Voice to the Voiceless: Part 2

The First Case Study: StoryCorps.

For the next few weeks, I will be studying and analyzing three separate organizations and the personal life stories they create and broadcast regularly. The goal is to understand these projects in order to better form my own. In each case, I will be asking the following questions:

  • How did these projects begin?
  • Why were they started?
  • What has been their impact on their respective communities?
  • What can I learn from their examples?
Courtesy of NPR

Who is StoryCorps?

StoryCorps is an organization that is trying to capture and save the stories and interviews of as many Americans as possible. National Public Radio (NPR) produces the series as an oral history project. Since 2003 the project has helped record over 65,000 interviews, which are archived at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. NPR advertises the project with an emphasis on the importance of the individual stories: “When the world seems out of hand, tune in to StoryCorps and be reminded of the things that matter most.”

How did StoryCorps begin and why?

David Isay founded StoryCorps with the hope that people would volunteer to tell about their personal experiences, stories which could then be saved and shared with the rest of America.

“We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.” (StoryCorps)

In 2003 David Isay opened a StoryBooth in Grand Central Station in New York City as a miniature private recording studio in a public setting for anyone to use. According to their website, the project is meant to be a “public service,” with an emphasis on the personal interview by people who already know and are comfortable with each other.

The project — which started with the StoryBooths — is meant to capture the beautiful everyday stories of ordinary people that are often overlooked. StoryCorps attempts to give those stories new meaning and to provide a space for people to be heard. Everyone likes to be listened to and valued, and Isay wanted to create an organization that brought that to life.

What has been StoryCorps’ impact on its communities and audience?

Courtesy of Peabody

Since its founding, the organization has won a number of awards, including the 2006 Peabody Award for making everyone’s stories extraordinary and “serving as a central component in the collective memory of America.” Isay has also won awards for his New York Times Bestselling books written on the StoryCorps Project.

StoryCorps has also been the starting point for a number of other projects focused on different kinds of stories and accessibility. These include the StoryCorps 9/11 initiative, which began in 2005 to “record at least one story to honor each of the lives lost.” This project won the Peabody Award in 2011. This celebration of life is incredibly honoring and touching to the public and to the people remembered therein.

Another initiative to engage with the community was the launching of StoryCorps.me. This app allows everyone to turn their phones into StoryBooths with instructions about how to get the best story, which can then be uploaded to the archives without leaving home. This is just another way StoryCorps reaches out to its audience to help them become participants in the enterprise to “create an archive of the wisdom of humanity.”

What does an episode look like?

By looking at the structure of the weekly aired episodes, StoryCorps’ intent to connect with the audience becomes even more clear. The episode below originally aired March 17, 2017 on NPR’s Morning Edition and focused on a real life leprechaun.

The plot of this story unfolds like many others with an introduction of the individual, his description of himself, and a few of his personal stories that allow the audience to get to know him. Then the story introduces the emotional aspect that allows the audience to feel something —commonly sadness, respect, or deep appreciation — for the interviewee. StoryCorps does an excellent job of building up the various characters with carefully chosen stories and letting the emotion hit home before the end of the 3–4 minute clips.

This particular story is a tribute for a man who had died, though as the listeners we don’t realize that is the case until two-thirds of the way through the podcast. By this time, we’ve already heard Jess talk about his green felt hats and his almost magical affect on people. We’ve become attached to him as this very intriguing and entertaining fellow who sounds like he would have been a lot of fun to know, and so when his sister and niece are introduced in the last minute of the piece as doing a tribute for him, we feel for their loss.

This is where StoryCorps holds its power: in creating short, succinct podcasts that allow the listeners to connect emotionally. The stories are powerful, and people want to keep listening.

Key Insights and Takeaways.

Through my time understanding the success of StoryCorps, I have created a list of takeaways that I plan to keep in mind as I form my own podcast. StoryCorps is fueled by normal people and has given me insight into why their organization works.

  1. People like to be heard
  2. People like to participate in making history
  3. People like to listen to stories they connect with emotionally

These three points are much of what has brought about the success of StoryCorps. It will never run out of stories or people who want to tell about their lives. This is an ongoing and common experience, and an adventure I want to tap into and add to as best I can.