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Behind the Scenes with producer Ben Adair


Interview conducted by Julie Shapiro, 2001

So rumor has it that "The Stans" caused some controversy after it was aired. Can you explain some of the response you received? What was the age and gender of the people who complained? The full Stans story aired over two consecutive weeks on the show ( The Savvy Traveler ). Most of the complaints we received focused on a part of part one which dealt with many of the men on the trip discovering the Central Asian sex industry. Many outraged people (mostly women, but many men, too) felt my piece promoted sex tourism. There was a particular piece of tape where one of the travelers goes step by step through the process of bargaining down two women from $400 for a night of sex to $40. This was especially controversial. The second most popular complaint was that my story encouraged a sort of neo-colonialism through travel. That by talking about a group tour through this area, or participating in one, I was painting Central Asians in a poor light and somehow exploiting them and their severely disadvantaged situation. ### How was it handled?

We got a lot of complaints. The following week, we aired a special "letters segment" on the show and more or less said why we felt talking about these things was good and helpful, and that our listeners' reaction is actually a good thing. Personally, I'm glad people were offended; it shows their hearts are in the right place. I just wish that anger was directed at the real sources of the controversy (the awful economic situations that lead to a sex industry, those worldwide who participate in sex tourism), and not at me. ### Were the issues that came up via the complaints ones that had occurred at all to you during the production of the "The Stans," or were you surprised to hear about them from listeners? I wasn't surprised about the sex complaints. Sex tourism is a very touchy subject that Americans like to ignore and not talk about. I do wish I could have more strongly focused the critique to get at some of those real sources, though. But, then again, maybe there was this legion of listeners who did get it. The hard part of controversy is that you only hear from the people who didn't like it, you hardly ever hear from those do. I felt the other complaint -- the neo-colonialism -- was a reaction to the cavalier attitude people on the trip had toward the Central Asians. I went back and listened to the stories afterwards and what I said really echoed what I felt then: that these are regular people struggling through extraordinary circumstances. It's amazing to me that Central Asians are as nice and generous as they are, given the oppression of everyday life there. From your point of view, why was it necessary in the piece to include the controversial material? If you had the chance to produce the piece again, would you leave some of that material out of it? Sex was not only a huge issue in the stories; it was a huge issue during the trip itself. Likewise, so was the lust for danger and the First World arrogance you hear develop through part two. The thing is, we all talked about these things on the trip: the morality of sex, the economic situations, how not to take advantage of people in your everyday dealings with them and even what "taking advantage of them" means. To leave this stuff out would have been wrong. However, that said, let me toss this little wrinkle in on the sex issue: what I was attempting to address in the story was not "sex tourism," per se, but rather, how do you negotiate your sexuality while traveling? The story didn't answer that question, and I still don't have an answer to it personally. It's something I continue to think about and that I hope everyone thinks about when they travel to places like Central Asia, like Brazil, Costa Rica and Southeast Asia. It's really important. What did fellow travelers think of your production? You know, I was pretty impressed with their reaction. Most of them loved the stories. I focused in on two guys in particular during the sex part and one of them got really mad, but the other was okay with it. I haven't heard from Ted, the group leader since the stories aired and, given how he's portrayed, I understand, but I'm sad about that. Do you think it's important to stir things up on the radio landscape? Why or why not? I think it's important to talk about things that happen in everyday life, whether they're controversial or not. That said, I also think it's of vital importance not to brush things under the rug just because they make us uncomfortable or because they're enormously complicated. Public radio exists because we actually deal with real-life issues: we don't dumb everything down and say, "It will all be fine, as long as you don't sleep with the prostitutes." Are you more or less likely to try to work with potentially controversial material now? For that matter, what are you working on now? I'm very curious about these weird places between what we assume is right and wrong. These are places people don't like to talk about, so in that sense, I suppose, they lead to controversy. But it's very fascinating to me when you start questioning our very basic a priori. Right now I'm working on a much shorter story about intersecting social space in Los Angeles -- specific places where race and economy render whole groups of people invisible to each other; where everyone goes about their daily lives seeing only what they want to see. Oh, and what happens when you actively take those blinders off. What is the most memorable thing you've taken from the entire experience? Definitely the trip itself. Central Asia is a magical place. I have these vivid, amazing dreams about places like Bukara, Uzbekistan, about the Karakum desert and the Tian Shan mountains. If you can stand to travel in places without a developed tourist infrastructure, I highly recommend visiting at least Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It's really, really wonderful there. The tiled walls of the Registan, in Samarkand, overshadow the story's controversy by miles. What is your favorite type of cookie? A) vegan oatmeal chocolate chip (also known as cowgirl cookie) B) crappy grocery store iced-oatmeal -- purchased in early morning hours C) thin mints B. No question.