Joe Richman practices narrative without narration. His production company, Radio Diaries, crafts public radio stories whose characters do all the talking. In the absence of a reporter’s voice, which normally serves as a guide through radio stories, listeners have to rely on interviews, field recordings, music, and historical newscasts. The Radio Diaries approach creates a serious constraint for nonfiction storytellers, but it also leads to surprising narrative innovations.
In 2011, when Richman interviewed an anti-coal mining activist named Jimmy Weekley, he realized that he had an additional challenge on his hands—telling a new story about an old conflict. In the story, Weekley lives around the corner from a mountaintop removal mine. He used to have neighbors, but they all took buyouts from the coal mining company. Weekley’s the last one left.
The story begins with a quiet moment on Weekley’s porch. There’s no action—just a simple introduction. “Right now, no one lives in this hollow except me,” Weekley says at the end of the opening scene. “Me. And the coal company.”
It’s a modest start, but it achieves two things. First, it sets up some basic facts: Weekley is 71, a lifelong resident of Pigeon Roost Hollow, and the last man on the mountain. Second, it establishes the mood of the piece. The listener hears wind chimes and a barking dog. Life here seems pretty lonely.
“You don’t want to tell too much at the beginning,” Richman says. “You just want to have enough that we feel like we get to know him.”
You might expect a story like this to focus on the challenges and triumphs of a grassroots campaign. It seems like a classic David and Goliath narrative: Man fights coal company, refuses a buyout, stubbornly stays in the home he built with his bare hands. But as Richman says: “That story has been told many times.”
In this case, by the time Richman visited Weekley with his contributing producer Samara Freemark, the campaign was long over. The coal company had hit an impasse, and Weekley’s life seemed static. His wife had died; there was hardly anyone left in the nearest town. “It became clear when we were there just how lonely he was,” says Richman.
The challenge was finding a plot for a story that hadn’t really made headlines for a dozen years. Richman knew there wouldn’t be active conflict in this story. What he didn’t expect was that after all these years, Weekley was questioning his decision to stay on the land he’d fought for and won. “He was legitimately thinking about it, and wondering, and second guessing,” Richman remembers. “Something was happening for him, in his head.”
Weekley’s uncertainty made him a complex character, and Richman had a few narrative tactics that helped the complexity show.
In the middle of the story, Weekley goes for a drive to buy cigarettes. “It’s kind of a terrible, lame idea for a scene,” says Richman. “But it’s all we had.” And this tiny mission leads listeners someplace important.
Weekley drives past abandoned houses and describes a neighbor who won’t talk to him anymore. Music plays on the car radio. Then Weekley reaches a local store, and there he bumps into a friend. “That man right there worked on the mountaintop removal,” Weekley announces. The two of them have an impromptu conversation about the impacts of coal and the meaning of Weekley’s activism.
“I love, love, love that moment,” says Richman. “You kind of keep following threads and hanging out and doing whatever, until you stumble on a little moment like that.”
Because Radio Diaries tells stories without a narrator, scenes like this are crucial. There’s no reporter to dramatize important moments or point out vivid details. (Radio Diaries relies heavily on archival tape, which Richman thinks of as “present-tense narration for history.”) In order for listeners to get to know a person like Weekley, they have to hear actual fragments of his everyday life.
“What really makes it kind of jump out of the speaker is when you hear something happening in front of you. And you’re experiencing it, along with the character,” Richman continues. “Those are the things that give me total joy as a producer and as a listener.”
Richman and Freemark spent the better part of four days hanging around with Weekley, hoping something would happen. Because this was a story about one man’s roots, Richman wanted to be in his home during a family visit. “Again, we were looking for anything to happen,” he says.
That’s how they found the emotional climax of the story. For most of the piece, Weekley comes across as a man who doesn’t quit. He rails against the coal mine and talks about growing up in Pigeon Roost Hollow. “We called it our mountain,” he says. But back at Weekley’s house, his granddaughter Alicia pays a visit, and a different side of him comes out.
This is the scene that captures the vulnerability and loneliness that Richman sensed in Weekley. In a story that lacks an obvious plot, it also manages to hint at a transformation. Early in the story, we hear how Weekley stubbornly tried to enlist his neighbors in the fight; now, we hear his granddaughter try to convince him to stay at Pigeon Roost Hollow.
“That really is the ending,” says Richman. “From there, we’re just looking for periods.”
There are a few kinds of punctuation in non-narrated radio stories. Music can guide our emotions and hint at narrative shifts. The sounds of everyday life can break up scenes and help a thought feel complete. And reflection, on the part of a character, can slow the story down and help the listener decide what it all means.
After the visit from Weekley’s granddaughter, the story uses two of these techniques in sequence. First, Weekley lights a cigarette and coughs. (It’s easy to miss the sound of the match, but his smoker’s cough echoes the earlier moment when Weekley went out to buy cigarettes.) These sounds last for maybe a second, but they achieve a lot. They hint at Weekley’s age and health, they create a transition between scenes, and they help us imagine Weekley sitting and smoking.
Second, Weekley reflects. He talks about places he’s never been—California, Paris, the Philippines. “It’s hard to get out of a place where you’ve lived all your life,” he says. These thoughts slow the story down. They help the previous scene, in which Weekley showed his vulnerability, properly sink in.
“That whole little monologue at the end is kind of just window-dressing, just to make it feel like a complete story,” says Richman. It’s a powerful moment, but its real function is to round out the emotional climax.
“Round” seems like the right word to describe the end of “Last Man on the Mountain.” The story concludes where it begins, with a man at home in West Virginia. The fight has ended and the dust has settled, and James Weekly is thinking about his mountain.
For more Radio Diaries stories, go to the Radio Diaries Podcast.”