StoryCorps puts flesh on bones of history

By Jeremy Egner

StoryCorps opened booths, sent out trailers to record extraordinary ordinary folks like the Perasas (inset). (Photos: Sound Portraits Productions.)

Danny and Annie Perasa enjoyed the sort of dream marriage promised in diamond ads and sappy romantic comedies, only it all actually happened.

All the laughs, the finished sentences, the little love letters — “glorified weather reports,” Annie called them — that Danny would leave for “my princess” each morning on the kitchen table at home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

All the funny stories. Like the one about Danny, with his monumentally bad eyesight, mistaking a herd of goats in St. Martin for a pack of “really incredible leaping dogs.” Or about the time he befriended a crew of Hells Angels on Long Island, who put him on the back of a chopper and gave him a lift to the train station.

“He did things his way,” Annie, laughing, recalled last week.

Perasa would have happily done so in anonymity but instead he became famous on public radio as an extraordinary ordinary guy. In 2003, a friend persuaded him to record his first interview in Grand Central Terminal for StoryCorps, the ambitious oral history project launched just two weeks earlier by award-winning radio producer Dave Isay.

The project, conceived to record and collect personal stories from thousands of everyday Americans, soon added a StoryBooth at the World Trade Center site and in May 2005 put two MobileBooths on the road in Airstream trailers.

But at first it was strictly a New York enterprise and a perfect fit for a garrulous New Yorker like Perasa, who “could talk the handle off of a brass monkey,” Annie said.

Danny soon returned to Grand Central for a recording session with Annie in tow. In August 2004, NPR aired a piece of what would become one of his many interviews with “my princess.”

“I always feel guilty when I say, ‘I love you’ to you, and I say it often,” he told Annie in raspy Brooklynese as NPR’s Morning Edition audience listened in. “I say it to remind you that as dumpy as I am, it’s coming from here — it’s like hearing a beautiful song from a busted old radio . . . and it’s nice of you to keep the radio around the house.”

And just like that, the short, bald, largely toothless 65-year-old Off Track Betting clerk became a world-famous romantic.

Fight the torpor

Isay, who had demonstrated over more than a decade that uncommonly poignant documentaries can result when he gave microphones to “ordinary” people, still keeps a picture of Danny Perasa taped to his computer.

“He really epitomized what StoryCorps is all about,” he said. “That the people who you pass on the street, if you take time to listen to them, often have the most meaningful things to say.”

Inspired by the populist Works Progress Administration interviews of the late 1930s, StoryCorps aims to build a vast new oral history collection for the Library of Congress. Not incidentally it also creates some compelling radio, by inviting average Joes and Janes into the booths for 40-minute interviews about their lives.

At the same time, StoryCorps proves that public broadcasting — in this case a noted independent producer with major funding from CPB and promotional and logistical help from stations — can undertake a bold, high-profile project with widely recognized value for the public today and in the future.

So widely recognized, in fact, an airline just launched an ad campaign based on a suspiciously similar concept (see brief at right).

Though Isay’s medium-term goal is to record 250,000 interviews by 2013, he’s thinking even bigger now. He envisions permanent booths in cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, special StoryCorps rooms set up in libraries and museums. He looks at StoryCorps and sees a burgeoning institution.

“This is very much a Wizard of Oz operation in that it’s a relatively small group of  people trying to accomplish something large and significant,” Isay said.

Receiving a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2000 “opened doors” and gave Isay the freedom to lay the groundwork for StoryCorps. The project, which costs $3.5 million a year — just under a third of that from CPB last year, Isay said — is not a cheap one. Each Airstream trailer cost $180,000. All told, costs come to $200 per interview. Participants contribute only $10 each for the CD that they take home from the interview.

“Every day is a fight to raise money but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” Isay said. “We want to really turn this into a social movement and shake people out of their reality TV torpor.”

“StoryCorps is about authenticity, about honoring everyday people,” he said, “and so far, the response has been more than what I could have imagined.”

From Germans from Russia with love: In Bismarck, N.D., two members of the Society of Germans from Russia, wearing 19th century caps, pay tribute to their immigrant grandfathers.

To date, the project has recorded more than 7,000 stories in its booths. Three years after the project’s launch, its New York booths are still fully booked. The two Airstream trailers just completed their first year-long tours of the country, logging interviews in 37 cities in 25 states, including an Indian reservation in North Dakota, a state penitentiary in Salem, Ore., and Jackson Square in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Public radio stations helped with the advance work. When KUT-FM announced that it was taking reservations for interviews from April 6 to 30, “We filled up the first half of the available slots in nine minutes,” said Hawk Mendenhall, program director. “Then we filled up the second half in five minutes.”

Excerpts from the most compelling interviews — flagged by the booth facilitators and edited and fact-checked by StoryCorps producers, air Fridays on NPR’s Morning Edition. Participating stations can incorporate local interviews into their schedules.

Interviews are available at StoryCorps.net/listen as well as on NPR.org.

