NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. A year ago this week, StoryCorps launched two mobile booths on a journey across the United States. Airstream trailers equipped with soundproof recording studios set off to collect the memories of thousands of people who stepped inside to tell their stories, to listen to their friends and relatives, and often to find or reconnect with a part of themselves.
StoryCorps is among the most ambitious oral history projects ever undertaken in this country. Like the Works Progress Administration interviews of the 1930s, StoryCorps seeks out ordinary Americans, people whose lives rarely make it onto the pages of history books. Their stories will be preserved in a special archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. One of those gleaming Airstream trailers is in Washington, D.C. today, parked in front of the Library Congress, and it's open for business.
Today we'll talk with David Isay, the creator of StoryCorps, about the booths and about the projects and about the stories that have been collected thus far. We'll listen in on a few, and we also want to hear from you.
If you could interview a close friend or a family member, who would it be? What questions would you like to ask them? If you've already been to a StoryCorps facility, call us and tell us what it was like. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later in the program, Mr. Whippy faces extinction in Britain's war on obesity, and we'll read from your e-mails. But first, StoryCorps. David Isay is founder and executive producer of Sound Portraits Productions. He's with us from our bureau in New York, and David, nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. DAVID ISAY (Founder, StoryCorps): Hi, Neal. Good to be here.
CONAN: How many stories have been gathered by these mobile booths over the past year?
Mr. ISAY: Well, the mobile booths recorded, they each recorded about 1,500 interviews, so it's 3,000 interviews with about 6,000 participants in the past year.
CONAN: And they're predecessors are two booths that you have in New York City.
Mr. ISAY: Exactly. Well, one, the, we opened our first booth at Grand Central terminal at the end of 2003, and then we opened our second booth down at the World Trade Center site shortly after we launched the two mobile booths a year ago.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And the idea, I guess, is do a little bit of outreach. Not everybody comes to Grand Central Station.
Mr. ISAY: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we - you know, StoryCorps, as you know, it's a real simple idea. You bring your grandmother to this booth, and you're met by a facilitator who's someone who works with us, and then they bring you inside this booth and close the door, and this kind of scared space. It's the lights are very low, and you sit across from your grandmother. The facilitator's in the corner. And for 40 minutes, you interview you grandmother about anything you want to talk to her about.
Most people talk about the large kind of life questions, like what are the most important lessons you've learned in life and how do you want to be remembered? At the end of the 40 minutes, two CDs have been burned. One goes home with the family, and the second one stays with us, and, as you said, goes to the Library of Congress.
And the idea of, for StoryCorps is that we want to make this accessible to everyone who wants to participate across the country. We like to think of this as just the beginning of the project. We want it to become part of the fabric of this country, kind of telling people that our stories - the stories of regular people, the stories of everyday people are as interesting or even more interesting than Paris Hilton or Martha Stewart or any other nonsense that we're kind of fed all the time. And that's, you know, a lot of what StoryCorps is about.
CONAN: And I'm sure many people listening are familiar with StoryCorps from what they've heard on MORNING EDITION or ALL THING CONSIDERED, the excerpts that are broadcast on those programs. Where did this idea come from?
Mr. ISAY: Well, I mean, I, it, I've been doing radio documentaries for NPR for close to 20 years now, and, I mean, I guess, one of the big reasons why this thing started was that documentary I did a bunch of years ago, about 15 years ago, with two kids growing up in housing projects in Chicago - it was called Ghetto life 101 - where I worked with these two young people and gave them tape recorders and had them record stories, record a week in their lives.
And part of what they did was interview family members with these tape recorders, and I saw that - for instance, when one kid would, you know, lay in bed with his grandmother and interview her, that having that microphone gave him the license to ask questions that he'd never asked before. And the conversation continued once the tape recorder was turned off. And then as the years passed, when his grandmother died, when other people in the documentary died, these tapes were the only record that these young kids had left of their loved ones voices, and became incredibly important to them.
