Dave Isay: How Do We Change When We Really Listen To The People We Love? Dave Isay started StoryCorps 15 years ago with an open invitation for people to interview one another. Today, he sees an urgent need for listening to each other with care and respect.
NPR logo

How Do We Change When We Really Listen To The People We Love?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/411734279/608129703" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Do We Change When We Really Listen To The People We Love?

How Do We Change When We Really Listen To The People We Love?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/411734279/608129703" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, The Act Of Listening. And earlier we introduced you to a guy named Dave Isay. Dave is a pioneering radio producer with an idea to give people all over the world a brand-new way to listen to each other. But the story of how Dave came up with that idea actually started years ago. It was in the late 1980s. Dave was 22. And he was just starting out in radio. And it's a story he told on the TED stage.


DAVE ISAY: At almost the exact same time, I found out that my dad, who I was very, very close to, was gay. I was taken completely by surprise. We were a very tight-knit family. And I was crushed. At some point, in one of our strained conversations, my dad mentioned the Stonewall riots. He told me that one night in 1969, a group of young black and Latino drag queens fought back against the police at a gay bar in Manhattan called the Stonewall Inn and how this sparked the modern gay rights movement. It was an amazing story, and it piqued my interest. So I decided to pick up my tape recorder and find out more. With the help of a young archivist named Michael Shirker, we tracked down all of the people we could find who had been at the Stonewall Inn that night.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I guess, as they say - or as Shakespeare says, we were ladies in waiting just waiting for the thing to happen.

ISAY: Recording these interviews, I saw how the microphone gave me the license to go places I otherwise never would have gone and talked to people I might not otherwise ever have spoken to.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was a cop. And he was on his stomach with a drag queen straddling him. She was beating the hell out of him with her shoe. Whether it was a high heel, well, that I don't know. But she was beating the hell out of him.

ISAY: I had the privilege of getting to know some of the most amazing, fierce and courageous human beings I had ever met. It was the first time the story of Stonewall had been told to a national audience.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This was a tremendous thing that had happened at Stonewall. And it gave us the feeling that we were not going to be closeted for very much longer.

ISAY: I dedicated the program to my dad. It changed my relationship with him. And it changed my life.

RAZ: By doing that, by listening to those people, was it sort of a way for you to kind of communicate with your dad?

ISAY: Oh, totally. You know, it was taking steps towards him. And also, I think what I wanted to do was understand what he had gone through. And I wasn't at the place where I could talk to him about it yet. But talking to these men and women about, you know, what life was like, especially in the era before Stonewall and the hiding and the shame and pain, you know, that's where I learned everything.


ISAY: Over the next 15 years, I made many more radio documentaries, working to shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media. Over and over again, I'd see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people, particularly those who had been told that their stories didn't matter. I could literally see people's backs straighten as they started to speak into the microphone.

In 1998, I made a documentary about the last flophouse hotels on the Bowery in Manhattan. Guys stayed up in these cheap hotels for decades. They lived in cubicles the size of prison cells covered with chicken wire so you couldn't jump from one room into the next. Later, I wrote a book on the men with the photographer Harvey Wang. I remember walking into a flophouse with an early version of the book and showing one of the guys his page. He stood there staring at it in silence. Then he grabbed the book out of my hand and started running down the long, narrow hallway, shouting, I exist; I exist.


RAZ: We don't think about listening as a profound act of respect - like, really giving somebody dignity or a gift, especially people who are not listened to or not heard from.

ISAY: That's right. And that's always been kind of the guiding lessons of the last, you know, 30 years. I mean, we all have the capacity to listen in this way.

RAZ: Dave Isay wanted to give people a chance to tap into that capacity, which then led to StoryCorps, where two people would step inside a recording booth and just talk to each other.

ISAY: I just didn't know what was going to happen. I thought of, like, Jerry Springer moments and people killing each other in the booth. And like, every - like, there were many lost, like, nights of sleep.

RAZ: And just like in his early documentaries, Dave wouldn't be heard in any of those recordings from the booth. It would just be a couple of people telling their own stories. And all Dave did was come up with a list of suggested questions for them to ask.

ISAY: How do you want to be remembered? What are the most important lessons you've learned in life? You know, can you - is there anything that you've never told me that you want to tell me now? And it's the kind of questions that kind of draw you together that are the kind of questions that get asked in StoryCorps.

RAZ: Today, StoryCorps is the single largest collection of human voices ever recorded, with more than tens of thousands of interviews archived at the Library of Congress.


RAZ: Now, since Dave gave his TED talk back in 2015, things of course have changed. The United States has changed...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up.

RAZ: ...Especially when it comes to its national conversation.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting) This is what democracy looks like.

RAZ: And there are big questions over whether we're listening to each other at all.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #3: (Chanting) Immigrants are welcome here.

ISAY: And, I mean, that's what's going on - and I think we're living in an extremely dangerous time.


JENN STANLEY: I try to not bring up politics, but you always watch 5 o'clock news. And the minute any politician steps on - it doesn't matter who it is - I just cringe and...


J. STANLEY: Yeah, but you have to say something, whereas I would like to just pretend it's not happening.

P. STANLEY: Well, you're the adult.

J. STANLEY: You're the adult. I'm the child (laughter).

P. STANLEY: Oh, OK. I think...

RAZ: This is a conversation between Peter Stanley and his daughter Jenn. They're on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and this conversation is part of a new StoryCorps project called One Small Step.


P. STANLEY: And to be honest with you, I get a little bit miffed when you say you can't talk to me. But if you're going to get so angry and flip out about it, then you know what? I'd rather you didn't talk to me.

J. STANLEY: But see, this is what drives me crazy...

ISAY: If there was kind of one underlying theory of StoryCorps, it's a version of, you know, it's impossible not to love someone whose story you've heard, or, you know, you can't hate someone whose story you've heard. So what we want to do is figure out if there is a way that we could remind the country that we actually don't want people we disagree with dead, (laughter) right?


P. STANLEY: I don't think I intentionally talk about politics with you to get into an argument with you.

J. STANLEY: I'm really surprised to hear you say that.

ISAY: So we wanted to test this. And we've been testing this thing we called One Small Step, where we're putting people across the political divides together in StoryCorps booths.

RAZ: People with totally different...

ISAY: Yes.

RAZ: ...Worldviews?

ISAY: That's right.


P. STANLEY: I have nothing but respect for you. I don't agree with you all the time. I don't agree with you most of the time, but that's OK.

J. STANLEY: One of the things...

ISAY: Mother Teresa used to say, you know, we've forgotten that we belong to each other.


J. STANLEY: I mean, I just really worshiped you, Dad. I just thought that, like, everything that you thought and said was right. And you were just my best friend. But I think as I got older, I realized that you were really wrong about a lot of things.

P. STANLEY: Well, you're probably right, Jenn. I'm not - I never professed to be right about everything. The important thing here to me in our relationship is that you have your own beliefs and that I respect you for your beliefs. You were raised to be a sensitive, caring person, and that's exactly who you are.


RAZ: When they walked out of that conversation - I don't know. I know it sounds - it probably sounds, like, a bit cheesy, but I don't know. Do you feel like a part of them was changed?

ISAY: It's not cheesy at all. Yeah. The microphone gives you the license to talk about things and ask questions you don't normally get to talk about. And everybody uses that permission to have these important conversations. And, you know, it's not the answer to everything, but it's a step in the right direction.


ISAY: You know, I heard this guy Christian Picciolini who converts neo - he used to be a neo-Nazi and was, like, the leader of the neo-Nazis in the United States, essentially, at one point. And I knew that he's worked with 120, 130, 140 neo-Nazis - white supremacists - and gotten them out. And he said there's absolutely no point in arguing about specific issues. It's useless. You know, the point is for just people to feel, you know, loved (laughter), you know, and heard. I asked him, out of those 120, 130 people, how many would you write off - are just, like, beyond the pale? And he said zero. He's never met one that was hopeless.


RAZ: There's a conversation between Christian and a guy named Johnny.


CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: I put you through hell.

JOHNNY HOLMES: You were rough.

PICCIOLINI: I mean, there were fights. There were words that we had those years that I was there.

HOLMES: The one that I remember - I kind of ushered you into the dean's office.

PICCIOLINI: I remember.

HOLMES: And I remember she put her arms around you to try to calm you down. And excuse the language, but you were like, you black [explicative]. Get your filthy hands off of me.

ISAY: Yeah, so when Christian - when he was in high school - had a run in with a school safety officer at his high school.


HOLMES: And I remember saying to you, Chris, how could you be filled with so much hate? You play on the same football team as my son.

ISAY: He was a neo-Nazi at that point - violent, very violent. Horrendous, horrendous run-in, and then he got out, you know, many years later. And his first job, he was sent back to the school to work on the computers (laughter) there and ran into this guy.


PICCIOLINI: And of course within the first five minutes - as I'm standing in that hallway, here comes you walking right in front of me. And I didn't know what to do. You didn't see me, but I decided I was going to follow you to the parking lot and tapped you on the shoulder. And you took a step back.

