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StoryCorps gives America a microphone and the chance to tell a story

Get two people together with a microphone and let them talk and listen to each other. That's the premise of the StoryCorps Project, which has recorded and archived more than 50,000 stories told by Americans so far. Now creator Dave Isay has been awarded the 2015 TED Prize of $1 million and a chance to continue expanding. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Isay about what brings people to the mic and the goals of StoryCorps.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The holidays are a time of the year when people get together with their loved ones and it’s often a period for reflection and intimate conversations.

    Tonight, we look at a kind of unique oral history project that’s built a legacy from gathering thousands of those kinds of conversations and many more. Its founder just won a major award for his work, which may be well known to many of our viewers.

    Hari Sreenivasan recorded this conversation in our New York studio.

  • NARRATOR:

    Time now for StoryCorps.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For more than a decade, the StoryCorps project has been recording and archiving the stories of everyday Americans, more than 50,000 in all so far, that are as varied as a family of five becoming homeless and forced to move into a shelter.

  • SHERRY GILLIARD:

    I remember pulling my hood over my head because I was embarrassed. I didn’t want her to see me, you know, or a colleague says, we’re going to go volunteer and we’re going to feed the families, and it would be at my shelter.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    To an Alzheimer’s patient speaking with his wife about his losses.

  • ROBERT PATTERSON:

    One thing that I experience with Alzheimer’s is, I live in the moment, because I can’t remember what happened yesterday. I can’t remember what happened 10 minutes ago.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    To a mother speaking with the man who killed her son.

  • MARY JOHNSON:

    I just hugged the man who murdered my son. And I instantly knew all that anger and animosity, all that stuff that I had in my heart for 12 years for you, I knew it was over.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    StoryCorps’ vision comes from its creator, Dave Isay. The idea? Get two people together in a room or booth with a microphone, primarily friends or loved ones, and let them talk and listen to each other.

    It began with a soundproof booth in Grand Central Station in New York City. Today, the project has a van that travels around the country, as well as recording rooms in several cities. The stories are archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but they also are made available to the public more easily.

    Excerpts are heard each Friday on NPR, often emotional ones, like the case of an Arkansas woman who took it on herself to provide caring for AIDS patients in the early days of the crisis, when no one else would.

  • RUTH COKER BURKS:

    I marched myself out to the nurses station, and I said, can we call his mother? And they go, honey, his momma’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.

    And so I went back in, and he looked up at me, and he said, oh, momma, I knew you would come. I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    PBS broadcasts animated stories based on the audio.

  • LANCE CPL. TRAVIS WILLIAMS, U.S. Marine Corps:

    That morning, we loaded into the vehicle, and I get tapped on the shoulder. And I got told that I need to bounce up to the next vehicle. And I said, catch you guys on the flip side. And that was the last thing I ever said to him. Next thing I know, I just hear the loudest explosion. And I see that’s my squad’s vehicle that got hit.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    StoryCorps has found ways of refining its mission over the years. It has special initiatives for military families, teachers, gays and lesbians, and others. Now Isay has won a $1 million prize from TED Talks and a chance to continue expanding the StoryCorps model.

    Joining me now is Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps.

    Thanks for being with us.

  • DAVE ISAY, Founder, StoryCorps:

    Hi, Hari. It’s good to be here.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right.

    So, six Peabodys, a MacArthur genius, more than 50,000 interviews. How did we get here?

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Well, you know, it was a very — it’s a very simple idea. We set up a booth in Grand Central Terminal where two people can come and have a conversation about their life with the help of a trained facilitator, crazy idea, and it just worked.

    And here we are. It’s really a project about connection, giving people a chance to listen one another and recognize, you know, the value in their lives and the lives of others.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what is it that empowers people to share the way that they do? I mean, some of these are very intimate and personal stories.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Yes.

    I mean, all of them, 50,000, as you said. I think — you know. It’s the — I think there is a formality in that interview setting, the fact that every interview goes to the Library of Congress, and, of course, as you know, the power of the microphone to give the license to ask things and to say things you don’t normally get to say.