So that was a big influence on starting the project. I mean, you talked about the WPA interviews, and that was, you know, I'd been going to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for many, many years, listening to these interviews that were done in the ‘30s and early ‘40s. And, you know, they're incredibly beautifully recorded interviews done by - not done by, you know, the StoryCorps is everyday people interviewing a loved one or a friend or someone they're interested in.
These are folklorists and historians, you know, traveling the country, but talking to everyday people in these beautifully recorded interviews that just kind of bring you back - when you listen to these things - to the 1930s and ‘40s, whether it's a fishmonger selling his wares on a street corner in Harlem, or, you know, guys in a pool parlor in Washington, D.C., talking - you know, a couple of days after Pearl Harbor - talking about what that was like.
So those, you know, I'd listen to these recordings and think, you know, God, this is amazing. These voices are so powerful, and they really, you know, there's something about the voice. It's almost like the soul is contained in the voice, and there's something so powerful about hearing these voices, and I - you know, so I thought, wouldn't it be great to do something, you know, along these lines again.
So that's some of how StoryCorps came to be. And, of course, we walk in the, you know, Studs Terkel is a huge influence, and, you know, this project kind of walks in his, you know, large shoes. We were lucky enough to have him cut the ribbon for us at our, at the opening of our Grand Central booth. And we have one of our mobile booths is actually named after him, so he's been a big influence, so.
CONAN: Well, in a way, we all walk in Studs Terkel's shoes ...
Mr. ISAY: Absolutely.
CONAN: ...if we're lucky. If you'd like to join the conversation, if there was somebody you're close to who you'd like to interview, who would it be? What would you ask them about? And if you've been through the StoryCorps experience, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. And let's get Peter on the line, Peter calling from San Francisco.
PETER (Caller): Hi. Yes, I missed the portable, the mobile unit here in San Francisco, and I had just finished a book by Daniel Pink discussing how important stories were…
PETER: …so I really (unintelligible) stories, and actually, that's how I found StoryCorps was from this book, and found out I could get the mobile unit sent to me. So it was mailed to me with a microphone and some tapes, and I had two very good friends over for dinner, and we did the interviews, and it was just a lot of fun. It was really great.
CONAN: So there's a home version of the StoryCorps game, David Isay?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ISAY: This is a program. We have kits that, we have a few kits that we'll mail out and when - for people who can't get to the booths when we're in their towns. But what we're doing this year is launching a couple of new tiers of service. One is called an outpost, where we're gonna work with libraries and museums across the country and take a quiet room and turn it into a StoryCorps room, so it'll be available in local communities across the country.
And we're also starting something called door-to-door, which is kind of similar to what the gentleman was talking about, but includes a facilitator, where we'll send portable recording gear and a facilitator to - into a family reunion or a church or wherever, to record a day of interviews. And then we also have a limited number of these kits, which we Federal Express out, and people can record an interview and then send them back to us.
CONAN: Peter, after you finished the experience, I assume you mailed the tapes in, yes?
PETER: We did, uh huh.
CONAN: And how did you feel afterwards? I mean, did you feel like this was an important thing to do?
PETER: Well, you know, it was just - it was a fantastic experience. I'd never done it before. I was the interviewer, and, you know, I set up one of my bedrooms where it was quiet place. And one of my friends would come in. We sat down, and I had my prepared questions. But, you know, it was so interesting to get really - my friends really opened up about their experiences, as a child. And I felt like I was actually right there in their summer home in Petoskey, Michigan, or you know, New York.
And then I sent them back in, and then actually, I got a recording back, which I downloaded to my computer and now I have it on my iPod. And when they come over, every once in a while, I play it on my stereo and they all run for cover.
CONAN: Yeah. So you now have an audio version of your slides that you can torture your guests with.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PETER: That's right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: All right, Peter, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
Mr. ISAY: Thank you, Peter.
CONAN: Interestingly, yeah, you were talking about - obviously, there are facilitators there. In the Works Progress Administration, back in the 30s, there were professionals, if you will, doing these interviews. People sometimes need some help in learning how to formulate a question or two, David.
