Even in New Orleans' French Quarter, where one expects a certain amount of weirdness, the StoryCorps mobile booth looked out of place. Something like a cross between a gypsy wagon and a futuristic pod, it is about the size of an RV. Inside it are two rooms: a recording studio, where people come to record interviews with loved ones, and a business area with a table and chairs, where the booth's facilitators make calls and work on their laptops.
Sitting at the table and wearing a pair of wireless headphones, I listened to six interviews during a day in the booth. Although Katrina was not everyone's main focus, it was clear that it's hard for New Orleanians not to think about the hurricane. A woman asked her mother about retired life-and what it had been like to evacuate to Florida. A few Vietnamese American waitresses from Caf? du Monde talked about their boss-and what it had been like to ready the caf? for reopening after the storm.
Instructions for someone who wants to participate in StoryCorps might go something like this: 'First you choose someone you think has interesting things to say. Then you take them to a soundproof booth, pay $10, and ask them about whatever you want for 40 minutes. You will receive a recording of the interview, and so will the Library of Congress. And if you and your interviewee are interesting, funny, or poignant enough, a portion of your interview might end up on public radio.'
StoryCorps was founded in 2003 by radio producer David Isay.
After a decade of listening to ordinary people record extraordinary
Isay knew that most people had something worth preserving. 'We believe that the stories of everyday people are as interesting as those of Donald Trump and TomKat,' Isay says. 'StoryCorps tells people they matter and they won't be forgotten.'
StoryCorps is familiar to the listeners who hear the interview segments that air on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. More than 7,000 people have participated in the grant-funded program so far, and StoryCorps has expanded. In addition to the original two New York City booths, two new mobile booths now travel across the country. The fact that so many people flock to the booths confident that their stories are worthwhile is indicative of a recent change.
'People used to be surprised when you wanted to record them,' says Michael Taft, who runs the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, where the StoryCorps recordings are archived. No more. The idea of the recorded personal narrative has settled into the public consciousness. Public Radio International's This American Life draws more than 1.7 million listeners every week. More than 100 public radio stations nationwide have picked up WNYC's Radio Lab, another new narrative-heavy program. And public radio programmers keep finding ways to incorporate the stories of ordinary people into regular programs.
As a result, it has occurred to more and more people that they-or people they know-have tales to tell that are just as moving as those they hear on the radio. Taft says the number of requests he gets from people hoping to archive recordings they've made of their family members has increased tenfold in the past several years. Veteran radio producer Jay Allison, who runs the radio documentary community website Transom, says thousands of people each month view the part of the site that offers how-to advice on equipment and technique.
If you ask radio-savvy people why there are so many personal narratives on the air these days, many will respond with just one word: Ira. And in some ways, they're right. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, has single-handedly brought personal narrative radio-and public radio in general-to a level of hip no one ever thought possible. Among a certain set a kind of Ira-mania has taken hold.
There's something to the Cult of Ira, but his skills are not what make personal narratives compelling. Glass himself agrees, and not just because he is famously self-effacing. The actual subject matter of his shows, he told me, is 'very basic human drama.'
For the past hundred years of broadcast history we have depended on a small group of good raconteurs to bring us our news, but we are now remembering something that we have always known: Good raconteurs are everywhere.
Excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review (July/Aug. 2006). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 578, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.