News

With Open Mic, Listening Heart, David Isay Celebrates Americans' Stories

Multimedia

Audio

Click links to read and listen to Isay's work

David Isay, an award-winning radio documentary maker, has dedicated his career to celebrating the stories of everyday Americans and chronicling the experiences of underdogs and colorful characters, many of them living outside the American cultural mainstream.

A quick sampling of Isay's radio documentary work illustrates the range of personalities he's captured in sound. You can meet Dan Field, an old-fashioned marriage broker in Manhattan, or Joe Franklin, the decidedly quirky, extremely local New York City talk show host. Or meet Virginia Belle Brewer, the lonely proprietor of a small-town bell museum in Texas. Such everyday heroes and hundreds of others Isay has interviewed and introduced to the wider world are his passion.   
   
"I find pretension and phoniness sets off screaming bells in my head," Isay tells VOA in his bustling Brooklyn, New York offices. "So looking for really authentic stories, people telling the truth and talking from their heart has… always appealed to me."  

A life-changing story

Growing up, Isay intended to become a doctor, not a journalist. However, that changed one day in the mid 1980s, when he met a couple who had been infected with the AIDS virus. That was tantamount to a death sentence at the time, and they wanted to create a Museum of Addiction before their demise.

"I met these two, and I thought it was this incredible story of commitment and passion and courage," says Isay.

He tried to get various media to tell their story, and no one took an interest, so he decided to interview the couple and create a radio story about them himself.

"And over a period of 24 hours, my life was turned completely upside down. And to some extent, I've been telling that same story over and over again for the last 20 years," he says with a chuckle. 

Empathizing with the underdogs

Isay's own story began in 1966 in New Haven Connecticut, where he was born to middle-class parents. When he was a child, his dad was gay, and he didn't know about it. When he found out, he began to empathize more with the pressures and prejudices his dad was facing as a homosexual in America's often-intolerant society. 

"And that certainly gave me a sensitivity to underdogs and people who are outside the mainstream," he says.  

Isay's mother is a book editor. He credits her with the necessary ability to radically "pare down" his raw material.

"I spend a year recording tape and then cutting it down and cutting it down. It's a very compulsive kind of act!"

Although he is quick to say he is not a poet himself, Isay compares his work to creating poetry.

"[In both cases], it's taking a lot of words from people and then helping to distill it down to the truth about who they are."

Telling heartbreaking truths

The "truth" of what Isay's interviews reveal often contains some anguish. His September 11th Initiative, for example, records the voices of people affected by the 2001 terrorist attacks.  The "Witness to an Execution" documentary features wardens, chaplains, reporters and executioners working on death row in a Huntsville, Texas penitentiary. In "Tossing Away the Keys," we hear from prisoners serving life sentences in a Louisiana prison.     

Isay acknowledges that many of his stories are emotionally challenging for listeners.

"But the trick," he says, is "to make sure that you engage people enough, and you bring them into this world, so that they can't turn it off." 

Soon, he says, "They will have had this experience and met people they would never otherwise get to meet and recognize a little bit of themselves in people they might have thought were very different than them."

"I exist!"

One of Isay's best-known works is "The Sunshine Hotel," about the down-and-out denizens of one of New York City's last "skid row" hotels. 

Isay recalls visiting the flophouse with a book version of the radio documentary and showing it to one of the men featured in the story. The man then "snatched" the book out of his hand and he ran down the hall holding it over his head screaming, "I exist! I exist!"

"That was a moment where it really dawned upon me that so many people feel like they don't matter, that they don't exist, and that they'll be forgotten."

Isays adds that, in essence, his life's work is about "making sure those stories aren't forgotten, letting people know that they do exist and celebrating the beauty and poetry we find all around us." 

Little acts of love

In recent years, Isay has broadened the focus of his work from people on the outskirts of society to average Americans. In 2003, he founded StoryCorps, a project in which everyday Americans interview loved ones about their life stories in recording booths created for the purpose. The interviews are permanently archived at the Library of Congress, and many are shared with the rest of the world via radio, and the StoryCorps website.

"In this society, many people feel unheard," he says. "[But] when people are given the opportunity to speak, to leave a legacy, they become very focused and say things that are so wise and beautiful it sweeps you off your feet."

Isay has often said that "listening is an act of love," and it seems that people have heard.  In 2008, tens of thousands people participated in StoryCorps' first annual National Day of Listening project. It encouraged Americans to spend an hour the day after Thanksgiving interviewing their family members and recording their stories and memories. StoryCorps booths are slated to become an international presence in 2012 or 2013.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Wini
X
July 28, 2015 12:21 AM
The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs