The Kitchen Sisters

Intro from Jay Allison: In the early days, everything went into the air, then vanished. Maybe because radio is invisible, it can feel unreal. You can't hold it... keep it. (This was especially true before the Internet allowed us to forever accessibly archive every human event with images, sounds and words.) The eye makes things real. An image can be shown, held, touched. Ephemera is captured.The Kitchen Sisters offer testament to keeping your eyes open while working with your ears. They think of themselves as "Invisible Cinematographers." In our early collaborations, Nikki and Davia (and Laura Folger) insisted on creating images to accompany our projects, like "Lost & Found Sound." I thought maybe they spent too much time on it. I was wrong.In a way, they anticipated multimedia. Their stories existed across platforms before anyone said "platform." (I should mention that to them "multimedia" includes food, but that's another story.) I asked The Sisters to write a Transom Manifesto chronicling their use of imagery--business cards, logos, promotional postcards, pioneering radio websites, posters, email blasts, etc. It's a lovely document and contains much useful thinking on the relationship between ear and eye.

Download “The Kitchen Sisters” Manifesto (PDF)

Kitchen Vision

“Good photographs are there to be listened to as well as looked at; the better the photograph, the more there is to hear.” – Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

“Good radio is there to be looked at as well as listened to; the better the story, the more there is to see.” – The Kitchen Sisters

When did our radio start going visual? From the moment we began producing together, by the looks of it. Gathering and creating images is almost as much a part of what we do as gathering interviews, archival audio and music. Another layer of story is revealed through the images and the process of asking brings us further into the lives of the people we chronicle.

hand liebenberg photo

Relics 101

This little relic comes from the second story we produced together. We had gone deep into the Santa Cruz mountains to record an oral history with Les and Stevie Liebenberg, a father/son lumberjacking team, whose true passion, we discovered that long night, was not the forest, but their 36 tamed rattlesnakes that they dressed in señorita gowns and trained to pull miniature Conestoga wagons.

We were mesmerized.

The next day we went to Kinko’s. Nikki held the Liebenberg’s business card in her hand, put her arm on the Xerox machine glass and we pressed Copy.

We found this image so compelling we put it on the cover of our first grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts. We thought the NEA would be blown out by this graphic and give us a ton of money to do regional oral histories about traditional and dying occupations in the Santa Cruz area. They would see the magic and the mystery of lumbering and rattlesnakes, just as we did. This was 1979. What drug were we on? Needless to say, we did not get this grant.

Jay says creating a visual identity was part of how we “branded” ourselves from the start. The term “branding” was not to arrive on the scene for another 20 years, but we get his drift.

Maybe it was the snakes. Or maybe it was Nikki’s background as a museum curator.  Whatever it was, we collected images and photographed from the start. From early on it was radio producer as teller, witness, archivist, investigator, anthropologist, scrapper…

You may be the first person with a recording device to enter someone’s life. Carry a camera, a smart phone, a something. And use it. If it’s just you and you’re busy with recording, hand over the tools and involve others in the documenting, even the person you’re recording.

If you’re gathering sound, gather everything else you can too while you’re there. Photographs, home movies, graphics, recipes, children’s art…

Lawyer Lady drawing

Perhaps it was because we had taken the name “The Kitchen Sisters” that we started collecting images of two girls together early on and using those photographs to help represent our enterprise.

Kitchen Sisters baby imageKitchen Sisters postcard

two women at the beach

Excavations on Display

In 1999, with Jay, we started the Lost & Found Sound series on All Things Considered–a hundred-year look at life in America through recorded sound. Everyone in the collaboration was gathering so many striking visuals along with their interviews and audio artifacts that we created, our first website, a place to exhibit everything we were excavating for this audio retrospective of the changing century. NPR barely had a website when we started the series. We had to get our own URL and beg them to host it. It still lives, barely, at

Lost and Found Sound logo

We wanted the series to have a logo inspired by the old 78 record labels we were discovering. It was the Millennium. There was a lot of hoopla, and we had to get some attention for the year-long project if it was going to make the dent we all hoped it would.

We collaborated with graphic designer, Chris Linder, who was designing wine labels for Francis Coppola whose building our offices are in. Chris pondered our record labels, the name of the series and the idea of chronicling American life through recorded sound, and came up with this logo.

We used it as the header on the site, a sticker, a CD label and on. It had legs.

