What’s Your Story?

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
stories,
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.

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