|Life stories come to light in the StoryCorps booth. At left: Debora Brakarz and Michael Wolmetz. Their story on NPR. (Photo: Sound Portraits Prods.)|
StoryCorps to hit the road, collecting intimate tales
Originally published in Current, Sept. 6, 2004
By Mike Janssen
After capturing a thousand stories, StoryCorps has reached driving age.
The ambitious oral history project, created by independent pubradio producer Dave Isay, opened its first booth last October in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Hundreds of people have visited the miniature recording studio with friends and family, sharing stories rich with humor and pathos. Clips of the interviews have aired on NPR and New York’s WNYC.
Now StoryCorps is preparing to dispatch two mobile studios on cross-country trips starting in February . A month later, a booth will open at the World Trade Center site as a repository for stories about those who died in the 9/11 attacks. The interviews have already begun, and the booth will eventually move into the permanent Trade Center memorial that will open in 2009. An exhibit room will feature recordings of the stories and photos of the victims.
From the start, Isay has had great hopes for StoryCorps, which he says is the biggest oral history project ever undertaken, planned to continue 10 years. Happily surprised by its success, he’s now expanding its reach.
“StoryCorps is going to become part of what it means to live in this country,” Isay says.
Voices from a “sacred space”
StoryCorps was born from Isay’s life and work. A child of psychiatrists, he calls it “therapy in a box.”
Producing documentaries such as Ghetto Life 101 also showed him how speaking into a microphone encourages ordinary people to open up. In the words of a woman who has visited the StoryCorps booth 22 times, “You feel as if you can expose parts of you that were too fragile to expose to the noisy world.”
Some of the tales captured by StoryCorps document common aspects of American life, such as the experiences of immigrants. Philomena Luciani, 82, remembered what happened when her mother, an Italian immigrant, needed to buy a colander.
“She didn’t know how to say ‘colander’ in English, so she said, ‘Macaroni stop and water go ahead,’ and [the salesman] right away knew what she wanted,” Luciani said in an interview with her granddaughter.
Family relationships are sketched in poignant detail. Lynne Lande, a lesbian, asked her 10-year-old daughter Kaitlyn what she wants to do as a grown-up.
“I think I might want to be straight, with a nice husband,” Kaitlyn said bluntly.
Later, Kaitlyn asked, “Do you really, truly love me?”
“Oh my God, with, like, my heart, the next door neighbor’s heart, with everything I have, I love you,” Lande responded.
The emotions are universal. Michael Wolmetz, 25, told girlfriend Debora Brakarz, 26, about the death of his father. “Thinking about it takes my breath away,” he says.
The sorrow turned to happiness a moment later when Wolmetz produced the wedding ring his father gave his mother and slipped it on Brakarz’s finger.
“I thought that I would give it to you so that he could be with us for this also,” he said. Brakarz tearfully accepted the proposal. (Presenting the segment on Weekend Edition Saturday on Valentine’s Day, host Scott Simon also sounded as if he was stifling a sob.)
Interviewees pay $10 fees and get compact discs as keepsakes of their time in the recording booth. Isay says they bare their souls because the cozy, quiet booth is a “sacred space,” an island in the bustling stream of American life.
Facilitators who work in the booth are part therapist, part producer, part engineer, Isay says. They have varied backgrounds — one is a yoga instructor, another a photographer — but all were chosen for their kindness and listening skills.
“Taking time to hear what someone has to say is a profound act,” Isay says. “And people feel it while they’re in the booth.”
StoryCorps recalls the work of the writers who interviewed ordinary Americans
under the auspices of the federal Works Progress Administration in the late
1930s. Oral history projects continue today in the United States, but none
on the ambitious scale of StoryCorps, says Peggy Bulger, director of the American
Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Historians often focus on the powerful, Bulger says, but StoryCorps seeks out ordinary citizens.
“Everybody has a story,” she says. “In fact, a lot of the best stories are not coming from the politicians and the generals, but are really from the lady who’s making clam chowder in Bath, Maine.”
Hard drives full of digitized StoryCorps recordings have joined the acetate and aluminum discs of the WPA recordings, making StoryCorps the Folklife Center’s first sizeable digital collection. Metadata will allow researchers to search interviews by keyword.
For the public radio broadcasts, project producers and facilitators cull the best interviews and send them to NPR’s Morning Edition and WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. StoryCorps segments will soon air weekly during Morning Edition on WNYC, and as Isay amasses more material he hopes NPR will air them weekly as well.
Most participants in StoryCorps learn about the project through Lehrer and NPR. Some traveled from as far as Kentucky and Louisiana to visit the New York booth. StoryCorps also employs a full-time outreach coordinator who looks for interviewees who might not listen to public radio.
Chicago visitors to the StoryCorps booth in New York have called Torey Malatia, president of Chicago Public Radio, urging him to bring a booth to their city. “They’re just totally enthralled by the project,” he says.
Malatia is now trying to raise $500,000 to pay for a booth as well as the $300,000 yearly costs. Chicago Public Radio has teamed up with the Chicago Historical Society and also seeks a corporate underwriter interested in tying into the themes of community and storytelling.
Isay expects StoryCorps eventually will have as many as 10 permanent booths in big cities around the country. But its next growth spurt targets smaller towns when the mobile booths — $180,000 contraptions in curvy silver Airstream trailers — and their facilitators leave from Washington, D.C., in February.
One Airstream will head west, the other south. Both will stop in towns for three-week stints. StoryCorps’ long-term plan calls for a third mobile booth to join the travels at some point. CPB supported one booth and NPR backed the other.
StoryCorps will promote the booths in partnership with local public radio stations, which Isay believes will offer an unparalleled opportunity to reach out to new listeners. He wants half of the interviewees to be newcomers to public radio who will then listen to their stories on the local stations.
“It’s a whole new paradigm for the way public radio stations, and the network and system as a whole, can interact with people,” Isay says.
The opportunity contributed to NPR’s decision to fund the booth, according to Ken Stern, executive v.p.
“There’s no better advertising for public radio and NPR than
connecting in people’s lives on a daily basis, and appearing in the
press doing a valuable service,” Stern says.
Web page posted Sept. 6, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee