Bottom-Up History: An Interview with StoryCorps’ Dave Isay

January 13, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 2 12 min read

David Isay never planned on a career as a documentarian or oral historian. In 1987 he was med-school bound, taking a year off to make certain medicine was the field for him. One day while walking in Manhattan’s East Village, he came across a storefront that caught his eye. “There was something about the window that was so carefully and beautifully set up in this remarkable way that just kind of drew you in to this little sliver of a building,” Isay said. It turned out to be a twelve-step recovery store that sold products meant to help people on the way to overcoming addiction.

The owners of the store were former heroin addicts living with AIDS who were determined to build a museum to addiction before they died. “This was in 1987,” Isay said, “when AIDS was a certain death sentence.” The couple had scale models and floor plans and a collection of letters from wealthy people declining requests for donations to help build the museum.

Isay knew that the dream would never come true, but he was inspired and impressed by the couple’s complete dedication to the project. He started calling television stations, trying to convince station directors to do a segment on the couple and their proposed museum. When the idea was turned down, Isay went back to the phone book and started calling radio stations. When he called WBAI, a famous community station in New York, he spoke with then news director Amy Goodman (who today runs Democracy Now!), she told him that the museum sounded like a great story and asked Isay to cover it himself. So Isay went back to the store with a tape recorder.

“Literally when I pressed play and record – in those days you still had to press play and record at the same time – I knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” Isay said. The story aired on WBAI the next night, and Gary Covino, who was then a producer on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered, happened to hear the show and pick it up for NPR. Isay withdrew from medical school and focused his energies on recording the world around him.

He produced long-form radio documentaries for NPR until about 2003, when he founded StoryCorps, an oral history project that has preserved thousands of American voices since its inception. Clips from StoryCorps interviews are broadcast each week on NPR’s Morning Edition and posted online at the organization’s website.

covercoverIsay has won five Peabody Awards for his radio documentaries and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a United States Artists Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship to fund his work. Isay is the founder of Sound Portraits Productions, the nonprofit parent organization of the better known StoryCorps. In October 2010, StoryCorps celebrated its seventh year in operation and will continue to document thousands more American lives. In addition to his radio work, David Isay is the author, co-author, or editor of six books based on stories collected by Sound Portraits and StoryCorps, including Holding On, Flophouse, Listening Is an Act of Love, and 2010’s Mom. The following is taken from an interview with Dave Isay, conducted in December 2008 in Brooklyn, New York.

The Millions: How does StoryCorps work?

David Isay: We have these booths that travel across the country and you make an appointment to bring a loved one to come to the booth. There, a facilitator meets you and tells you how the interview works.

You’re in this sacred space. The facilitator’s in the corner, in front of two CD burners, and you sit in front of a microphone at a little table across from a loved one and you look one another in the eyes and you just talk, ask questions, listen, for forty minutes. Most people ask those big life questions. The facilitator will tell you to ask those questions that you really want to hear the answers to, because once you’re in there, those forty minutes go by really fast and it’s very often extremely intense. It’s common for people to start crying when the CD burners start going, especially the intergenerational interviews. I mean, we live in a society that moves so fast, the act of stopping and turning off your computer and your cell phone and looking someone in the eye and telling them how much they matter to you and that you love them by listening to them is a profound act. So you often see grandparents starting to cry once they’ve been interviewed by a grandkid.

At the end of the forty minutes, two CDs have been burned. One goes home with you; the other stays with us and goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress so your great, great, great, great grandchildren can someday get to know you and, say, your grandmother through hearing your voices. One out of every several hundred interviews is broadcasted on NPR or published in one of our books, like Listening Is an Act of Love.

The StoryCorps archive at the American Folklife Center represents a bottom-up history of everyday Americans that will shed just as much light and insight into our world as the stories of our leaders and newsmakers.  And we are inviting all Americans to add their voices.

What we’re trying to do is to have that material become ubiquitous. We want to just flood the universe with stories that we choose from these recordings, but we don’t think of any recording or interview as more valuable than any other one. Ever. We view every one of the interviews as a sacred experience in people’s lives.

TM: Can you give me a sense of the breadth of some of the stories you record? I’m not concerned with names and identities, more the general subject matter and arcs of some of the more unusual tales.

DI: The themes that come up time and again revolve around the big three events – birth, life, and death.  Parents telling their children about how they came into the world, recalling major milestones and events in one’s life, and of course memorializing and remembering those who have passed.  Some common themes include growing up during the Great Depression, fighting in a war, falling in love, surviving an illness, and talking about one’s work life.

We recently recorded a story between a father and son where the father recounts the tale of falling out of a five-story window when he was three years old and being caught by the local barber.  Having this near-death experience at such a young age made an impact on his entire life.  He reunited with the barber 40 years later and reminisces with his son about how special that day was.

TM: How has the current economic situation affected your funding?

DI: It’s terrible for everybody, for the whole country. And the reason we did the National Day of Listening, which we launched in November 2008, was because of the economic crisis. Interviewing loved ones on the day after Thanksgiving is the least expensive and most meaningful gift that we can give one another, considering the times.

