Q&A with Davar Iran Ardalan – The Civic Journalist

Q&A with Davar Iran Ardalan – The Civic Journalist

By Pirouz Maghsoudnia

April 2, 2010, San Jose, CA – Many of us choose to shorten our name or have nicknames for a variety of reasons.   Too long a name, hard to pronounce, but what about being named after a country that was holding Americans hostage?   That was the dilemma that Davar Iran Ardalan had as a teenager in 1980 and not surprisingly, she chose to drop Iran from her name.   Over the next few decades, Ardalan built an amazing career in journalism where she worked at National Public Radio (NPR) on shows such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition.  Her NPR career culminated in her being promoted to Senior Producer for the Weekend Edition where she brought social networking to the newsroom, allowing audiences to engage the broadcasters.  Her work reshaped journalism and the flow of information between broadcasters and audiences.

While at NPR, Ardalan produced hundreds of stories, including chronicling the lives of Iranian women and their relentless drive for their rights (read).  Along the way, Ardalan was able to “work through her fears and anxieties” and in 2007, authored her memoir called, “My Name is Iran”.  Not only was she no longer shying away from Iran but she was proud of her name and heritage.   

Davar recently left NPR to pursue her interest in civic journalism – a movement that seeks to treat audiences as participants rather than spectators in political and social processes. 

The interview speaks of her amazing journey.

Question: Why did you choose journalism?
Ardalan: From 1984 to 1986, I was the English News Anchor for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.  At the age of 20, I was intrigued by the idea of relating the news but I knew nothing about journalism.  In 1989, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and enrolled in Journalism school at the University of New Mexico. Soon after, I was a reporter at KUNM, the local NPR Station.  I knew then I had the DNA of a journalist and had my eyes and ears set on landing a job in Washington, DC.

Question: How did you end up at NPR, what were you doing there at first and how did you end up being a producer? 
Ardalan: I moved to Washington, DC, in the summer of 1993, with the assurance of two weeks of temporary work at NPR News.  I had to take the risk because I knew the chances of me getting hired would be better if I had face time in the building and I could prove my skills.  A year later, I moved to a full-time production assistant position at Weekend Edition Sunday. After spending nearly twelve years as a field producer, teaming with NPR hosts and correspondents to report on topics including girls in New York gangs, gambling in Atlantic City casinos, and Islam in cyberspace, I moved to Morning Edition in January 2005. This was a time of great transition as long-time Host Bob Edwards had left the show. I was one of the creative forces that helped reshape the show with Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne.   In 2008, I was named the Senior Supervising Producer of Weekend Edition.  One of our first remotes was a trip to Cairo, Egypt to report on the effects of Climate Change on the Nile Delta (view).   Having NPR’s Liane Hansen sitting on a boat on the mouth of the Nile River reporting from Egypt was one of the highlights of my career.

Question: How do you feel you impacted NPR (and Morning Edition/Weekend Edition) during your tenure there?
Ardalan: My mentor and one of the founders of Morning Edition, Jay Kernis, says I brought the “Davar touch” to many of my productions at NPR. My main impact was my understanding of how to creatively turn both domestic and international news headlines into compelling and contextual sound-rich broadcast stories. I have also been at the forefront of digital innovation having introduced social networking tools early to the Weekend Edition newsroom.  Scott Simon, Liane Hansen and the Weekend Edition staff are engaging the audience in ways unthinkable in the past.  I helped NPR embrace audience interactivity.

Question: How do you see the role of press on public opinion?  How do social media change this role?
Ardalan: We are entering a new paradigm where people of all walks of life will participate and collaborate in creating the next digital news landscape.  The press must do a better job of giving voice to minority communities and empowering them to interact through social networking tools and online discussion and storytelling platforms.  We must do a better job of being inclusive and attracting more diversity of opinion in mainstream news.  In terms of social media, from Iran to Haiti to Chile, we monitored harrowing tweets after the 2009 disputed elections and the devastating earthquakes of 2010.  News organizations across the country are reinventing and recasting their websites to adapt to today’s digital reality partly because social media has been a game changer.

Question: What motivated you to write My Name is Iran?
Ardalan: Several reasons, I dropped my first name when I came to Brookline High School in 1980. American hostages were still being held captive in Tehran and “Bomb Iran” was a common remark.  For too long, the tumultuous events surrounding Iran had made me shy away from my full identity.  But working through my fears and anxieties, I understood that I am a product of my past—American and Iranian.  I wanted to say My Name Is Iran with PRIDE.  I also wanted to document the struggle for human rights and justice and wanted to explore the powerful Persian myths and legends that make-up the psyche of Iranians.

Question: What role do you think social media is playing on the political developments in Iran?  Do you see it making an impact on the direction the country is going to take?
Ardalan: In June, 2009, as a Senior Producer at NPR and through my connections in Iran, I received hundreds of documents, photos, tweets, emails and status updates from the front lines of the disputed Presidential election.  Emerging from the round-ups and riots that shook the nation, I found a political and social sea-change taking place: unprecedented, direct communication and information that flowed over and around any effort to suppress it.  This experience strengthened my resolve that the next era of digital news will be like no other.  And as I navigate through my next media calling, I have Iranian women and youth to thank for enhancing my digital storytelling frame of reference.

Question: Why leave NPR and what can you share with us about what you plan to do after NPR?
Ardalan: I felt I had reached the pinnacle of my career at NPR, having worked on all the flagship shows, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. I also know journalism is changing.  I want to practice civic journalism, the philosophy that journalism must be participatory in nature, allowing the public to interact on issues important to their communities.  I am in research mode now and considering several exciting possibilities that will come together in the next six months. And perhaps most importantly, I want to help shape the future of news without having to sacrifice my family by continuing to work on weekends. 

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