Journalist and radio producer Dave Isay firmly believes that every person has a story to tell, one that the world needs to hear, and he’s been working on figuring out how to gather these stories together so everyone can share in them. It all comes down to taking the time to listen.
THE LOST STORIES
It started, the guy says, when he was a young lad. He was a loner and a nerdy sort who preferred talking to older people.
One time he “interviewed” his grandparents and other family elders gathered for Thanksgiving using an old tape recorder he had found packed away in a box at his grandparent’s house. The old ones were happy to entertain the boy with their stories. He was enthralled and a good time was had by all.
The elders died after a time, he says, and the old tape he had made of their voices telling stories for their young relative was lost. Isay has always regretted that loss.
This animated YouTube video tells that story (in the inimitable StoryCorps style) as an introduction to the ongoing work of the massive oral history project that he initiated.
HEARING THE CALL
Years later, Isay was a 21-year-old, freshly graduated from NYU. He was waffling about whether he really wanted to follow the family tradition of slogging through medical school to become a doctor and took a year off to figure out what he wanted to do. While he was wrestling with that problem the confused young man decided to try his hand at being a journalist.
Isay’s very first attempt at putting together a documentary was for a story about the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a series of violent, spontaneous protests by the LGBT community against an early-morning police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay dance bar, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
The raid was part of the constant harassment and bullying the gay community faced during those times.
It was a raid just like any other raid, but this time, someone got mad. Someone said, “Enough. Other people joined him. The angry protests spread and the Gay Liberation Movement was born.
In this YouTube video, “Remembering the Stonewall Riots” published in 2013 by Open Road Media, Martin Duberman, author of STONEWALL, talks about the significance of the riots.
Isay was really pleased with his work on that first documentary. It seemed to him that he had found his calling.
He withdrew from medical school and started making documentaries. His favorites were about the ones about ordinary people. The man’s life-work has been built on listening to stories.
The company he built, Sound Portraits Productions, is an independent production company dedicated to telling stories about America’s ghettos, prisons and other neglected and hidden American communities in print, on the radio and on the internet.
The company mission statement is emblazoned on the bottom of their emails: “Sound Portraits Productions…Documenting a Hidden America.”
IT’S BEEN DONE BEFORE
It’s not a new idea, nor one for which Isay takes credit. Instead he lists the ones he calls his heroes, other documentarians of the disenfranchised and the unheard:
- Joseph Mitchel, the New York journalist of salon-keepers and street preachers
- Dorethea Lange and Walker Evans, the great WPA photographers
- Studs Terkel, oral historian extraordinaire
- Alan Lomax, folk-life archivist
- Alex Kotlowitz, documentarian of ghetto life.
Sound Portraits Productions went on to create award-winning radio documentaries that were featured on PBS.
Isay has said, “When we feel we’ve succeeded it’s because we’ve managed to expose – truthfully, respectfully – the hidden, forgotten, or under-heard voices of America. And where and when we fail it’s because we’re short of this mark.”
But the little boy who listened wanted to do more. So many people had stories they wanted to tell and the world needed to hear, but there was no way for them to tell the stories. Nobody even knew they were there.
STORYCORPS IS BORN AND GROWS AND GROWS
In October, 2003, the first StoryCorps soundproofed “Story Booth” opened in the Grand Central Terminal in New York City with an open invitation for people to interview one another. Friends, loved ones, even relative strangers were given the chance to conduct 40-minute interviews with help from the StoryCorps facilitators.
Anyone could make an appointment to record a session and it was a free service. One person was the interviewer, the other was the storyteller, relating some aspect of the life they’ve lived. The facilitator helped the participants record the interview.
Tens of thousands of people went for it.
The storytellers and their listeners got a safe place where they could hold uninterrupted, meaningful conversations and ask and answer the important questions that very often get lost in the everyday daily grind of life. They also got a copy of the recording as a memento.
Another copy of the recording session was retained by the Story Corps and the stories became a weekly feature of the Morning Edition of NPR (National Public Radio) since 2005. (They’ve also been used to create animated shorts which can be viewed on the NPR website.)
