Interview: Live Wire, Lifeblood: Radio Journalist Tania Ketenjian Enlightens and Nourishes, One Interview at a Time
Live Wire, Lifeblood: Radio Journalist Tania Ketenjian Enlightens and Nourishes, One Interview at a Time
An Interview with Tania Ketenjian by Lucine Kasbarian
Appearing in Art Threat: The Magazine of Culture and Politics; ArmenianArt.am; and the Armenian Weekly
Raised in San Francisco by Lebanese-Armenian parents, Tania’s entry into radio was not immediate. She moved east to study poetry and creative writing at Bard College in New York, and later moved to New York City, where she lived for five years, first designing and editing for Seven Stories Press — a radical and independent book publisher. Her genuine interest in people and inherent curiosity about the world led her to interview authors and artists for City in Exile — a local arts program on listener-sponsored WBAI Radio in NYC. Working at WBAI cemented her appetite for radio. And yet, with such deep ties to family, Tania heeded her mother’s call to return home to San Francisco, where Tania now lives with her husband Philip Wood, a British furniture designer and curator and manufacturer of conceptual art and design objects.
Today, Tania’s radio work takes many forms: As an independent journalist and producer, her segments can be heard on “Studio 360,” a quirky arts program nationally syndicated through Public Radio International; on the popular and nationally syndicated “Weekend America” on American Public Media; and on National Public Radio’s “Day to Day.” Tania also hosts and produces a weekly arts program called “Sight Unseen” that airs on KALX in Berkeley, California, and on Resonance FM in London, England. The program asks interviewees and listeners to consider how the ideas put forth affect the way we view the world and ourselves. In addition, she is the West Coast Correspondent for “WPS1 Art Radio”—established by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the world’s first Internet art station. Her programs also air on stations abroad such as ABC in Australia, BBC in England, and CBC in Canada.
If this were not enough, Tania is also the co-executive producer of Thin Air Media, an independently run company producing audio documentaries. Yet still, Tania teaches audio production at the California College of the Arts, and also participates in a San Francisco-based artist’s collective called Quorum. Much like French journalist Bernard Pivot’s Proustian “Ten Questions,” Tania asks us to consider questions about our common existence—as a participatory exercise, a starting point of unity, and a springboard for dialogue. Most recently at an open studios event in which her studio participated, she asked those gathered to discuss their first encounter with art. Though Tania does not consider herself a sound artist, her work defines her as a portraitist of a different sort. Tania once produced a program about the love affair between visionary opposites, portrait and landscape photographer Edward Weston and radical activist-photographer Tina Modotti. Tania’s own contributions to radio and society seem to embody both aspects of their natures.
On one hand and like the aesthetically inclined Weston, Tania explores what life, beauty and essence means to herself and to others through the subjects she spotlights. On the other hand, and like the politically motivated Modotti, Tania’s work causes us to think about how art manifests in social movements, compels us to question and find meaning in everything, and then act upon those impulses. Perhaps the most compelling and precise of all descriptions of Tania came from her former employer, Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press, when he called her “hemoglobin,” the protein in the human body that transports oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, and carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs. What hemoglobin does for oxygen and those who subsist by it is what Tania does for (radio) air and those who are nourished by it. Indeed, Tania the conduit is as vital a substance as the life-giving content she transports.
Most recently, Tania and radio partner Ahri Golden, both executive producers of Thin Air Media, completed a documentary called BIRTH, a one-hour public radio and audio journey through the practices and perceptions of birth in this country. BIRTH’s intention is to ask, “What is the birth experience in America today, and how does it reflect on our culture?” A companion project in progress, called THE BIRTH TOUR, is a series of national events that gather people to talk about birth. Could it be any more fitting that the woman described as a life-sustaining agent should labor to produce a documentary about the life-giving process itself?
In a telephone interview, Tania Ketenjian discussed her work, her ideas, and her Armenian identity.
Lucine Kasbarian: It is an honor to speak with you, Tania. Thank you for doing what you do, and in the way that you do it. Would you explain why you do what you do, and how you feel it affects the world around you?
Tania Ketenjian: Thank you for asking me these questions. I’m so used to being the questioner, it’s exciting to be on the receiving end and think about and discuss these things. As a journalist, I seek to shed light on the fundamental truths of human experience. To do this, I most often choose to feature art-makers as a force for change because the creation of art is such a private process, and yet it is something that is publicly displayed. This contradiction is fascinating, and I enjoy the intersection of the two.
