Dear Chicago


I’m really pleased that after a ton of work the Dear Chicago series launched on WBEZ last week. The radio pieces will continue to air over the next month on 848, our morning news magazine program, and in a slot in either Morning Edition or All Things Considered. It’s been a really intense experience to bring this series to air, and I’m lucky that I’m working with excellent editors and administrators like Shawn Allee and Breeze Richardson. I could not have made this project happen without them. And Shauna’s photos…the bomb! Just as I expected.  The whole series is indexed here.

Coming up next week: an artist who has struggled to find and keep affordable live/work studio space, and a woman who lost her sister to gun violence who hopes the new mayor will make strict gun control laws a priority.

Photo: Don Dubin, 72, lives in Lincolnwood, Illinois. He’s kept a life-long relationship with the Chicago Rive and is one of fifteen people I will profile in the Dear Chicago series. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

Yes, it has been a while. Mostly this is because I haven’t had much new stuff (i.e., content) to share recently. This summer I started in a new position at ‘BEZ, and since then I’ve been deep in the R&D phases of about 15 different projects and ideas. Which is exciting. Here are one or two things to look out for down the road:

Dear Chicago

I’m working on a series of portraits of Chicago residents pegged to our coverage of the upcoming Mayoral and municipal elections in February. I’ll profile about twenty people, each of whose personal story illustrates a problem city government should address. I spent most of last week doing phone interviews with potential profilees, and I’m pretty excited. A cycling advocate who remembers his first (dangerous) bike ride as an adult; parents whose kids have to get up at 4:30 to catch three CTA buses to get to the good school on the other side of town; an urban planner who wants to rebuild the historic commercial corridor in his South Side neighborhood. The pieces will all be narrated by the people we’re profiling, so they’ll get to tell their own stories directly. That’s where the title of the series – Dear Chicago – comes from. Sort of like…”Dear Chicago, here’s what I need you to know about my life when you step into the voting booth.”

I’ll do some in video, some in audio and some in text, all accompanied by photos from the excellent editorial photographer Shauna Bittle and portrait photographer Nathan Keay. The first one should hopefully come out around the first week of December. (Gulp. I have a lot to do.)

Dynamic Range

Next week I’m launching a new weekly podcast and web feature that presents a curated experience from the archives of Chicago Amplified. Amplified is ‘BEZ’s program that records public events (lectures, events, talks, whatever) out in the world and then archives them on our website. There are almost 2000 events there now, so they’re sort of hard to sift through. My goal is to unearth the hidden gems – the stories, snippets, moments – that may otherwise get lost and highlight them for all to hear. I’m hoping it will be sort of like TED meets WFMU’s Beware of the Blog. Only with my own personality. We’ll see how it goes. I think I’m genuinely a  “maven” (a term I picked up from Malcolm Gladwell) in that I really like sharing things I get excited about. When I hear something that excites me, whether it’s a radio story or a new band or whatever, I really want everyone I know to hear it.

I’ll keep you posted on new stuff as it develops…

Sugar Cream Pie by Sarah Strierch.

Boston Cream Pie may have found its way into our shared dessert lexicon, but what about Hoosier Cream pie? Or Indiana Persimmon Pie? News of these regional treats had never reached me before I heard this lecture by pastry chef Paula Haney. Haney has cultivated a devoted following in Chicago with her perfect pies – lemon chess; pork, sage and apple; lattice topped blueberry – since founding Hoosier Mama Pie Company in 2005.  Now, Haney unveils the secret history of Indiana pies,  from the Amish inspired “desperation pies” of her Indianapolis youth, to pies made from exotic native fruits like the wild American persimmon, paw paw, and custard apple.

In this excerpt, Haney goes into the delicious history the sugar cream or Hoosier Cream pie, Indiana’s official state pie as of 2009. (According to Haney, at the time of this lecture there was heated debate between the sugar cream camp and the persimmon custard camp.)


If you want a taste of Indiana’s official pie, Hoosier Mama carries it at their Chicago shop. Or, you can go on a pie pilgrimage and follow the Hoosier Pie Trail! Better yet, make your own, using a recipe like this one from Turkey Creek Lane.

