By Emily Johnson
The Third Coast Audio Festival was memorable and inspiring for many reasons, but most of these reasons boiled down to hearing an excess of fantastic radio. At an award show, we heard pieces that stung our eyes with tales of justice lost and justice found, of acts of humanity and lives filled with loneliness and love. During the opening session, we listened to three-minute documentaries that showcased what clever editing and sly humor can do in the right hands. And during the “Beyond the Front Lines” session with Jamie Tarabay, I found my breath stolen by a chilling intimacy evoked with the simple sound of sloshing water.
Tarabay is an NPR reporter who spoke with candor and feeling about her time covering the war in Iraq. She played several pieces that she worked on during those years; one of them told the story of people who dived in the river to retrieve bodies. A man spoke of seeing a human head float by. “That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The story left an impression; Tarabay noted that the NPR audience responded to the piece in a gratifying way. “These people are so amazing,” she said. “We had so many calling in and saying, ‘Who do I give money to so this guy can get a life jacket?'”
Between showing examples of her work, Tarabay answered questions from a curious audience who asked about topics that ranged from the logistical (how to prepare for reporting in dangerous countries) to the philosopical (what radio offers that is different from television) and personal (how the things she has seen affect her current life).
Tarabay listened quietly, her head down, as she played the heartbreaking tale of an NPR reporter and friend whose father was kidnapped. “This one’s still hard for me to listen to,” she noted.
She spoke of the tug-of-war of that conflict reporting plays with the people who do it: she missed weddings, Christmases. She is haunted by the many dead bodies she has seen, waking up at 4 in the morning with apocalyptic nightmares. Still, she felt a powerful urge to go to Haiti after the earthquake and found it difficult to reconcile not being there. “It’s addicting,” she explained.
She also talked about the popular misconception that the correspondents were living in the lap of luxury during the war in fortified surroundings. “We were never in the ‘green zone,'” she said.
Listen to Tarabay talk about their living and reporting conditions here: