Interview: In DIALOGUE // Nikki Silva
Nikki Silva is a radio producer and museum curator, best known for her work as part of the duo, The Kitchen Sisters, as well as her extensive production background with NPR. Having been a past guest at our Dialogue ‘On Storytelling’, we sat down with Nikki to get her thoughts on the future of radio, life on a commune, and work with collaboration partner, Davia Nelson.
NPR RADIO PRODUCER & STORYTELLER, NIKKI SILVA
Rimma Boshernitsan: How did you grow up?
Nikki Silva: I grew up in Oakland. I’m an only child, but I come from a big, extended Portuguese family with lots of cousins. My grandmother came over when she was twelve and by the time she was twenty, had five kids. She was married off to a man who worked in the shipyards. It was kind of rough and tumble. I don’t know how she got the nerves, but she just kind of picked up and walked out with her five kids.
She got a job at Mother’s Cookies. I remember always having dish towels, growing up, that were made out of flour sacks from my grandmother’s work. She re-married and I used to go over there every day after school. It was a tight-knit, emotionally complicated type of family, but that’s how I grew up. I was the first to go to college.
My mom was a great influence on me - she was a great storyteller. She could type a hundred words a minute without a mistake. She would tell stories and keep me on the edge of my seat with the skeletons in the closet and the goings-on in the neighborhood.
RB: How did NPR discover you?
NS: Davia Nelson and I were doing a live radio show on a small community radio station, KUSP in Santa Cruz - it was very eclectic. We played old jazz and had live interviews with filmmakers and authors that were coming through town. We would come back with 30 hours of tape from these oral histories and quickly we realized that nobody was going to listen to 30 hours of tape. We taught ourselves how to cut quarter-inch reel to reel audio tape with a razor blade and Scotch tape. Nobody at the station where we were volunteering was doing that kind of work, but we figured it out and cut things down to ten minutes.
One of our friends said, “You should really send this over to NPR.” We had never heard of NPR. Because NPR was only about ten years old and not being broadcast in our area, neither of us had ever listened to it. Somebody sent in a tape we did about the Road Ranger. One day, Alex Chadwick calls and says, “Hi, I’m from NPR.” and we said, “Oh, yeah sure.”
He said they loved the work we were doing but asked what equipment we were using, because the sound quality was pretty rough. That was the beginning. They played our piece on Morning Edition, and they encouraged us to get some training to improve our skills. We were pretty much self-taught, but that experience upped our game a lot.
It was a great time for NPR - they were trying to figure out who they were. They were taking a lot of chances on independent producers.
RB: How would you say you impacted storytelling and these long-form documentary style interviews?
NS: We were just making it up as we went - it just felt right, sounded right. We knew Jay Allison, Ira Glass, Joe Richmond, Dave Isay and all that first wave. At that point it was so new and it was an open field. Everyone was influencing everyone else. We were women - women on NPR were really breaking ground in news. As far as independents, there weren’t that many women. There were a few, but because there were two of us, it was a novelty, and we were collaborators. I think that influenced a lot of younger women who found that partnership possibility in their own lives.
RB: What feels different about your work?
NS: When you look at formal oral history - we’re not very formal. We definitely have a plan going in, but we’re willing to go all over the map. We do really long interviews which makes it a lot of work in terms of transcription.
RB: How did you meet Davia?
NS: We met in Santa Cruz. We both went to UCSC but never met while we were in school. After college, I got a job working at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History doing exhibits about local history and art - oral history without a microphone. Davia was interested in doing oral history with a microphone. She was very into radio and audio ever since she was in high school. She had done radio at the college station at UCSC. And she was doing a live weekly show on KUSP Santa Cruz. We were both doing the same kind of work but in different mediums. People started telling us about each other.
We met at the museum one summer afternoon. We sat on the porch from about 2 pm until sunset. We just sort of “fell in love”, talking about all the things we wanted to do and about everything in life. It was an instant friendship. We started going out on oral history expeditions and I started doing the weekly show with her, and things evolved.
RB: How is it working together? What is that dynamic like?
NS: It’s just better. It’s hard. It’s like a marriage, like any relationship. You have to pay attention and work on it. We both have strong ideas and personalities, but they complement each other. Ultimately we are both very good at what we do, and we do things by ourselves as well. But when we work together there’s something more -- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We are each bringing our own sensibilities to it. One of us will love a certain line or character or story and say, “Over my dead body, this has got to be in this piece!” Then we’ll argue it, try to convince each other. In the end, we often switch positions. This is an interesting editorial process. I think it makes our work deeper, richer, broader, with the two of us bringing our sensibilities to it.
We live two hours apart now, so we text constantly or pick up the phone. It is different from the early days of being in the same room with one another for 24 hours a day and cutting tape together shoulder to shoulder. That’s very different now. But there’s still a lot of that feel. We know what each other thinks. Anticipate how the other will react. It’s like having another conscience hovering over your work.
