An Audio Academy Lesson: Empathy is the Act of Refusing to Dismiss Another Person
By Ben Trefny, News Director, KALW, Listener Supported Public Radio
As we wrap up the year (the decade, actually — hard to comprehend), I wanted to share one more blog post from KALW. This one was written by Audio Academy fellow Christopher Egusa, whose intelligence, creativity, and enthusiasm always help raise the spirits and achievements of our newsroom.
This week I started work on my first feature (full length audio piece). It’s a personal story that touches on some difficult topics. As I discussed my reporting plan with my editor, something she said stood out to me. We were talking about the difference between the kind of interviewing I’d done in the past, and the interviewing I’d be doing on this project. Then she said, “Remember, this is not an intellectual interview — it’s an emotional one.”
Now, that may be fairly obvious to many people, but it clarified for me what we’re really doing as storytellers. I think that it’s our job to go out into the world and try to create empathy. In fact, I think that empathy is the currency of public radio. A 2013 study from the New School found that “reading literature improves … the capacity to identify and understand others’ subjective states.” If this is true of the written word, how much greater is the power of audio — a medium that carries so many subtleties of meaning, and connects us to our most ancient oral traditions?
To me, empathy is the act of refusing to dismiss another person. It’s a tough impulse to quash, but it’s also when we’re at our best. I’ve been impressed, and personally buoyed by the collective spirit of KALW so far. It’s a culture that attempts to embody that spirit. The series Uncuffed, in which inmates from San Quentin and Solano state prisons report and share stories from behind prison walls, is an active refusal to dismiss a population. It requires us to sit with their voices, enduring any discomfort that our biases may create, and allowing our understanding of human experience to be expanded, even if just a little bit.
For me personally, I’ve appreciated just how warm and welcoming everyone at the station has been, including my fellow Audio Academy fellows. I’ve been constantly mentored and encouraged to pursue things I’m intrigued by — from reporting to sound engineering and more. But it goes beyond that. I’m one of over 130 million Americans living with chronic illness, and because mine is mostly invisible, I find that I’m generally uncomfortable communicating my limitations. When I first started at KALW, my difficulties were not only “not dismissed,” they were fully embraced, and accommodations were happily made. Even more important, though, is that I was embraced — my thoughts, ideas, and identity. I feel that it’s my mission to create empathy by embracing the complexity of people, and I think I’ve found a great home to begin that journey here.