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

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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.

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