Mr. ISAY: Yeah. You know, I think what we try and talk about with - what we talk about with StoryCorps - and we have something on our Web site, which is Storycorps.net, which is called a question generator, which lists scores and scores and scores of questions that people can, you know, choose to use when they're doing interviews.
And we also encourage people, if they can't get to a booth, to kind of do this themselves and get a group of people together and buy a tape recorder and pass it around a do StoryCorps. Although we can't take - we don't have the capacity, unfortunately - we're too small at this point to take the tapes and put them into the Library of Congress. But it's about having this experience, and StoryCorps' about listening. It's about kind of connecting to the person you're talking to and listening to what they have to say.
We can - anyone can do this. Anyone can both be the interviewer and be interviewed, even the most kind of reluctant, reticent, you know, folks who come to the booth and say I have no story to tell. Those are the ones, when you close the door, you know, they start crying immediately, and…
Mr. ISAY: …and you know 40 minutes later, they're kind of holding on with their fingernails…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ISAY: …trying not to leave the booth.
CONAN: I bet they also find that 40 minutes can go much more quickly than you'd think.
Mr. ISAY: It does. And what the facilitator say - and these facilitators are amazing people. They serve a one-year tour of duty and work here in New York and then go out on the road, and go through training here at StoryCorps. And what the facilitators often say to participants is people usually show up with a question list. If they don't show up, the facilitators will give them one. But they say just go for the most important question right away, because those 40 minutes go by real fast. So people kind of start the interview and it just, you know, starts off at 90 miles per hour and goes from there.
CONAN: As we mentioned, the StoryCorps mobile van, one of them is here in Washington, D.C., today. Sam Harman(ph) told his grandson about a day he spent in Washington long ago when he was enlisted in the Navy. This is from an earlier StoryCorps recording. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of StoryCorps recording)
Mr. SAM HARMAN (StoryCorps Interviewee): There was a glass there, a ticket seller behind it, and off of the glass reflected the Capitol dome. And I just thought to myself, what a great way to end the day, drinking in all of this democracy.
I called for the ticket she was reading. She punched the machine. I reached my hand to get the ticket and lay down the money, and she pulled it back, and said you can't come in here. She saw my black hand and refused to sell me a ticket.
The Capitol dome was superimposed on her angry face, anger that I would have the temerity to ask to buy a ticket. And I just walked the streets crying all night. That's the saddest, without any exception, the most painful recollection of anything that's ever happened to me that I have.
CONAN: More on StoryCorps and your phone calls for Dave Isay: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Back after the break. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking today with Dave Isay, the creator of StoryCorps, an ambitious project that has set out to preserve the oral history of everyday Americans. You can hear every personal account from the StoryCorps project and find out how to contribute your own story at npr.org. And, of course, you're invited to join our conversation here.
If you could interview a close friend or family member, who would it be? What would you ask them? And if you've been to a StoryCorps facility, what was it like? 800-989-8255, e-mail is email@example.com. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Michael(ph). Michael calling from Kansas City.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call.
MICHAEL: I'd just really like to express my gratitude for this program. I'm currently studying to be a librarian, and - as well as an archivist - and have something like StoryCorps, which is, you know, recording the oral histories I think is just a great idea. I remember growing up listening to the Library of Congress recordings of all the old blues musicians, and just the - it was Mr. Lomax, you know, who took the time to go search out these blues legends and recorded them, and got them in the Library of Congress. So I just really like to commend the speaker on his program, and also would like to know when it would be coming to Kansas City, Missouri. And I'll go ahead and take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Okay, Michael, thanks. Good luck with your studies.
MICHAEL: Thank you.
Mr. ISAY: Thanks, Michael. Well, actually, we are - it's still tentative, but I think we'll be in Kansas City in September. So far, this past year, we were in, I think, 35 cities and 25 states. And we have one booth, Neal, as you said, in Washington. Another one is down in New Orleans, recording stories there. And they're going to move onwards from there.
CONAN: How do you decide where and when to go?
Mr. ISAY: Well, I mean partly, you know, this is a collaboration with public radio stations, nationwide and with NPR. And where we talk to different public radio stations and gage their interest. I mean, there's a tremendous amount of interest in this.
