Entertainment

A Look Inside Oral Storytelling's Online Revival

Lend your ear to StoryCorps founder David Isay's favorite tales, 11 years and 55,000 interviews into the effort.
May 28, 2016, 11:35am

StoryCorps began with the simple mission to get people to slow down and hear what others had to say. Beginning with a single booth inside New York's Grand Central Terminal in 2003, over the years, they’ve amassed more than 60,000 interviews from across the U.S.A.—stories the cover the spectrum of the great human condition. For their work in capturing contemporary America's collective oral history, the company won the TED Prize award in 2014 bestowing the organization with $1 million dollars that will go toward funding a “wish to inspire the world.”

The diversity of the organization's interviews encapsulate the beauties and complexities of life, death, love, sadness, hope, and renewal: a mother relays to her autistic son that he is perfect, a man dying of cancer retells his wife the story of the day they met, the brother of a physicist who died on the Challenger space shuttle shares his memories of his late sibling, a woman confronts her son’s murderer, George W. Bush tells his sister about what he’ll miss most about the White House, and that’s not even scratching the StoryCorps surface.

"I wasn’t nice. If I made a mistake, my mother always made me apologize. In our custom, when you apologize to your mother you have to bring a cup of tea, and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ But I purposely dropped the hot cup of tea on my mother’s lap." Kay Cheng, a sassy grandmother, reluctantly shares a few anecdotes with her two grownup kids in No More Questions!

“StoryCorps is the opposite of reality TV. Nobody comes to get rich. Nobody comes to get famous. It’s just an act of giving to another human being,” StoryCorps founder David Isay tells The Creators Project. "Participants bring in loved ones to interview, and for 40 minutes they talk to each other about their lives, how much they matter to each other, and how they want to be remembered. By bringing in someone you’re close to, he adds, they're the greatest expert on your story. And that makes them the best possible interviewers for your tale."

Good stories are all around us, says Isay, but often we forget to listen, or rather, we can’t hear them over the din. Everyday we are faced with thousands of stories from thousands of outlets, all begging to be consumed by our eyes and ears. “There’s a danger when you’re bombarded with so much information. It can overwhelm. It’s hard to weed out what’s really important,” he says. “And sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s a commercial.”

"It’s hard because I feel guilty for being the one guy left. But I also feel a responsibility: I better make sure everybody knows who these guys were, what these guys did… When they’re looking down on you, they don’t want you to be living in that moment that killed them. You made it. You got home. You should honor their memory by living the life they didn’t get to live." Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Williams on being the only survivor of his troop in 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon.

Complete with a recorder and a microphone, this impromptu interview environment gives people the license to have intimate conversations that might never be possible anywhere else, explains Isay. Isay and StoryCorps realized early on that recording the conversations would have an impact on participants. Each participant would receive their own copy to take home, and although there was an option to sign a release form for the conversation to be archived in the Library of Congress, publishing your story was never mandatory. Surprisingly, they found most people willing to release their intimate moments into the world.

"The boys would call me when they were working. John would always call around 3:30 or 4:00. That particular night, September 10, we spoke for a few minutes. I said, ‘I love you’ and he says ‘I love you.’ Joe called me in the morning and told me to turn on the television, that a plane just hit the Trade Center. He said, ‘I’m heading South on West Street. This is a big one,’ and I said, ‘Be careful. I love you’ …That was it.” In John and Joe, John Vigiano Sr., a retired New York City firefighter, remembers his sons, police officer Joe and firefighter John Jr., who died on September 11, 2001.

If humans have been sharing stories by word of mouth since the existence of language, does StoryCorps along with the increase in longform podcasts, signal that the old-school form of oral storytelling is making a major revival? As technologies evolve, cities shift, and environments deteriorat, the purpose for powerful, compelling, true stories stays the same: we share our experiences to cope, to relate, and to grow. Maybe today, we've all become tired of talking. Maybe we're ready to listen, for a change.

Want to tell your story? Click here to schedule your interview with StoryCorps.

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