Listening is an Act of Power

Sandhya Dirks

'We first came across the reporter Sandhya Dirk’s work through an electrifying lecture she gave with the audio-maker Chenjerai Kumanyika at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2018 - ‘All Stories Are Stories About Power’. Sandhya works as the race, equity and justice reporter at KQED, a public radio station in San Francisco, and we wanted to know how she was reflecting on the power dynamics in the audio industry in 2020. This year has shut down many traditional modes of working and offered a reckoning — of sorts — in this industry on who is shaping the stories we tell. But who has to talk and who gets to listen?'

We are listeners, those of us who make audio stories. We are hunter-gatherers for sound. We gather voices, like beach glass or bleached bones, that carry some magical combination of story and life. Voices that — in the act of capturing them — we preserve and make precious somehow, packaging them, sharing them.

At least that’s the tale I told myself, believing there was something alchemical in pressing a microphone to a person’s face, staring them in the eye and asking them to bare their skin.

To capture a voice, a story, a moment, is a deeply colonial act. The word 'capture' itself implies submission and imprisonment. It suggests taking something from where it lives — inside the messy complexity of an ever-changing person — and displacing it and confining it, putting it into the taxonomy of storytelling, kidnapping it into the narrative.

This is the knife’s edge of all narratives, to walk the thin line between taking a story and telling one.

I remember the first time I felt the magic of an interview, of capturing what felt like the real at the center of another person’s story. I had only met Talice in the moments before I switched on the recorder. I was reporting on the high drop-out rate in Oakland public high schools, looking for students who were on the cusp of leaving, and a teacher told me I should talk to Talice.

'Do you mind talking to me,' I asked.

'Okay,' she said, as I sat down on the stairs of the school hallway while she leaned her tiny frame against a wall. And it came out of her: the mother with a crack habit who would steal from her, having to put a lock on the door to her room, the good grades now slipping because she was working two jobs to keep the lights on at home.

I held the microphone up, even as my arm shook. I stared into her eyes. She was so tired, she said. She cried. And then I cried.

'I’ve never told anybody all this before,' Talice said.

For a long time I thought something had happened in that moment that had allowed me to bottle magic within the confines of my recording device. Something honest, something real.

But now I wonder if something else, invisible, was happening in those moments instead: was my recording device a kind of cage that I was trapping Talice in? Was I stealing her voice? Mining her for her story?

There’s an old adage that has whispered to many of us in audio storytelling: listening is an act of love.

It’s a beautiful — and tempting — idea. The sentiment that truly listening to someone is an act of compassion and care. Of being present in someone else’s stream of speech. Of centering that other person; their language, their story, their lived experience.

But it’s also a bit too tidy — and noble — a concept. It erases the fact that extraction is inherent in the act of interviewing. To see it as love, as a solely benevolent force, serves to erase a power dynamic that exists when one person, quite literally, holds the recording device in their hands.

Listening can be — at its best perhaps — an attempt at love. But listening is also an act of power.

This summer, something broke open in the public media system in America. It was sparked by the explosion that happened when Covid-19 collided with the crisis of police violence. It was as if there were two pandemics, different in form and function, but both revealing the same truth, both exposing the plain fact and the long stain of systemic racism.

Nothing that surfaced was new, not for the country nor for public media: the overwhelmingly white leadership, the racist, dismissive or abusive treatment of Black journalists, Indigenous journalists, Latino journalists, Asian journalists, queer and trans journalists — had been there all along.

What was different this summer was that the things we had whispered to each other — the open secrets — were suddenly being said out loud, in some cases and places too loudly to ignore.

I work for a large, legacy public media station in California and so, in a summer referred to as 'the reckoning,' I banded together with a group of other journalists of colour to take our concerns to our station’s senior leadership. We wanted to speak out loud about how white supremacy and a solipsistic subservience to the status quo played out in our newsroom and in our news.

We prepared this whole presentation, replete with suggestions and even demands. Part of the work was compiling some of our painful experiences. Everything from instances of being confused for another journalist of colour by a powerful white man to being told to center whiteness in our stories — having ourselves and our wisdom edited out and cut away.

In order to ask for change we had to perform our pain. We wanted to say, 'here are the structural things that are wrong' — but to make it clear how they were wrong and harmful we had to show the scars, which also meant the risk of re-opening the wounds.

They, this powerful group of station leaders, listened to us. They listened through the Zoom windows and computer speakers that now square off our lives.

You could hear the quiet as they listened, as we tried to translate, unsure even if they understood, unsure if the words we said out loud meant the same things to them as they did to us.

Listening is an act of power, I remember thinking. What we say matters only as much as they can hear it, only matters as much as they are able — as much as they choose to — understand.

What incredible power it is to hold the cards. What incredible power lies in the silence you control while someone else speaks their suffering.

They had the power to do something or to do nothing. Our only power came from sharing our pain. The dynamic was too familiar. Wasn’t this what happened when I held the microphone, pushed it up to someone’s mouth and asked them to tell me their story?

Wasn’t this what happened with Talice?

I took Talice’s voice and her story out of that hallway, carried it away, disembodied in my small black box, and wove it into something on the radio. It was woefully incomplete and reductive. I used her own voice to flatten her into a ready-made cliche.

After the story aired, Talice and I got to know each other. As we became close I heard the full spectrum of her voice. I heard her speak with deep wisdom as an expert in her lived experience. I listened to her cry about her mom, and heard her fall apart in fits of laughter. A captured voice will always be a half-thing, broken off and torn up to fit into a pre-made picture.

Sometimes we talk about cutting off pieces of ourselves to fit into white spaces and systems of power, but what do we cut off from the people whose narratives we take, to fit them into stories?

Listening is an act of immense power. And it can be magic, but it can also be vicious and dangerous if we do not recognize that power is never the same as love.

How do we listen beyond the narrative that locks people in? How do we acknowledge our power to let people live out loud beyond the captured voice, in the full-throated body of their lives?

What we are doing is not giving voice to the voiceless — no one is voiceless. What we are doing is possible because we are in a position of systemic and narrative power. We literally control the narrative when we ask for someone to share their story.

So I think about what it means to listen, to really listen.

Can we learn to listen to how power works? Can we hear power between people and systems like the buzzing of literal power lines? The way it sounds as it courses from one to another, our ears focusing on which direction it flows. Who has the power and what does that mean and how do we change that and what does it sound like?

I think about the practice of narrative reparations. What could — what would — narrative reparations sound like? I close my eyes, and I try to relearn to listen for the first time.

Sandhya Dirks

Sandhya Dirks is a race, equity and justice reporter at KQED Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the host and reporter of the podcast American Suburb, about the transformation of suburbia from white space to the most diverse geographic place in American life. She helped create the show Truth Be Told, an advice podcast for and by people of colour. Currently she is working on an investigative podcast about what really happens when police abuse their power. She believes in telling stories about systems, and that all stories are stories about power.