Winner Stories August 21, 2017

Digital Storytelling with The Kitchen Sisters

Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva—The Kitchen Sisters—are the powerhouse audio producers behind some of the most engaging podcasts on the web. We chatted about their career, what makes a good story, and more.

In person, they go by Nikki and Davia. But online and in earbuds everywhere, they’re known as The Kitchen Sisters. For decades, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson have been creating insightful, original audio shows about the most interesting and unknown people, places, and things. And with two Webbys under their belt, including the 2017 Webby for Best Documentary Podcast, they continue to set the standard for storytelling online.

Long before anyone ever heard of The Kitchen Sisters (or the Internet), Silva and Nelson were hunting down the untold narratives around them, and stumbled into each other in the process. They met in the late ‘70s in Santa Cruz, California, where they both went to college and were pursuing their own projects post-graduation.

“I was walking around town with a cassette recorder, a microphone, and a 25-foot mic cord interviewing all the old people I could find,” says Nelson. “Nearly any time I knocked on a door to do an interview, the woman or man I was there to record would tell me about this nice young woman Nikki Silva who had just been on behalf of the local museum, borrowing their artifacts and stories for exhibits and collections.”

Nelson called the museum to get in touch with Silva, and they agreed to meet. The pair then started to work together, launching a creative partnership that has lasted for decades.

We started to teach ourselves to cut tape... I think those early days of experimenting and playing and working together are really at the root of our audio style and storytelling today.”
— Nikki Silva The Kitchen Sisters

The technology, however, was a far cry from today.

“We started to teach ourselves to cut tape—reel-to-reel tape cut with razor blades and held together with little bits of scotch tape,” says Silva. “I think those early days of experimenting and playing and working together are really at the root of our audio style and storytelling today.”

The two have also developed a distinct style for the way they produce their shows: There’s lots of found sound and field recordings to balance out the interviews. Few podcasts can give you a sense of a place just by listening, but Silva and Nelson are masters of their craft: “The ambience of a place can conjure subtle pictures—almost another narrative thread in a story,” says Silva.

The Kitchen Sisters have led the charge for well-researched, engaging documentary podcasts over the past few years, and podcasts in general have exploded in popularity. Why the sudden boom?

“Podcasts are so personal, so direct, so inventive,” says Nelson. They believe it’s because podcasts are perfectly suited to in-depth exploration, while also making stories come alive for the listener.

The Kitchen Sisters took home their first Webby back in 2000 for the Lost and Found Sound website, and they returned this year to accept the Webby for Best Documentary Podcast for The Kitchen Sisters Present. That first Webby was a watershed moment for the duo. “[It] brought us fully into the world of the Internet in all its creativity and splendor,” says Nelson. A lot has changed online since the turn of the new millennium, but Nelson and Silva continue to be among the most innovative creators in digital audio. It’s only natural that they’d be back again.

“We are so honored to be recognized by The Webbys, and so impressed with the care and thought that goes into these awards,” says Silva.

For two people with so much experience talking on-air, coming up with their 5-Word Speech was a surprising challenge. After some roundtable discussion, they decided to recognize the organizations that make their work possible: the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Without their support, “I don’t think we would have trusted our path,” says Silva. “We wanted to thank them and put forth a call to action.”

From cutting audio tape to creating some of the most dynamic podcasts on the Internet, Nelson and Silva have forged a powerful creative partnership as The Kitchen Sisters—and fascinated countless listeners across the globe. But it all started when two storytellers crossed paths one afternoon in Santa Cruz.

“It was supposed to be a half hour meeting,” Nelson recalls. “Instead it lasted 30 years.”

Make sure you check out The Kitchen Sisters Present, and if you’re looking for the scoop on another great show, have a look at our Winner Story with Marlo Mack, host of the How to Be a Girl podcast.