Kidnap Radio

January 10th, 2010 | by Annie Correal with Jay Allison

Annie told me her story over dinner. Her father was kidnapped in Colombia by the FARC guerillas. He was held in the jungle for months. He was rescued in a military raid. It was an amazing story, made more so by the fact that it was so common. Except perhaps for the Rescue part. Thousands of people are still missing down there, and there’s a radio station that broadcasts to them—messages from their loved ones. Shows like “Voices of Kidnapping” have been doing this for years and years. I asked if Annie would want to go back and tell the story of her father, and also of those who are still missing and those who love them. This is Annie’s first piece for radio and it’s a good one. Jay A

About Kidnap Radio

I was 19 when my father was kidnapped in Colombia. It was 1999. My mother came to my college campus to deliver the news and I flew to Bogota to be with my family for a few weeks. (My mother is American, my father’s Colombian and they divorced when I was 5.) After that, except for brief trips for a wedding and a funeral, I didn’t go back to the country where I was born until I traveled there to report this piece in the spring of 2009.

I was able to make the trip thanks to Jay Allison. I met Jay in Woods Hole through Ibby Caputo, a dear friend and a former intern at
Atlantic Public Media. After hearing part of the story of my father’s kidnapping and rescue, Jay suggested I undertake this project and
guided me along the way.

The road where Annie's father was kidnapped in Bogota. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

The road where Annie’s father was kidnapped in Bogota. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

I asked my father to meet me in Bogota for a long weekend in April so that I could interview him. I had heard bits and pieces about the kidnapping in the intervening years – when I would visit our family– but in the course of our interviews I realized I had known very little about what he’d endured: All I knew was our family’s side of the ordeal.

My father’s kidnapping began on November 22, 1999 and ended August 13, 2000. He was kidnapped by the FARC and kept in 38 different places, spending the first months of his kidnapping alone, with only his guards and a radio, for company.

After talking to my dad, I went on my own to the radio station in Bogota, Caracol Radio, that had sent out messages from my family to my father, and continues to send messages to hostages from their families every Saturday night from midnight to 6 a.m. The show is called Voces del Secuestro, or Voices of Kidnapping. (There are several other stations in Colombia that send messages out on other days of the week). The host, Herbin Hoyos, is a journalist who started this program in 1994, after he was briefly kidnapped and scolded by another hostage for not using the radio to reach out to hostages.

Viviana Duarte, whose father, a police commander, has been kidnapped since 1998. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

Viviana Duarte, whose father, a police commander, has been kidnapped since 1998. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

Since then, Hoyos has broadcast messages from the family members of the kidnapped every weekend, despite threats from the FARC and assassination attempts (the most recent sent him into exile in Europe this fall). Today, around 50 messages go out on every show; at the height of the kidnapping craze, there were as many as 100, much shorter messages.

As I sat in the radio station listening to the messages, which are somewhere between prayers and diary entries, I noticed that many of the people calling in to the station were talking to relatives who had been gone for several years, sometimes for as long
as a decade. Like my dad, they were kidnapped because the FARC and other groups, including right-wing paramilitaries and gangs with no political agenda, had made kidnapping a major industry in Colombia. Unlike my dad, these people hadn’t come back.

Lina Velasquez, whose brother, Daniel, went missing in 2004. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

Lina Velasquez, whose brother, Daniel, went missing in 2004. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

Some were almost certainly alive, like the soldiers and policemen held as political prisoners in the war between the FARC and the Colombian military. But others whose names were on the radio – civilians, by and large – were missing and unaccounted for.

Their families became the focus of my piece. Thanks to Maria Isabel Campos, the producer of Voices of Kidnapping, I was able to reach more than a dozen of these families in Bogota, including Ismael and Amalia Marquez. This couple has been keeping track of all the kidnapped families since their son, Enrique, was kidnapped in 1999. When I asked Amalia for help reaching others, she took out a tattered address book and turned to a page with my own family’s name and phone number.

It was chilling to uncover this corollary to my life – our life – this family of people who are bound only by the loss of a family member and a radio show. I dedicate this piece, Kidnap Radio, to them. They opened their doors to me, and taught me whatever it is that I have tried to convey with it.

From Print to Radio

This is not my first encounter with radio – in 2006 I took a radio workshop at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (co-taught by Rick Karr and Tony Dec) – but it was the first time I set out to produce a long documentary. It changed the way I engaged with my subjects, the way I interviewed and the way I thought about story-telling.

