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Honors College Brings Radio Host Karen Duffin from NPR’s Planet Money to Radford University

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By Jeremy Moser | jmoser9@radford.edu

Karen Duffin, journalist and co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, flew in Tuesday from New York City to speak with students of her experiences in radio.

Duffin brought along audio recordings of people she previously interviewed. While mostly not directly related, these people and the stories they tell each share a few common themes. She used these themes to illustrate her points.

“The type of journalism I do is not straight news,” she said. “I’m not on NPR News. I’m a narrative journalist, which means we tell people’s stories.”

Decision Making

In her radio shows, Duffin delves into the many layers of people’s decision making. She has interviewed people that have taught her important lessons. She sums up these lessons with a phrase she used a few times, “People are complicated.”

She explained that people’s lives are more than what they seem at face value. People may make seemingly incorrect decisions, but it’s important for others to know that people have reasons for doing what they do.

“This is the attitude I try to go into my interviews with. People, even people you disagree with, don’t do the things you disagree with because they’re stupid,” Duffin said, referring to people’s decision-making process.

The Death Penalty

She shared one story about the death penalty to illustrate this point. In 1976, then Oklahoma Senator Bill Wiseman voted to reinstate the death penalty in his state. It went against his moral code, but he voted in favor of it because 80% of his constituents supported it.

Duffin played a recording of Wiseman’s voice over the loud speakers.

“I also knew, that if voted against it from my district, I would run a high risk of getting whooped,” Wiseman explained.

Duffin then explained that it was with a sense of “penance” that he met with the state medical examiner, Jay Chapman, and helped create the method for lethal injection. Since then, most executions in the U.S. have been done through lethal injection.

Wiseman deeply regretted the whole thing. He would remain a death penalty abolitionist the rest of his life.

In her work, Duffin tries to tell the whole story. Instead of just talking about what someone did, she aims to explain why they did it.

The World’s Largest Tree House

Duffin moved on to a different story to exemplify a different aspect of human complexity. She spoke about “snapshots” of human lives and how they will differ through the years. She explained this concept with the story of Horace Burgess, the creator of the world’s largest tree house.

This one man built the massive construction in a forest in Tennessee. As Duffin tells it, Burgess had a vision one night of a massive tree house. He initially figured it would take six months to a year to build. He spent the next twenty years building his tree house before it was shut down for violating fire codes.

However, Burgess was not always obsessed with tree houses. When he was young, he was a veteran and fought in Vietnam. In his thirties, he worked in construction and partied a lot in his spare time. For a while he even danced in a strip club to make extra money.

As Duffin describes it, at that point in his life, Burgess was “an alcoholic stripper.” Decades later, he would become known for something completely different.

Narrative Journalism

Narrative journalism touches upon this aspect of human life. People never stop changing and growing, and her goal is to show how different people can be at different times in their lives. As she explained it, “They are all of those things.”

“That is one of the most important things I’ve learned from the people I’ve interviewed,” she said. “Just letting people be the many things that they are.”

The final thing Duffin talked about is what she believes is the divide between the “boring” parts of our lives and the “highlight reels” that often receive the most focus.

She believes it’s how you’ve performed in the boring parts that matter. Whether you’ve taken care of your health, worked hard, and kept your integrity will affect how you can take advantage of opportunities life hands you.

As she explained it, “the biggest things that happen to us are random.” She illustrated this with another story.

The Librarian

She told of George Christian, a librarian in Connecticut who was handed a National Security Letter (NSL) by two FBI agents. At the time, in 2005, the Patriot Act could compel people to hand over personal information, such as computer history, over to the federal government.

These NSLs came wrapped in gag orders, which is an order sent from the government of information that can’t be disclosed to the public. When Christian proceeded to expose it and fight against it, he and three others had to do so anonymously.

The ensuing legal battle led to the FBI rescinding their information request. Christian and his colleagues would go on to oppose the overreaches of the Patriot Act for years.

Duffin’s message here is that great opportunities may come, and that it’s important to be prepared to take advantage of them.

“A lot of things that happen in your life are going to be like the FBI agent waltzing in,” she said.

Duffin closed her talk by taking questions from the audience. The questions primarily revolved around her career as a narrative journalist and her programming on NPR.

The Honors College arranged the event, and some honor students were treated to a dinner with Duffin in the “bird room” of McConnel Library. This room is usually a display of the first Radford University president’s office.

“We try to get people to talk about different topics,” said Honors College Director Dr. Niels Christensen. “We want to find people who are intellectually curious. That’s the big thing we’re looking for.”

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