The original Grand Central Station StoryBooth was closed down and a new one erected at Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square in July, 2005.
Meanwhile, that same year, StoryCorps converted two Airstream trailers into mobile recording studios and launched them from the Library of Congress parking lot. They’ve been touring the country ever since.
Here’s a YouTube video published by StoryCorps, “On the Road Since 2015,” that illuminates that story.
A second semi-permanent StoryBooth opened in San Francisco in 2008. Over time, additional booths opened in Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee and Nashville as well.
The StoryBooths, both permanent and mobile, were the major collection points for the stories at first, but not everybody could make it to them. The organization developed a couple of community programs to collect these other stories as well.
There’s the “Door-to-Door” service that sends teams of StoryCorps facilitators to temporary recording locations in the United States for several days at a time.
There’s also the “StoryKit” service that was started when the New York booth closed down in 2011 for a time due to a lack of funding. Professional-quality, portable recording devices were shipped to participants around the country for this one.
Another workaround that was developed was the “Do-It-Yourself” service that allowed individuals to download free step-by-step interview instructions, equipment recommendations and a “Great Question” list. This one was for people who wanted to conduct interviews using their own recording equipment.
A DAY FOR LISTENING
In 2008 StoryCorps launched an initiative called “the National Day of Listening” to encourage Americans to record stories with family members, friends and loved ones on Black Friday, the pre-Christmas shopping bonanza that occurs the day after Thanksgiving.
Then in 2015, the day was rebranded as “The Great Thanksgiving Listen” when StoryCorps launched their StoryCorps App.
Teams worked with teachers and high school students across the country. The kids interviewed their elders and recorded their stories over the holiday weekend on an app on their smartphones.
The free app was developed by StoryCorps with the support of a 2015 TED Prize and 2014 Knight Prototype Fund award. It allows users to record the interviews on a smartphone. Users can upload their interviews to the StoryCorps.me website.
Over the years, there have been collaborations and initiatives with groups, organizations and institutions from all over the country that target various segments of the American population as well.
Stories have been collected from the military, from people suffering memory loss, from Latinos and from African-Americans, from LGBTQ community, from people in prisons and the criminal justice system, and from those personally affected by the events of September 11, 2001.
Also, there’s the StoryCorps Legacy community program which partners with medical and disease specific organizations to provide opportunities for people with serious illness and their relatives to record and share their life story as well.
A LIVING RECORD
With the participants’ permission, the stories collected by all of these efforts (including the ones recorded on smartphones) are archived in the Library of Congress’ American Folklore Center. It constitutes the largest single collection of “born-digital” recorded voices in history. It is a massive living record of American lives by the people who lived it and it is magic.
The stories are slices of life that have been used in a wide range of projects. The collection has been useful as a resource for various researchers in language, speech-recognition, and history among other things..
Over the years StoryCorp founder Dave Isay has published five books full of stories from the collection as well.
- LISTENING IS AN ACT OF LOVE: A Celebration of American Life From the StoryCorps Project (2007)
- MOM: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps. (2010)
- ALL THERE IS: Love Stories from StoryCorps (2012)
- TIES THAT BIND: Stories of Love and Gratitude From the First Ten Years of StoryCorps (2013)
- CALLINGS: The Purpose and Passion of Work (A StoryCorps Book) (2016)
One of the participants who conducted an oral-history interview with her grandmother in the Grand Central Station StoryBooth was featured in a Library of Congress blog post about the archive and how it was made.
Sharon DeLevie-Orey explained, “Last year my sister and I came to StoryCorps with my then-91-year-old grandmother. We had this fantastic interview, in which my grandma was candid and funny and loving.
“Yesterday she died. I just took out my StoryCorps CD and noticed the date, a year to the day. Tomorrow will be her funeral. I could only listen to about 20 seconds before bursting into tears,” she says, “but I am so grateful that I have this. Sure, I could have taped her anytime in the last 41 years. But I didn’t. Now the reward is so huge.”
