Column: Dave Isay on StoryCorps’ DIY oral history project

StoryCorps founder Dave Isay demonstrates how to record a story using the smartphone app. After amassing a huge collection of recorded voices in the U.S. and creating a popular fixture on public radio, the national oral history project is going global.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

It’s a big check for a big idea: $1 million, the annual TED prize awarded to a proposal that could change the world. The idea that won Dave Isay the TED grant was a phone app that puts his original big idea, StoryCorps, in the hands of anyone with a smartphone. Since 2003, the oral history project has paired up thousands of Americans for 40-minute face-to-face exchanges in audio booths set up in cities and towns around the country. Excerpts of a few hundred of the these have aired on National Public Radio, and almost all of them have been stored at the Library of Congress. Thanks to the TED money, StoryCorps just launched its app in a beta version, making Isay an audio impresario for 21st century America.

StoryCorps has recorded 65,000 interviews in its recording booths. This app is the do-it-yourself version?

We typically record about 5,000 interviews a year. The app has had 165,000 downloads, and we have hit our thousandth uploaded interview. And while the interviews are different from what happens in the booth, people are treating this with respect.


So far, what’s different between app and booth interviews?

The [booth]: probably 90% family. With the app, it’s probably more friends. It seems a lot of college kids in their dorms are talking to each other.

When StoryCorps started, we had a lot of open [reservation] slots. Now many more people want to participate than can. The app changes that. We’ve also only been in the United States, and with this app, we’re global.

This year on Thanksgiving, we hope every U.S. history student in the country uses the app to interview a grandparent or another elder so that over one weekend, an entire generation of American stories can be documented. With this app, we have the potential to work at that kind of scale.

How do you make sure StoryCorps isn’t only recording conversations from NPR-aware people?

StoryCorps is very much a justice project. We work with 500 nonprofits across the country — with the homeless, juvenile justice organizations, food pantries, immigrant and disability rights organizations. Half our slots are held for them. They talk to their clients, then we talk to them; they have this experience of being listened to.

Once the interviewer and interviewee show up, what happens in the booth?

Facilitators guide you. They run the equipment, they make you comfortable, they help you sign the release forms. They’re great listeners. It’s a high burnout job because a lot of the stories are difficult. We have an initiative for everyone who lost a loved one on 9/11. We have something for people in hospice. I doubt a single interview has happened without people crying. They’re very intense. Most of the stories aren’t sad, it’s just that you’re hearing something authentic, the opposite of reality TV.

The app is essentially a digital facilitator. It walks you through the process, allows you to do a shorter interview than [a booth] interview, which is 40 minutes. It gives you advice on how to hold the mike and helps you attach metadata [such as names and photos] to the interview. It gives you the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with a loved one and, with one tap, upload it to the Library of Congress.

Have facilitators ever had to break up fights?

No, and that was one of my worries when we started, that we’d have Jerry Springer stuff. It’s never happened once. That speaks to the lesson all the facilitators come back with: All ages, across the political spectrum, they say that Anne Frank line, that people are basically good.

One criticism is that StoryCorps prioritizes “collection over curation,” that except for the weekly pieces on NPR, the interviews are in an “archival hades,” accessible only at the Library of Congress.

Facilitators keep written logs of what’s said. That’s just not public yet; it will be at the Library of Congress. In coming years, if you talk about a 1948 Buick, [someone] can look it up in and listen to that part of the interview.

The issue isn’t the technology, it’s that I have concerns. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people sign a release at the end of interviews, but even though we have a right to put them up, we have a lot of work to do to make sure people have full and informed consent that it’s going out on the Web. We look at our bond with participants as kind of sacred.

Oral history is a big tent, and there’s great value to other oral history projects. We talk about StoryCorps as being a kind of “capturing wisdom” project. It’s an incredibly rich, bottom-up history of life as it’s lived. We won’t even understand the value of the archive for another 100 years. A lot of listeners have said to me, “If people in outer space could find out only one thing about human beings, I wish it would be StoryCorps stories.”

The project grew not only out of your radio documentary work and love of storytelling, but from something you screwed up.

When I was a kid, my grandmother had these sisters, including my Aunt Birdie, who claimed to have invented fruit salad. I tape-recorded my grandmother and her sisters. After they died, I went looking for the tape, and I couldn’t find it. When I go to my mom’s house, I still look for it, and it drives her insane. Part of StoryCorps is to make sure people didn’t make the idiotic mistake I made.

In February, three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, N.C., were shot to death and their neighbor arrested. Within a few days I heard one of those students on a StoryCorps interview.

If someone who’s not famous is in the news, we’ll cross-check it in our archive. That’s what happened: Yusor Abu-Salha had come to StoryCorps to interview her former elementary school teacher about six months before. You hear her introduce herself, you hear her voice — it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Do you ever “matchmake” interviewers and interviewees?

We do lots of matchmaking. We had a story about someone who killed someone in a traffic accident and the victim’s sister had forgiven him and become friends. Someone did a Facebook post that something similar had happened to him. We invited him and the person he hit to have a conversation. She had ended up recovering and becoming a stuntwoman because she had been hit by this guy, and he became a surgical technician. It had had this huge influence on their lives.

How has the project changed you?

The lessons are in my mind constantly. One interview was with a guy who lost both of his kids on 9/11, a firefighter and a cop. He said, “The last thing I always said to my kids is I love you, and they said it to me.” So you bet now the last thing I say to my kids every day is I love you.

[It has] made me much more hopeful about people and less cynical. It’s so easy to get distracted. StoryCorps is kind of shaking you on the shoulder and reminding you, “This is important.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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