Lost and Found Sound Postcard

We found this photo at the Edison National Historical Site when we were recording our first story in the series, The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise of Thomas Alva Edison. Sandra Wong Geroux, our project manager, designed it and started us on the road of postcards and later, e-announcements.

We picked Trajan as the font for the series and used it throughout to help establish a visual identity for an audio experience. For Hidden Kitchens the fonts were Impact and Confidential. Hairline and Futura were the fonts of The Hidden World of Girls. We’re obsessed with fonts.

The Palette Of A Story

As the project got big, our friend Laura Folger, a graphic artist and designer, joined the collaboration and began to gather and produce the images for this series and many other Kitchen Sisters visuals since.

We love Laura’s work, as does Jay, and it is her vision that gave Jay the inspiration to ask us to write this column and feature her work and our process.

Laura sees sound in colors. “I looked for the palette of The Kitchen Sisters, the palette of a story. They built up a library of sounds. I built up a library of fonts and a bank of color fields. They were doing sonic history and visual history and it became one and the same.”

The first time we opened a phone line on NPR and asked listeners to call us with their sounds and story ideas was the Lost & Found Sound series. Hidden Kitchens, The Sonic Memorial Project, The Hidden World of Girls and our new series, The Making Of… all have had listener hotlines for gathering tips and suggestions. Crowdsourcing, they call it now. Jay was the Curator of this “Quest for Sound.”

One call led us to the story of the cigar rollers in cigar factories of Florida, and the lectors, the men who read to them as they worked.

Cigar Stories image

Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammed Ali’s fight doctor, who lived in Ybor City, was steeped in the tradition of the cigar rollers and readers. During our interview Ferdie told us that he painted. Laura asked to see his paintings. We were wowed. Laura created this postcard with one of Ferdie’s paintings and we mailed it to thousands of people to promote “Cigar Stories.” Then she turned it into a poster.

Thus began the tradition of making posters for nearly every story we do. We put up walls of them at nearly every speaking event we do, and people always want to steal them.

Carnival Talkers Poster

Lovers of Lost Fans poster

Laura created these posters for two of Jay’s stories from the series, Lovers of Lost Fans and Carnival Talkers (produced with Rachel Day).

Laura has been creating art since she was a girl. She comes from a wildly visual, big Irish Catholic family. They were 6 kids with a creative, artist-at-heart mother, Patricia, who infused the family with rituals and spectacles, making crazy hats and flaming figgy puddings. Her great-aunt Ella created magical topiary trees on her ranch in Watsonville. We think there is a direct link from Ella’s topiary and Pat’s hats to Laura’s radio visions.

Liberace poster

The Agony of Dynamics

We agonized over this postcard for the story of Liberace and The Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band. What font? What angle? What color? It took more time to create this image than the 12-minute Lost & Found Sound piece it promoted. Hugh Borde, the leader of the band, loaned us this photo from his scrapbook and Laura went to town.

“We were looking to catch the ear with this story, so we started by trying to catch the eye,” she says. “The dynamics of this story called for a dynamic layout.”

By the way, and you already know this: if you borrow someone’s photographs or memorabilia, scan it and get it back to them ASAP. Don’t blow this. You’ll live to regret it.

Sonic Memorial Postcard

We found this photograph in the communal, makeshift gallery, “Here is New York” that sprang up in Soho after 9/11. People brought their photographs of Lower Manhattan and hung them on clotheslines across the space, displaying them together, uncurated, trying to make some sense of the terror and destruction. Photographer Charles Traub was one of the people in charge, and it turned out it was one of his photographs that became the iconic image of The Sonic Memorial Project. Laura kept her postcard design simple and direct. The image spoke for itself.

Walking High Steel poster

Jamie York produced “Walking High Steel” with us as part of The Sonic Memorial Project. Laura created this postcard/poster, merging history, visuals, font, symbols and information. Laura usually does about 25 drafts to get to the final design, about as many versions as we do of a story before it finally makes it to air.

Hidden Kitchen postcard

This image sprang from a photograph we took at a church picnic in Owensboro, Kentucky, when we were there recording a piece about Burgoo, a kind of frontier stew. We called the story, “Mopping the Mutton.” The designer of our Hidden Kitchens book, Andy Carpenter, used it on the book cover in a way that completely surprised us.

Here’s the original:

Kitchen Sisters with Burgoo sign

Unsung Heroes And Random Grace

We often turn to archives and historical societies for our imagery. They become collaborators and part of the producing process with us. Archivists and librarians are some of the unsung heroes of our nation, the keepers of history and our collective memory. They know the secrets in their vaults and have some extraordinary tape and visuals to offer, if you think to ask.