Click here to hear the rest of Haney’s talk, including a section about the South Side’s endangered pie species, the bean pie. Sponsored by Chicago Culinary Historians, and recorded by Chicago Amplified, a program of Chicago Public Media.

Staples at Lollapalooza in August. Photo by Kate Gardiner.

Soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples has an album in the works with another Chicago home town hero, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. The two performed together at Lollapalooza; Staples later stopped by the station for a surprising duet with WBEZ’s Rob Wildeboer. (Did anyone else know he could tickle the ivories like that?!)

If you’re hankering for more Mavis before her new album comes out, check out this excellent conversation she had in 2008 with young people from the Chicago Freedom School.

Staples describes how in her youth there was an uneasy relationship between gospel and R & B; gospel artists who “crossed over” to singing the blues for a more secular, mainstream audience often felt the wrath of their churchgoing brethren.  (A subject explored in depth in another great Amplified event, Sinners in the Choir: The Black Church and the Devil’s Music.) Here, Staples describes her introduction to secular music during the summers she spent with family in Greenwood, Mississippi. It seduced her, but she never abandoned her gospel roots.


Click here for Mavis Staples’ full talk with the Chicago Freedom School. The event was held at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and was recorded by Chicago Amplified, a program of Chicago Public Media.

Featured music:

“O Day” by Bessie Jones, from “The Alan Lomax Collection: Southern Journey, Vol. 1 – Voices from the American South.”

“Since I Fell For You” by Nina Simone, from “The Soul of Nina Simone.”

Editor’s Note: The version of “Since I Fell For You” that Mavis Staples likely heard as a child in Mississippi was the 1947 version released by Annie Laurie with Paul Gayten and His Trio, which according to Wikipedia eventually reached #3 on the “Race Records” charts and #20 on the pop charts. I used the Nina Simone version from 1967 because I liked how it matched the cadence of Staples’ rendition during her talk. You can find the Annie Laurie version on iTunes, although I don’t think I can post it here in its entirety because of copyright issues.

Photo by Alisa Hauser

Azhar Usman jokes that he looks like “that guy from LOST. Not the Indian one, the fat one!” The Chicago comedian uses humor to poke fun at racial stereotypes, referencing his own life as the child of Muslim immigrants growing up in mostly Jewish Skokie.

Usman recently did an extended set in front of an intimate audience at Chicago’s Th!nk Art Salon as part of their ongoing War & Peace exhibit.  Usman performs regularly alongside a Rabbi/comedian in a show they’ve dubbed the Laugh in Peace Tour.

The evening took a surprisingly deep and personal turn when Usman shared a story about learning to parent four young sons inquisitive beyond their age.


Click here to hear Usman’s entire set at the Th!nk Art Salon, recorded by Chicago Amplified.

The HHB Portadisc MDP500. This professional portable minidisc recorder is absolutely top of the line. This one is basically like new. I purchased it in 2003 and used it in the field for a long time. The sound quality for interviews and field recordings is sublime. It also doubles as a studio deck, with built in compressor/limiter, duel stereo XLR inputs and a USB connection. When I freelanced more I used it to record any voice tracks directly into my computer. I’m only selling it now because I have a second recorder I use professionally and this one is too nice to sit unused.

Comes with black carry case, wall power adapter, and USB 2.0 cable.  It retails new for approximately $1500, so you are not going to find a better price for something like this. Review here:

Please email me at robinamer [at] gmail [dot] com if you’re interested.

Pictured with black carry case.

Thanks, KUT!


Ah Austin. The coolest city in Texas. Now even cooler because they keep licensing my radio pieces for broadcast. Thanks, KUT!! My piece on Malort aired last night on their late night documentary show, O’Dark 30. Now I’ve received word that Austinites can hear Ghosts of Gary sometime soon. Details when I get them.

Also, I looked this morning and saw that my video piece on the Fireside has been viewed over 1600 times since Friday morning. WAT. This has been a great week.


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