Broadcasting Voces del Secuestro. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

Broadcasting Voces del Secuestro. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

A lot of the work I’ve done as a print reporter has been hard news reporting – on crime and court cases, for example – in New York City. This invariably involves talking to grieving family members, so I came to the task of interviewing the family members of the kidnapped and disappeared somewhat prepared. However, I was not prepared for the intimacy of a radio interview. I anticipated more reserve on the part of my subjects and I was surprised to find that they were more comfortable talking on mic than I was. It took me some time to relax into interviews and not worry constantly about my levels. But in the end I found recording allowed me to maintain eye contact and have a conversation with my subjects, to listen closely to them, and to give them more time to talk.

Another aspect of the transition from print to radio was changing the way I interviewed, for example, asking one simple question at a time and avoiding yes/no questions that don’t yield good tape. I interviewed around two dozen people in Colombia, and by the end I think I got a little bit better at it. (Note: I knew I wanted to mostly use interviews in English, to avoid excessive translation, and this helped narrow down my subjects).

The biggest challenge came when my reporting was done and I started working on the script. I had to resist the urge to present the facts, and what they mean, at the outset of the story, and to think more about story-telling. I also became conscious of the importance of simple and straightforward prose, of writing for the ear.

Herbin Hoyos hosts Voces del Secuestro. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

Herbin Hoyos hosts Voces del Secuestro. Photo by Jacob Silberberg

Tech Notes

All the audio from Colombia was recorded using a Marantz 660 and a Beyer MCE58 mic. I edited the show using Audacity, and then Pro Tools. I recorded my tracks at a studio with Jay Allison, who edited them into the piece using Pro Tools.

About Annie Correal

Annie Correal is a metro reporter for El Diario/La Prensa in New York City, where she covered the same beat as a stringer for The New York Times. She attended Princeton University and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This is her first radio piece.

Thank you to Jacob Silberberg for providing the photos from Colombia.

Given the sensitivity of their situation, there are no photos of Annie or her family.



Additional support for this work provided by
Open Studio Project

with funding from
Corporation for Public Prodcasting


14 Comments on “Kidnap Radio”

  • Flawn Williams says:
    Correality Radio

    This is an excellent piece of nonfiction storytelling. The "business as usual" tone of the telling heightens the impact of the realization that such a condition as mass kidnappings could be "business as usual". And the existence of the radio show, and other aspects of the horrific story, become riveting when it emerges that the narrator is an involved first person, not just a visitor to the story.

  • Jon Miller says:
    Excellent indeed!

    I agree with Flawn that this is excellent stuff, and want to congratulate Annie on an auspicious beginning to what I hope is more than just a dalliance in radio. You sound like an old pro!

    I listened twice, and the second time through I wondered if I would have approached it in the same way, beginning and ending with the radio program, withholding your own story until nearly two minutes in, dutifully telling the other families’ stories, comparing them in turn to yours… My main question was whether you may have allowed yourself to stand too far away from things, to play the reporter rather than the subject. But in the end I decided it worked. There are so many elements — your family’s experience (which is messy and particular in the way that all true stories are), the contrasting stories of Viviana, Marco and Leny (all tragic, but in informatively different ways), the political and historical context, and the timeless universal human story of separation and hope and dread and the passage of time. I think they all end up supporting one another. Thank goodness you had the radio show to tie it all together (hopeful desperate voices projected across the void — you couldn’t have invented a better device!).

    Still, although the others’ experiences are sadder, for me the most moving moments were from you and your dad. The kidnapping and the rescue for sure, but also the beautiful image, which I hope I’ll always remember, of your looking for some sign that your father has heard you, and seeing or hearing that sign whether it was really there or not.

  • Anne Cadigan says:
    Very moving

    I found this piece to be moving, and the narrative was extremely well structured.

    I was particularly struck by the images of kidnap victims listening for their messages on the radio, and I thought that Annie’s sign off – "like my Dad, we were rescued" was striking. Overall the tone and pace of the piece were great, and I very much enjoy "first person" radio. Annie, you should be very proud of your work here.

  • sarah reynolds says:
    cathartic?

    Annie – really moving piece! Congratulations to you.

    I’m wondering if this was a long-time coming? Had you thought of delving back into this history of your dad’s kidnapping for a long time?

    I love the very simple fact that you made a radio piece about how radio connects us, even even more dire situations than we could ever imagine. The news of these FARC kidnappings in Colombia has never felt so real. Thanks for humanizing a news story that is often without a face in mainstream media.

  • Annie Correal says:
    Business as Usual

    Thank you for your comments, Flawn. Kidnapping has become less common in Colombia in recent years but was so widespread in the late 90s/early aughts that it really was a matter of ‘business as usual.’ Sending radio messages, negotiating a ransom, trying to keep a business afloat and a home intact in the absence of a breadwinner — these things were so widespread as to go unremarked.