StoryCorps producers will eventually release CDs of selected material, such as special Mothers Day or veterans’ compilations, Isay said, which may also be available to stations to serve as pledge premiums. A StoryCorps book is planned for late in 2007.

Isay also hopes to mine the interview material for future radio docs, he said.

“I’m dedicating rest of my life to StoryCorps and to making sure it has the kind of impact it should have,” he said.

Part of that impact will reside at the Library of Congress, where all the interviews will be sent to fill out the “official” historical record with quiet tales about the lives of ordinary citizens.

“There’s a heck of a lot more average, everyday citizens than there are ‘decision-makers,’” said Peggy Bulger, director of the library’s American Folklife Center, which will house the StoryCorps collection. “We’re putting flesh on the bones of history.”

The project will also help put cash in CPB’s coffers, Isay hopes, as it re-imagines the kind of emotional impact public broadcasters can bring to their communities and to the country. During a D.C. stop earlier this month, StoryCorps invited CPB appropriators such as Sen. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) in for session. “We’re doing our best to help make the case for CPB on the Hill,” Isay said.

On the local level, host stations get to offer local participants a quiet space with a loved one and an inexpensive recording of their conversation. Interview subjects can keep their conversations private, but “99.9 percent” of participants choose to share their recordings, Isay said.

Most stations worked to ensure that more than just pubradio listeners were involved.

When North Dakota Public Radio hosted a trailer, the facilitators were advised to take along plenty of station mugs to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation radio station, because tribal tradition calls for a gift to be given in exchange for stories. In Austin, KUT gave interview slots to KAZI-FM, a local community station with a predominantly African-American audience.

In New Orleans, the StoryCorps facilitators did field interviews at a senior center and high school in neighborhoods hit by flooding.

“The folks at StoryCorps are doing Herculean work on the ground day to day,” said Joyce McDonald, NPR’s director of station relations. “I can’t think of another project that has incorporated so much physical activity and logistics.”

“And it’s been a wonderful success for the audience,” she added. “At its best, public radio is so much about storytelling and this project really touches a chord and gives people a way to participate and create something meaningful for themselves.”

“People liked the booth, liked the process, liked the idea that it was going into the archive and they liked that it was going to be on the radio,” said Bill Thomas, head of North Dakota Public Radio.

Stations in Iowa, Kansas, Vermont, North Carolina and elsewhere have signed on to host trailers in the next six months as the project moves forward.

Meanwhile, the Library of Congress is still figuring out how to organize a searchable database for the interviews, said Marcia Segal, the processing archivist who is the library’s point person for StoryCorps, the library’s first digital-born oral history collection.

Producers have submitted hard drives containing roughly 3,000 interviews so far and the library aims to have at least some of those archived and available for keyword searching within six months, Segal said.

At a MobileBooth’s Miami stop, the Rev. Petunia Chung-Segre thanked her daughter Marie for forcing her to get help for depression. “I hated you for doing that to me, but I thank you,” the mother said. “I want you to know that and I want the world to know that.”

People have already contacted the library looking for copies of the Perasa interviews, Segal said.

“They couldn’t have possibly found better spokespeople for the project,” she said.

“Because we’re us”

After the Perasas’ first interview charmed listeners and spurred bushels of appreciative letters to NPR, Danny and Annie did indeed become the unofficial spokescouple for the expanding project.

They showed up on The Jane Pauley Show and were the hit of last year’s Public Radio Program Directors conference in St. Louis. They attended cocktail parties at the Library of Congress in Washington and were recognized in airport bathrooms. Priests and marriage counselors played the Perasas’ interviews during their couples sessions. Annie said a man wrote to say he’d packed his bags and was leaving his wife of 25 years until he heard them on NPR, and decided to return home to beg for forgiveness.

StoryCorps ‘not flattered’ by JetBlue campaign

There’s an old saying about imitation and flattery, but don’t tell that to StoryCorps creator Dave Isay. He gets no kick from a new JetBlue Airways ad campaign featuring mobile “Story Booths” that travel the country recording travelers’ stories.

“It seems to be a clear lifting of the idea and attempt to get some of the glow off the project,” he says. “It degrades the idea and spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

StoryCorps sent the airline a cease-and-desist letter to no avail.

“We don’t feel like they have rights over ‘Story Booth,’” Jenny Dervin, a JetBlue spokeswoman told Current. “It’s a generic descriptive term.”
[The airline's response].

The campaign that launched last month in New York — StoryCorps launched in 2003 in New York — was in no way inspired by the oral history project, Dervin says. She said it seems as if the two concepts were developed on “a parallel path.”

So parallel, in fact, that the airline had its Story Booth designed by the same New York design firm, Mesh Architectures, that drew up StoryCorps’ StoryBooths.

“We feel like our money and time is better spent not litigating,” Isay says.

People everywhere, it seemed, were extraordinarily moved by the couple’s devotion to one another. So when Isay announced on Morning Edition Feb. 24 that Danny had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, the grief stretched far beyond the family’s block in Bay Ridge.

