I’m still waiting for Orlando being the “largest mass shooting in American history” to sink in. Filling my mind instead are images of the individual people: mothers texting their children to no replies, police officers listening to the haunting rings of owner-less cellphones, survivors wondering why they were spared.
This week, we’re featuring Emily Forman, producer of Precious Lives, a two-year, 100-part radio series about young people and gun violence in Milwaukee. Each week, Emily and her team weave together living snapshots of survivors, neighborhoods, families—of resilience. They’re 73 episodes in. With many episodes about healing and peace—rather than shootings and funerals—they frequently focus on the helpers, the people working to create positive change.
Milwaukee, Orlando, and so many cities in between remind us constantly that life can change in an instant. So with each story Emily brings to light, we share the same hope that listeners grow in compassion, acknowledge the very different lives of others in their own city, and recognize just how precious every life is.
People with Panache: You took a pretty circuitous path to Precious Lives: From an economics degree to business consulting at IBM, D.C. startups, and even the Washington Post. How did you get here?
Emily Forman: I was trying to find a community more in line with who I was—and it kind of fell apart. I was working for the Washington Post doing business development. They had a small innovations lab, building apps to engage a younger audience. I was going to business school at night, and I was really, really unhappy—I couldn’t figure it out. And then I actually got fired from the Washington Post. It was a bad fit, I didn’t know what they wanted from me, I wasn’t passionate about Facebook changes—but that was the best thing that ever happened.
Amidst all these jobs and feeling stressed out, the thing that would make me feel fulfilled at the end of the day was listening to radio stories.
There was this one producer, Starlee Kine, who did an episode where she attempted to write a love song and consulted with Phil Collins on this epic ballad. She made me feel like there was a place for me in radio. Using her voice to make people feel connected—that’s what I wanted to do.
I immediately applied to Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, a four-month documentary program. I was finally with my people.
PW: So why radio?
EF: It’s really intimate. Without the visuals you can really listen; there’s so much more in what people say. The tone of voice, the cadence, the way it draws you in, is really beautiful and simple. Because of the lack of visuals, it challenges you… you’re filling in part of that picture. That’s what invites people into the story. It’s easier for a wider range of people to relate to a radio story.
PWP: What was your first radio job?
EF: After Salt, I got a fellowship in Sitka, Alaska—KCAW Raven Radio. I loved it.
Radio people are so nice, consistently—maybe it’s because I found my people. They’re curious and kind and helpful and really love their jobs, so they’re happy to talk about it with you. There’s just this sharing and openness and spirit of collaboration.
PWP: I’m so happy you found this for yourself.
EF: What do you do if you don’t?
PWP: I think you do things outside of work. Or, you know, put a lot of pressure on your children.
EF: So I moved from reporting on fishing violations to moving to a new city, where I knew no one, and reporting on gun violence, which I knew nothing about.
You have to be careful to remember that you’re a person, too, that has interests and needs things. When you’re interviewing people that are experiencing trauma and tragedy, you feel grateful to them for sharing their story. You automatically feel like, ‘I just have to be this vessel; I just have to be this vehicle, because I will never know and experience what this person is going through.’ There is something dangerous in that.
I’m recognizing I’m allowed to have feelings toward this. It’s not really ‘my’ community. People need to see neighborhoods they don’t live in that have different dynamics than their community, than them. That’s how you move the needle on the issue. I felt really disconnected from my emotions for awhile.
PWP: I met with the detective that worked on the Laylah Peterson case, and she wondered aloud if she should be doing this emotionally draining job; does she have to be the one, or could someone else do the job?
EF: Right. I can relate to that. Do I have to be the person to tell these stories when it’s not my story to tell? When I don’t feel like it’s my story to tell? Why? I’d rather be sharing through someone else’s lens who’s more directly connected.
Gun violence and deaths felt so overwhelming and unrelatable before. It’s horrible, it’s devastating, it’s just a horror. Now I’m wading in underneath that level of what you are confronted with at nightly news to the survivors. There’s the view that’s presented about death and loss, and that is there, but you see other details: what people are cooking for dinner, mothers caring for their kids who lost a sibling. There’s such resilience. They’re still living their lives even though this is happening, and they’re strong as hell.
You can begin to see what works, change that’s happening on an individual level that’s maybe not turning the tide fully. You see hope; pockets of things maybe brought to scale or supported in a different way that could change people’s lives dramatically pretty quickly.
PWP: What happens after you hit 100 episodes?
EF: I don’t know! I’m going to travel to Southeast Asia for a month.
I’m trying to think about what the last episode should be. I don’t want this to be another thing that someone did in Milwaukee, and it just faded, and no one was there to carry it on. I’d also like to know if this is something the community even wants, how people have benefited from tuning in or participating in this process.
PWP: And amid all of this, what do you find most fulfilling?
EF: It was dropping off a completed radio show each week, but it has to be more than that. I’m really into connecting deeply with people. I spend most of my time trying to seek that out in different ways. I need a combination of things to feel fulfilled. A radio story is like that. You’re learning and being challenged by the person in front you, learning something about a topic that’s really relevant and important to ourselves, challenging your own opinions, getting to test your own views.
Come see Emily’s radio show in real time on Wednesday at Precious Lives: Live Show. Comment on this Facebook post to win two tickets—we wanted our readers to have a chance to go, even when they sell out!
Each week, Precious Lives airs on 89.7FM at 10:50 am on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, it airs on 860AM at 7:50 am. And 24/7, it streams online (our favorite).
[Photos by Alysse.]
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