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Reconstruction Radio

A new podcast explores what the post-Confederacy South could learn from post-Nazi Germany.

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From the Unite the Right Rally and the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville to the Black Lives Matter movement’s toppling of Confederate statues in Richmond, RadioIQ reporter Mallory Noe-Payne began to discern a deeper pattern of dysfunction at the heart of American society with each story she covered.

Her desire to understand what is wrong with her homeland sent her to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship in 2020. The result of years of in-person interviews and meticulous research is her new hit podcast, “Memory Wars,” which dives into the ways that we remember the past and how that affects our present.

After six years covering policy and politics for WVTF, Southwest Virginia’s premier NPR affiliate, Noe-Payne was emotionally drained.

“Any journalist will tell you that it’s been a challenging time the past few years to do the job,” she says. “I needed a change of pace. It’s natural professional growth when you cover breaking and daily news and you start to see the same themes emerge again and again. You get naturally curious and begin to understand how the context of history informs today.”

Regardless of its Nazi past, modern Germany is largely known for its pacifism. The Confederacy in the South represented another cruel regime based on white supremacy. However, the systemic racism that defined that polity’s four-year reign continues to plague the United States to this day. So how has Germany tried to overcome its dark past? Noe-Payne seeks to offer an answer to that tricky and timely question over the six episodes that comprise “Memory Wars.”

One stereotypically German term that her podcast listeners will quickly learn is Vergangenheitsbewältigung —the process of reconciling the past in order to avoid repeating it.

“The premise from the get-go was the importance of hearing those stories from Germany and how it impacts our thinking on this side of the Atlantic about Reconstruction and remembrance,” Noe-Payne explains. “This podcast is a way to reframe and rethink our understanding of history.”

To delve into such sensitive subject areas, Noe-Payne knew she would need a partner and sounding board. Upon her return to the States she recruited as co-host Michael Paul Williams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Who better to talk about reconciliation with than a Black man in Richmond who has covered these issues for decades and can speak directly as to how he has seen firsthand this process of history unfold in America?” Noe-Payne continues. “I am a natural optimist and he’s a natural pessimist, so the two of us challenge one another -- and that's the energy I wanted brought to this podcast.”

The duo published the first two episodes of “Memory Wars”—a prologue and a tale of two reconstructions—on June 9th. Today marks the release of the third episode, “Hayley’s Story.” Additional episodes will appear in subscribers’ feeds twice per month into the first week of August. Besides offering Noe-Payne more time to make final edits to the series, the staggered releases serve a second purpose.

“This is a slow burn. My hope is that people have time to process and sit with things,” says Noe-Payne. “I don’t want people immediately jumping from one episode to the other because it’s tough material to binge.”

For now, “Memory Wars” will only be available wherever folks get their podcasts. However, by autumn Noe-Payne plans to make the necessary edits to make the series available for play on broadcast radio. As early as September, episodes of her podcast could be playing on WRIR, VPM, or her home station of WVTF—not to mention countless other public radio affiliates across the country potentially interested in such terrifyingly relevant subject matter.

Listeners who make it through to the end of “Memory Wars” may be disappointed to find that Noe-Payne doesn’t tie America’s racial reconciliation into a neat little bow. In her opinion, any attempt to stuff such challenging and complicated matters into a box would be a disservice.

“Whatever amount of this podcast’s content listeners engage with, I hope that they walk away with the same impression I have. Which is that this work—the work of engaging with a difficult past, processing and reckoning with trauma and the sin of a society—is really hard, neverending, and yet still possible,” Noe-Payne says. “We want it to be easy and to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘it’s all done,’ but that’s just not how it works.

“But it is possible, and it is worth it. Heck, it’s vital.”