StoryCorps began with the idea that everyone has an important story to tell. Since 2003, this remarkable project has been collecting the stories of everyday Americans and preserving them for future generations. In New York City and in mobile recording booths traveling the country—from small towns to big cities, at Native American reservations and an Army post—StoryCorps is collecting the memories of Americans from all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. The project represents a wondrous nationwide celebration of our shared humanity, capturing for posterity the stories that define us and bind us together.
In Listening Is an Act of Love, StoryCorps founder and legendary radio producer Dave Isay selects some of the most remarkable stories from the already vast collection and arranges them thematically into a moving portrait of American life. The voices here connect us to real people and their lives—to their experiences of profound joy, sadness, courage and despair, to good times and hard times, to good deeds and misdeeds.
To read this book is to be reminded of how rich and varied the American storybook truly is, how resistant to easy categorization or caricature. Above all, this book honors the gift each StoryCorps participant has made, from the raw material of his or her life, to the Americans who will come after. We are our history, individually and collectively, and Listening Is an Act of Love touchingly reminds us of this powerful truth.
Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and its parent company, Sound Portraits Productions. Over the past two decades his radio documentary work has won nearly every award in broadcasting, including five Peabody awards. Dave has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a United States Artists Fellowship. He is the author (or coauthor) of four books based on Sound Portraits radio stories, including Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago and Flophouse. He and his wife, Jennifer Gonnerman, live in Brooklyn.
A. StoryCorps is about celebrating and honoring each others’ lives. We launched four years ago in October 2003 in Grand Central Terminal with a very simple idea. We built a booth where you bring your mother, father, friend, or anyone in your life that you want to interview. A StoryCorps facilitator, who serves a one year term-of-duty, meets you and your partner at the booth. The facilitator brings you inside the booth and closes the door. The lights are low, you are in complete silence, and the space is designed to feel almost sacred. For forty minutes you sit across from your loved one and you look into their eyes and ask whatever questions you want to ask. Most people ask the big life questions: “what are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?” “how do you want to be remembered?” (we have scores of questions at our Question Generator at StoryCorps.net/questions). At the end of the interview, two CDs have been burnt—one goes home with the participants and the other goes to the Library of Congress to become part of an oral history of America. It started four years ago as an idea, and has caught on like crazy. We’ve grown ten times in size over the past four years, and our not-for-profit organization is one of the fastest-growing in the United States.
Q. What was your inspiration for the StoryCorps project?
A. There were lots of inspirations for the project. Oral historian, Studs Terkel, who cut the ribbon on our first booth, is a huge hero to me. One of our traveling StoryCorps booths is actually named after him.
Listening to the amazing oral history recordings that were made as part of the Works Progress Administration “Federal Writer’s Project” in the 1930s and 1940s was also an inspiration. Historians and folklorists traveled across the country collecting the stories of everyday people using huge acetate disc recording machines. Listening to these voices just takes you back in time. The WPA recordings remain the single most important oral history collection ever gathered. I’m proud that the StoryCorps collection sits alongside the WPA recordings at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
I had also been doing radio documentaries for about 20 years before starting StoryCorps. This documentary work, which focused on the lives and stories and poetry in the words of everyday people, led directly to the creation of StoryCorps.
Q. How did you select the 50 stories included in the book out of the 15,000 interviews recorded to date?
A. We combed through the 10,000 interviews that had been recorded up to the time we began writing the book, and the notes that facilitators keep during the recording session. We picked the ones that we thought might work best on the printed page. Some of these had appeared as StoryCorps segments on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” but many had not. We transcribed several thousand of the stories, read them through, and cut them down until we arrived at the 50 that we thought really electrified the page and spoke to the core messages of StoryCorps, which is that our stories, the stories of regular people, are just as interesting and important as the kind of celebrity nonsense we are barraged with everyday.
Q. Can you explain why you divided the collection of interviews into themes?
A. I met with our editor and publisher at Penguin Press about two months after StoryCorps launched, and we spoke about the possibility of doing a book. They were very encouraging despite the fact that the project was as yet largely untested. We decided to wait until after StoryCorps launched as a national project (in 2005) to make sure we had stories representing the entire US, not just New York City. When we hit 10,000 interviews we put together the book. When we looked at the stories we had chosen, we saw that they fell naturally into five categories—Home and Family, which consists of stories about growing up and family lives; Work and Dedication, stories about people’s jobs, or the work that their parents did; Journeys, stories of overcoming adversity or challenge; History and Struggle, which shares personal stories about historic events like the Depression and the civil rights era and Vietnam; and Fire and Water; which presents stories from the two most significant moments in the past few years, September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina. These themes became the narrative structure of the book.