“I think the entire NPR country cried during StoryCorps this morning,” wrote a North Carolina listener. “I certainly did.”

StoryCorps had previously dedicated the Grand Central story booth to the Perasas in a Feb. 10 ceremony and traveled to the couple’s home to record additional interviews as the end drew near. Reclining on the sofa, Danny talked about his favorite subject: his love and affection for his wife.

“I always said the only thing I have to give you was a poor gift and it’s myself, and I always gave it,” he told Annie in his final interview, “and if there’s a way to come back and give it, I’ll do that too.”

The cancer moved quickly, but he hoped to hold on long enough to see a final wedding anniversary, April 22. The date gained extra significance for Isay because he moved his own wedding to that day as a tribute to the Perasas.

“Danny had pointed to that day and said he wanted to try to live to see their anniversary and our wedding,” Isay told Current. “But he didn’t quite make it.”

As it happened, Perasa died in his home Feb. 24, hours after his final interview and Isay’s announcement aired on NPR. He was buried four days later, along with more than 1,500 letters from public radio listeners who had grown to love a Brooklyn couple that most of them had never seen.

Annie attended the wedding of Isay and Jennifer Gonnerman last month, fulfilling a promise she made to Danny toward the end of his life.

“He said, ‘You have to go,’” she said. “Because he loved Dave. He thought he was a brilliant young man who’s doing something to change the U.S. by getting as many people as he can to tell their stories.”

Annie kept copies of the more than 2,000 condolence letters she received from as far away as China, Costa Rica and Guam.

“Danny used to write me a letter every day,” she said, “so now I read one of those letters every day.”

She misses his stories the most, she said, and the laughs they used to share. While Annie still marvels at all the attention she and Danny received together, she at least has something approaching an explanation for it all from the man with whom she shared the spotlight — and everything else.

“I asked him one time before he died, I says, ‘What makes us so hot?’” Annie said.

“And he says, ‘Because we’re us.’”

A simpler kind of connection

Because of stories that are uniquely rich, filled with hard-won wisdom and checkered memories, StoryCorps opened its booths and went on the road. Because we all have stories that are worth telling, hearing and saving, the interviews found an appreciative audience.

“It’s a more democratic way to write history,” said Nadja Middleton, a facilitator in one of the trailers. “You don’t know what people are made of until they start talking.”

They come two-by-two — grandfathers and grandsons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives — and settle into a quiet, softly lit corner of the booth and face one another over a pair of microphones. “There’s no distractions,” Middleton said. “The space is conducive to openness and honesty.”

The facilitators, the idealistic on-site faces of StoryCorps, perch on the periphery to comfort and reassure without getting in the way. What they witness is enriching, fascinating, incredibly touching and emotionally exhausting, said facilitator Justina Mejias.

The conversations tend to cover common themes — love, work, death, social justice and prejudice — but the details are as vivid and varied as the tellers.

Sonya Baker and Michael Fazio’s love story began on a throughway in Kentucky, where Fazio worked as a toll collector. “I thought I was a total ding-a-ling for giving the throughway guy my phone number,” Baker recalled in the booth. Now married, you can hear Baker and Fazio smiling at each other as she tells him, “There’s nobody I’d rather travel through life with than you.”

Sam Harmon, an African-American Navy vet, asked by his grandson, Ezra Awumey, to recall the saddest moment of his life, remembered the time in Jim Crow era Washington when he saw the reflection of the Capitol dome in a ticket window as the clerk angrily refused to sell him a ticket.

“She saw my black hand and refused to sell me a ticket,” he told Ezra. “The Capitol dome was superimposed on her angry face … and I just walked the streets crying all night.”

Joshua Littman, a bright, autistic 12-year-old, brought a hand-written page of tough questions for his mother Sarah.

“Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born?” he asked. “Did I meet your expectations?”

“You’ve exceeded my expectations, sweetie,” she replied softly. “Because you think differently from, you know, what they tell you in the parenting books. I really had to learn to think out of the box with you, and it’s made me much more creative as a parent and as a person. And I’ll always thank you for that.”

People may sometimes communicate as intensely with their Blackberries and text messagers, but Isay said the high-tech tools conspire to keep people “connected but isolated.” Yet he knows people are hungry for “a simpler kind of connection, and that’s kind that StoryCorps offers.”

“It reminds you how great it is to be alive and listening and hearing these stories and recognizing how important each one is.”

EARLIER ARTICLES

David Stewart profiles StoryCorps founder David Isay, 2001.

StoryCorps fights reality TV, campaigning to save Grandma’s tales, 2003.

StoryCorps to hit the road, collecting intimate tales, 2004.

OUTSIDE LINKS

Listen online to selected stories recorded by the project, posted on the StoryCorps site or on NPR.org.

Danny and Annie Perasa’s stories on NPR.org.

Illustrated blogs by the staffs of MobileBooths East and West.

Wikipedia on the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that provided jobs for many Americans, including oral history interviewers.

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