time and training let me overcome these obstacles.

The most surprising thing in the radio project was the amount of time it took to record my piece--six months for an eight-minute piece. Let's see what I had to do—get people to talk, log the interviews, transfer fragments of the interviews on the fibreshare (a system that connects audio work stations), write the script, do the tracking, and numerous editing that required retracking. This was a lot of intense work but it was worth it—a new experience and all the fun I had!

Diary of a Radio Documentary


Sunday, November 21: My first radio recording event ever: Vidur Kapur's standup comedy routine at an ASHA benefit dinner, held at Shaan of India restaurant downtown. The headphones and microphone make me feel a bit conspicuous, nothing like the back of an envelope I'm usually writing on, but Mentor Jocelyn leads the way. An unusual event, more conservative crowd than Vidur's other shows—more straight—which is interesting in itself. Jocelyn and I eat well, for free.

Friday, December 10: Arrive at 11. Just a few people standing on the dance floor. By and by more people start coming in and we pull out the gear — Jocelyn way faster than me. I'm sitting there for something like 10 minutes, getting my act together, straining in the half-light to see what exactly I'm doing. Where exactly does this headphone wire go? I briefly consider winging it without headphones. Why is this so hard--there are no more than 2 inputs on this tiny machine and I can't even figure out where the headphones go. But it's dark, so maybe no one will know how just how pathetic I am—the genius of club culture. The radio gear serves as armor and I'm not getting hit on, as is the case on previous visits. Worst is the persistent older Indian guy in the wifebeater, who's positive he's met me before. Actually, worst was the man in the gladiator suit who, laughing, wouldn't buy that I was straight. By one o'clock, when it's packed, the queens emerge and begin to get down. Later, uber-queen Zina Divani tells me I'm gorgeous then makes me promise I won't interview any other queens. 'They're all bitches,' he says.

January 28: Script trouble. Some like it, but John Rudolph says I need to completely re-work. I'm sad. John Rudolph calls me days later and coaxes a new structure out of me, which is actually the original structure that didn't happen. I'm much happier.

February 18: We re-tracked my voice and completed a new mix. We tend to do this late in the day, when my slurring is greatest. 

March 13: The mix is moving along. It's painful to see some of my favorite bits being cut, especially the more nuanced aspects of queer desi life: Aatif and Aamir's domestic life, sliced from an hour plus of tape to one 20-second quote; the feisty-funny partygoer Anisha; and some of Vidur's more illuminating, and offensive, comedy bits.