Soul in the Human Voice

A Q&A with StoryCorps producer David Isay

WCBU is proud to host StoryCorps, the revolutionary initiative that’s bringing new voices to the radio. StoryCorps will be in Peoria at Metro Centre from September 22nd through October 18th. Reservation information is available at wcbufm.org.

When and how did you first conceive of StoryCorps?

It grew out of the radio documentary work we did on “GhettoLife 101” in 1993, when we saw the impact of giving people microphones and having them interview family members.

The project intends to collect 250,000 oral histories from around the country in ten years. How many stories and interviews have you collected thus far?

Five hundred so far. The mobile booths are on pace to collect 2,000 interviews in their first six months on the road, and the booth in Grand Central recorded that many interviews in the first year; but this is just phase one of a project that we hope becomes a national institution. Ten years is just a benchmark.

What do you think is the significance of this project?

It’s about honoring loved ones by sitting across from them, asking to hear about what matters most to them, and really listening. It tells people they matter, and it brings people together in a way that continually surprises us because of how genuine and unforced it is. It’s really all about having meaningful experiences right now, but in the future it will be an enormously valuable archive—a “bottom-up” history of life as it’s lived through the eyes and stories of everyday people.

Have you been surprised by anything in your experiences with this project? Are there any trends that you find as you collect these oral histories?

Most surprising personally is that the stories don’t repeat, as we assumed they would—the interviews just keep getting better. Everyone, across color, gender and political lines, talks about similar themes—love, parents, death—with endless fascinating stories spinning off those themes. Listening to these stories, you realize that there’s so much more we share in common as a nation than divides us.

How does StoryCorps compare to other radio projects in which you’ve been involved in the past?

It grows out of and expands on the documentary work of Sound Portraits. The mission of Sound Portraits has always been to give the power and authority of the microphone to people—be it on Death Row or the Bowery—who normally don’t have that opportunity. StoryCorps simply takes that idea and multiplies it—applies it to absolutely everyone.

How did you learn about the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project, and how did it influence StoryCorps?

For years, Sound Portraits mined the American Folklife Center’s archives for any recordings we could possibly use for documentary shorts. The recordings are a national treasure—and the spirit and ethos of the WPA are a touchstone for us. It’s humbling and inspiring to have people like Studs Terkel and Stetson Kennedy involved in this project. We’re walking in the footsteps of giants.

How will these oral histories be added to the collections of the Library of Congress? Will they be on display or simply housed for future generations to access?

StoryCorps is the first born-digital collection at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. We actually hand over a hard-drive with stories, data sheets and photos for every interview. When you sign a release (which 99.9% of participants do), your recording becomes part of the public domain. The fact that it’s all digital allows us to dream big—to imagine the day when the entire collection is searchable.

Projecting into the future a bit, what do you think generations to come will gain from these oral histories?

The voice is so intimate and personal and reflective of the soul—to hear your great-great grandmother’s voice and story will be an enormously powerful experience for future generations.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about StoryCorps?

Because we work in radio, we believe that the soul really is contained in the human voice. The fact that this is a public radio project is what has allowed it to soar. a&s

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