We started with some bigger cities, and now we're kind of going more deeply into the heartland, now that we've had the experience of doing this for one year. But even in the past year, we've been, you know, all over the place.
We were on Native American reservations in North Dakota. We were in big cities like, you know, L.A. and Chicago and Atlanta. We were invited onto a maximum security penitentiary in Oregon, inside the walls of the penitentiary, and recorded interviews with guards and security staff and prisoners and so forth.
Mr. ISAY: So, it's been amazing. And it is, you know, it's - StoryCorps is about telling people that they matter and that they won't be forgotten. You know, the act of kind of taking someone that you care about into this booth and really listening to them has - you know, the whole project was kind of an experiment and a guess and it's worked beautifully. And it's just kind of this profound thing for people. And we, you know, when the door's shut, oftentimes, the tears kind of start to flow, we find. We go through a lot of tissue in the booth. And it's been, it's been an amazing year.
CONAN: As Dave just mentioned, Mobile Booth West stopped at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Paul Mortimer and Sean Fox interviewed each other in this clip. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of StoryCorps clip)
Mr. PAUL MORTIMER (Inmate, Oregon State Penitentiary): Same stuff over and over every day. It's real small.
Mr. SEAN FOX (Inmate, Oregon State Penitentiary): Yeah, monotonous, waking up looking at them bars, know a lot of things…
Mr. MORTIMER: Just things that people take for granted. I would love to mow the lawn, you know?
Mr. FOX: When the trucks come in, you know, they bring in like the trash truck and all that, the smell of the exhaust, most people don't want to smell that. I try to get a nose full of it…
Mr. MORTIMER: Right.
Mr. FOX: …because it brings back memories of being on the streets. That, if you really think about it, that is sorry. I mean, that's the highlight of your day, getting a nose full of exhaust?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MORTIMER: Think you'll ever get out?
Mr. FOX: Yeah. I mean, I see the parole board every two years. If I can leave the drugs alone long enough, I'll get a date, I'll get out. I'll probably be, I don't know, 55, close to 60 when I get out, but I will get back out.
CONAN: Now let's go to Mobile Booth East, which is parked in front of the Library of Congress today. One of today's StoryCorps participants has agreed to talk with us.
Ralph Eubanks is director of the publishing office at the Library of Congress. He's also the author of the memoir Ever is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi's Dark Past. He was kind enough to discuss that book with us here on TALK OF THE NATION. And, Ralph Eubanks, nice to have you back on the program today.
Mr. RALPH EUBANKS (Author; Director of Publishing, Library of Congress): Thanks for having me back, Neal.
CONAN: As I understand it, you're going to listen to your 9-year-old daughter interview her grandmother, your mother?
Mr. EUBANKS: Yes, I am. I'd thought about going into the booth. I interviewed my mother last spring, and there's some more things I wanted to ask her. And when I got the opportunity to go back in again, I thought, well why should I have all the fun? Why don't I let my daughter do it this time around, instead of me?
CONAN: And did you give her some questions, or is she coming up with her own?
Mr. EUBANKS: I gave her one question, and she said I want to come up with my own questions. So I let her. I just stopped and just said you write out the questions. And I thought she came up with really wonderful questions.
CONAN: Can you give me a for instance?
Mr. EUBANKS: She's asking my mother about, is there something that her mother gave her that was special, or something that she told her that was special that she's never forgotten?
Mr. EUBANKS: Asking her about my grandfather, was there something that he did that she was especially proud of? And is, you know, asking about what her life was like after her mother died when she was seven?
CONAN: Hmm. Those are good questions.
Mr. EUBANKS: So I thought they were really amazing questions, and I just gave her one. I wanted her to get a sense of her grandmother as prankster.
Mr. EUBANKS: Which I don't think she thinks about.
CONAN: I guess because of the formality of the situation, in a way, she's coming up with questions she probably would not ask around the kitchen table.