I think that while the economy is doing so badly and this is such a time of loneliness and pain in the country and it’s probably going to get worse, projects like StoryCorps become even more vital, in the same way that the WPA’s oral histories in the ‘30s helped to uplift the country. During times of any kind of crisis people yearn to feel connected and to be heard. Listening to people reminds them that their lives matter. That’s a message that we are going to need to hear even more loudly and more clearly in the times to come.

So it’s going to be a difficult fight for funding all around, but I hope that StoryCorps and projects like it can continue to thrive, because the role that we play is going to be even more important, both because it reminds people that their lives matter, and because listening to people who have been through difficult times before can show us a path to get through the difficult times today.

TM: Can you tell me more about the National Day of Listening?

DI: Like StoryCorps, the National Day of Listening is a very simple idea. It’s something I’d been thinking about for a while, and we pulled the trigger about eight weeks before the launch on November 28, 2008. The idea is to have people use any recording equipment they have to interview loved ones on the day after Thanksgiving and honor them by listening to them.

The response was unbelievable. We had an eight-week lead-up and it was covered in papers all across the country. Conservatively, we think that 30,000 families participated in it on that day. We estimated that number by counting one recorded interview per Do-It-Yourself recording guide downloaded from the National Day of Listening section of our website, though chances are that more than one interview came from each guide. And if you consider the fact that we recorded 24,000 interviews with StoryCorps over the first five years, that’s pretty extraordinary.

TM: You made freelance radio documentaries for NPR for almost fifteen years before you started StoryCorps, and now excerpts from StoryCorps interviews are broadcast on NPR every Friday morning. What about the organization has kept you producing pieces for them almost exclusively for so long?

DI: First of all, public radio is fantastic. Second, it’s the only place that would run my stuff. There’s no place for it in commercial radio. NPR is a very powerful way to get stories out there. The morning show, Morning Edition, is the second most listened to radio show in the country, after Rush Limbaugh, and the first most listened to morning program. I think fifteen million people listen to it every week. That’s a phenomenal megaphone and it’s a great privilege to put stories out and have that many people hear them.

We’re always struggling in public radio to increase the audience and to make that audience more diverse, because it’s not as diverse as it should be. That’s part of what we’re doing with StoryCorps. Half of our slots are on the road with mobile booths, doing outreach interviews with people who would not have heard of us through public radio or newspapers. StoryCorps hopes to turn the country on to public broadcasting, to give the country a taste of something a little bit better.

TM: What kind of a parallel is there between your work as a documentarian and your work with StoryCorps? What did you take from your years of experience as a producer and bring to this new project?

DI: I learned that the most powerful recordings were usually just tape of people interviewing each other, having conversations, and letting the emotional sparks fly without my presence. It started with Ghetto Life 101 and continued to the last documentary I did, My Lobotomy, where a guy who had been lobotomized as a child went out and interviewed people from his life.

The energy that is present when two people are having a conversation can be remarkable. I had falsely assumed, when I was making documentaries, that I needed to be in the room in order for great tape to happen. Maybe it was an ego thing, or a control thing, because I had always been in the room. And that was one of my concerns in starting StoryCorps. This thing started with no broadcast component at all. I knew that it was going to be important for people to listen to each other and to honor one another through listening, but I didn’t think that what was recorded in that booth was going to generate broadcastable material. I was damn wrong about that. I realized I didn’t need to be there, and that speaks to the skill of the facilitators in the booth and the power of the stories we find all around us.

TM: How did you choose your documentary subjects?

DI: They were interesting to me. That’s it. I’d scrounge around and if I saw a story that I thought was dynamite, it became the most important thing in the world to me. There was nothing but. I’m a little bit obsessive; I get stuck on something and that’s it for me. I would dive in whole hog, and if it turned out that there wasn’t a story there, then I’d skip it and move on. I was very lucky. I feel very blessed because there were so many times when a window was open for me and I’d just jump through it.

TM: Will you ever return at all to making the longer, more topical pieces you were doing before StoryCorps?

DI: Nope. I’m all done.

TM: You feel StoryCorps is more important?

DI: I do. I feel like the impact this can have is too great. StoryCorps is a very heavy lift. We have a lot of people working here and I think we’re making a real dent in the universe. It would be completely irresponsible of me to do anything but focus all my energies on making sure that this thing can stick. If you think about it, what’s going on here is really insane. We have booths traveling the country, recording the stories of regular people. It’s like a dream. I have to kind of knock my head against the wall to make myself realize that it’s not a dream, that we really are doing this. The work is just too important to do anything else. All of my efforts from here on in, until they close the curtains, are going to be to build StoryCorps and make sure that it can survive long after the dedicated people who are working here are gone.

TM: In a New York Times article from 1998, you were quoted as saying, “What I’m looking for is poetry on the margins.” Have you found it?

