Radio course pushes students to ‘go deep’

By Thomas Pardee

With the likes of David Sedaris and Ira Glass defining popular radio storytelling as a narrative art form, it was only a matter of time before Columbia responded.

The Radio Department is offering its first semester-long course on narrative radio called “The Radio Narrative,” taught by writer, broadcast journalist and Columbia faculty member Dave Berner, who has been working as a radio and online journalist in Chicago for 20 years.

The course was previously offered during the department’s J-Term session in January and teaches students how to tap into their own experiences for stories to tell. Once they’re written, students are shown how to adapt those stories for radio.

“I truly believe everyone out there has dozens of stories they don’t think are interesting or worth talking about,” said Berner, who’s been teaching at Columbia full-time since 2003. “Whether they’re memoirs, essays, opinions or reflections, I’m all for it. We’re about working with students to get [their writing] radio friendly.”

Berner said one of the inspirations for bringing radio narrative to Columbia was the National Public Radio show “This American Life,” which features weekly narrative stories from different writers, including Sedaris, a popular humorist.

Berner said “This American Life” and other narrative radio shows like New York Public Radio’s nationally broadcast “Radio Lab,” are “a catalyst for the genre.”

“There seems to be a new push on ways to tell non-fiction stories,” Berner said. “Memoirs, personal essays …‘This American Life’ is full of that. It’s people telling stories that have impacted their lives.”

Barbara Calabrese, chair of the Radio Department, said it’s an act of storytelling through writing that makes up the foundation of all radio. She said the Radio Narrative course will bring “a very new and specific area to the curriculum.”

“It’s a great course for strengthening your writing skills and doing it from a personal point of view,” she said. “It draws directly on your knowledge and experiences.”

Grant Mahoney, a junior fiction writing student at Columbia who enrolled in the course this fall, said he’s recorded some of his own writing in his spare time and is looking forward to turning his interests into viable skills.

“I just want to know what I’m doing,” he said. “I’ve taken a few courses at Columbia about things I’m interested in, but not had guidance in, and it’s proven really helpful in the past.”

Mahoney said this course has the right combination of technicality and creativity to suit him.

“When I think of everything I would look for in a radio class, this has it,” he said.

Calabrese said Berner is well-researched in narrative radio styles.

“He has grown while he’s been at Columbia to really keep the foundation of radio part of the curriculum, while embracing new aspects of it,” she said.

Berner said because of narrative radio is so personal, he’s most interested in showing students the importance of “going deep” and working with real emotions.

“If you stay on the surface of a story, it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t have the richness,” he said. “You have to be willing to be vulnerable a little bit, and that’s hard for people to do. It takes courage. I try to get them comfortable in understanding that that’s a good place to go, and push them to go there.”