Chili Queens photo

This photograph of some chili queens in San Antonio in the late 1920s–a picture we never tire of looking at–was shown to us by Tom Shelton at the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas at San Antonio when we went there to record that story. It became the signature image of the Hidden Kitchens series.

Ricing poster

We stared at this painting by Rabbett Strickland for hours on the wall behind Winona LaDuke when we interviewed her at her house on the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota for the story Harvest on Big Rice Lake. We stared at it the whole interview and then asked her if she would ask Rabbett if we could use it to help promote the story.

Rabbett was a homeless, itinerant Ojibwe painter whose work we deeply admire. Here’s a link to more of his striking work.

Here are a few other graphics Laura unearthed along the way and turned into web images and posters. They draw listeners in. Many people think they’ve heard a Kitchen Sisters story because they’ve seen such vivid images.

Tony Schwartz poster

Milk Cow Blues poster

George Forman Grill poster

Here’s the story behind this story. We were working on our first story in the Hidden Kitchens project. Davia happened to be having dinner with Chika, a woman from Japan, and told her about the interviews we were gathering about homeless people cooking on George Foreman Grills on the streets of Chicago. Chika turned out to be a sports photographer and had recently taken a picture of George Foreman. “Would we like to use it?” It was moody and powerful and fit the story like a glove. We have a saying around our shop, “Say everything out loud.” Someone nearby has what you need.

Deep Fried poster

Linger And Spark

We gave Willie Nelson a copy of this poster when we recorded his narration for Hidden Kitchens Texas on his biodiesel tour bus, The Honeysuckle Rose. We had done a story on his biodiesel truck stop in Carl’s Corner, Texas, and the Farm Aid Concert in Camden, New Jersey. He liked the stories and agreed to host the hour-long special.

Texas artist, Bob ‘Daddy-O’ Wade gave us permission to use this image of his frogs on the truck stop billboard to create a poster with. So many people love public radio and want to support the enterprise and will be open to sharing their work with you to help support telling your stories, if you ask.

Everyone at The Kitchen Sisters Productions designs as well as produces. We have to. You probably do too. Some of us are better at it than others. But we are all always looking for images, thinking of fonts, colors, phrasing, titles.

Our radio stories have a presence, but we’ve always felt we had to announce our stories with a visual bang that is as highly produced as the pieces. And now those visuals linger online and help spark people to listen.

Laura Folger: “Some images work small, some big. I always thought about CD labels. People love a good-looking CD label. We use them as thank yous to people who helped with the piece and send them to funders and to people we hope to interview for a story down the road.”

Winnie Royale- CD labelWHER All-Girl Radio- CD labelHidden Kitchens CD label

Maps. We collect them as we go. We ask people to draw them for us and we tape them when they give us directions. Maps often become the basis of our designs. Like this one a kind drunk drew for us at the Continental Club in Austin when we asked her directions to her favorite hidden kitchen, The Poodle Dog Lounge. Here’s how to get there.

Poodle Dog Map

The map became part of the design for the cover of our book, Hidden Kitchens Texas. Laura scatted off on the drawing and came up with this.

Hidden Kitchens Texas cover

*(The directions people tell us often find their way into our stories. Check out the opening of “Georgia Gilmore and The Club From Nowhere: A Secret Civil Rights Kitchen” and you’ll see what we mean.)


This portrait by Iranian photographer, Shadi Ghadirian, caught our eye on the cover of Art in America on a magazine rack in San Francisco. We found Shadi in Tehran, hired an Iranian recordist to do the tape sync, and interviewed her for The Hidden World of Girls via Skype.

The photograph is part of a project Shadi created called The Untitled Qajar Series, based on some of the earliest photographs in Iranian history, a series of images that portray Iranian women caught between tradition and modernity. Shadi gave us permission to use her photograph as the main image for the series. When Tina Fey narrated our The Hidden World of Girls specials, Shadi’s images were featured on those CDs, in our publicity and on the site.

Hidden World of Girls header

We were so taken with Shadi’s work that we also created this audio slideshow about her, produced with Lacy Roberts and Patty Fung, two of our remarkable interns.

Platforms And Layers

We figure some people will never hear the story, but they might see the visual, or read the little postcard synopsis or the email we send. We try to convey the message and themes of a story by as many means as possible. Also, because we collaborate with so many people, there is never enough room on air to thank all the people we want to, so those names and credits are woven into the graphics we do. And this is also where we can credit funders in a graphic and aesthetic way as well.

