With StoryCorps, Isay campaigns to save Grandma’s tales

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Last week a miniature mobile recording studio came to rest in Vanderbilt
Hall of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, marking the debut of StoryCorps,
an ambitious undertaking led by independent public radio producer David Isay.

StoryCorps aims to popularize the recording of oral histories by making
it easy for average Americans to interview one another. Each mini-studio,
called a StoryBooth, features tables, chairs, digital recording equipment
and a trained facilitator in a quiet, comfortable setting.

Booth users are encouraged to bring older relatives and, in 40 minutes of
talking, tease out their stories. They walk away with a compact disc of the
interview, and another copy goes to a new Library of Congress archive. NPR
newsmagazines and public radio stations will have a chance to air the most
compelling excerpts.

Isay and his Sound Portraits production company conceived StoryCorps two
years ago as a spiritual heir to the federal oral history project conducted
under the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. Today, he visualizes
StoryCorps as a weapon against what he sees as pop culture’s degrading effects.

“It has to do with my insanity of watching the mind-numbing, crazy,
reality TV shows that I see at the gym in the evenings, show after show,”
he says. “This is a beachhead. This is real. The waitress at your local
diner is real. And your grandparents are real. The people who are out to get
famous on TV aren’t real.”

Isay witnessed storytelling’s transformative effects when, for documentaries
such as Ghetto Life 101 and The Sunshine Hotel, he gave
recording gear to people unaccustomed to taping themselves.

The process can be cathartic, granting people fresh looks at their inner
lives. In a pilot interview for StoryCorps, Isay coaxed a great-uncle whose
wife of 50 years had just died into discussing the loss. “He didn’t have
to pretend that everything was okay anymore,” he says. “To this
day he plays the CD in the car, to himself.”

For now, StoryCorps is focused on gathering stories primarily from elder
Americans, with several, more tightly focused projects powering its launch.
As part of one called the Zakhor (“Remember”) Project, Jewish kids
approaching their bar and bat mitzvahs will be encouraged to interview older
relatives, working lessons from the talks into their mitzvah speeches. StoryCorps
will partner with Jewish groups to promote the project.

By stamping NPR and station call letters on StoryCorps materials, Isay is
banking on its ability to introduce public radio to new audiences and, to
some extent, repair its image. “NPR has become, like, the boogeyman for
the far right,” he says, but, “when you have a CD of your grandmother
who just died, and you see NPR or a public radio station inside, you’re going
to have a hard time calling them the devil.”

Grand Central’s StoryBooth opens with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday
by celebrated oral historian Studs Terkel. Brian Lehrer from StoryCorps partner
station WNYC will broadcast from the booth, interviewing Terkel and giving
the booth a trial run with one of his own older relatives.

Isay says the scope of StoryCorps depends upon its reception with its opening
this week. Two more recording booths are planned, one in New York’s historic
Eldridge Street Synagogue and another in Chicago planned in partnership with
WBEZ. Other StoryBooths will travel to smaller towns on trailers.

StoryCorps will also disseminate recording kits for home use through libraries,
its studios and its website, storycorps.net.
The project was created with a 10-year lifespan, but Isay hopes buzz will
build to power the project indefinitely. That’s also if money permits. The
hybrid nature of StoryCorps — part art project, part radio, part oral
history — has made gathering funds a challenge, monopolizing Isay’s

“For the big foundations, this doesn’t fall into their categories,”
he says. “Money is very, very tight. We’re flying close to the sun.”

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