I still remember where I was when I heard this story. It was night. I was driving alone—the best time to listen to the radio.
I was 23, in my first year in public media. I wrote local newscasts but harbored grand aspirations of audio storytelling, and this piece, “The Vietnam Tapes of Lance Corporal Michael A. Baronowski,” had it all: The distorted voice of a young man, recording himself in the Vietnam jungle in 1966. The sounds of nighttime and rain. The boredom and jokes. A harmonica in a foxhole. The nearby explosions—“Jesus! That’s too close.” The longing in Michael Baronowski’s voice for his family back home in Pennsylvania.
And, like me, this young man had radio aspirations. His friend, Corporal Tim Duffie who helps narrate the story, explains that Baronowski was trying to build a portfolio for when he came home to the U.S. Baronowski says of recording himself, “This is so much easier than writing. You get all the right voice inflections. And I can do it in the dark.”
Audio journalism, at its best, puts voices in your ears that not only inform you, but move you. Those voices are raw, unpracticed. Sometimes in radio newsrooms, we say, “Can we get some ‘real people’ in this story?” We may sound cynical, but the impulse is what drew me to public radio and has kept me there. We have the power to elevate the most normal thoughts and conversations to poetry. Lance Corporal Michael Baronowski is so alive in this story, even though he lost his life in Vietnam.
It takes hard work to make a story like this one. The producers likely listened to hours of tapes Baronowski sent home to Pennsylvania. They chose portions that told a story— tracing an arc from the banal waiting to the intensity of battle. This is where journalism meets art.