The founder of StoryCorps, the most ambitious oral history project ever, shares some of the more remarkable stories from an astonishing trove of memories and arranges them thematically into a beautiful mosaic of American life. An excerpt from “Listening Is an Act of Love.”
When I was a kid growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, in the early 1970s, my parents had a cassette recorder and microphone around the house. One night when I was eleven years old, my grandfather, grandmother, and two of her sisters came to our apartment for a holiday dinner.
My grandmother Rose Franzblau was a larger-than-life character. The oldest child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, she raised her four younger sisters after they were orphaned during the flu epidemic of 1918. She graduated from college, earned a Ph.D. in psychology, and after World War II went to work as an advice columnist at the New York Post for more than a quarter century. I knew her as a small whirlwind of a lady who filled up every room she walked into.
That afternoon in New Haven, I decided to set up the tape machine and record her. When we were done, I brought in my grandfather and then my great-aunts. I remember I was a lousy interviewer — butting in incessantly with goofy comments — but I captured their voices nonetheless.
When I was thirteen years old, my grandmother passed away, and one by one over the next several years my two great-aunts and my grandfather died as well. At some point I went looking for the cassette of the interviews I’d recorded. It was nowhere to be found. Still today, more than twenty-five years later, when I go to my parents’ house I search for this tape. I know it’s gone, but just in case ...
In 1988 I stumbled into radio completely by chance as a twenty-two-year-old headed to medical school. One afternoon, I was walking through New York City’s East Village and a storefront caught my eye. It was a tiny sliver of a shop with imaginatively decorated windows. I went inside and saw that the store was empty except for the couple who ran it. They were excited to have a visitor and wanted to show me around. It was a store for addicts in recovery, with all sorts of 12-step books and self-help materials meticulously displayed. There was no mistaking the love and care that infused every inch of the cramped shop.
The couple, Angel Perez and his wife, Carmen, said they were recovering heroin addicts. They brought me to the back of the store and began telling me about their dream: to create a museum to addiction. Carmen had recently been diagnosed with HIV, and they were determined to see this museum rise before she passed away. They showed me scale models of the building, which they’d constructed out of tongue depressors and plywood. They had blueprints for every floor and intricate drawings of each exhibit.
They pulled out a loose-leaf binder thick with rejection letters from wealthy New Yorkers to whom they’d written for help. While it was clear that these were form letters, the Perezes didn’t read them that way. Language as simple as “Congratulations on your idea” or “I wish you luck” gave them hope that the next request was going to lead to funding. All the while they were only weeks away from having to close their tiny storefront for lack of business.
I was moved by their courage and spirit, and I thought they deserved some attention. I went home, pulled out the Yellow Pages, and began calling all of the local TV stations to see if any of them might do a story. No interest. I flipped to the radio stations and called them as well. No interest whatsoever. At some point I dialed the number of a community station I’d never even heard of, WBAI. The news director at the time, Amy Goodman, took the call. She said it sounded like a great idea, but that they didn’t have any reporters to cover it, so why didn’t I do it myself? That afternoon I took a tape recorder and went back to see Angel and Carmen. I sat down beside them and began to record. From the moment they started speaking, I knew that I’d found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Tape in hand, I went to WBAI and put the story together. It aired the next evening. Gary Covino, a producer from NPR in Washington, D.C., happened to be driving through New York City and heard the piece. He called the station and picked it up for NPR’s All Things Considered. I decided against medical school. My fate was sealed.
In 1993, I produced a radio documentary with two thirteen-year-old boys, best friends growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Lloyd Newman lived in the Ida B. Wells housing projects; LeAlan Jones in a house right next door. I gave them tape recorders and asked them to record a week in their lives — what it’s like to grow up in one of the most dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods in the country. I spent a few hours training them to use the recording equipment, and then they were off.
LeAlan and Lloyd taped themselves at home and at school, getting into mischief around their neighborhood and taking bus adventures through downtown Chicago. They interviewed family, friends, and each other, and named their documentary “Ghetto Life 101.”
Sitting in my room in Chicago, listening to a recording of LeAlan climbing into bed with his grandmother and asking her about her life, was an epiphany. It was one of the most intimate and powerful moments I’d ever heard; the tape all but glowed with the love radiating from this conversation. The microphone had given LeAlan the license to ask questions he had never asked before — about the father he never knew, about his mother’s mental illness, about his grandmother’s childhood. The interview opened up lines of conversation between LeAlan and his grandmother that continued long after the taping ended. Years later, after LeAlan’s grandmother died, these tapes became some of his most treasured possessions. “They’re enough to sustain me for a lifetime,” he said.
At about the same time I learned of a series of interviews from the 1930s and ’40s housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Most of these were conducted as part of the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project by a small cadre of historians and folklorists. (Alan Lomax; his father, John Lomax; and Zora Neale Hurston are the best known among them.) They drove throughout the country, lugging enormous acetate disk recorders in the trunks of their cars, to capture the stories and songs of everyday people.