Mr. EUBANKS: That's it exactly. These are not the kind of questions that she would ask when we're sitting around the table at dinner when her grandmother's at our house. She would never think to ask these. And she's actually a pretty good interviewer. I'm really kind of impressed by what she's come up with.
Mr. EUBANKS: So, but I think that there is the formality aspect of it that tends to bring out the type of questions that you wouldn't normally ask someone.
CONAN: What is it like? You said you were in there before with your mother. What's it like when the door closes?
Mr. EUBANKS: It's actually kind of amazing that I think that you would expect that when the door closes, that you'd become tense, but a lot of the inhibitions tend to go away. And there are things that my mother told me in that interview about our family, about her father, and about their life in south Alabama when she was growing up that I'd never heard before. And that she'd never revealed to me or, or I think, to really - to anyone before.
CONAN: And what use is it? You're somebody awfully familiar with historical record?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, it's really useful, I think, for - I mean, in the case of my daughter, kind of learning about the - you know, what life was like a few generations ago. She's been - my daughter has been to the house where my mother grew up. So I think she has a sense of the world my mother grew up in. And the last time when I did the interview with my mother, my 14-year-old son was there.
And we traveled to Alabama just a few weeks after that. And I hadn't been to the house in 20 years, and I was lost. And he said, no, Dad, you turn here. It's just - you're not going the way that Baba(ph) said in the interview. You go back this way. And I followed what, exactly what he told me, and that's how I ended up at the house. Her memory of it is so vivid about what it was like, the way to get there, that he could find his way there. And he has a worse sense of direction than I do.
CONAN: Interesting that people not only go there to talk but to listen, and obviously, listen pretty carefully.
Mr. EUBANKS: Yes.
CONAN: Ralph Eubanks, good luck.
Mr. EUBANKS: Thanks very much.
CONAN: Ralph Eubanks, Director of the Publishing Office at the Library of Congress, joining us today from the StoryCorps' Mobile Booth East outside the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Mike, Mike's calling from Concord, California.
MIKE (Caller): Good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon, Mike.
MIKE: Yeah, I was calling to share a story, listening to the StoryCorps productions - and I really enjoy them. And had a - my dad, who produced documentaries for public television for 30 years, and basically sat around asking people questions all his life, he was killed in accident about two months ago.
CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that.
MIKE: And he, you know, I never thought to, you know, sit down with him and ask him those questions. So he would have been the one that I would have wanted to go into one of those booths with. But it's, you know, not really recognizing until that, you know, his passing, but that was, you know, that he was the one.
CONAN: Well, Mike, again, I'm sorry to hear of your father's death and thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
MIKE: Thank you.
Mr. ISAY: Yeah, me too. You know, when we heard that clip from the penitentiary and the person who was speaking the most - Paul Mortimer - who said that he was going to get out in a few years, actually died within a month of when he conducted that interview...
Mr. ISAY: ...at 49 of a drug overdose in the booth. So, I mean, it is - it's -again, this is about honoring people who you care about in your life and it's never too soon to do it. We do - we have - our booths when we're on the road -the reservations snap up in, you know, seconds. But we do have two booths in New York City. And people are welcome to, you know, come to New York, bring a loved one, bring a parent, bring a grandparent, make a reservation and come do that interview.
CONAN: Here's an email we got from Gary Scott(ph) in Oxford, Ohio.
(Reading) "I used to work at WKMS Public Radio in Murray, Kentucky. WKMS hosted StoryCorps last summer. As news director it was my job to review and produce the interviews recorded during the visit to Murray to air locally. I listened to most of the audio and was often moved to tears and laughter by many of the stories I heard.
I felt privileged to be able to listen in on so many intimate conversations between granddaughters and grandmothers, parents and children, husbands and wives. I've been a reporter/producer for eight years. The national and local StoryCorps interviews are some of the most compelling I've ever heard. It's a wonderful project."
Dave, I suspect you've probably heard more of these interviews than anybody else.
Mr. ISAY: No.
CONAN: Oh, really?
Mr. ISAY: Absolutely not. No, I'm actually out fundraising 24 hours a day.