Q. What kind of portrait of America do these stories weave?
A. If you were an alien dropped down on earth and watched popular or tabloid media, you might think we are a country of Internet sex predators, spoiled children of billionaires and want-to-be reality TV contestants. That is not who we are as Americans. The real Americans are the vast majority of people who care about their families and communities, and live lives defined by quiet acts of courage and kindness, and sometimes even heroism. In gathering stories for StoryCorps from every corner of the country I’ve seen who we really are as Americans and it is absolutely inspiring.
Q. What are some or your favorite questions from the StoryCorps interviews?
A. I am a big fan of asking questions of the heart like, “What are the most important lessons you have learned in life?” and “What are you most proud of?” These are the kind of questions that allow people to reflect on their lives and all that they’ve learned and impart wisdom to future generations. But the best questions are always the questions that the participants really want to ask and really want to know. StoryCorps is a citizen generated oral history—it’s people that care about each other asking questions and listening closely. So it’s whatever comes from the heart during the course of an interview session that is the best question of all. Every interview has the potential to be something of a sacred experience for participants.
Q. How do you ensure that the StoryCorps interviews represent a wide range of Americans?
A. Most people who participate in StoryCorps know about us from NPR, where we broadcast a segment each Friday on “Morning Edition.” We do a lot of work to reach both the public radio community and beyond. Wherever we go with StoryCorps, we reserve interview slots for communities and organizations that might not have heard about us on public radio. Our outreach is to all sorts of folks whose stories might not typically be represented in the mainstream media—from homeless people, to people with HIV to veterans to inner-city school groups. We work very hard to ensure that the stories we gather represent the full spectrum of lives and stories that are found in this country. Our mobile booths have made about 80 month-long stops since launching in 2005. They have traveled to big cities to Native American reservations to penitentiaries to the smallest hamlets. We also ask for a donation of $10 for each interview, but if you can’t afford the donation, you can participate for free. This guarantees that the opportunity is available to anyone.
Q. Why is it important to keep the oral tradition alive and focus on each other’s stories at this particular moment in time?
A. I think that anytime is a good time to focus on the stories of the people who matter to us. We’re at a point where we’re deluged 24-7 with stories of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan everywhere we turn. I think it’s important to take a deep breath, turn off the TV, and focus on the people around us and the stories that are really important and that inspire us. StoryCorps is a project about getting people to listen to each other. At its core the project tells people that they matter and they won’t be forgotten. In the midst of all of the technology that we’re barraged with and often distracted by—Blackberries, the Internet, endless cable television stations—StoryCorps is about setting aside time to focus on someone important to you face-to-face; telling them you love them through listening. It’s about honoring people who matter to you.
Q. What has the response been to StoryCorps since you launched the first booth in 2003?
A. It’s been absolutely overwhelming. StoryCorps is a very simple idea, but it really seems to resonate. I think it’s a message that people want to hear—this idea of the importance of honoring families by listening carefully and the value of authentic stories. And that’s what StoryCorps is all about—when you hear these stories on public radio or read them on the page, there is no denying that you are experiencing something that is genuine. We live in a society now where sometimes it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s an advertisement. People have been so touched and responded so deeply to StoryCorps and it surprises and inspires me everyday.
Q. What does the future hold for you and the StoryCorps project?
A. I was a public radio producer for many years, but I am going to devote the rest of my life to seeing this project take root and helping to build StoryCorps into a national institution. I hope that StoryCorps will become part of the fabric of life in this country, a project that helps to document and define who we are as a nation. We want to make sure that StoryCorps is accessible to anybody who wants to participate anywhere in the nation. I believe that StoryCorps has the potential to grow into an institution that will live on for generations, helping Americans connect and listen to one another and helping them to recognize how amazing and important our stories are. These stories of everyday people remind us how great it is to be alive. I see us as being at the very beginning—the first pitch of the first out of a very long game.