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When you started Story Corps in 2003, what were your hopes for it?
David Isay, Story Corps Founder: "Story Corps was started as this kind of crazy experiment. We launched this booth in Grand Central Terminal where families could come to interview one another about their lives with the help of a trained facilitator, so I didn't know what was going to happen to be perfectly honest. I mean, I had a hunch that it could work, but I certainly had lots of fears about things going wrong in the booth and kind of Jerry Springer moments and all kinds of awful things happening, but from the first day that we opened I've been really amazed and moved by the impact that these simple conversations has on people, and it's worked in ways I never could have imagined. You know I used to make radio documentaries for public radio, and about nine months after starting Story Corps I decided to retire from that job to devote the rest of my life to attempting to grow Story Corps into a sustaining American institution which is what I will devote the rest of my life to doing. So, every moment of the last nine years has been a surprise and a happy surprise with Story Corps. We've now done close to 50,000 interviews with about 100,000 people across the country, and each day I'm more convinced of the power of this simple process."
I think what people like about it is it gives ordinary people a voice. Is that kind of what you had in mind when you started it?
"Absolutely. You know, it's very much a project about everyday people, and, you know, I remember the great oral historian Studs Terkel cut the ribbon on our booth when we launched in Grand Central Terminal--he's since passed away. He was in his 90s at the time when he came to New York from Chicago--and he cut the ribbon and said, you know, 'we know who the architect of Grand Central Terminal was, but, you know, who laid these floors? Who built these walls? Those are the stories you must collect in the years to come,' and, you know, we've worked body, soul and kind of every cell of our energy to live up to that mandate he threw down. I think it's about the fact that every day people are talking. It's about the fact that, you know, in some ways it's the polar opposite of reality TV. Noone comes to Story Corps to get rich. Nobody comes to get famous. It's a simple act of generosity between two people, and, you know, one of the powers of radio is that you can tell when someone's being authentic and when someone's not, you know, that's the human voice. And when you hear these Story Corps interviews, you know, people are just being generous, kind and real with one another, and that's the power of the broadcast side of Story Corps."
And, as National Day of Listening approaches on Friday, KSMU held some workshops on how to interview people. One of the questions that I was asked was 'do you have visit a Story Corps booth in order to archive those in the Library of Congress?' What are the options?
"The National Day of Listening, which is this holiday we started five years ago and will continue to do year by year, hopefully grow it a little bit every year, is kind of a Story Corps do-it-yourself project, so you use the kind of Story Corps methodology to take an hour out--we suggest on the day after Thanksgiving--but that's kind of a conceit--you can do it any day you want although you do want to do it. That's the thing about doing these interviews--you don't want to wait, you know, if you have a relative or someone who you wanted to interview you do want to take that hour out and do it. I lost my dad a couple of months ago very very suddenly, and, you know, listening to the Story Corps interview I had done with him on the night he died really--couldn't believe in Story Corps more that I do, but that was the night where the rubber hit the road and I understood what it is we were doing here. The do-it-yourself interviews don't go to the Library of Congress. The have extremely high standards for what they'll allow in the collection there, but to some extent the way that we're working in these digital worlds now, these files that you create will live forever. To some extent you don't need the Library of Congress although it's one of the powers of Story Corps--people realizing that their story is important enough to go to Library of Congress. Well, Library of Congress or not, the stories are very important. We have a partnership with a website called Sound Cloud that we just started this year, and, once you do your interview, there's a very simple program to kind of hit send and have this go up to Sound Cloud into our virtual Story Corps archive--again, not in the Library of Congress but an archive that should live for a long, long, long, long time. Sound Cloud is kind of the You Tube of audio, so, while we can't accept it for the Library of Congress, it will exist for a long time, and if you do an interview with a loved one, I would strongly suggest that you keep copies in a safe place even though in the Cloud it should live for awhile you don't want to lose something like that."
I'm so sorry about the loss of your dad. It really highlights the need to do these interviews before it's too late...
"I have done a lot of National Day of Listening interviews, and I can't tell you how many of the hosts of these interviews have said, 'I had been meaning to interview my father, my brother and I waited too long.' And one of the things that I hope that this conversation and the National Day of Listening will remind people is just don't wait. There are two things I can promise about every one of these interviews you do, and one is...that the microphone gives you the license to have conversations you don't normally get to have. So, you're going to find out something, at least one thing about the person you're interviewing that you never knew before. It's gonna happen. We've done 50,000 interviews, and that's happened in every single interview that we've done. And the other thing is--after you've done the interview you're not gonna regret it. It's gonna be something you're really really glad you did. And, as you said, you don't want to wait. It's just an hour of your time. Most of us have cellphones, most of us have computers and, if not, you can certainly borrow a cellphone from somebody you know. You know, shut the door, turn off the TV and sit with a parent, a grandparent--this year we have a special focus on veterans, so find someone who's served this country or a family member or someone who's served this country and do an interview. It's really a remarkable experience."
There may be some people who are a little bit reluctant to interview someone just because they're not sure how to get started. Just to let everyone know, your website has lots of great advice. What is your web address and just talk a little bit about what some of that advice is...
"Well, we have two websites. One is storycorps.org and that will lead you directly to the website that has the do-it-yourself instructions, which is nationaldayoflistening.org, and I guess there's two sides to it: one is anxiety about doing the interview itself. You know, you just want to dive in and do it. The facilitators who have been in the booth for the 50,000 interviews that we've done will always tell participants just to ask that question that they really want to ask at the beginning of the 40-minute session because the sessions go by so fast. So, what you want to do is you want to prepare questions, and on our website we have something called a question generator that has the ten most frequently asked questions and hundreds of others. Ask questions you want to ask, and, you know, I think the biggest impediment to doing this is just taking the time to do it, and you just want to kind of dive in and ask that person who you want to do the interview to do the interview, and odds are they're going to say yes because everyone wants to be listened to. You know, on the other side you've got a family member who's like, 'I don't have any story to tell,' and, you know, those are invariably the people who, after the 40-minute interview, you have to kind of drag them out of the booth by their ears. You don't want to force somebody to do a Story Corps interview, but as I said a moment ago, most people do want to be heard, and if it's, say, your parent and they're not responding to your request for an interview you might want to say, 'look, this isn't for you, this isn't for me. This is for our grandkids, our great grandkids,' and that will often kind of explain to people why they're doing this. Another thing you may want to do is if there's a grandkid that might have an easier time with the grandparent than you doing the interview with your parent, have your kid do the interview and that can sometimes melt those barriers down. But again, if someone really doesn't want to do it, you just don't do it, but the vast vast majority of the people do want to participate."
And one final question before we go, what is your goal for the future of Story Corps?
"Our dream with Story Corps is that someday this will be a sustaining American institution that touches the lives of every American family, so we hope that this will be part of the fabric of the country, that people will do interviews with family members, that people will experience the Story Corps stories, that holidays like the National Day of Listening will become real national holidays. I think the bottom line with Story Corps when you drill down to what these stories you hear on the radio or read in our books or these interviews are all about is that every life matters equally. And we hope that we'll move the needle just a little bit on this country on getting people to recognize that if we spend a little more time listening to each other and a little less time screaming at each other we'd be a better and stronger country, encourage listening, encouraging people to treat one another with respect and dignity and reminding people that, you know, every voice counts. Every life matters."