By Sam Stone
It’s just one week after Ibby Caputo’s radio documentary proposal A Perfect Match was selected as the winner of this year’s Radio & Audio Funding Award (RAFA) and Ibby is back in the US. She’s had a whirlwind trip: pitching in London, flying to Germany to work on A Perfect Match and then travelling to Boston for more interviews. I called Ibby to talk about how the £7,000 award from The Whickers will help her produce her winning audio documentary, a story about ethnic disparities in bone marrow donor registries.
Sam Stone: Congratulations on winning the Radio & Audio Funding Award with your project A Perfect Match. How was your experience of pitching?
Ibby Caputo: It was really good! I was a zombie the day before because I hadn’t slept a lot and I’d been teaching for a week or two. I just wanted to do a good job. I didn’t want it to feel like I didn’t do a good job… And now I’ve seen the video of it and I thought, ‘Oh, I did do a good job’.
How did you find out about the RAFA in the first place?
I learnt about it at the HearSay Festival in Ireland. At this last HearSay, Eleanor McDowall suggested that I apply. I think I was already looking into it, because it’s going to be an expensive documentary to produce, and there aren’t so many outlets that will shell out that kind of money for a freelancer.
After the RAFA Pitch in London you flew to Germany to start working on your documentary. How was that?
I had this amazing fixer, The Washington Post correspondent for Berlin, and she came with me to Rottenberg where my bone marrow is from. Then the next day I went to Tübingen to interview an expert at DKMS, which is the biggest bone marrow donor organisation in Germany. They have a pretty big presence worldwide as well. I learned a lot and also connected with a journalist in Tübingen who showed me around. Tübingen is a village in Germany that wasn’t bombed during World War Two.
Was it somewhat surreal to visit a place that you’d never been to but that a part of your body had?
Yes. It was like visiting where my ancestors come from, only it wasn’t my ancestors, it was my immune system and blood. The whole thing was like a dream: presenting at The Whickers, winning the RAFA, being flown to London and hopping over to Germany. It’s as if I haven’t woken up yet.
In the judges’ Q&A session following your pitch, you mentioned that you want to talk with someone who is currently going through the process of trying to find a match for a bone marrow transplant. Why do you feel that is important and how would that help tell the story?
Well, I had my bone marrow transplant twelve years ago. There’s no way to pinpoint and say why any one person lives or any one person dies. But the problem of people not being able to find a match is a real one, and that’s the problem that I want to address in this documentary. My own personal story and my friendship with Terika is what inspired me, but the story is about the people who right now can’t find a match. As I said in the Q&A, I don’t think that is separate from our story. I know intimately what it’s like to be ill and when I hear about someone who doesn’t have a match, I hurt for that person in such a visceral way. So the story needs to be told, even though I don’t think there’s a simple answer as to why the disparities in the registry exist.
When did you decide that this was a story that you wanted to share publicly?
About a year after my friend died, I was sitting with a group of journalists and documentarians. It was on the day after the first anniversary of her death and I was thinking about her and I started talking about her. Then it sort of emerged that there’s this story that needs telling.
What are some of the positive and negative aspects of producing such a personal story? It’s an important story that needs telling, but it must be quite emotionally exhausting too.
I studied creative writing for many semesters with one professor. I remember one time I was writing something – and this may even have been after college – and I was crying while writing it. I called her and said, ‘I’m crying while writing, this is not good’. And she said, ‘No, that means you’re getting at the good stuff’. So for me, I am no stranger to intensity. That’s just how my life has been. And it’s a story I can tell. So why would I not tell it? If there’s a chance to help others through telling the story but I’ve got to deal with some emotions while telling it, well, that’s okay. It’s worth it.
How did you get started in journalism and when did you become interested in making audio documentaries?
After college I moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, basically on a whim. I was writing the great American novel, but that didn’t turn out well, and while I was working on it Hurricane Katrina happened. After Hurricane Katrina, I started working with some kids on a photojournalism project in the Tremé, and there was this boat that was filled with trash in their neighbourhood. Mardi Gras had already happened and the French Quarter was cleaned and the business district was cleaned. And yet in the Tremé, there was this boat still filled with trash for months and months and months. So I wrote a letter to the Editor of the Times-Picayune. This was a time when letters to the editor were published in an actual newspaper. The next day the boat was removed and I thought ‘Wow, I should be doing this.’ So that’s what got me into journalism. Also when I was in New Orleans, I started listening to public radio. I heard a story on This American Life by Nancy Updike about Nasser Laham, a Palestinian TV journalist, who every night would translate the Israeli news into Arabic. It was such an incredible portrait of this man. That’s when I realised, audio storytelling – it’s like magic.
Are there any other audio documentaries that have inspired you, or any producers whose work you particularly like?
I like pretty much everything WBEZ does. I love Short Cuts, Eleanor McDowall is of course a genius. Cathy Fitzgerald, Rikke Houd. And on my side of the pond there’s so much going on. I’m a big fan of Shankar Vedantan’s Hidden Brain. I binge-listened to Slow Burn. Julia Barton’s Spacebridge was a lot of fun. I also get a lot of inspiration from going to HearSay. I would say in the last few years, my mind has been opened the most by the HearSay Festival and by the producers I meet there.
Finally, I was wondering when you’re planning on releasing A Perfect Match and what intentions you have for the final piece?
It needs to be released by the time of next year’s Whickers audio awards, so I’m aiming for that. My intention is to benefit as many people as possible and to honour my friend. That’s the most important thing.
I’m really excited to hear it. Your pitch made me think about how donating blood is always on my to-do list but I haven’t really prioritised it yet. But actually, I think I really should start.
I try to encourage people to give blood all the time, because it’s so easy to save a life. When I was sick, they actually had to ration me blood, because I had a rarer type and there are often shortages. So the doctors would tell me I needed two bags of blood, but that they could only give me one. So, yeah, that’s awesome. Thank you for telling me.
UK residents can find out more about donating blood at www.blood.co.uk and about becoming a bone marrow donor at https://www.nhsbt.nhs.uk/british-bone-marrow-registry/ and https://www.anthonynolan.org/8-ways-you-could-save-life/donate-your-stem-cells