Oral History Center mines its archive for new season of podcast, on the AIDS epidemic

Paul Burnett, a historian at the Oral History Center in The Bancroft Library, poses for a portrait outside The Bancroft Library on March 5, 2018. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)
Paul Burnett, who works in The Bancroft Library's Oral History Center, produced, narrated, and wrote the latest season of The Berkeley Remix podcast, focusing on the AIDS epidemic. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

When putting together the third season of the Oral History Center’s podcast, Paul Burnett would read interview excerpts out loud with an editing partner.
“There were passages I couldn’t even finish,” said Burnett, who hosted, wrote, and produced the podcast’s latest installment. “It was emotionally laden.”

In the 1990s, Sally Smith Hughes — then historian of science at The Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office, which became the Oral History Center — conducted 35 interviews with people involved in the response to the AIDS epidemic, including nurses, physicians, and public health officials. The stories that emerged from the in-depth project were multifaceted, fascinating, and often tragic.

“You know, there’s the science, there’s how you organize for an epidemic, how you set up institutions for caring for the patient, how you deal with the government, … and even controversy and the human pathos,” Hughes said in a recent interview. “It had everything.”

Now, two decades later, Burnett — Hughes’ successor at the OHC — has incorporated Hughes’ interviews for the OHC’s podcast latest season.

The result is a compelling account of how San Francisco battled the AIDS epidemic in the early ’80s, through the voices of some of the men and women on the front lines of the fight.

“It’s a very dramatic story,” Burnett said.

A trail of breadcrumbs

Shanna Farrell, who came to OHC in 2013, conceived the idea of a podcast that draws from the OHC's vast collection of oral histories. 

Farrell has a deep appreciation for audio storytelling: She’s a fan of public radio who does freelance radio work on the side and is an avid listener of podcasts, from The New York Times’ The Daily to ESPN’s 30 for 30 to Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy. (She even reported and produced an episode for that podcast, called “A Taste of Place: Whiskey as Food,” which aired in December, and she co-hosts a podcast on the intersection of food and drink, called Prix Fixe.)

A podcast that highlighted the archive was a natural step for the OHC, she said.

“I wanted to have something curated that told a story that was for a broader audience that could be used in a myriad of ways,” she explained. 

So Farrell put together a listening group at the OHC, assigning pieces of audio for her colleagues to listen to — including other oral history centers’ podcasts — to provoke discussion about what worked and what didn’t work and to get a deeper sense of what the OHC could achieve with a podcast. Then came discussion about the podcast’s voice and framework.

From those efforts, Tales From the Campanile was born. The first season — containing six episodes — focused on women in politics and was written by the OHC’s Todd Holmes; produced by Holmes, Farrell, and their former colleague Cristina Kim; and narrated by Emmy Award-winning journalist Belva Davis. Next came a two-episode second season, produced by Farrell, with each episode delving into a different topic.

Then came the third season, now underway. But before launching it, the name of the podcast had to change.

Tales From the Campanile” — the podcast’s original title — “sounds like Tales From the Crypt,” Burnett said. “And no one outside of Berkeley knows what the Campanile is.”

New ideas for titles emerged, but the name The Berkeley Remix made the most sense.

“We are taking an existing recording and we are cutting it up,” Burnett said. “We are remixing the archive.”

The podcast serves a crucial function for the OHC: By incorporating audio clips from the OHC’s extensive archive, it allows people to listen to interviews from the collection that they otherwise might not hear. 

The OHC began posting its interviews online about 15 years ago, but before that, the oral histories were available only to people who came to UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

“The insights and information, personal challenges, and collective achievements contained in this collection is simply awe-inspiring,” said Martin Meeker, director of the OHC. “The Berkeley Remix podcast is just one of our many efforts to highlight the richness of this collection for the broader public, to contextualize the content, and to put the individual voices of our narrators into the spotlight that they deserve.”

The OHC has about 4,000 interviews in its collection, Meeker noted, totaling around 25,000 hours of recordings.

“We want to mobilize that knowledge and get it out to the general public,” Burnett said. “There’s a lot of gold in there.”

Another goal of the podcast is to point people to the vast archive at the OHC, encouraging them to explore and discover the interviews within.

“You have to give people breadcrumbs,” Farrell said. “And that’s what I think the podcast is good for.”

After all, she notes, “If an audience can’t engage in your work, what’s the point?” 

For the third season, in addition to telling the story of the response to the AIDS epidemic, Burnett said, “I wanted it to be a tribute to Sally Smith Hughes. She did an incredible job.”

Sally Hughes and Paul Burnett
For the third season of The Berkeley Remix, Burnett incorporated clips from interviews by Sally Smith Hughes, right. “We really want people to enjoy it and also learn something about the past,” Burnett said of the podcast. “If we’ve succeed in that domain I think we’ve succeed overall.”

Making an impact

While making the six-episode third season, called “First Response: AIDS and Community in San Francisco,” Burnett worked closely with consultant Allie Cheroutes (“a godsend,” he said), who helped with editing. The season focuses on the period from 1981, when reports of a mysterious disease killing gay men in San Francisco first came to light, to 1984.

Before the epidemic broke out, San Francisco’s highly organized gay community and the city’s health care community had developed ties, providing groundwork for the collaboration that would happen between the two overlapping groups during the epidemic.  

“They had a relationship already,” Hughes said. “They didn’t start from ground zero.”

But still, addressing the crisis was an uphill battle.

Especially in the early days of the epidemic — before the virus was isolated and identified, in 1983 — fear ran rampant. 

“No one knew what the vector was,” Burnett said. “Was it drugs? Was it fertilizer in plants? It kept coming back to certain forms of sexual behavior in certain populations.”

The podcast chronicles the struggle to secure funding for research at a time when acceptance of and sympathy toward the gay community hadn’t progressed to anywhere near where it is today.

The podcast features interview clips of Donald Francis — an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta — who was included in the late San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts’ book on the epidemic, And the Band Played On. When Francis needed a containment room to prevent HIV from getting out of the lab — his attempt to secure funding was unsuccessful — he took matters into his own hands by having a handyman make him one from Sheetrock and two-by-fours.

And at San Francisco General, nurses “pretty much created” an AIDS ward to address the crisis, as Hughes notes. Instead of running away from the disease, they were volunteering to care for patients suffering with the mysterious illness.

“They were incredibly sympathetic to what was going on,” Hughes said.

One of the innovations to come out of the AIDS crisis was a new model of care, called the San Francisco model, discussed in the final episode of the podcast. This approach emphasized not only the medical attention that the patients needed, but also the necessary social, economic, and psychological support, with a focus on each patient’s well-being. It became a blueprint for other communities handling the epidemic.

While working on the podcast, Burnett was inspired by stories of people who were determined to make a difference even in the face of fear and adversity.

“You’re heartened by the open hearts, you’re heartened by the risks they took in the face of a terrible disease,” he said.

“These people were turning their lives upside down to try to take care of these patients,” Hughes said.

Working on the project about the epidemic was an emotional undertaking — both for Hughes, when she was conducting the original interviews, and for Burnett, years later, while working on the podcast

“I don’t think I was prepared for it to have as much impact emotionally on me as it did,” Burnett said. “I’m happy it did, because, I think, if it had that impact on me it might have that impact on other people.” 

The Berkeley Remix’s third season is available on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher. The final episode of the season is out Wednesday.