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StoryCorps Project Tells Americans' Stories


Two shiny, aluminum trailers equipped with sound studios are traveling across the United States to record the stories of ordinary Americans. The oral history project -- known as StoryCorps -- is sponsored, in part, by National Public Radio, or NPR -- a domestic, listener-supported radio network. The point of the project -- started two years ago in New York City -- is to encourage Americans to share their life stories -- and make oral history.

In StoryCorps, people from all walks of life can step into a recording booth and share memories and lessons learned about their lives -- that no one would otherwise know. Visitors to the StoryCorps traveling studios often talk into the microphone about the important moments of life -- a particular memory, for example, of loved ones and friends.

New York City residents Danny and Annie Perasa recently walked into a StoryCorps recording booth set up in the city's Grand Central Station and reminisced about their first date 25 years ago, and about how, now, as an elderly couple, they keep their love alive.

"She started to talk and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to deliver a speech," Danny recalled. "I said, at the end you're going to want to go home. I says if I'm going anywhere, I'm going down the aisle, because I'm too tired, too sick, and too sore to do any other damn thing.' She turned around and said, 'Of course, I'll marry you.' And the next morning, I called you as early as I possibly could…"

"He always gets up early," Annie said, interrupting her husband. But he continued, undisturbed, "…to make sure she hadn't changed her mind, and she hadn't. Every year, on April 22nd around 3:00, I call her and ask her if it was today, would she'd do it again. So far the answer's been the same."

"If I don't have a note on the kitchen table," Annie said. "I feel there's something wrong: You write a love letter to me every day [like] 'to my princess, the weather out today is extremely rainy. I'll call you today, and I love you. I love you."

StoryCorps is the brainchild of award-winning radio documentary producer David Isay, whose primary aim with this project is to encourage Americans to appreciate how important it is to talk to each other and pay less attention to the mass media.

Mr. Isay unveiled the initiative recently at a news conference at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. "We're so inundated with the phoniness -- everywhere we look in the media, everywhere, and with false stories, nonsense stories," he said. "I think people are tired of it. And people want to hear real stories, like the stories of American heroes, like Danny and Annie Perasa."

Mr. Isay says StoryCorps provides training for anyone who wants to record oral history in their mobile studio. "We have people at the booth called facilitators who work there," he says. You walk into the booth with your grandmother [for example]. And the facilitator and you close the door. We've created kind of a magical space. So you're sitting at a table across from your grandmother. The facilitator's in the corner. For 40 minutes, you just talk."

Mr. Isay sees StoryCorps as an expression of democracy. He recalls a woman from Nigeria who recorded her own story a couple of weeks ago, who voiced a similar opinion when she had finished. "She came out of the booth and said, 'Now I understand what democracy is.' This is democracy," Mr. Isay says. "In America, people matter, everybody's story matters. That's what we're doing with StoryCorps. We're committed to turning this into a national institution and sweeping the country and changing the country and getting people to really listen to each other.

David Isay says that from what he's seen, a recording session at Storycorps can be a very moving experience for the people involved, especially the elderly. "Most people talk about the big questions in life: 'how do you want to be remembered, what were the most important moments of your life, what have you learned in life?'" he says. "Many people start to cry in the interviews because they're so moved at having someone who wants to sit and really listen to what they have to say for 40 minutes, having a family member really stop and listen."

The people who record their stories receive a CD with a copy of their conversation. With their permission, another copy goes to the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center to be preserved as oral history. And the great-great-great-grandchildren of Danny and Annie Perasa, as well as the other participants in StoryCorps will get to listen to their ancestors' stories and, as David Isay says, "meet them through their voices."

But David Isay's main objective in starting StoryCorps was to get people to communicate here and now, not to create an archive for some distant future. He says StoryCorps is about treating people with dignity -- people like his 90-year old great-uncle Sandy.

"He had a chance to talk about how painful it was for him to lose his wife," Mr. Isay says. "He spent a lot of time in the interview crying, saying 'I always have to pretend it's okay that I lost Birdy. But it's not okay. And it never will be okay. It feels good to be able to say that.' So the microphone gave him the license to really tell the truth."

People across the United States will have a chance to connect with each other and with StoryCorps. With the StoryCorp logo emblazoned on their shiny side panels, the two trailers -- donated by the U.S. automaker, Saturn, and equipped and staffed by NPR -- have set out on a year-long tour of 25 cities. But the plan is to keep the StoryCorps project on the road for ten years, with the goal of collecting more than a quarter of a million interviews -- making it the largest oral history project ever.

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