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NPR reporter tells Bethel audience of putting stories on air and page

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For Jacki Lyden, the narrative line is the bottom line.

The long-time international correspondent and current substitute program host (these days on “Weekend All Things Considered”) for National Public Radio was in south central Kansas for several speaking engagements April 14, including at Bethel College and at Prairie View, a Mennonite-affiliated mental health center.

As she opened her presentation, Lyden noted that she is a graduate of Valparaiso (Ind.) University, like Bethel a faith-based college and “the first place I ever got to study Islam, or other religions and religious stories.

“There are many tales,” she said, “but never any greater than that of my mother becoming other people, including legendary women such as the Queen of Sheba.”

Prairie View brought Lyden to south central Kansas mainly to talk about her 1997 memoir Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, in which Lyden recounts growing up in a small city in Wisconsin with a mother, Dolores, whose severe mental illness would be diagnosed as bipolar affective disorder decades later.

For Lyden and her two sisters, Kate and Sarah, “[our mother’s] madness was our narrative line, our family text.”

Lyden began telling stories as a radio journalist long before she narrowed in on her own story. However, looking back, she noted that even in the beginning there was intersection.

Lyden went live on radio for the very first time in her life in 1979 on WKXQ in Chicago – right after learning Dolores had faked her own death and disappeared. Lyden did the two-hour show, “fantasizing that my mother could hear me,” before rushing home to Wisconsin. Dolores was later found unharmed.

One of the reasons she wrote Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, she said, was “so I could put my mother on the page where she couldn’t get away from me. I didn’t want to lose my history.”

Lyden began working with NPR in Chicago in 1979, becoming one of the network’s first reporters stationed outside of Washington, D.C., and joining Scott Simon in the newly opened Chicago bureau. A decade later, she became NPR’s London correspondent. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was the first NPR reporter on the air from New York by virtue of happening to be at home in Brooklyn. However, she has spent the most time reporting from the Middle East – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

“I have found radio to be a warm medium and a forum for telling the kind of stories I wanted to tell,” she said. In particular, “I got interested in the Iraqi civilians I met, their stories, their history, their experiences with Saddam Hussein. I was finding Iraqi civilians with huge personal stories – stories that had been silenced.”

Lyden has followed in-depth stories such as that of an Iraqi family now in Detroit whose lives revolve around one of their sons, in a vegetative state after being shot by an American soldier, and that of her former translator, Dr. Yasser Salihee, killed in Baghdad in 2005 by another American soldier. Lyden later met and became friends with Joe Romero, the troubled soldier from Louisiana.

“It’s been difficult to get the American public to care about these stories,” she said. “The war has been going on for so long, and now it’s in two countries [Iraq and Afghanistan], plus there is Pakistan, plus things are rough here [economically]. The challenge is to find the human connection, a dimension where there is not so much distance between you and the subject.

“I’m looking for ways to make an audience connect with those whom we think of as being ‘so other,’” she said. “We all have our own personal agendas and I just told you mine.”

Lyden has been working for several years on a book of stories from her Middle East reporting, like the ones she outlined in her Bethel talk, scheduled to be published this year.

“I’m interested in these stories because I think there isn’t enough of [this kind of storytelling],” she said. “The news is becoming faster, more disjointed – blogs, fragments.”

She pointed to the stained glass windows in Bethel’s Administration Building chapel where she was speaking. “These windows form an entire composition of illumination, which is what all you journalism students will eventually want to do with all the fragments.”

Responding to questions from the audience, Lyden talked about the challenges facing “conventional” media such as newspapers and radio. “I’m someone who feels like I helped build a network [NPR],” she said. “There have been devastating losses” in terms of cancelled programming and laid-off personnel at the network, while the “digitally supported presence” continues to expand.

“Storytelling will survive,” she said, “but we’re at an interesting moment when we’re not sure who the storytellers will be. It’s an exciting time, but it’s baffling.”

However, in the end, she said, “I think conventions may change, but the desire to hear and share stories won’t.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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