When was the last time you sat down with a loved one and asked them, “Tell me your story?”
Every day, StoryCorps begs Americans to ask this very question.
Since 2003, the public radio show has been collecting, sharing and preserving people’s stories. StoryCorps is one of the fastest-growing non-profits in the country and one of the most ambitious oral history projects to date. Millions of Americans tune in to their broadcasts daily on NPR’s Morning Edition and listen to their interviews online.
I spent a day at the StoryCorps headquarters in January and sat down with Krisi Packer, who serves as Associate Manager of Marketing and Communications. As she led me around the bustling office, I began to understand how different and important the StoryCorps mission is.
“StoryCorps’ mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of their lives,” Packer said.
At StoryCorps, every voice matters. Recording booths travel from coast to coast and you can make an appointment for you and a loved one to come for a session. Once in a booth, it’s you and your guest, a facilitator in the corner, two CD burners and 40 minutes. The rest is up to you.
“Anyone can come in and tell their story,” Packer said. “We travel across the country, from small, rural towns to bustling metropolitan cities, providing the opportunity for anyone to tell their story for future generations.”
After the interview, you go home with one CD and the other goes to the American Folklife Center. There’s something profoundly lasting about that, because so much of ordinary history is simply forgotten. I always wanted to sit down with my grandmother and interview her, but I never got the chance. It’s history beyond the textbooks, for the rest of us, by the rest of us, for generations to come.
“StoryCorps is a breath of fresh air in our celebrity-obsessed culture,” Packer said. “It’s a reminder that everyone, no matter who you are or where you come from, has a story.”
Where other NPR shows revolve around the experts, StoryCorps listens to the voice of the people. Anyone with a story can share it, and as you could gather from the 40,000+ interviews recorded from over 90,000 participants, there is something extraordinary in the ordinary. Many of the stories recorded in the booths are turned into web shorts and broadcasted on NPR for millions of viewers to enjoy. As founder Dave Isay puts it, the program is “poetry beyond the margins.”
Storycorps is a journalistic departure not only in function but in form. Public radio interviews classically consist of reporter and subject — interviewer and interviewee. By allowing two participants to interview each other in conversation, or sometimes just one participant, without an active host, StoryCorps reinvents the formula.
“This interview model is the heart of StoryCorps — a conversation between two people who know and care about each other,” Packer said. “I think this allows folks to be comfortable with the interview process, and more willing to open up about a wide variety of subjects.”
Stories range from joyous to shocking, from devastating to inspiring. From falling in love to fighting in war, and from growing up to growing old. Crying is common. Bryan Wilmoth tells his younger brother, Michael, about being kicked out of the house for being gay. Brooklynite Richard Pecorella remembers the love of his life, his fiancée Karen Juday, who was killed in the September 11 attacks. Reginald Mason remembers growing up in Harlem with his mother during the 1970s. Big-rig driver Boyd Applegate tells his sister, Rhonda Dixon, about being a real-beard Santa Claus.
“We just released a brand new animated short, ‘Eyes on the Stars,’ that tells the story of Dr. Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African American to enter space,” Packer said. “But first, he was a kid with big dreams in Lake City, South Carolina.”
StoryCorps is 10 years old this year, and the project is only growing as a radio show and oral history anthology.
“Our work is far from over,” Packer said. “We are looking to build StoryCorps into an enduring institution that will touch the lives of every family across the nation.”
We live in a society where, as college students, it’s nearly impossible to turn everything off and for 40 minutes, ask a loved one life’s most important questions.
What was the happiest moment of your life? What was the most terrifying? What’s your earliest memory? Who in your life do you love most? What’s a secret that no one knows?
So next Thanksgiving, important Holiday or large family gathering, try interviewing a family member yourself. As the StoryCorps staff will assure you, listening is one of the greatest ways to honor someone. It could be a wise grandfather, an aunt who’s way too into cooking, an emo cousin or even that random guy you don’t think you’re actually related to. When you have the opportunity, sit down and press record. You never know the incredible stories that are just waiting to be told.
Here are the links to “Eyes on the Stars” and the other stories mentioned. Check them out!