Sisters Doing It for Themselves

Sisters Doing It for Themselves

Getting real on National Public Radio.

The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, teamed up as radio producers in 1979, when they were both running around Santa Cruz doing audio interviews—Nelson for a local radio station, Silva for a museum. Eventually the rich, intimate documentaries crafted by the two U.C. Santa Cruz grads (weirdly, they never met in college) began to appear on NPR, where today they produce popular series such as “The Hidden World of Girls” (an inside look at girldom) and “Hidden Kitchens” (a glimpse at regional recipes and cooking methods from around the country). Recently, I was able to get both “siblings” on the phone—Nelson lives in San Francisco, Silva on a Santa Cruz commune—to reveal just how they work their mutual magic. Perfect timing, too, as they’re in the process of writing (together, of course) a book about their highly collaborative career.

Paul Kilduff: Is it sort of like a marriage you guys have? Do you finish each other’s sentences?

Nikki Silva: Yup. It’s very much like a marriage. We were in a meeting yesterday with a lot of people that we don’t usually collaborate with and it’s like we kind of read each other’s minds. We just know exactly how the other one’s feeling about whatever has just been said. [We] know what people think and how they’re going to react. I think it can be used against someone and for someone, if you know what I mean.

Davia Nelson: We’re working on the chapter “How to Collaborate and Not Kill Your Collaborator.” It’ll be very useful to many people.

PK: But it sounds like it was an initial thing where you both knew immediately. You just hit it off.

NS: That doesn’t always happen, though. You can really like somebody and have it not be a great collaborative work process. I mean, a lot of people say that about their husband or wife, “We really love each other but we could never work together.” So I think that there’s another ingredient there. And maybe it’s a commitment to some common goal, to some common vision or aesthetics that you’re both working toward.

PK: Is it important to have clearly defined roles or do you mix it up?

NS: We have our own strengths, definitely, and we both do a lot of everything. When we started working together, we went out on every interview together and we developed our whole style together. We learned from each other and kind of came up with techniques together.

DN: Yeah, there’s so many of the same things that captivate us, that capture our attention, that draw us to the same kinds of people. [But] I can’t stay in the seat. I jump on a telephone, and I’m much more kind of exterior. Nikki does all the physical editing of our work. We conceptualize [our stories] together and work on them together, but she has this just beautiful meditative ability to stay and really craft it on the computer. I could do the analog cutting but my mind has never made that transition to the computer. I have more of the music collection and archives. It’s a collective but with each of us kind of having our stronger suits.

PK: Is there enough collaboration in the world these days? I mean, it seems like there isn’t, especially in Washington, D.C. Like we’re just in this polarization, can’t-get-anything-done mode.

NS: One of the things that makes collaboration really tough is when people start saying no. I mean, collaboration is just all about saying yes. “Let’s figure it out, let’s make it happen, we can do it.” That idea of collaboration is a certain commitment to making something work. I mean, that’s the goal. It’s not even about, really, the other person. It’s almost like this outside commitment to this goal of, “We’ve got to make it work.” And no matter how angry you get at the other person or how hard it is or painful, somehow you have to just keep that light going.

PK: Maybe that’s another series that you guys can produce.

DN: I want to do a series called “The Complicated Peace” for exactly those reasons. You think of just how difficult peace is to find in the world. All these cultures, these nations, these states, these neighborhoods. I mean, [think] just how much conflict there is right now, sort of an epidemic of conflict. And that we’re so interested right now in a shouting match and a kind of gotcha moment. So telling stories of peace, but also “the complicated piece” as in p-i-e-c-e, like someone struggling to invent something and when they [find] that moment of revelation. I haven’t told Nikki about it yet but I keep a list of titles that just kind of haunt me.

PK: I love radio, I know you guys do, I think a lot of people do—but have you ever thought about making a documentary film?

NS: Different things work in different mediums, but there’s something about radio. I think there’s the mystery and the intimacy that you feel when you’re listening to a really good radio story and you’re being led by your imagination versus an image that’s being presented to you.

PK: Yeah, I mean the fact that you can be tiling your bathroom floor and take it in.

NS: It doesn’t sort of tether you in the same way as if you’re watching a video or something else. It sort of allows you to explore the Internet or be loose from it in the room.

DN: I see our radio stories [as] sort of films in my mind. We’re always trying to evoke a sense of place and a feeling of being there. I think it’s Ira Glass that has that quote: “Radio is the most visual medium.” I’ve always kind of felt that these are little, sort of cinema stories. The great filmmakers—along with telling a great story, they know how to keep the people they’re connecting to feeling unthreatened. Sometimes I think how many of the people that we’re interviewing—if they’re toothless, they’re toothless, that’s fine. When you think about the telegenicness of the times we live in, I love that we don’t even have to think twice.

PK: It sort of brings up that whole anonymity of radio and that you don’t have to be concerned with how you look.

DN: We’re wearing pajamas to all the interviews we do. Only you know that, Paul.

PK: I did not shower before I did this interview.

DN: Yeah, exactly. So many things are done when people are in pajamas.

For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.


Age: “On the shady side of 50.”

Birthplace: Nelson, Los Angeles. Silva, Oakland.

Astrological sign: Nelson, Cancer. Silva, Aquarius.

Credos: “God loves radio.” “Say everything out loud.” “When in doubt, cook.”

Bonus fun fact: The Kitchen Sisters took their name from two 1940s-era Santa Cruz stonemasons known as the Kitchen Brothers. “It just seemed to fit.”


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