What I love about art is that something so personal is left to the eyes and perceptions of the outside world. With the people I interview, I try to dig deeper, beyond the art, and try to see what their work reflects about human nature, tendencies, needs, fears. How are these artists challenged by their work and changed by it? How are they finding and expressing love or politics through it? Life can be difficult and being a professional artist is a huge challenge. One must be so committed to become an artist, and unfortunately it’s rare to come across people who are passionate about what they do. In this way, I can come across those people every day. This work inspires me because I get to be around those who are inspired, who are committed to doing what they believe in and who want to make some sort of change, a shift in people’s awareness, an interrupt. Seeing them makes me want to do the same. And I love people. Just hearing their words and their insights confirms my belief in the magic of life. I feel blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to do this. I couldn’t without the support of my extended family and the opportunities they’ve given me in life. They sacrificed so that I could have a chance.
I also do this because I feel a lot of people don’t get heard. I try to interview those who aren’t normally brought on the air. These are people with beautiful, interesting, powerful things to say. Paradoxical as it may sound, radio interviews give them the opportunity to be “seen”—and appreciated for what they do. If I didn’t become a radio journalist, I think I would have become a therapist. It’s amazing how much can happen when you are silent. My Grandpa used to always encourage me to do this, to truly listen. When someone is being listened to, it’s amazing what will come out of him or her. In that process, the interviewees have a chance to learn about themselves, their work, and the change they make in their communities and environment.
LK: How have your personal politics and views of the world influenced the stories you’ve sought to cover? You feature Armenian artists now and then, and the ones you choose appear to be fully in line with your work, which highlights the seemingly offbeat things that marginalized people can do. How does your Armenianness affect the stories you cover, and under what circumstances do you feature Armenians on the air?
TK: It’s inevitable that one interjects his or her views, interests, and personal experiences into what they’re attracted to—consciously or unconsciously. The issues that appeal to me often revolve around a sense of place. I have interviewed a variety of artists that deal with this—the filmmaker Wim Wenders, Atom Egoyan, artists living in Cuba, and of course lesser-known names. Sometimes the names we haven’t heard as often are more original. They aren’t used to being interviewed, so their answers are unique. Perhaps I gravitate to these people because of my own background and culture, as well as my own nature. I have great reverence for family and people that came here not knowing anything about the culture or language, and yet integrated in a way that allowed them to be prosperous. The struggle of being an outsider and yet integrating the self with a new identity and how these lines cross interests me. I can’t deny my respect for family, familial closeness, and the collective Armenian sense of determination. We Armenians are a passionate people. This respect carries over into an interest I have for all sorts of cultures. Though I was not forced out of my native land as others were, Atom Egoyan, in his films Ararat and Calendar, discusses what people adopt, even if they didn’t experience certain things personally. Understanding a sense of place allows one to gain a better understanding of themselves and why they make certain choices, and hopefully sets the groundwork for a clearer future. This idea is particularly strong with the Armenians, especially in our Diasporan culture. These aspects, and a natural curiosity, are all parts of being a journalist.
This is how my Armenian identity shows itself in my work. And inevitably, my Armenianness does affect the stories I choose to cover because it’s part of who I am. I am interested in language and history, in obligation and choice, in conforming and not conforming, and so much of this comes up in Armenian culture. Because Armenians have had to remain united, they have had to stick to traditions. It’s important to question those traditions, and artists are often doing that. They are in a constant process of questioning. It’s that process that is of value, not so much the answers you come up with. I recently became a reporter for “The Armenian Reporter” newspaper, and I am now immersed in the ways Armenians are exploring identity and history. This gives me yet another avenue in which to express what I encounter among the Armenians.
LK: What is it about the Armenian culture that makes you feel you grew up with a strong Armenian identity?
