The greatest story never told


By Will McKinley

StoryCorps founder Dave Isay talks about listening

A year ago, three days after Christmas, my mother died at the age of 72. Since then, like the reporter in “Citizen Kane,” I’ve been trying to piece together the story of her life through pictures, home movies, letters, yellowing scrapbooks and hazy recollections of friends and family.

Veteran radio journalist Dave Isay understands the importance of capturing the memories of loved ones, in their own voices, while they are still among us. In 2003, he founded StoryCorps, a non-profit, national initiative designed to “honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.” Since then, nearly 25,000 interviews have been recorded in StoryCorps facilities, most conducted by friends or family members. Participants receive a CD, and a copy is placed on file in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

On Thursday, January 15, Isay will be appearing at the Tenement Museum, sharing stories from “Listening is an Act of Love,” a moving collection of StoryCorps interviews now out in paperback.

WILL McKINLEY: I read your book on Christmas Day, on the plane to Florida for my first visit since my mother’s funeral. I never interviewed her and now I really wish I had.

DAVE ISAY: I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve been on tour with this book seven or eight weeks and, at least fifty times a day, people tell me that they wish they had taped a parent or a sister or a brother. Why do you think you didn’t interview your mom?

She was ill and…

You were afraid doing this was going to tell her she was dying?

I didn’t want to say implicitly or explicitly, “Let’s get this on tape before you kick the bucket.”

I completely understand what you’re saying. But if we make this part of our culture, which I hope we’re going to do with StoryCorps, then people will do this regularly with all sorts of people in their lives. It won’t be some sort of red flag that someone is going to pass away.

Why isn’t it part of our culture already?

There’s an emotional barrier. It’s kind of scary to have these conversations sometimes. I also think there’s a technological barrier. “How do I use the video camera or the tape recorder? What questions am I going to ask?” What we try to do with StoryCorps is to show people how incredibly simple it is to do this.

Many families have communication issues. Is that a factor?

Much more than the fear of being open with family members is people feeling like their stories aren’t worthy. One of the tenets of StoryCorps is, “Every story matters. Every life matters.” While your family member’s story may not be interesting to the whole country, it’s going to be extraordinarily interesting to you and to your family, and valuable to the generations to come, to let them know where they came from and how they got there.

Is coaxing ever required to get an interviewee into the booth?

I think it may be more of a fear of asking than reluctance on the part of the person being asked. In many ways, the act of doing the interview is telling someone how much you love them, and many of us aren’t able to say that to our families.

I’ve noticed that, in pictures of the StoryCorps booth, there’s always a freshly stocked box of tissues.

People have always said, “Why isn’t Kleenex your sponsor?” And I’ve wondered that myself. There’s a lot of crying. When you hear a story that’s truly told, you’re almost walking on holy ground. It’s that recognition of our shared humanity and of seeing people at their best that I think is moving.

With blogs, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook, aren’t we already chronicling our lives for the digital record?

Technology is great, but stopping and looking a loved one in the eye for 40 minutes and telling them how much they matter by listening is kind of a profound act. With some of the social networking sites the definition of “friend” sometimes gets distorted.

I don’t particularly like half my Facebook friends.

Exactly. In this era of rampant, supposed connections – in some cases real, in some not – this is getting to the white-hot core of what connection really is. The faster we hurdle through these technological innovations, the more people seem to be turning to StoryCorps and seeking meaning through this very simple methodology.

Are your efforts limited by accessibility to StoryCorps recording booths?

We’re moving away from booths and, in the future, most of our service is going to be through something called “Door-to-Door,” where facilitators set up in a quiet room in a library or community center and do a day’s worth of interviews. But it can be done in a home. It can be done anywhere.

Your only permanent booth is here in Lower Manhattan, right?

Yes. Our first booth was in Grand Central. The second one opened up down at the World Trade Center site and then moved up to Foley Square.

Why the move?

We’re working with the September 11 Memorial and Museum to record at least one story to remember each life that was lost. We found that families did not want to come down to Ground Zero to do this, which is completely understandable. The interviews are for them to remember loved ones for who they were: a parent, a kid, a brother, not just what happened on September 11.

Who else comes to the booth?

It’s every kind of person you can imagine, every socio-economic group, every kind of job, every age from 10 to 105. About 40 percent of the interviews in that booth are outreach to community groups.

What will you be doing at the Tenement Museum?

I’ll play stories, answer questions, sign books and sell books. All of the profits from “Listening is an Act of Love” go back into StoryCorps, so we can deliver more service to more people across the country.

Is there a particular relevance to doing this now, at this moment in history?

Listening to or reading the stories of people who survived tough times can provide a path to get through the tough times we’re living in today. We’re trying to start this revolution in listening and to encourage people to do what you unfortunately did not get a chance to do with your mom – to take the time to listen to a loved one and honor them by recording that interview. It’s about telling people they matter and won’t be forgotten.

Photo credit Dalton Rooney

The StoryCorps booth in Foley Square.

For more information on StoryCorps, or to sign up for an interview, visit storycorps.net