In 1996, the then-St. Petersburg Times published a series called Three Little Words.
It was striking for several reasons. It ran in short chapters, over 29 days throughout the month of February (it was a leap year). It featured a narrative about what was then a shameful family secret — AIDS.
It was the story of St. Petersburg resident Jane Morse and recounted her husband’s death and the anguish around his illness. It was written by Roy Peter Clark, who had worked at the Times as a writing coach until he joined the faculty at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. The newspaper continued to publish his work now and then as a contributing writer.
“In 1996, the reaction was overwhelming, and it came from so many directions,” Clark said. “Some readers were frustrated when I withheld a dramatic piece of information until another chapter. Many admired Jane and understood her struggle as the wife of a man with AIDS. But others wished that she had made different choices.”
The series is 25 years old this year, but it has been given new life as a podcast, available on your favorite podcast service today, which is World AIDS Day. The five-part series was written and produced by Austin Fast, a former Times intern. Fast is now an assistant producer with National Public Radio’s investigations team.
In the podcast, also titled Three Little Words, you will hear from the Morse family and get an update on their lives. And you will hear how the AIDS epidemic played out over these last decades and its striking parallels to the pandemic we’re living through.
“When it comes to disease, there is always fear and stigma,” Clark said. “The lessons of Three Little Words can help us find a more hopeful path.”
Go to www.tampabay.com/threelittlewords to find all the episodes of the podcast, read Clark’s original 1996 series and explore related bonus material like photos, news articles and video content.
For Fast, revisiting Three Little Words meant sharing the Morse family’s experiences through a different medium, with their own voices.
“The original series describes how Jane Morse wrestled through feelings of betrayal, but a sound bite can be worth a thousand words,” he said. “Listeners will immediately recognize those complicated emotions in the sighs and pauses, as Jane searches for the right words.”
Fast didn’t want the podcast to simply rehash the 1996 series, so he spent hours interviewing the family and health experts to move the arc of AIDS forward and into the 21st century. The pandemic limited his ability to shadow the family while reporting, but COVID-19 provided younger listeners with a frame of reference.
He came away inspired by the Morse family, who allowed such a personal story to be told in the first place. “I admire how close the Morse family remains today,” he said. “No family is without its issues, but I can tell there’s a lot of love there.”
Clark is still amazed that the Times supported his idea back then to spread the story over so many chapters. But the Times had produced serialized narratives before and as Clark, the teacher, points out: that style is an ancient form of storytelling that remains commonplace today. Think of TV series that plays out in that fashion and, of course, many of your favorite podcasts.
The Three Little Words podcast is a reminder that “AIDS is still with us. Almost 40 million people are infected with HIV the world over,” Clark said. “There is no cure. There is no vaccine. But here is the most important news: There are very effective treatments.”
Fast said it’s important to remember some people still fear and condemn HIV-AIDs patients.
“Roy Peter Clark wanted to help overcome that stigma 25 years ago,” Fast said, “and I hope this podcast will prompt conversations in communities still harboring that stigma today.”