TK: First and foremost, the language. And it’s not just the spoken word and how that is different from English, but its intonations and even idiomatic phrases that have affected me. I become another person when I speak a different language, at least another part of who I am already. I think that’s very true about those who speak several languages, it calls upon a different voice, way of thinking, connection. There are so many small things that are reminders—it’s all-pervasive in a strangely innocuous way. Phone calls from Lebanon were a staple as I was growing up. Picking up my grandparents from the international arrivals section of the airport was always an interesting experience. Smells, food, and of course, certain codes of manners and politeness we practiced, right down to how we’d stand by the curb when company drove away, or how my Mom opened her eyes wide when I’d say something inappropriate. But having said all this, I didn’t grow up going to church or belonging to Armenian organizations. I can’t make sweeping generalizations, but Armenians can have a particular way of viewing the world and notions about how one should be. It’s like I was saying before, it’s one of the perils of tradition. We are expected to choose practical professions and remain bonded to family and sometimes this can be difficult for Armenians, and for Armenian creatives, in particular. I find that a lot of Armenians can feel alienated because of the choices they’ve made in their lives. There’s a warmth and a joviality that I find in Armenian culture and at the same time there’s a slight rigidity and that can easily be eradicated. It’s about sharing ideas and coming together in an authentic way that simultaneously speaks to both one’s Armenian identity and personal endeavor. My Armenianess is a contradiction, I hold true to certain values but in some ways I have picked an unconventional profession. However, the values that I have make that profession possible. I think that’s often overlooked in Armenian culture, image becomes more important than intention. That’s something that I think we can be more aware of.
LK: Regarding how Armenian creatives can feel like outsiders or outcasts within our Diasporan communities for holding unconventional views or lifestyles, how might the Armenian community better embrace or welcome Armenian creatives? Is there a way for such marginalization to be turned into an asset?
TK: Firstly, most people in the world feel marginalized. They do not feel connected or represented, and that’s why people join groups or create clear identities for themselves, so that they can feel less alone. The good thing about being slightly alienated is that it offers you a chance to observe and expose things in a way that you couldn’t if you were on the inside. Marginalization allows you to see in a deeper way. You are already marginalized, so what have you got to lose? Artists are often marginalized so through their work they can be blunt and take risks. Hopefully a marginalized person’s attitudes, views and beliefs will resonate with others, and then like-minded people can meet, join in, create community and grow together. Also, when you are marginalized, you have to understand yourself better because the environment that you exist in does not reflect back to you who you are. That level of self-awareness will hopefully increase the value of what you are putting out into the world in a conscious way. And being marginalized goes hand in hand with taking risks. And risk is a great way to accomplish your dreams.
Filmmaker Atom Egoyan holds values that may be considered traditionally Armenian and yet, in his work, he doesn’t hide the darker side of the human experience, whether it is about love, loss, passion, identity, falsehoods or truths. That’s risky and it’s real. The whole point of journalism is to communicate, connect, to talk about the things that most people don’t (even if they think it), and then to grow. That’s why communication is so important; it’s the greatest stepping-stone to change. These are some of the assets of marginalization but I think it can be very difficult for Armenian creatives. There are many misconceptions out there: [that] creatives are non-traditionals, not hard working, and maybe even not very moral, and all of these are inaccurate. What would be ideal would be for there to be a place or more places for Armenian creativity to shine, for Armenian creatives to come together, whether they are visual artists, musicians or filmmakers. They are out there, making documentaries, music, books, expressing themselves through and through. If these communities came together across America and the world for that matter, they could be stronger as one group and they could feel recognized and they could be heard. It is the change that happens when someone expresses what they believe in and then follows it through that is profound. Some of the most important people in history who have instigated change worked against the grain and it is those whom we remember now. So it’s important to value difference and to bring that to the surface so that we can learn from it.
LK: Why haven’t these sorts of groups formed, in your opinion?
TK: I think we often hope someone else will do it! And Armenians aren’t the only ones who have this tendency. Life gets busy. Organizing is time-consuming. Sometimes we doubt ourselves and we think, who will care. This sort of work and commitment needs to be a priority in life, and that’s an enormous investment. Armenians are inherently welcoming people and as a community, we want what’s best for our people. I think such artist cells or organizations, once formed, would thrive amongst our own.
LK: Speaking of journalists talking about elephants in the room, how serious are competitive jealousies among Armenians and Armenian creatives, and how can Armenians—creatives or not—cope with this?
TK: Competition is such an unhealthy characteristic, in my opinion, and I say this as a very competitive backgammon player! Sharing and learning, on the other hand, is a community act. It is better to learn from each other and help one another than to compete. I’ve learned a lot from my mother’s example on this point. She’s a strong Armenian woman, a lawyer, a professor, a writer, a broker and she’s not competitive at all! She has modeled for me that you can move forward in life and pursue your dreams from a place of passion and belief. She has shown me that accomplishment and competitiveness don’t have to go hand in hand. Her life has been about doing what’s better for someone else. Ultimately, we want to be inspired by the people around us. We all have something that we do better than others, just as others possess something they can do better than we do. In my opinion, the cure for competition is solidarity. We are all in this together. It’s not about each one for him- or herself. It’s about everything for the betterment of all—whether we’re talking family, community, or the world-at-large.