Here’s an e-announce Laura designed for The Hidden World of Girls story, based on science fiction writer, Pat Cadigan’s childhood story. We called it “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Day the Earth Stood Still poster

A lot has changed since we first started doing this,” says Laura. “What started as posters now is a PowerPoint. Technology has had a big impact on how I illustrate a story. Designs have to work across so many platforms. Something might work on a “large” scale, like a website, but might not grab on an iPhone. You have to grab people’s attention, and that’s hard because there is so much calling to them. Keep it direct, more graphic. You can always layer it, or add more to the images and text when you use it on the web. But you’ve got to make sure your story image works on a mobile device.”

Ever since Laura opened our eyes to the possibilities of collaboration with graphic designers and illustrators we’ve been hooked. And because our work has a “look” as well as a “sound,” illustrators are sometimes drawn to us.

San Francisco illustrator Wendy MacNaughton does beautiful, graphic oral histories of working people, Muni riders, librarians, barflies and more. We saw her work and invited her to one of our Interviewing and Recording Workshops here in SF. Here are some of her notes.

drawing for proposal

Later, we asked Wendy to be the guest designer for for a week. This is one of banners she created.

Hidden World of Girls banner 2

See The Sound

Keep your eyes open. Look around for graphics, drawings and photographs that you like, for people with a shared sensibility and passion for public radio. Try approaching them to illustrate a story. Look at Ira Glass’ great collaboration with Chris Ware, or Dave Isay’s with Ben Katchor or The Rauch Brothers.

Always collect, we say. You never know what other stories and mediums will emerge in the decades to come. And you never know when you’ll want to make a poster, a postcard, an App, a website, a tattoo…

If you care enough to chronicle someone, if their life and their mission, purpose or predicament feel so important to you that you want to document it, then go as deep as you can into the expressions of their world.

The Making of Postcard

The making of the Bay Bridge. The making of a jar of jam. The making of the iPhone, an opera, a surfboard… Here we are now, about to launch a new series, The Making Of… What people make in the Bay Area and why. It’s a collaboration with The Kitchen Sisters, KQED, Zeega and AIR. It’s part of the Localore project, a series of 10 experimental collaborations in public media produced with The Association of Independents in Radio and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This is the poster we’re working on right now. It’s a work-in-progress. Sylvan Mishima Brackett, who has a Japanese bento take-out business in Oakland, Peko Peko, designed it. We love the look of his menus and his handmade food, and thought he might have a take on the look for The Making Of… His design was inspired by the Japanese matchbook covers from the 1960s that he collects. The title “The Making Of….” was inked with a rubber stamp to give it a hand-made feel.

We wanted a hand-hewn image for this new experimental project that uses some of the most modern and original multimedia storytelling tools. One day soon it will become a sticker, a postcard, a poster, the homepage of a website, get animated, and become part of the Zeega storytelling tool, where audiences can take our sound and graphic elements, add theirs, and create new stories of their own.

Jay says our visuals are part of our brand. Even though he can’t stand the word “brand.” We’ve always thought of the microphone as a camera, we see the sound we record. Maybe our images are like another layer of sound, letting you listen more deeply.

Kitchen Sisters

Kitchen Sisters

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are the producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning NPR series, Hidden Kitchens and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Their most recent NPR series, The Hidden World of Girls aired on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. The Hidden World of Girls specials are hosted by award-winning writer and actress, Tina Fey. Their new radio and multimedia series, The Making Of…, a collaboration with KQED and AIR, looks at what people make in the Bay Area and why. The series is part of new public radio experiment, 10 independent producers collaboration with 10 stations throughout the country to create the new public radio programming of the future. The Kitchen Sisters are the producers of hundreds of stories for NPR and public broadcast about the lives, histories, art and rituals of people from all walks of life who have shaped our diverse cultural heritage. Their nationwide radio specials have been hosted by Frances MacDormand, Francis Coppola, Paul Auster and Willie Nelson, who narrated Hidden Kitchen Texas which was nominated for a James Beard Award and the inspiration for their book, Hidden Kitchens Texas: Stories, Recipes and More from the Lone Star State. Other noted Kitchen Sisters stories include: Waiting for Joe DiMaggio, Route 66: The Mother Road, The Nights of Edith Piaf, Carmen Miranda: The Life and Times of the Brazilian Bombshell, WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts, Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Memories of an Invented City, Tupperware, The Road Ranger, and War and Separation. The Kitchen Sisters are also involved in educating and training new voices for public media in an imaginative, artistic approach to storytelling. They have taught at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, the University of California Santa Cruz Social Documentary Graduate Program and frequently lecture and provide training at universities, festivals, workshops, radio stations, public forums and events throughout the country and abroad. They also train and work with interns, college students, and youth radio apprentices and participate in the life of the public radio community throughout the country. In addition to producing radio, Davia Nelson is a screenwriter and casting director. She lives in San Francisco. Nikki Silva is also a museum curator and exhibit consultant. She lives with her family on a commune in Santa Cruz, California.