CONAN: You don't get the fun jobs.
Mr. ISAY: I don't get the fun job. But, you know, I think, you know, to me StoryCorps in this kind of era of - well, StoryCorps is an authentic - or I think is about authenticity and authentic voices and we live in such an environment of phoniness. I think having something kind of real like this, where people are clearly speaking from the heart and the voice is so powerful it's like a, you know, it's like an injection of adrenaline right into the heart when you hear this stuff. And I think that's partly why, you know, over the past year, people have, you know, responded to this so strongly.
CONAN: Here's an email we got from Mary(ph).
(Reading) "It's almost as if the soul is in your voice, your guest said. In my family we have pictures going back to the late 19th century and I treasure them, of course. But my father began interviewing people when tape recorders were made portable and these tapes touch me more than any picture. Hearing my long dead parents and sister talk brings them back to me as no picture can and even more the joy of listening to my currently 40ish sons when they were four and six is overwhelming."
We're talking today with Dave Isay, who's the Executive Producer of the StoryCorps project and the Executive Producer also of Sound Portraits Productions. He's with us from our bureau in New York. If you'd like to join the conversation our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
Let's get another caller on the line. This is Marshall(ph). Marshall calling from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
MARSHALL (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.
MARSHALL: Yeah. David I really admire your work and, in fact, I'm part of the group of people that runs a sort of similar project. It's called Memory Archive. And one of the things that we had to deal with early on in the project concerned search. And I guess the thing I'm concerned with, and this concerns all oral history projects, is that once all of the tapes are put into an archive or the mp3s are put online or something, that it's difficult for people to find things on a kind of granular level.
In other words, if you have a memoir of somebody who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, as I did and used to go to the Cedar Lounge, they don't want the whole memoir, they just want the part about the Cedar Lounge. Are you guys doing anything to make the materials both available online and searchable?
Mr. ISAY: Absolutely. Let me address the searchable part first, Marshall. We've been working with the Library of Congress since the beginning of this project and we created a very intricate system for logging these interviews. After an interview is done, the facilitator will sit with the subjects and enter all of the proper names of places and people who are talked about and then go through and fill out a form that's incredibly detailed about what was talked about.
Whether - if it had some - if there was a battle mentioned, you know, that you'll fill out that or a holiday - discussions of a holiday or whatever it was. The facilitators also, during the interviews, take notes, do a log of the interview with pencil, not with a computer, because it's too distracting. And a log of what's said in the interviews, what questions are asked at any particular time, are scanned along with a photograph of the participants, which are taken at the end of the interview itself.
And all of that goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. So this will be a highly searchable archive. We don't put full interviews online. And we made that decision because we're concerned about identity theft issues, because these are so personal. So, for the time being, you have to go to the library.
Fifty years from now, I'm sure they'll be available online. And, you know, speaking to the email before about the power of the voice: I mean, part of the beauty of this project is that people will be able to go 150, 200 years from now and listen to the voice of their great great great great great, you know, grandmother or grandfather and experience who that person was.
MARSHALL: Right. But you don't have any plans to transcribe the interviews themselves?
Mr. ISAY: We hope, eventually. You know, we're a small - we're still a small organization and our resources are stretched very far. We offer StoryCorps for $10 to participants. If they can't afford it we do it for free and we're always going to hold it to that, because we feel that everybody has to be able to participate.
Each interview costs us more than $200 to record. So the business model is crazy and all of our funding kind of goes there to keep delivering the service. Someday we hope to get funding to transcribe these things and eventually we assume there'll be voice recognition software, you know, 10, 15 years down the line that will, you know, make all these things accessible in that way.
But for now it is extraordinarily searchable.
CONAN: There's voice recognition software now, it just doesn't work very well.
Mr. ISAY: Exactly.
CONAN: Marshall, thanks very much for the call.
MARSHALL: Thanks very much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And before we go to the break, David. As you look at this, this is a project that the number of stories out there is functionally infinite.