RB: What did the trajectory of your projects look like over the years?
NS: In 1998, Davia was on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, and people were gearing up for the millennium with all these projects. She later came back and said -- maybe we should do a project about 100 years of recorded sound. We always used archival sound in our stories -- early news broadcasts, old home recordings made on 78 records. People were making home made records and sending them back and forth overseas during World War II. In one, a woman made a home recording in her kitchen and sent it to her husband overseas. It was so revealing -- it captured the language, the feel, the pathos, the pause, the heart, and the emotion of things. It wasn’t a written thing. It wasn’t a letter. It was the sound of the voice and it had so much impact.
We wrote a grant and suddenly NPR wanted to do it, ten stories at the turn of the century. Then NPR decided they wanted to do it weekly! We ended up doing a big national collaboration with producers around the country and it was a moment of going from analog to digital. It was a frightening moment where we had to teach ourselves new technology. At that same time, I had had breast cancer, was going through chemotherapy, and had two kids at home. It was a life-changing moment. We went for it and that began Lost and Found Sound, which led to the Sonic Memorial Project for 9/11. We went on to the Hidden Kitchens project, which was about bringing together communities through food, then Hidden World of Girls, The Making of, our podcast Fugitive Waves, and it goes on.
RB: How did you decide to live on a commune? What’s that community like?
NS: Charles, my husband, was the head of the museum where I worked [laughs]. He hired me and we were really great friends. I went away for a fellowship to NY and was gone for a year. When I came back, he was separating from his wife at the time, and then we fell in love and got involved. I met Davia around that time -- it was time of real change. We were all living together at some point, and Davia and her boyfriend were looking at properties with some of their friends. At that time, nobody could afford to buy property on their own, so we looked at what we could do together.
The thing that has kept it all together all these years is that we eat together every night. Every night one person cooks. Tonight, I’ll go shop for my stuff and cook, Charles will help me. We’ll do all the dishes and clean up. Everyone has Friday nights off.
We sit down at the dinner table, and we may fight, but then we have to come back to the table together the next night because we don’t have kitchens in the individual little houses. We all have to eat, so we are forced into the big house and forced to deal with it.
We get people from all over who want to come and see this place and get ideas for doing it on their own. They want the blueprints, but it has to evolve. And that means time and energy spent and experimentation on the part of the individuals. You can take hints and ideas from this place, but so much of it is investing with each other like in any relationship. That’s what’s going to make it work.
RB: What do you think is better, cooking together or eating together?
NS: We do a lot of cooking because there are so many of us. We have huge Thanksgivings and Christmases. Every weekend someone has some friends over, and during those times people pitch in and help cook. The way the kitchen is designed, is that it is in the center of the main house so even if you’re just visiting, you’re there in the kitchen, you’re there when everyone is cooking.
Cooking together is great, but that is pretty tough to do every night of the week. Knowing there is a meal there every night has allowed me so much latitude in my life and career and knowing that for my kids, there is another mom here.
Cooking and eating together are kind of the same thing because even if it is not your night to cook, you can just come in and sit down around 7 o’clock. There’s no cleanup - you can do whatever you want. We’re all incredibly dependent on each other.
RB: What are you excited about right now?
NS: This is a fascinating time, what is going on with technology and radio. The whole podcasting world is very interesting. It’s a lot like when we started. The readiness to experiment, the ability to push the boundaries of subject matter and time, as well as how we are supporting ourselves because we’ve been so dependent on grants.
Ten years ago, when we were teaching at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, I didn’t know what to say to all these excited young people about the prospects and the potential of being involved in audio or documentary storytellings. Now I feel like it is such a game-changing moment with all that’s happening. All the tools are so accessible and the platforms for storytelling are exploding.
When we started with NPR it was 22 minutes - that was our time on. All Things Considered. Now, we are fighting for six and a half minutes when you take into account intros. Getting our stories down to six and a half minutes is often so limiting, but with a podcast, we can bust them out! Do other things, talk our way through, and mess around. We can go off on a tangent, which we used to do on our live shows, two hours a week, we would play music and interview people. It was very free-form. I like that, I like that potential. I like staying on as many platforms as possible and pushing things out in different ways. That’s really exciting.
RB: What’s next for you?
NS: We are doing more live performances, and that to me is scary but good - it keeps me on edge! That’s been fun, keeping us involved in new communities of younger people. I like teaching -- I assume we will be doing more of that. There’s lots going on, and the family and commune keep me busy. We are working on another book. I like writing but I hardly have any time for that.
And I’m interested in community radio -- helping to redefine its potential for our communities in the 21st century. There is a real place for community radio, it just needs to be re-imagined like libraries are currently being re-imagined. We need to figure out what the role of community radio is, because everyone is going to be able to access everything online. The need for a radio station in the old sense is just changing, and I want to help redefine that.