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  • Claire Greene



    Uh oh, now I really need to see the picture of the “36 tamed rattlesnakes that they dressed in señorita gowns and trained to pull miniature Conestoga wagons.”
    Great piece, great graphics, great insights…and yeah, it often pays to talk so others can overhear you and maybe make you an offer you can’t refuse/didn’t anticipate, and it definetly pays to ask, ask, ask.
    Thanks once again to Davia and Nikki.

  • kitchensisters



    Hey Claire. Here’s the pathetic truth. We didn’t even think to bring a camera with us. I don’t think either of us owned a camera at that time. We had a ratched out cassette recorder and a 25 foot mic cord that had been run over by The Road Ranger when we had gone out and recorded him on patrol on Highway 17 a few weeks earlier. But watching the snakes slither across the floor with velcro on their backs hauling the conestoga wagon is an image still sharp in my mind. Thanks for the note. Davia

  • Tom Lopez



    Oh my god, what a delightful article. Wowie Zowie! You gals are so amazing. I take off my toupee and give a deep bow in appreciation of your ever evolving brilliance.

    • kitchensisters



      Señor Lopez, It’s so long since we’ve seen you. Why don’t you and your toupee come to Third Coast Festival in Chicago next weekend? That would make a lot of people happy.

  • Pat Hannon



    So enjoyed reading this piece. It gave such insight into the meticulous approach that Nikki and Davia employ across all aspects of their work. It’s no accident that their productions stand out. The actual Kitchen Sisters physical CDs are a joy to behold. The artwork and the written text is surperb (know I know why). It’s akin to holding the gate fold cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Can’t wait for the new series to air. Onward and upwards!

    • kitchensisters



      Hi Pat, Wish we were in Dublin with you, tipping a pint and talking radio once again. Thanks for writing. And for the kind words. No one has ever compared anything about the Kitchen Sisters to anything created by Pink Floyd. For that comparison, we will always be grateful!

  • Zak R.




    Thanks for this very important and instructional photo/essay.

    Here’s a question. Maybe Laura has some ideas too. For those of us who haven’t done much experimenting in the graphic design sphere, can you suggest some intuitive open-source software, perhaps akin to photoshop, to start experimenting within?

    all best,

    • Laura



      Dear Zak – My apologies but I’ve been out of town and thought that I sent my reply to yo and Jay but I guess my note didn’t stck as they say. I’m not aware of any open source graphic software but I would recommend using photoshop Elements which I believe is pretty affordable and works on PC and MAC. For the most part I imagine your end product would be for online not print. What Jay is referring to was a quick little jpeg/png that I cobble together using photoshop. I grabbed some images from the web that I modified by overlaying simple layers, added a photo of The Kitchen Sisiters and then added a layer of text, saved it as a Jpeg at the size I thought worked best for smartphone and web and attached it to an email. For the most part these days I want to make sure that the visual works well on a smartphone as that seems to be how I first see the majority of what is sent to me and then LATER I’ll see it online when I’m at computer. I hope this info is helpful. Let me know if you need anything further .

  • Jay Allison



    Yeah, I’m with Zak… Laura you sent me an email this week, containing a “poster” which, seemingly, you had designed in 10 seconds as a response to my email…. HOW?

  • kitchensisters



    Dear Transom Community, Our wee manifesto is about to leave the main stage and enter the Transom archive. Before it does, we wonder if you all might consider loading up your favorite graphic that you or your team created for one of your radio or multimedia projects. We would love to see what others are doing to convey their stories and endeavors. You can reach us at Best from the west, The Sisters K

  • Ken Mueller



    Hey ladies, it’s been a long time! I love this. I’m glad Jay included you here and allowed you to showcase this work. Hope all is well! –

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