Noe Valley Voice July-August 2004

Radio Sleuth Captures the Stories of Noe Valley

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

Noe Valley sound engineer Kate Volkman is a good listener. As she walks down 24th Street, she hears the stories of the people who make up the fabric of the neighborhood--the shopkeepers, the people in line at the post office, the panhandlers on the sidewalks, and the coffee drinkers on benches outside of the cafes.

"It means a lot to people to tell their stories," Volkman says. "It's the way they make sense of their struggles and their travails and their successes."

Volkman, 30, does more than simply listen, though. For the past four years, she has worked part-time as a project manager for NPR's Kitchen Sisters, the San Francisco-based duo of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, whose mission is to unearth audio histories and share them with their radio audience. In 2001­02, Nelson and Silva created the award-winning Sonic Memorial Project, which commemorated the lost lives and neighborhoods surrounding the World Trade Center.

This fall, the Kitchen Sisters will launch a new series called "Hidden Kitchens" in which they will explore the intersection of food and community.

As part of that series, Volkman is interviewing George Sacca, owner of Angel's Market at the corner of Castro and 26th streets, with an eye toward creating a piece that explains the importance of corner stores to the urban experience.

"I've been going to Angel's Market since I moved to this neighborhood four years ago," says Volkman, who grew up in Alexandria, Va. "What's interesting to me is how much people come to count on the market. You know you're going to see George behind the counter. Or Robert, one of the customers, hanging around. It's about a lot more than buying milk or bread. It's where people who live in this part of Noe Valley come together."

Volkman's interest in oral history was sparked one summer during her college years when she carpooled with her father to an internship at a television station.

"He always listened to NPR," she recalls. "And that summer, I completely fell in love with it."

She won a scholarship contest with an essay about her radio dreams, and worked as a host of her college's NPR station. Then she worked in television for a few years before she landed a job with Lost and Found Sound, the Kitchen Sisters' Peabody Award­winning series on NPR.

One of her first assignments was on the "Quest for Sound" project, in which radio listeners were encouraged to call a phone line and share their audiotapes. In the thousands of responses, Volkman listened to tapes of people singing, recordings of children's birthday parties, and veterans telling war stories. One man shared a recording of his grandfather telling the story of how he watched Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address.

"It was incredible to share that story with the whole nation," Volkman recalls. "The grandfather had only been 9 years old, and he was right in front of the podium [as Lincoln delivered the address]. He recorded the memory of it on a 78 rpm record in the 1930s, and his grandson still had the record."

Volkman says the response to that audiotape was amazing, but listeners also responded strongly to much smaller, intimate stories. One tape that struck both Volkman and the show's listeners was of a man who recorded a harmonica lesson and sent the tape to his grandson who lived on the other side of the country.

"It was such a sweet piece," Volkman says. "The grandfather made different sounds and then stopped to explain how he did it. It said so much about the grandparent relationship."

Volkman has always been interested in family stories and histories. When she was still in high school, she gave her grandfather a tape recorder and asked him to record a story she'd been hearing for years. It wasn't a grand, epic story of immigration or a defining life moment; rather, it was the story of how her grandfather got his first library card.

"It's the small stories that people tell that convey who they are," Volkman says. "A library card, a childhood friend, a road trip--when people tell them, you can hear their personalities coming out in their voices. Like my grandfather, who always says, 'To make a long story short....' Those things are so much a part of who a person is."

Volkman's interest in family stories, along with a post-dot-com period of unemployment, led her to an independent project she's been working on for two years--a multimedia genealogy of an Irish-American family.

"A gentleman hired me to capture oral histories of his family," Volkman explains. "His grandparents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, passed away about 10 years ago, and his family was far-flung. He realized that he didn't want to lose their stories, their histories, so he hired me to record the stories."

The project started out as a straightforward oral history project in which Volkman recorded the memories of various members of the family. But as the collection of stories grew, so did the project. As a long-lost cousin was found and the facts behind mysterious family records were discovered, Volkman's client decided to broaden the scope beyond audio. Now, Volkman is creating a multimedia production, complete with a CD-ROM that shows the entire family tree and a DVD of family photos, maps, and documents, set to an audio track of their stories.

"This is such an inspiring project, but it's not for broadcast," Volkman says. "This is for the family and their children and their grandchildren. It's such a gift to be part of it."

Volkman hopes the project will lead to more like it. Meanwhile, she's got Angel's Market and a host of other Noe Valley stories to uncover.

"I'm really interested in the people at the [Noe Valley] Post Office," Volkman says. "I might want to talk to them with my tape recorder."