I’m a huge fan of the StoryCorps podcast, and slowly I’ve learnt more about the project. This TED Talk by the founder of StoryCorps, Dave Isay, is inspiring. I’ve downloaded the app, and intend to leave my cynicism at the door and interview some of the people closest to me in the near future, before it’s too late:
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 this 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 back 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 holding it over his head shouting, “I exist! I exist.”
In many ways, “I exist” became the clarion call for StoryCorps, this crazy idea that I had a dozen years ago. The thought was to take documentary work and turn it on its head. Traditionally, broadcast documentary has been about recording interviews to create a work of art or entertainment or education that is seen or heard by a whole lot of people, but I wanted to try something where the interview itself was the purpose of this work, and see if we could give many, many, many people the chance to be listened to in this way. So in Grand Central Terminal 11 years ago, we built a booth where anyone can come to honor someone else by interviewing them about their life. You come to this booth and you’re met by a facilitator who brings you inside. You sit across from, say, your grandfather for close to an hour and you listen and you talk. Many people think of it as, if this was to be our last conversation, what would I want to ask of and say to this person who means so much to me? At the end of the session, you walk away with a copy of the interview and another copy goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress so that your great-great-great-grandkids can someday get to know your grandfather through his voice and story.
Be sure to also listen to the documentary mentioned in the quote above, ‘The Sunshine Hotel’, an audio documentary produced by David Isay and Stacy Abramson for Sound Portraits, which won the Prix Italia, Europe’s oldest and most prestigious broadcasting award, in 1999. Listen to The Sunshine Hotel here.