Her conclusion: “Everyone should do StoryCorps—because we don’t live forever.”
Sharon’s story is echoed by many others who have participated in the StoryCorps process as well. For many it was the “best 40 minutes of my life” that added meaning and mana to their ordinary life.
Here’s a poem:
TO AN OLD STORY TELLER
The thing about telling a story
In the first person
With you at the center of it all,
Looking out from your inner sanctum,
Looking back down
Old roads and paths once traveled,
Is that you know and I know:
You lived to tell the tale.
No matter how many thrills
And chills and spills you call up,
The fact is that you’re still standing here
Under this old sun,
Remembering days gone by –
Times of high adventure and
Moments that touched infinity –
Remembering old friends and old foes,
Remembering the mountains and the valleys
Hiding in the mists of your memory.
The quiet times make a matrix
Where light plays in the dark
As you hum an old song
And conjure up the dreams
Of the days when you were young and stupid
And the world was new to you.
You are an old survivor.
And me, I am one too.
It’s a marvelous thing to sit,
Leaning against this pillow,
Listening to the dream of you.
by Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: “Wall” by Apionid via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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26 thoughts on “LISTEN UP”
This is absolutely brilliant!
The niche, the writing, the how you put those elements together, you have such a talent!
I am very much inspired.
Very interesting, I enjoyed it so much!
Keep up your excellent work!
I couldn’t find anything to criticize about 🙂
Beautiful work. Maybe the contents are a bit too long? maybe not…
Hey Kaz: Thanks for your visit and for your comment. This past couple of months I’ve been trying to do longer posts. I like them, but you are right. Maybe they do pile on too many ideas all at once and it’s like an overdose on Thanksgiving dinner. I’ll keep working on trying to get the mix right….
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Very interesting to read, mainly because this is far from my interests so its cool to read about other peoples journeys and passions that aren’t aligned with your own. It’s also so cool to read about the consistency in one’s path and maintaining that passion. Cool article to read brotha!
I do thank you for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.
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The first I hated the poems when I was high school. It was because of bored. Then I went to class at the college. There was English class as same way I still hated it, but I had to. Although the reason for helping me to learn how write English, then later do write poem. My heart has been becoming very interesting. So, I started to read poem, because it made my head opened mind and heart grew. Yes, I am falling in love with the poems, because they inspired me since at college (I already graduated 4 yrs ago).
I am so glad I found your website, because I wanted to read poem. After reading your poem… It is soooo beautiful! I enjoyed it very much. Keep it up 🙂
Thank you for your visit and for sharing your experiences. You are right. Sometimes poems are an acquired taste, especially when they are in another language and from some other culture. I tell people that the very best poems are often song lyrics. Perhaps that might be another way to feed your poetry love. (My own favorite poets are singers Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson….)
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You have written such a thorough and detail article with some great descriptive explanations about Isay.
I agree with the view of David Isay in your introduction that everyone had a story to tell and the world should know it. For me that is a very powerful statement that is full of compassion in my view.
Welcome back, Darren. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I do appreciate it.
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Love reading and writing poetry. I think it is an awesome idea to record your loved ones and their stories, at any age because we do not all get to live until we are as old as some grandparents are. It is a wonderful gift to have wonderful people in your life that you love and that love you. So we should always value the time we have with loved ones and we should all want to record and save the best stories from our loved ones, no matter what age.
Thank you for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Shy. I do agree with you.
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Oh the way you write will not stop mesmerising me. You have again given me a reason to be inspired by your post.
I have always agreed that we should always spend time with our loved ones and listen to their story. Everyone has a story to tell and that’s a very good thing.
I’m happy that you can put in good work everytime here. I love visiting. Cheers!
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, John. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
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I would never stop coming to this site because I always learn immensely anytime I read any article here.
The story of Isay here has really inspired me and you learn how best to document for the later because we would all not live forever and the single moment documented could help sustain for a lifetime.
I really need to do a transcop too. Though I am mature enough now, irrespective, documenting by recording through an interview just like the kids would do is what I need to do too.