On these recordings you can hear the voices of former slaves reflecting on their lives, prisoners in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary singing work songs, Harlem fishmongers hawking their wares, pool players in Washington, D.C., talking about the bombing of Pearl Harbor the day after the attacks. Many of these were perfectly recorded. I was mesmerized. Hearing these voices transported me back in time in a way that no photograph, movie, or book ever had. They struck me as historic artifacts beyond value. I wondered why nothing along the lines of these WPA interviews had been undertaken since — top-quality recordings of the voices of everyday Americans across the nation.
A few years later I produced a radio documentary about the last flophouses on the Bowery in New York City, where homeless men slept in prison-cell-size rooms covered in chicken wire for as little as five dollars a night. Later, the documentary was turned into a book of photographs and oral histories. I remember bringing early proofs of the book into a flophouse and sharing them with the residents. One of the men looked at his story, took it in his hands, and literally danced through the halls of the old hotel shouting, “I exist! I exist!” I was stunned. I realized as never before how many people among us feel completely invisible, believe their lives don’t matter, and fear they’ll someday be forgotten.
Out of these and a myriad of other experiences and influences, StoryCorps began taking shape in the summer of 2002. Having seen the positive impact that participating in documentary work could have on people’s lives, I wanted to open the experience up to everyone. I hoped to create a project that was all about the act of interviewing loved ones, with only a secondary emphasis on the final edited product — in essence inverting the purpose of traditional documentary work from an artistic or educational project created for the benefit of an audience to a process principally focused on enhancing the lives of the participants.
From there it was a matter of figuring out the details. I knew the interviews should be between two people who cared about each other. I wanted there to be some kind of a helper present who could run the equipment and assist in the process. I thought the sessions should take place in an intimate space. I wanted the interviews captured with the highest standards of excellence — even better than the recordings you hear on the radio. I thought forty minutes was probably about the right length of time for each session, since I’d found that interviews can sometimes drag once they get close to an hour.
I wanted participants to get a copy of the interview, but I also wanted to make sure that the session would never get lost. I made a cold call to Peggy Bulger, Director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, home to the WPA interviews I so admired. I told Peggy what I was thinking and asked if the Folklife Center might consider housing the collection. Miraculously, she said yes. The ground was laid for StoryCorps.
In early 2003, a small team of colleagues and I started piloting the project. We rented a recording studio in Manhattan’s Chinatown and built a simulated booth out of seven-foot-tall pieces of thick acoustic foam. I invited my great-uncle Sandy to record the first session. Sandy was eighty-eight years old at the time, the last living family member of my grandparents’ generation. He had been married to my grandmother’s sister Birdie for fifty-five years. She had passed away several months before the interview. Unlike Birdie and her sisters, my great-uncle Sandy was not an over-the-top character. I knew him as a gentle, quiet man with a dry sense of humor. I wasn’t at all sure if the interview would work.
Uncle Sandy and I sat together in this mock booth, and for forty minutes he told me stories I’d never heard before. He talked about his first date with Birdie, how he’d asked her to meet him on a tenement stoop on Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street. “I see this vision of purple coming down the street,” he recalled. “She was so glamorous, and I thought, ‘What the hell is she going to see in me, a two-bit farm boy?’ That’s when I tried to duck out. I turned and tried to get in the door. But it was locked. And I often think if that door was open, it would have ended there. It was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.” With that, he broke down weeping.
At the end of the session I asked him how it felt. “I hate to say this, but it’s a good feeling,” he said. “I don’t have to act like I’m happy with everything — because I’m not. And I never will be.” At eighty-eight, Sandy still drove around New York City in his car. I learned that he would listen to that CD of his interview over and over again on his drives. A good sign.
StoryCorps is, if nothing else, an experiment in human communication. Leading up to the opening, I had all sorts of concerns about whether we could actually pull it off. Would we get Jerry Springer moments — families zinging each other during sessions and breaking into screaming fights — or worse? Would people make reservations to use the booth as a personal recording studio and cut song demos? Would participants agree to sign the release at the end of the session so that the material could go to the Library of Congress? How would they feel about having the facilitator in the booth? Would the idea just flat-out fail?
Happily, from the day we opened in October 2003 it was clear that this little booth in the middle of Grand Central Terminal was something of a miracle.
The first thing we noticed were the tears, not unlike with my uncle Sandy. A facilitator told us about a husband and wife who came to reminisce about their lives. At some point in the interview the husband started to talk about his experiences liberating a concentration camp after World War II. He began to weep. Then he really started to cry. At the end of the session the wife told the facilitator that they’d been married for fifty years, but that this was the very first time she’d ever seen her husband cry. They both proclaimed their StoryCorps interview a wonderful experience.
At around the same time, an eighty-nine-year-old grandmother came to StoryCorps with her twenty-three-year-old grandson. She recorded a beautiful interview about growing up in immigrant Jewish New York, meeting her husband, her feelings for her children and grandchildren. At the end of the session, the grandson asked, “Grandma, is there anything you want to tell me you’ve never told anyone before?” And the grandmother proceeded to tell her grandson that she had been molested by her uncle as a child. Nobody in the family had heard anything about this. The grandmother said it was a great relief to get it off her chest. She expressed no qualms about signing the release to place the interview in the Library of Congress. She was so proud of the session that she invited StoryCorps to her ninetieth birthday celebration to play excerpts for her family and friends.