HOLMES: Because I knew you as you were.

PICCIOLINI: I didn't have words for you because I know all the hell that I had put you through. And all I could say to you was, I'm sorry. The one thing that you told me that day - you were like a prophet. You said this isn't just about some white kid who goes into, you know, a Nazi group.


PICCIOLINI: This is about every young person who feels vulnerable and, you know, is looking where to belong - and because you did that, I'm doing what I do now.


ISAY: People just - they're just a different person in that booth. And I think all of us have that inside of us. And what we have to do is figure out how to bring it out, especially at this kind of, you know, really dangerous and crazy moment in this country and around the world.


RAZ: There's one more I want to play. It's a conversation between a mother and a son - Tanai and Dezmond. And they're talking about - Dezmond is talking about doing an active shooter drill at his school.


DEZMOND FLOYD: The class is supposed to stand on the back wall, but I decided to stand in the front of the class because I wanted to take the bullet and save my friends.

ISAY: Yeah. So this is a story we broadcast before the marches coming out of Parkland.


TANAI BENARD: If there's any a time that I want you to be selfish, it's then. I need you to come home. So would you still stand in front of your friends, even with me telling you not to (laughter)?

DEZMOND: Yes. I get that you would want me to come home, but it's really not a choice that you can make. It's a choice that I have to make.

BENARD: I see now that there's nothing I can say that would change your mind. I just hope that it never comes to that.

DEZMOND: Talking about this makes me feel sad, but, you raised a good person.

BENARD: And this is why (laughter) I can't have the conversation with you. You keep saying things like that, and I'm speechless. You're 10, and you're that 10-year-old who doesn't clean their room. And (laughter) there is no handbook for this. This is why the conversation always ends between you and I in dead silence because I'm a mother, and I don't know what to say.


RAZ: I mean, I guess it's important to clarify with all these examples that, you know, listening isn't necessarily about listening to someone's views or policy positions that you find repugnant or unacceptable. But I guess it's just listening to someone's life experience, right? Like, their story or, you know, where they came from, and how they grew up and what happened in their childhood. Just their story, their life.

ISAY: Well, that's what it's about. I mean, I think a lot of times when you're talking about getting into a conversation that's about a policy position, it becomes more of a debate.

RAZ: Yeah.

ISAY: Right? So that's not - and the point is to win (laughter). So, you know, in these conversations, again, it's just to recognize our shared humanity and to, you know, see if we can just in a small way start to stitch the country back together again.

RAZ: Do you think it's possible?

ISAY: You know, I'm a - I do. But I think it's going to be extremely hard. But I feel like if there's a sliver of a percentage of a chance that we can convince people in the country it's our patriotic duty to listen to each other, like, a percentage of 1 percent of a chance, it's worth fighting for it with everything we've got. So that's what we're going to do.


ISAY: Ten years ago I recorded a StoryCorps interview with my dad, who was a psychiatrist and became a well-known gay activist. I never thought about that recording until a couple of years ago when my dad, who seemed to be in perfect health and was still seeing patients 40 hours a week, was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away very suddenly a few days later. It was June 28, 2012, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.


ISAY: What do you think is the most important thing that you've accomplished in your life? What are you proudest of?

RICHARD ISAY: I'm very proud of you kids. I am very proud of the work I've done. And I am proud of being able to turn my life around and make it into a happy and a good one.

ISAY: Do you think about dying?

R. ISAY: All the time.


ISAY: I listened to that interview for the first time at 3:00 in the morning on the day that he died. It was at that moment that I fully and viscerally grasped the importance of making these recordings. Maybe these conversations will remind us what's really important. And maybe it will help us recognize that simple truth that every single life matters equally and infinitely. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Dave Isay. He's the founder of StoryCorps, which is launching a new project called One Small Step. You can learn more about it and find the great StoryCorps podcast at storycorps.org. And you can also see both of Dave's TED Talks at ted.com.


SO MANY DYNAMOS: (Singing) The sound of our voices keep us from listening. Our words are like water. They're drowning out the day. We never intend to hear what each other say.

RAZ: Hey. Thanks for listening to our show, The Act Of Listening, this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. And you can hear this show anytime by subscribing to our podcast. Do it now on Apple podcasts or however you get your podcasts.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Janae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner. With help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Diba Mohtasham. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. If you want to let us know what you think about the show, please go to Apple podcasts and write a review. Also, you can write directly to us at tedradiohour@npr.org. And you can tweet us. It's @TedRadioHour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.