LK: Your website describes how institutions and individuals can purchase the “BIRTH” documentary and “BIRTH in the classroom,” a companion program that introduces students to the birthing process—from conception all the way to delivery. How can the Armenian community support you?
TK: Supporting “BIRTH in the Classroom” would be extraordinary. It’s unconventional, and I’d be curious to see how the Armenian community reacts to it. However, the kind of support from Armenians that I’d welcome would be their belief in me...that I could help represent them in a way that would make a positive impact in their lives and the lives of others. I would be nourished and touched by that. At the end of my career, I would be gratified if interviewees felt that their stories were told in a way they would want them to be told. When all is said and done, we journalists enter people’s homes and talk of things that have great meaning for them. I’m honored that these people place their trust in me and believe that their words won’t be manipulated. Journalism is a lot like psychology. We ask questions, we do lots of listening, we learn a lot about the personal lives of others. Time and again, the interviews strengthen my belief in humanity and that there are people out there supporting each other and hoping to make a change in their environment. So to support me, I’d say, “Approach me with your stories.” The best I can do is give people the opportunity to express themselves and to be a conduit for their stories to be told.
LK: How do you think art can be “political?”
TK: Art is an exchange between viewer and creator. Its effect is in that communication, and that communication is constantly evolving. So firstly, art can only be political when the observer is willing to look at a piece through that lens. Contemporary art has a huge political bent, almost at the risk of abnegating beauty. There can be value in this because it increases awareness, engages discussion and has the ultimate affect of changing perspective. At the same time, I find that work such as landscapes or fiction, seemingly more traditional work that doesn’t have an overt political statement, is sometimes the most political. It offers a moment of reflection, of quiet, of solitary experience between a work of art and yourself. That can be very political. It also depends on the definition of political and what political means for you. Art is a private expression in a very public sphere and that in and of itself is political. The most important thing however is to be authentic–regardless of your views and the exact way you choose to express them. As long as you're true to what you believe, then some message will come across.
LK: What would your dream assignment be?
TK: I could say interviewing the leading artists of the world, or being sent to an exotic location to cover a story, but that’s not the case. The quirky stories are my bread and butter, but the stories that touch on universal themes are my dream assignments. When I returned to California from New York, I took a three-month-long road trip and interviewed people along the way. At the time, there were lots of people complaining about not being happy, and psychoactive pharmaceutical drugs seemed to be manufacturing happiness in America. In light of this, I wanted to ask everyday people what the pursuit of happiness was all about. Was it about chasing a dream? Did they already have it? I asked people to name five things that made them happy, and what their definition of happiness was. I hoped this segment would allow interviewees and listeners to think about the question and their own notions of happiness. One woman said, “To see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.” As it turned out, this woman was expected to die of a fatal illness six months prior, but miraculously didn’t. Since then, every day for her has been a gift. Her outlook and reply put so much into perspective. But ultimately, it’s very difficult to say what a dream assignment would be. I don’t think I’ll recognize a dream assignment until it’s right in front of me. Sometimes you’re shooting for one story and some other magical thing happens from it. I have interviewed famous people, which would seem like a dream, and have been disappointed and then I have spoken to lay people who changed my way of seeing. Much like life, you never know what you’re going to find. So I could try and say what my dream assignment would be, but it is most likely inaccurate. Every assignment has the potential to be a dream assignment. It all depends on what you make of it.
LK: What are your plans for the future?
TK: There are lots of projects coming up in the future, but there’s one that I am really excited about. I just received a grant from an arts organization to produce an “audio quilt” that gathers stories about the Armenian Genocide. I encourage Armenians, whether they are genocide survivors or descendants, to contact me with their narratives. I would like to capture this fading history and explore the ways in which it affects where we are today.
To learn more about Tania Ketenjian and her work, visit www.radiotania.org and www.thinairmedia.org. She may be contacted at tania At radiotania DOT org
Lucine Kasbarian is an Armenian-American writer, editor, political cartoonist, and author of Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People (Simon & Schuster). She is also a contributor to The Armenian Weekly newspaper where this article first appeared. To learn more, visit: www.lucinekasbarian.com