I guess I would visit my grandma this week to have mine done too. Listening is really a blessing.
RoDarrick, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad the post spoke to you.
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OMG, I really love this, really brilliant and creative. I’ve really enjoyed reading through every line of this post, really creative and I must say you have the writing skills. I believe in consistency and determination in pursuing one’s passion and fulfilling one’s dream. Thanks for sharing this post, ive really learnt in abundance and I’m sure it I’ll help in my endeavors. I really love it.
Jones, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad it was interesting to you.
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Everyone has a story to tell of their life,the triumphs and the tragedies, and especially our parents and grandparents,things that they went through,can be a tremendous help and a blessing to us on our earthly journey,apart from the sentimental aspect that we put such store by.
We also need to listen, to the stories of those who are from persecuted minority groups,who have been unfairly treated or even attacked,or lost their jobs,sometimes just because of the racial group they belong to,and we need to get together an action group to defend them,or to fight for their rights.
The idea of the Story Booth at Grand Central Terminal, is really great, inviting a constant stream of people, to interview each other and tell their stories,with a facilitator from StoryCorps providing help,in recording their interviews.and also the person got a copy of their story and another copy was used and broadcast on National Public Radio,so the nation got to hear it as well,then the StoryBooths sprung up in several other cities,a great project.
One of the later developments, is that teachers and highschool students ran a project,using an app on their smart phones to record their elders stories,from there the interviews were uploaded, to the StoryCorps website. With the participants permission these and many other groups efforts,ar archived in the Library of Congress’American Folklore Centre,and is the largest single collection of “born digital” recorded voices in history.
We need to get the stories of hidden people groups,such as those in prisons,Latinos,African Americans,patients and staff of hospitals,mental facilities,and from those,affected by natural disasters,war,and terrorism,such as the families of those affected by the events of September !! th 2001.
Robert, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I especially like your idea of getting the stories of the “hidden” peoples — refugees and others who have been affected by disasters of one sort or another, marginalized groups and those who don’t get heard. That would be a worthy addition to the collection, I am thinking.
History used to be written by the winners of any conflict. Maybe this effort will balance that.
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Whenever I read your articles, I always have this good feeling in me that is always happy because I’ve learned a very useful and resourceful thing in the short period of time.
I love how you’ve put this together. It is very understandable and it is as clear as it can be. I look forward to seeing more.
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Bruce. I do appreciate it and am glad you found the post interesting.
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Yes everyone has a story to tell. I believe that as well.
Anyone, if given an ear and the right platform, can tell wonderful stories from real life experiences of their past through all the up and downs.
I believe Isay also told his story about how he did the first interview of his grandparents. He told his story of his struggles until he became a journalist and having a production company making documentaries.
I also have my story. Interesting read, thanks.
Energy, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you found the post interesting.
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This is the first time I heard about StoryCorps. This is very interesting and I agree with Isay that everybody has a story to tell. It is very interesting to learn about someone else journey. There are no easy paths. Only passion and patience can help to cross.
I was also a poet, I actively wrote my poems in 2007. Now I just “retire” and do it when I am free as a hobby, still.
Did you got your poem inspired by Isay? That is very nice poem.
Lana, thank you for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you still enjoy writing your poems. Perhaps you might like to share one? I do make room for other people’s poems in this thing. (Check out the “Guest Poet Portal.”)
Usually, my posts are inspired by the poems I write rather than the other way around. (Thanks for asking.)
My poems come out of my own life-experiences and what I think and feel about them. They’re actually a way to take a clearer look at what is going on in my own world. It is always fun to find others who are doing the same thing as well and who build their lives around questions that they find important to answer.
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Isay’s story is very interesting. And I have also discovered from my own experience how important it’s to listen. Some people are just thinking in what they are going to say next. But when you take time to plunge into the scenario the other person is drawing, that’s when interesting connections happen.
Abel, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. You’re right. Interesting connections happen when you take the time to settle into another person’s story.
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