    The Colombian media, for the most part – and partly out of a reasonable fear of retribution – played down the stories of the thousands of Colombians who were kidnapped who were not well-known. A Spanish journalist in Colombia, Salud Hernandez, has made sure many of their stories come to light in her column in the newspaper El Tiempo. She tells it straight. I think that’s the way to go.

  • Annie Correal says:
    My approach

    Jon, Thanks. I’m glad you decided it worked. It was difficult to figure out how to approach this story. I knew I wanted my dad in the piece, but my feelings about what happened to him and to our family changed substantially as I reported in Colombia – as I found and talked to these other family members – and I decided I wanted to put my family’s story in a broad context and convey my change in perspective. That was ambitious, but not impossible, because I had the radio show to tie it all together, as you pointed out.

  • Annie Correal says:
    Radios in the jungle

    Thank you, Anne. The radio is very important to the hostages. From what my dad told me, they structure their weeks around the radio show and it binds them together — when there’s only one radio in a camp, one hostage will be charged with staying up all night listening for the messages sent out to the men in his group and reporting back to them in the morning. My dad had that job for awhile; I don’t know whether he was chosen because he had a radio or a great memory. He also told me hostages trade batteries, which are as rare and precious as cigarettes in the jungle. A question for everybody: Would you like to hear more about this – the role of the radio for the hostages in the jungle – in the piece? Or was there enough?

  • Annie Correal says:
    A long time coming

    Sarah asked me, "I’m wondering if this was a long-time coming? Had you thought of delving back into this history of your dad’s kidnapping for a long time?"

    Yes, it was a long time coming and it was sort of in the back of my head as something I’d like to do — but I think I needed time, distance and reporting experience to get to the point where I could even begin to do this story justice.

  • georges salameh says:
    dear annie

    very moving voice and narration…
    no sentimentalism or sensational approach just humane and down to the point of storytelling.
    I wish though that you could develop some of the alleys you traced through this jungle of situations: awaiting, joy, no ending, memory, the wild, oblivion etc… and the identity that creates an experience of this kind.

    i had the feeling that i saw a trailer and the long feature is yet to come. i hope there is a to be continued under "like my Dad, we were rescued".

    Palermo january 2010

  • Annie Correal says:
    More about the families of the kidnapped

    Georges, Yes, there are many sides to this story. One side is the experience of the hostages in the jungle, another is the experience of their families. From what I experienced and observed in others, I believe that having a close relative kidnapped changes a person immediately, and for good; it amounts to psychological torture. When a kidnapping drags on, and remains unresolved, it can transform a person’s identity.

    That’s something that I thought about a lot: the identity that this experience creates. I interviewed a psychologist in Bogota that talked to me about what she called "incomplete mourning" and the "Penelope complex" — how people who have had a close relative kidnapped or a disappeared tend to structure their lives around the absent person and cannot let them go; they won’t move to a new house or change their number or get rid of their belongings because they are always preparing for their return, however unlikely it may be. I met many people – mothers, especially – whose sadness and desperation at the loss of a child had been transformed into a stubborn fight against time and forgetting. It was very difficult to watch.

  • georges salameh says:
    difficult to watch

    "It was very difficult to watch", you said. but this sound documentary is very visual, enriched with live sound (i love the airport scene), music is a source and not of accompaniment, support and reinforcement but an interior rhythm, a dialogue and a generator for narration.

    I wish and encourage you to continue in retouching the real with the real and to try not to “clean” the soundtrack from its intimate moments (long pause between words, external sound, hesitations etc…), the unexpected and most truthful of the gestation of the narration, but on the contrary to create for them a "cinematic" space.
    On a formal level, you let documentary and storytelling develop variably, side by side, in each part & that is the kind of approach for it not being an ethnographic or a historical documentary; it’s a peculiar inner journey without being a "road movie".
    The intent is to create a feeling of continuity through a fragmented narration, while shaping it into a common experience rather than a sound depiction of facts.
    Telling those stories, you always tried to show something of the truth, to touch an unfolding reality with a radio that “listens”. This is not a piece of literature but sincere words, things said and left unsaid, confessions, confidences and an expression of the protagonists in their moments of grief and joy.
    yes it is difficult to "watch" when watching is not with the eyes but the heart and spirit.

    thank you again, annie and sorry for my chaotic english.

    palermo january 2010

  • Jay Allison says:
    This American Life

    TAL picked up Annie’s story and their edited version is running this weekend.

Links to “Kidnap Radio”

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