Indeed, in the weeks after we opened, almost all of the participants signed the release for their interview to go to the Library of Congress. Since then, upward of 95 percent of StoryCorps participants have placed their interviews in this archive. Many people say that knowing their recording is safe for future generations is one of the most important elements of their StoryCorps experience. It makes sense. Since I fell in love with radio twenty years ago, I’ve come to believe that there’s something of the soul captured in the human voice and that an audio recording is one of the most intimate and powerful records one can leave behind.
Because of the intimacy of the interviews and concerns about identity theft and privacy issues, from the earliest days of the project we were apprehensive about making the entire collection accessible to the general public. We decided initially not to put full interviews on the Web. (For the time being, researchers can go to the Library of Congress, show an ID, and listen to any session they choose.) Instead, we chose to edit a short excerpt from one interview each week on our Web site for all to hear. A handful of these were broadcast on public radio in New York and nationally on NPR. In May 2005, we began airing StoryCorps stories every Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition, the top-rated morning radio show in the country, to an audience of more than 13 million listeners. Today, it’s among the most popular features on public radio.
Other aspects of the project seemed to work equally well. The facilitators took to their jobs with skill and grace, their presence deeply valued by participants. Something about that third person in the booth seemed to keep the conversations flowing. Instead of saying, “I told you that story a million times!” and clamming up, cantankerous grandmothers would turn to the facilitator and launch into an old family yarn as if the facilitator were listening for the entire world. Facilitators started referring to this as “the magic of the booth.”
From the day we opened, StoryCorps has worked relentlessly to reach out to underserved populations. We have recorded interview sessions with homeless people, the mentally ill, foster care kids, people with AIDS, and beyond. Early on, a homeless woman came to the booth to tell her story. (When a participant comes alone, the facilitator will ask the questions.) At the end of the session she insisted on giving the facilitator her food stamps as a contribution to the project. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Then she headed off to the bank so she could lock the CD of her interview in a safe-deposit box along with her most valuable possessions.
Part of the appeal of the “citizen interview” model of StoryCorps is that sessions can be conducted in any language the participants choose, as long as one person in the pair can communicate minimally with the facilitator. As soon as we opened, we began recording interviews in Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Tibetan. At some point Chinatown’s Cantonese community got word of StoryCorps, and it briefly became something of a fad there. We had days when everyone who came to the booth recorded their sessions in Cantonese — telling stories, laughing, crying. Most of the facilitators didn’t have a clue what was being said, but they knew that the participants were having a ball.
Some people came back over and over again. A schoolteacher named Louisa Stephens made a reservation every few weeks to come to the Grand Central booth. Eventually, she recorded close to one hundred interviews with family, friends, students, or even people she met in the subway or walking down the street. One day early on, a facilitator asked what kept drawing her back to the booth. “I love it,” she said. “I exercise restraint and discipline in not coming down here every couple of days. You come to the booth and the door shuts, and it is just so quiet. It feels like something in your brain opens up, and you can expose parts of yourself too fragile to expose to the noisy world. And you can engage each other in a way that you can’t in ordinary life. It also makes me feel as if I’m speaking to people in the future — it gives me a toehold into another world. It’s just perfect.”
Not all the news in those early days was as encouraging. From the very start, we believed that StoryCorps should be accessible to everyone at little or no charge. Each interview costs us more than $250 to record, but we decided to ask for only $10 as a suggested donation to participate. If participants couldn’t afford the $10, no problem; if they wanted to give more, great. We knew this business model gave new meaning to the term nonprofit, but were determined to make up the difference through donations and grants.
We had some early success with foundations, but before long the rejection letters started piling up. StoryCorps is an undertaking unlike anything attempted before, so it didn’t fit in any foundation’s guidelines. No funders seemed interested in taking a risk on this untested project. We watched our bank account dip each week. Before long we were perilously close to bankruptcy. I asked a close friend from college, now a banker, to take a look at our books and assess the situation. He said it could go either way: If we got an infusion of cash over the next few weeks, we might survive; otherwise, it was all over.
Fortunately, a few days later, some visionary philanthropists stepped in. The funding freeze-out ended. We’ve been expanding the organization ever since. Today, StoryCorps is one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in the nation.
A few months after we opened, a Brooklyn couple came to the Grand Central booth: Danny and Annie Perasa. He worked as a clerk at Off-Track Betting; she was a nurse. The two were consummate New York characters with storied lives and thick Brooklyn accents. They had come to the booth because they wanted to document their love affair. Danny recalled their first date twenty-five years before: “I said, ‘I’m going to deliver a speech, and at the end you’re going to want to go home. You represent a dirty four-letter word, and that word is love. If we’re going anywhere, we’re going down the aisle because I’m too tired, too sick, and too sore to do any other damn thing.’ And she turned around and said, ‘Of course I’ll marry you.’ ”
Excerpted from "Listening Is an Act of Love" by Dave Isay. Copyright 2007 Dave Isay. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved.
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