“The soul is contained in the human voice,” says David Isay, creator of StoryCorps.
For nearly a decade, StoryCorps has been recording people’s lives. They have permanent booths in various locations, and traveling ones that stop around the country, where people can interview someone they love for 40 minutes. The mission is, “to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Isay spoke at Watermark Books in Wichita this week.
Isay explained the booths are designed to create an intimate space. The lighting is low, the interview participants are alone with just a facilitator who keeps notes on the interview as it progresses. “We see every interview as valuable and potentially sacred in people’s lives,” Isay says. “It’s an act of generosity when people come to the booth.”
They do take photographs of the participants, but Isay says, “We will never have cameras in the StoryCorps booth.” He loves the intimacy and power of the human voice, and said even if they were video interviews he would probably close his eyes to listen to them.
In the reception before the event, Isay mentioned that people are always surprised by something that comes out in the interview, even if it’s with someone the person has known all their lives. “The reason people get emotional is that listening is authentic and genuine,” said Isay. “Listening to a loved one tells them how much they matter.” And it reminds them their stories are important.
The StoryCorps website has a list of questions people can use to do their own interviews with people in their lives, without coming to a booth. They’ve been gathered over the years as ways to get people to talk about, “the great themes of human existence,” says Isay. As you might expect those are love and death, and not career paths.
“The trick is not to wait,” he says. StoryCorps has a “National Day of Listening” the day after Thanksgiving, when they encourage people to have these conversations. Of course, it can be done anytime. “It’s always an amazing experience to have these conversations,” he says. He knows of what he speaks. He says he recorded an interview with his father, and listened to it the first time at 3 a.m. the night his father died.
In the last decade, they’ve recorded about 50,000 interviews. Each conversation is recorded and the participants walk away with a CD. A second CD is made that goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, if the interview participants agree. Isay said more than 99% of people do agree.
I was first introduced to StoryCorps when I worked in public radio. Each week there’s a segment on Morning Edition. Now I listen to the podcasts regularly. However, that is not what StoryCorps was designed for. Isay explained that was merely a byproduct. “The real purpose is giving people a chance to have these conversations, to know their stories matter,” he says.
They are thrilled to have the Morning Edition segment, but only 1 of every few hundred interviews is edited down to a short segment for the radio. Recently they started doing animations of a few of the stories to appeal to a younger audience. Those are done for about 1 out of every 200 radio segments.
The series has also produced some books, including the latest, “All There Is,” which was just released in paperback. This particular one focuses on love stories. All of these things grew out of Isay’s passion to get people to record and preserve their stories.
StoryCorps works with about 500 non-profits every year to seek different voices who might not otherwise have an opportunity to record their stories. “For people who feel most silenced … this is a profound experience,” says Isay.
When producing documentaries earlier in his career, Isay gave equipment to teenagers to capture their personal stories. He says he learned as he heard them interview their grandmothers, great aunts and other people in their lives, “the microphone gave a license to have conversations they’d never had before.” StoryCorps was an outgrowth of that experience. He now spends most of his time raising money for StoryCorps. “I will devote the rest of my life into growing this, I hope, into a national institution,” he says.
He said StoryCorps is about celebrating the American story and being reminded to pay attention. “It’s amazing the poetry, the grace, the beauty you can find in people walking down the street if you just take time to listen,” he says.
“We’re seeing humanity at its best,” Isay says about the interviews. “When we do that we’re on holy ground,” he says. StoryCorps teaches us about humanity and the importance of listening. “One of the lessons of StoryCorps is to be in the present and take time to say things to people we love,” he says.
Greg was kind enough to take this photo of me with Dave Isay, who was incredibly personable and pleasant.