DI: Absolutely. That must have been a comment regarding the documentary work, but what we’re finding now is poetry everywhere. Because we live in a society that is so money- and celebrity-obsessed, everybody who is not a celebrity or very rich is on the margins. It’s the rest of us who interest me.

TM: So have the margins gotten bigger or have your interests expanded?

DI: Both. I guess my interests have expanded. Now that we have 100 people out doing interviews and recording stories, I don’t have to be so selective. We can go everywhere; we can explore and find these stories all over the place. Back when I was carving sculptures into walnuts, I could only pick one place a year to go into and get stories. And now we’re able to go beyond that, and we’ve found that there are amazing stories everywhere you look.

I think that, in many ways, it’s the people who have been through something difficult that are the keepers of wisdom within our society. If you listen to StoryCorps stories, many of them are from people who have gone through something tough. I like these stories because what we’re really trying to do with StoryCorps is gather the wisdom of humanity. Hardship really forces people to get their priorities straight and figure out what’s important.

The questions that we encourage people to ask in the booth lead us right into collecting the shared wisdom of humanity. They’re not fact questions. They’re big life questions, they’re soul and wisdom questions, “What have you learned in life?” and “How do you want to be remembered?”

TM: The book is called Listening Is an Act of Love. It’s a collection of interviews recorded by StoryCorps, and all of these interviews involve two people. One person talking, the other listening. Which do you believe is a greater gesture, a person listening, or a person telling his or her own story?

DI: That’s a good question. This project is about listening. It’s about honoring other people through listening to them. But I think the act of sharing a story also takes courage, so maybe they’re both equally valuable. It’s when you feel the connection, made through the act of listening generously and listening closely, that you’re walking on sacred ground.

TM: Your reporting style, through which you create audio portraits that allow your subjects to speak for themselves rather than using their words as quotations to support your own narrative, is not commonly used in print or broadcast journalism. One of the first documentaries you made for National Public Radio, Remembering Stonewall, was presented in this fashion in 1988. Almost twenty years later, in 2007, Listening Is an Act of Love was published in the same form. What led you to this unique style, and why have you stayed with it through the years?

DI: I was trying to bring people to a place and have them feel like they were living in that place, whether it was a flophouse or a prison or whatever. And I found that whenever you heard my voice, you left that prison or you left that flophouse. It was just a distraction. So I did the best I could to zero myself out, and eventually I did. To me, that was the best way to tell a story. There are certainly other ways to tell a story where you should use your own voice, but for my style, that was what worked best. By making myself disappear, it allowed the audience to enter a world more fully.

I always thought of my documentary work – and I think it’s true of StoryCorps too, because some of the interviews are pretty hard to listen to – as if I was taking people to a world to which they might not necessarily want to go. But, once they step into that world, then maybe they’ll be willing to stay. I needed to present a story that propelled you forward with such energy that people didn’t have a choice but to keep listening.

You almost pick them up by their shoulders and take them on a journey for thirty minutes, and when you’re done, you kind of put them down and walk away and they have lived in this world for that half hour. If my voice were there, it would remind them that they were listening to a story, and I didn’t want to do that.

TM: We’ve talked a lot about finding the wisdom and poetry in everyday life. How did you, personally, come to the realization that we’re living in a world in which we are surrounded by largely unrecognized greatness in our own lives and the lives of others?

DI: When you read something or hear something that sets you on fire, you just know it. So, reading Joseph Mitchell or Raymond Carver or Studs Terkel, or hearing Woody Guthrie for the first time, or seeing Thin Blue Line, these were the things that made me say, “Holy shit. This it what it’s all about.”

TM: You said a lot of the people who record their stories have survived something difficult. Why would people want to hear traumatic stories? Is there some voyeuristic pleasure in that – something to do with taking pleasure in another’s pain – or does some genuine healing take place?

DI: In recent years, there’s been a lot of research into the health effects of storytelling. Many people come to the booth because they want to discuss an experience that’s really changed them. Sometimes those experiences can be painful, but participants often say that after they’ve recorded them, it’s like a huge weight has been lifted. After their interview is complete, they have opened themselves up to someone, and they know that someone has really listened. We give people a safe space where they can speak about their lives and what really matters to them.

TM: How do you choose from among the thousands of interviews you’ve collected when you’re selecting stories for books or radio programs?

DI: It’s a high bar to get on the radio. Again, it doesn’t mean that an interview is better than another one, but you want to make sure that it has a larger emotional resonance with people. The stories that appear in, you know, Holding On, or the stories that appear in Listening Is an Act of Love are stories that have to explode off the page and leave some kind of a mark so that people remember them. Those are stories that often take a little bit of digging to find.

We’re very clear, both on the radio side and on the print side, that we edit the recordings. We’ll cut a story back to its essence. We are, I believe, always true to the story, and we present it in a way that helps people find the poetry in their own words.

is a fiction and nonfiction writer living in Portland, Oregon, where he is a student in the MFA program at Portland State University. He recently published his first story in South Dakota Magazine and will have a short essay featured on Montana Public Radio's Reflections West later this spring. His journalistic writing has been published in various newspapers, magazines, and on the web.