    I think a lot of people think of StoryCorps, there is kind of a mortality piece to it. And it’s a chance for people — they know that this is an record that is going to outlive them. They know they are speaking to future generations. And just magical things happen.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There’s a lot of our listeners, our viewers also listen to NPR in the mornings.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How difficult is it to distill a 40-minute conversation down into three minutes or two minutes or five minutes, or whatever it is?

  • DAVE ISAY:

    And we distill one out of every 340-minute conversations down to three minutes. So we have a great — we have a brilliant production team who edits these things.

    But, you know, to us, every interview is equally valuable. We think of it as potentially a sacred moment in people’s lives. But some of them have this kind of universal quality about them which almost kind of demand that they be shared with a larger audience.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You have essentially an archive of America in a way that history books don’t, that you have actually captured the stories of the citizenry.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I mean, that’s different than when schoolkids will thumb through a history book and say, what was happening at that time?

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Sure.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    I mean, you have actually kind of got a cross-section of people, at least in the last 11 years, of what America was like.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Yes. Through the voice of every day people, yes.

    The great oral historian Studs Terkel cut the ribbon on our first booth all those many years ago. And he was a great proponent of bottom-up history. History is often told from the top down, from statesmen and politicians and famous people and rich people. But there’s such value, there is such richness to hearing these stories through our voices, through the voices of regular people.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, how has it made you and your team’s producers different? This is — we only hear a tiny fraction of all the stories that come through StoryCorps.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Yes.

    Well, I mean, it’s — in many ways, it is. It’s history, but it’s also kind of collecting the wisdom of humanity because of the nature of what is talked about in the booth. We have a small production team. We have lots of facilitators who travel the country, you know, bearing witness to these interviews.

    And I think, you know, personally, for me, it’s made me much more hopeful these last 11 years. You know, we have been in all 50 states, thousands of cities across the political spectrum, every kind of person you can imagine. And the facilitators who are out there collecting the wisdom of humanity invariably come back.

    And if you ask them what they have learned, they — it is a very high-stress job. They are very emotional interviews. And it’s boom, boom, boom, interview after interview. And if you ask them, they say that they have learned that people are basically good, every one of them, you know?

    And the other thing they will say is that if you think you can judge the interior life of someone by how they look or how they’re dressed, you are always going to be wrong.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

    So, as you said, all these interviews are archived forever in the Library of Congress. And you have actually made it a point to go into different communities as well.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You focused in on military conversations. You focused in on the LGBT community. Why?

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Well, you know, StoryCorps, I come from — I used to make documentaries, social justice documentaries.

    And StoryCorps — and I created StoryCorps because I came to believe when I was doing these interviews, and wherever it was I was, prisons, homeless shelters, that people being listened to, the act of being listened to, you could almost see people’s back straighten, you know?

    And we have a commitment at StoryCorps to make sure that the voices of those who may feel least heard are celebrated through StoryCorps and that, you know, people can recognize the grace and beauty and power in their own stories, wherever they are, whoever they are.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Going forward, where does StoryCorps go? You are 11 years old now.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let’s say in 10 years from now, we’re having this conversation. What’s happening?

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Well, we — we’re working hard to turn StoryCorps into a sustaining national institution.

    I feel like we’re at the first yard line, like at the very beginning of a long game. StoryCorps is about — you know, it’s about listening. It’s about — at this time of like huge divide, it’s about recognizing the value in everybody’s story. And, really, if you are just going to sum it up in one language, it’s realizing that, you know, every life matters, and every life matters kind of equally and infinitely.

    I feel like we have a very, very, very, very long way to go. But I have an amazing group of people who I work with at StoryCorps. And we’re going to fight body and soul with every cell of our body to make this really take root and kind of move the needle in this country, we hope, becoming a more kind of compassionate, thoughtful, better listeners, and a country that treats everybody with dignity.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Dave Isay of StoryCorps, thanks so much.

  • DAVE ISAY:

    Thanks, Hari.

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