Radio documentary will take on large issues at ground level

CorrespondentFebruary 5, 2012 

  • "Groundwork" is the first radio documentary series from the Center for Documentary Studies to receive support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "Fundraising is more difficult in this climate than it used to be," said Tom Rankin, director of the Duke University center. "Everybody has to work much harder to raise the same amount of money."

    The center's budget is $3 million to $4 million a year, with as much as 25 percent coming from grant funding. The center, founded in 1989, offers interdisciplinary higher-education courses in documentary art in audio, video and photography.

Gay marriage. Immigration. Carbon emissions.

These hot-button issues are debated at the national level, but the producer and crew of "Groundwork," a radio documentary series produced out of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, aim to examine how the issues are approached at the community level.

John Biewen, a noted radio documentary producer at CDS, is traveling with crew members to six locations on six topics.

"At a time when our democracy at the national level is gridlocked, polarized, arguably not functioning very well," Biewen said, "the series asks, 'What does it look like on a smaller scale, when people in a given community or region in the country are trying to get something done?' "

The series caught the attention of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, winning $140,000 in grant funding recently, which will cover more than half of the production's costs. The radio documentary will look at immigration in San Juan, Texas; citizen involvement in local government in Chicago; carbon emissions in Alaska; young voters in favor of President Barack Obama in Los Angeles; and the debate over gas drilling in Caroline, N.Y.

On the topic of gay marriage, Biewen's crew will be stationed in Hickory and pull footage from Durham and Raleigh. The issue triggered much public debate this fall when state Republicans put forth an amendment, the Defense of Marriage Act, essentially banning gay marriage in North Carolina, the last Southern state that does not have an explicit ban. The legislation will be up for popular vote in May.

The series is expected to run in April on National Public Radio in separate segments as well as a full show. A blog will encourage online discussions.

"We want to illuminate what's going on," Biewen said. "I think we'll see situations where democracy is really vibrant and people are able to speak to each other, and other situations where the polarity and gridlock is just replicated throughout the country."

The foundation became interested in "Groundwork" for its approach and subject matter. Last year it awarded $2 million in grants to film and radio documentary projects.

"There are still people who get out and get things done," said Lynn McKnight, associate director for Programs and Communications at the Duke documentary center. "Looking at people who are being productive in the political and civic arena, and seeing where the similarities and differences in Washington are - those are the big questions we're interested in."

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