Reality TV, talk radio and blogs. These trends in the media haven't really caught my interest. So it was with some skepticism that I ventured online to get the lowdown on StoryCorps, a nonprofit project which, since 2003, has been recording people across America in order "to honor and celebrate one another's lives through listening."
It's quite a different mission than that of American Idol or Rush Limbaugh. But after a dozen minutes listening to half-a-dozen stories, I found myself simultaneously laughing and crying, amazed at the pain and beauty of ordinary people's lives. I was hooked.
StoryCorps, the brainchild of radio documentary producer David Isay, is, despite its humble trappings, a monumental undertaking. The project's silver Airstream travels the nation equipped with a recording booth and a pair of interviewers, and recently spent some time parked outside Boise's City Hall.
"'Interview' is a way to frame the format, but it's actually a conversation," says StoryCorps' Michael Premo, who has worked with the project for more than a year. A pair of relatives or friends sit in the booth in front of microphones and talk to each other for half an hour. The conversation is archived—with participants' consent—in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The interviewer who worked with the pair then edits the conversation down to a two-minute recording suitable for broadcast.
Who gets broadcast? Potentially anyone.
"It's fairly arbitrary, sort of thematic, relative to stories we've broadcast before, what holiday it is, things like that," says Premo.
The finished two-minute recordings, unlike real-life conversations, are compressed, easy to listen to, and 100 percent engaging, which, according to Premo, illustrates "a clear aesthetic that reflects the trend during the past 15 years in how stories are produced and broadcast on public radio."
In editing, says Premo, StoryCorps interviewers aim to present an "intimate picture, distilled into two minutes." According to interviewer Rachel Falcone, a StoryCorps interview aims "to capture a moment between two people." The resulting audio is an effective combination of grass-roots folk-realism and 21st-century production values and one that packs a powerful emotional punch.
The process is not always smooth. Real-life conversations about the intimate details of one's life—especially when conducted in a potentially public forum—can be explosive. Premo describes such an occasion: "It was something that was so profoundly shattering for the other person [in the interview], that she couldn't talk for the rest of the time. It was so deeply personal that they both chose not to have it archived," he says.
"But it was in the space of the booth that [the issue] was allowed to be given voice. The woman was thankful afterwards, when they had the opportunity to talk about it amongst the family, but it was obviously something they didn't want everyone else to know about. They were glad it had come out."
How does it feel to be on the other end of the microphone? Participants Don and Susan Curtis were surprised at how "real" the conversation was. "It wasn't a canned speech. We didn't plan any questions coming in," reflects Don. Yet, however spontaneous, the awareness of their silent listeners permeated the experience of recording. "I was thinking, 'My children are going to have this CD,'" Don says.
Susan was surprised at how a conversation, even with someone she's known for 43 years, about something that happened 35 years ago, can spark new realizations. In the booth, the couple reflected on the aftermath of the killings of Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University. At the time, they were both in the military at nearby Ohio State. During their recording session, Susan realized that they had both suffered the discomfort of anti-military prejudice in the volatile atmosphere of 1960s America.
"We were military and here was this whole country exploding with all that anger and frustration about Vietnam and how many people were being killed," says Susan. "It was very uncomfortable for me."
The events that changed their lives led to the couple's work with the Ada County Human Rights Task Force, and more recently, the Idaho Human Rights Education Center, where they work as docents for the Anne Frank Memorial. Their experiences talking with people at the memorial provide innumerable occasions for one-on-one interchange.
"I hope I have passed something on to [the people I guide], but they certainly have passed something on to me," says Susan.
Such realizations are part of what the project is about. Falcone finds that "people are surprised sometimes how honest they are, and that's a beautiful thing. They'll finish the interview and say, 'I can't believe we said that, or talked about this,' or 'We haven't ever talked about this.' They're usually happy they've gotten to that moment together. I think people surprise themselves."
This is particularly true about Boise, says Falcone. Boise's interviews have been surprisingly honest, more so than other places. "The honesty is what struck me when I first got to Boise. I've had a lot of instances of people being happily surprised at just how honest they would be with each other," Falcone says. "That was a beautiful thing to be a part of and witness, those really honest moments."
Grass-roots collections of oral history like StoryCorps spotlight the transformative power of conversation. Listening to the results of the project makes you realize that media images of the groveling of aspiring pop stars and the hateful spewing of motor-mouth pundits are fake. Real life is about the unvarnished wisdom of ordinary people in ordinary places. People like you, in places like Idaho. Says Falcone, "Boise's just wonderful—people seem very happy here." Keep listening to find out if she is right.
Hear stories from all over the United States at storycorps.net. Learn more about National Public Radio's StoryCorps broadcasts at npr.org. Tune in to KBSU at 90.3 FM, or search the Idaho StoryCorps Project at radio.boisestate.edu/kbsu.html.