Mr. ISAY: Right. Yeah. No, our goal is - we've recorded, as I said, we've recorded about 7000 so far. And by 2013 we hope to record 250,000 and onward from there. As I said, we want StoryCorps to be accessible to everybody who wants to participate and, you know, part of the fabric of the country.
So what we're really trying to do is, in a small way, kind of start a ripple of the social movement of getting people to listen to each other and recognize our shared humanity.
And, you know, we live in this country where everybody's, you know, screaming at each other so much, and when you listen to these stories you realize that if we spend a little less time shouting at each other and a little more time listening we'd be a, you know, better, more compassionate and thoughtful nation. So that's what StoryCorps all about.
CONAN: This email from Julia(ph).
(Reading) "I would interview my grandfather. He was in the Air Force in World War II and later had a private pilot's license. He had a lot of adventurous stories, but one I find very remarkable goes like this: In the 1940s he and a friend flew a little plane from Tennessee to Manhattan. When they arrived they hovered over Park Avenue. As they flew down it, he remembered going at about the same speed as the cars below them. It's amazing how much things have changed since then."
More on StoryCorps after we come back from a short break. We'll also be talking about ice cream wars in Britain and your letters. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited President Bush at the White House today. Olmert is looking for ways to go forward with his land-for-peace plans, despite divisions within the Palestinian leadership. And Fannie Mae has agreed to pay $400 million in fines to settle charges over its misleading financial statements. A scathing federal regulator's report says earnings were manipulated so executives of the mortgage finance giant could reap huge bonuses. Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, marketers tell us diamonds are a girl's best friend, but there's another side. The diamond trade also fuels bloodshed and social strife around the world. The darker side of diamonds tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
And on Thursday, TALK OF THE NATION will broadcast live from New Orleans. The new hurricane season starts June 1st. We'll talk with residents about how they're preparing and ask, are you ready?
If you have questions about how the city is getting ready, what it's doing to prepare for the possibility of another storm, send us an email, email@example.com is the email address. Just put New Orleans in the subject line, if you would.
Right now, we're talking with Dave Isay, founder and Executive Producer of Sound Portraits Productions and creator of StoryCorps. The StoryCorps vans, two mobile Airstream trailers, are crisscrossing the country. There are also, as he mentioned, two StoryCorps booths in New York City.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Kenneth(ph). Kenneth calling from Cincinnati.
KENNETH (Caller): Yes. Hello. I have a technical question. And that is, I wonder if you could recommend the kind of portable - the best sort of portable equipment to use; and along with that I've heard that some of these CDs - discs that we can buy in the stores really aren't really made for archival use. They tend to wear out or lose quality over time. So, if you could comment on this, it would be helpful.
CONAN: Kenneth, when you're talking about the equipment - so that you could do interviews yourself, in other words.
CONAN: Ok. David?
Mr. ISAY: Well, I'm not an archivist, so I can't speak to this as knowledgeably as others could certainly. But on our website at storycorps.net, under do it yourself, I think we suggest equipment to use.
And, you know, there are some simple rules for a recording that are incredibly important, no matter what equipment you have. And that is basically to wear headphones and to keep the mike pretty close to the mouth. Don't put a mike down on a table. Hold it and keep it, you know, a spread-out hands length away from the mouth of the person you are talking to.
And if you do that, no matter what equipment you're using, whether it's a cassette recorder or, you know, a digital tape recorder, a DAT or a minidisk, you're going to get a good recording. As far as CDs wearing out, you know, I think the trick would be to make sure that you transfer them to other medium. So if you have a CD, then you can transfer onto a hard drive and make sure that you update that hard drive, you know, over the years. But I don't know about the life of CDs.
CONAN: Kenneth, good luck.
KENNETH: Thank you. Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with - here it is, Veroon(ph). Veroon's calling us from San Jose in California.
VEROON (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was really impressed with this concept actually. When I was a kid I never saw my grandfather. He died before I was born. So I really don't know how he sounded like and things like that. my question to you is that - okay, since it is being done in America, most of the interviews must be done in the English language; but if my mother is to come to - she keeps visiting the U.S. and if she comes here and my son needs to interview her, he has to talk to her in my own language, so is language a limitation for your thing. And I'll take my call off the line.
