“I exist, I exist!”: StoryCorps and Listening’s Power: Part I

images-1 I actually don’t remember the first time I listened to a StoryCorp interview. Which is funny because I used to be able to remember every intersection, every cross-roads, every meeting, every date and almost every name for every person I’d encountered on this beautiful green and blue globe. (I blame having children for my reversion to simple memory.)

I don’t remember the first STORY I heard on StoryCorp either, but there have been so many now, that this is no surprise either. But I do REMEMBER almost every story I’ve heard.

StoryCorp was begun in 2003 by David Isay, longtime documentary film and radio producer. Winner of a MacArthur genius award, and personal story champion extraordinaire!

Isay and his team set up what they called a ‘listening booth’ in Grand Central Terminal, New York, New York. The booth was a small sound studio, where you were invited into a comfortable room by a story facilitator, lights dimmed for ambiance, and given 40 minutes to record whatever you wanted about your life, times, or personal story.

The objective was not only to record personal interviews, but to capture interviews between two people who knew each other well– husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends and close co-workers, or you and the guy you’d been drinking coffee next to at the same neighborhood cafe for 20 years. Intimate conversations between family, friends, loved ones.Unknown Isay’s purpose was to record the voices of the PEOPLE. These interviews would then be archived in the Library of Congress. The Big Grand-daddy of all other Library’s. The Library in America’s Capitol. The place that holds some of the most treasured works of writing and sound on earth.

THERE, in that edifice to learning, the interviews will be kept so that in 100 years, someone’s great-grandchild could go in and request to hear the interview between their mother and a facilitator about the day her ex-husband called from the 103rd floor before his death in the World Trade Center attack, a grand-niece or nephew could pull up a recording of their uncle and his friend remembering the day they were left alone to care for an entire assisted living facility when everyone else walked off the job, a man describing to his wife what it felt like to serve in Afghanistan, or a police officer interviewing a boy he had talked down from a bridge jump 10 years previous. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

You can hear an in-depth (about an hour) description of how Isay came to produce StoryCorp here, here, and here (it’s in three parts). This was a conference address Isay gave to the International Feature Conference in London, 2012. One of the most important take aways from that presentation was a story that David told about one of the sparks that sparked the idea that became StoryCorp.

In brief: Isay did a film project which was later turned into a book focusing on Sunshine Hotel. Sunshine Hotel was a flop house in the Bowery neighborhood of NYC, a hold-over from a huge homeless population that lived in there from the depression era through much of the 50s and even 60s.

Guests of Sunshine Hotel could stay at the hotel for $5.00 a night, and sometimes that night stretched into two years of nights. The narrator Nathan Smith, describes the fact that Sunshine Hotel has its own microcosmic societal universe– a laundry service, a guy who will clean your room for you and Rick, a Vietnam vet who will run your errands for tips.

The cast of characters is colorful to put it lightly, and Isay describes the moment when he took the galleys of the book based on his film work there at Sunshine Hotel BACK to show some of the residents still living there. One gentleman grabbed his picture from the pages of the galley and took off down the hall of the hotel yelling, “I exist, I exist!!” Waving his picture over his head as he ran.

This so impacted Isay, the idea that someone would be so moved, so touched, so excited, so legitimated, so real to themselves by seeing their own picture and story taped and in print that he dedicated his life to preserving the stories of others. Something he was already doing in his film and radio work, but something he dug deeper to the CORE of with StoryCorp.

If you get nothing else from this post, I hope you will listen to/watch the love story of Danny and Annie Perasa. Danny and Annie were some of the first people to be interviewed in that first listening booth in Grand Central Terminal (Isay estimates somewhere within the first 30 days).

Their story is simply beautiful. And because Danny and Annie visited in StoryCorps early days, they actual came back many times to record interviews with one another as well as many, many people they brought with them.

Here is their STORY:


My EXPERIENCE with StoryCorp was cemented over and over again on the commute between our tiny 600 sq. ft. apartment in Alexandria, VA and the campus of The George Washington University where I studied for my Masters Degree, and L St where my husband worked in D.C.

An interview is played every Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition. If you haven’t ever heard of StoryCorp you should check out their website. You can like their page on Face Book and link to every Morning Edition interview, or read the book of interviews, Listening is an Act of Love, Isay published in 2007, or go to the Library of Congress and ask to listen to one of the interviews that’s been archived.

That listening experience has been concreted over and over and over again. Partially through some of my own research into personal natrative and StoryCorp, but mostly from hearing those interviews broadcast Friday upon Friday.

I heard one just last week that brought tears to my eyes. The truth is that these words, these interviews, are the most true and pure essence of the human spirit I have ever come across. They are real, raw recording of people like you and me. They are poignant, and as Isay points out time and time again– they are poetry. The poetry of human existence. storycorp Today, instead of that first sound booth in Grand Central, you might record your interview with your loved one in a fully outfitted Air Stream mobile booth.

StoryCorp has taken their initiative to the road and criss-crossed America capturing over 100,000 interviews around the country– all archived at the Library of Congress.

But there’s more, and I’m going to be sharing those exciting updates surrounding StoryCorp on Friday. David Isay won the 2015 TED prize, and what he did with that prize will astound you.

I promise that this affects you MORE THAN YOU THINK. Maybe more than you will ever know. I hope you’ll have a listen.

See you back here Friday! (And hopefully every day in between 🙂

XX, Megan

3 thoughts on ““I exist, I exist!”: StoryCorps and Listening’s Power: Part I

  1. LOVE the idea of Story Corps. It is so very important for everyone to record their story, whether it is verbally or in writing so that future generations know their relatives and where they came from.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! You should listen in on KUER 90.1 on Friday. The interviews usually air around 8:00 or 8:30 on Morning Edition. It is so interesting to hear all of the different stories they bring!


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