We Knew JFK came into being when independent producer Steve Atlas stumbled, quite by chance, across an extraordinary collection of audio recordings deep in the stacks of the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The recordings were one-on-one interviews, done half a century ago, with people who had known JFK personally. Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, these oral histories were conceived by the family of the late President Kennedy shortly after his death, as a different kind of memorial — one that would be constructed not from marble but from personal recollections.
Over time, the collection far outstripped the family’s initial expectations. Today it numbers over 1200 interviews, and constitutes perhaps the most extensive oral history collection ever amassed on a single individual.
As in Studs Terkel’s work, the characters who tell the JFK story are a diverse and vivid lot. From the blue-collar Boston Irish and Italians who helped a young unknown first get elected to Congress, to the venerable figures of the Thousand Days, they are strange bedfellows in all but one crucial respect — somewhere along the way, they crossed paths with Jack Kennedy, and came away with indelible memories of what was, in nearly every instance, the most important experience of their lives.
Recorded in most cases within a few years or even months of the president’s death, the interviews evoke the Kennedy era with uncanny immediacy. Further, they are unexpectedly, sometimes startlingly, candid – to discourage self-censoring, interviewees were offered the option of sealing their conversations from public view for stipulated periods of time, in some instances for their lifetimes or longer. As many participants accepted the offer, much of the material remained classified for decades. Today, with a few exceptions, the embargos have expired — many of them only recently — making this trove of long buried material available to the public for the first time.
Steve Atlas (Project Director) is an independent media producer formerly associated with flagship PBS station WGBH/Boston, where he spent two decades producing public affairs programming for the PBS system.
Glenda Manzi (Managing Producer) is a three-time Emmy Award winning producer with more than twenty-five years experience in television, radio, newspapers and Internet interactive media.
Kate Ellis (Producer) is an oral historian and accomplished producer of long form radio documentaries, books and research on twentieth century U.S. history and public affairs. Her radio credits include Say it Loud: Civil Rights and African American Identity; and A Better Life: Creating the American Dream.
Mitch Hanley (Associate Producer/Technical Director)
is a Peabody Award-winning radio producer and former senior producer of Speaking of Faith (now On Being). His program credits include A Prairie Home Companion, American RadioWorks, the Splendid Table, and The Writer’s Almanac.
Robert MacNeil (Presenter/narrator) is widely admired as one of the country’s most literate and accomplished journalists. Before his long and distinguished run with the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, he reported from all over the world for Reuters, ITV, the BBC, and for NBC News, where, as White House correspondent, he covered President Kennedy and was in the motorcade in Dallas.
Funding for this project, and for the original recordings fifty years ago, was provided by Carnegie Corporation of New York. Archival recordings are courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, whose staff provided invaluable support from the earliest days of the project. The program was produced in partnership with PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
And in memoriam: Michael Sullivan.