CONAN: Ok, Veroon. Thanks.
VEROON: Thank you.
Mr. ISAY: Thank you. Yeah, that's a great question. Because of the citizen interview model of StoryCorps, language isn't an issue at all. We've done StoryCorps interviews in dozens of languages. And basically as long as one - as long as the person who's asking the questions can speak a little bit of English and communicate with the facilitator you're good to go. And people do interviews everyday in all sorts of different languages, and we welcome and encourage that.
CONAN: Hmm. Let's talk now with Sonia(ph). Sonia calling us from Detroit.
SONIA (Caller): Yes, hi.
SONIA: I went to the StoryCorps booth last summer in Detroit, and I interviewed my older brother. He's quite a bit my senior; he's 25 years older. And what we have in common besides being siblings is that we both have bi-polar disorder, as does his son. So it was really healing for me to talk to him about it and to understand what the trauma - and how the stigma was even greater back then. I was just diagnosed a few years ago.
SONIA: But just to find out, because from my childhood perspective it was just, you know, this erratic behavior and really disruptive to my life, from what I could understand of it. But, you know, hearing it as an adult. He's - I'm 40-ish, and he's mid-60s now. So it was very helpful and I really appreciate the project.
CONAN: And so this gave you an opportunity to ask about things you'd always wanted to ask about?
SONIA: Well. yes, actually, and now, having so much more empathy about it. And it was really helpful and really surprising just to find out so many other things about his life. And even though its something I do on my own, with video usually - it's something I've done with my parents, both of them now deceased, and with older relatives, and just because of the age gap in my family - it's been something that I've done just because I'm a journalist, and I don't know a lot about my family, the - even though they're my siblings they're old enough to be my parents, so...
CONAN: Yeah. Journalists ask their - never ask their family members the right questions, do they?
SONIA: That's right. But I did let him do most of the talking, so that was - it was really helpful to me.
CONAN: Uh-huh. And I assume you've kept the recording. What are you going to do with it, Sonia?
SONIA: Oh, absolutely. I made copies of it and I gave one to his daughter and a couple to him. And my nephew participated, as well. So I shared it around in the family. And I plan to take the project back up to continue, because, of course, in that time I couldn't ask everything I wanted to know, and, for some reason, I still haven't. So it was kind of a formal occasion where we did that and I've not found the time to do it again, so I'm glad that I do have that. And it's quite a keepsake and an heirloom for me.
CONAN: Sonia, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
SONIA: Thank you.
Mr. ISAY: Thank you, Sonia.
CONAN: David, we heard, you know, this idea of, you know - with the elements that are searchable, clearly scholars will be interested in this whether they're searching Guadalcanal, or Detroit in the 1940s, or whatever. What other uses do you think that this archive could be put to?
Mr. ISAY: Well, it's, you know, we don't know yet. I mean, I think it's going to be incredibly important for families, of course, to listen to their, you know, their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. And, of course, for historians it's going to give this kind of bottom-up view of what life was like through the, you know, voices and stories of people who - everyday people who lived life in the 20th and 21st century.
But I also think that, because of the nature of the questions, it's kind of this amazing experiment; because it's almost like the facilitators are collecting the wisdom of humanity, because the questions are what have you learned in life, and a lot of wisdom sort of questions. So, I don't - you know, time will tell.
CONAN: Hmm. Is there one story that you've heard that stays with you?
Mr. ISAY: You know, I'm - every week I'm - when I listen to the stories that are, you know, up for broadcast that week on MORNING EDITION on Friday, I'm, you know, delighted and amazed and moved by that story. So I like them all. I really do.
CONAN: David Isay, continued good luck to the project and have a great time fundraising.
Mr. ISAY: Thank you, Neal. Always do.
CONAN: Always do. Dave Isay is the founder and Executive Producer of Sound Portraits Productions, and was kind enough to join us today from our bureau in New York.
Coming up: Britain's ice cream war.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.