Radio Revival

Students enter Cecilia Vaisman’s reporting classes interested in all kinds of journalism, but few consider specializing in a medium where the spoken word is their sole storytelling tool.

Credit Vaisman with changing their minds.

A longtime radio journalist who’s produced audio features from around the world, Vaisman encourages students to use the power of the human voice to craft original, enterprising pieces. She wants them to report on newsworthy topics, like the Chicago Public Schools’ plan to close more than 50 public elementary schools, which her latest graduate class covered for Latino USA, a National Public Radio program. She also hopes that, along the way, her students can learn a bit about themselves.

“Journalism grew from my own process of discovering and finding my identity as an immigrant,” Vaisman says. “It’s at the core of what I do and why I do it. What I’m doing at Medill is completely infused with that idea.”

Vaisman spent her childhood in New Jersey, where her family emigrated from Argentina. She worked at NPR in Washington, D.C., before co-founding Homelands Productions, an independent media cooperative specializing in radio features and documentaries.

Her work has been broadcast throughout the Americas, and she’s reported on war in Central America, AIDS in Brazil, women’s issues in India and Amazon deforestation, among many other topics.

Before coming to Chicago, she lived in Havana, for five years with her husband and two children. It’s a place she eventually hopes to take Medill students for another perspective on global journalism.

While Vaisman encourages students to report on communities all over the world, she also shows them how to unearth great stories right at home. In an audio documentary course, Vaisman assigned students to interview people who do not usually appear in media and craft an audio piece surrounding that narrative.

Maryam Jameel (BSJ13) interviewed a group of her mother’s friends and members of her community struggling to be accepted as both Hispanic and Muslim.

“Until her class, I hadn’t had that much excitement about that medium,” Jameel says. “It wasn’t until her class that I realized I might want to consider radio more seriously.”

Ashley Kim (BSJ12) interviewed her roommate, a former violin prodigy who spent her adolescence struggling with having to always practice and not be able to do the “normal things” other kids her age were doing. Through the skillful interweaving of her friend’s voice and the strains of the instrument, Kim crafted a story that generated more than a few tears from Vaisman.

Kim has been freelancing as a writer and in marketing and communications since graduation, but says she’s ready to give radio another shot.

“Before the class, I really didn’t listen to radio,” Kim says. “Now I realize how powerful it is.”