You talk, they listen
Everyone has a story, that's the philosophy behind the oral history project called StoryCorps. With its mobile studio and helpful facilitators, thousands are sharing theirs.
By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published January 17, 2006
SARASOTA - In an Airstream trailer parked on St. Armands Circle on a sunny January day, Joy Rubin tells her husband, Marvin, the story of her brother's death in World War II. They've been married 51 years, and he has never heard it before.
Afterward, they hold hands tightly. "I've never talked about it," she says. "No one in my family ever did." But in a tiny, darkened recording booth with a soft-spoken facilitator, she put the story on the record. One copy of the CD will go to the Library of Congress, one will go home with the Rubins. "I want our four daughters to know about this," she says.
Joy Rubin's is one of thousands of personal memories recorded by StoryCorps, an oral history project affiliated with National Public Radio and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Radio listeners may have heard clips from StoryCorps interviews on NPR's Morning Edition.
Started in October 2003 by radio documentary producer Dave Isay, StoryCorps began with a single booth in New York's Grand Central Terminal.
A second New York booth opened at the World Trade Center site in July. In May two mobile booths, built into Airstream trailers, hit the road. They have parked at prisons and history museums, on Indian reservations and fashionable promenades.
One opened its doors Jan. 5 on St. Armands Circle, where it will remain through Jan. 25, recording the voices of Floridians and visitors during 40-minute sessions.
Participating pairs - parent and child, husband and wife, friends, any two people with a bond - make a reservation for time in the booth. One interviews the other about a topic of their choice.
StoryCorps works with public radio stations in each area it travels to. Diane Egner, content editor for WUSF-FM 89.7 in Tampa, says the project is attracting people of a wide range of ages, races and backgrounds.
"We have longtime residents and recent immigrants, fifth-generation Cuban-Americans." About a third are from Hillsborough County, a third from Pinellas, and the rest from Manatee and Sarasota counties.
On opening day, local luminaries kick off the recording. Sarasota socialites Art and Peg Nadel are first, trading roles to interview each other about their lives before their marriage four years ago. "We never run out of conversation," she says.
Former Bucs quarterback Shaun King faces a row of reporters' microphones with practiced ease before heading inside to interview his friend and financial adviser Malcolm Taaffe. King talks to reporters about his work with the Global Classroom program, with which Taaffe is also involved. Their visit sounds a lot like a promotional appearance.
But when they come out of the booth, King says he is surprised at the personal turn the interview has taken.
"We talked about all kinds of things, world politics, childhood. He was the student government president at Ohio State. I never knew."
King has been interviewed countless times, but he always wanted to switch roles, he says. "I liked it."
Bradenton resident Dick Smothers, of the comic duo the Smothers Brothers, has been interviewed a zillion times, too, but never by his wife, Denby.
"I've always wanted to interview him," she says, and not about the usual show biz stuff. She points to a list of suggested questions from StoryCorps. " "Who was your first kiss?' Now, I want to know that."
Famous voices are not the point of StoryCorps, though. "Everyone is interesting," Maisie Tivnan says. "That's not just some sentimental idea. Life is long, and just to fill out that skeleton, that structure is a very dramatic thing."
Tivnan, 25, has been one of the program's facilitators since March. She became interested while working as an intern for Sound Portraits, Isay's radio documentary company.
She has recorded stories in the New York booths and since October has been on a "tour of duty" in the Airstream.
Sarasota is her last stop before returning to New York. "I think four months on the road is a record."
In a typical work day, Tivnan says, she and the other facilitator, Nelson Simon, will record several dozen interviews. "It can be exhausting. It's very intense. You learn that listening is an act of love."
For Joy and Marvin Rubin, recording the story of her brother's death in World War II connects to issues past and present that touch them.
"When my brother died, he became a nonperson," Joy says. She was a freshman in college and her other two brothers were serving in the war. "We just stopped talking about him.
"It was the easiest way for us to cope. It irrevocably changed all the relationships in the family, and not for the better."
For more than 60 years, she kept silent. Marvin says, "All our daughters know about their uncle is a picture in our rec room."
The war in Iraq brought back the pain of her brother's loss, Joy says. "Young people are dying again, and the country as a whole is doing what our family did. I just couldn't stand it."
"This country is at war, but you'd never know it," her husband says. "We all need to talk about these things."
Before the holidays, Tivnan says, the StoryCorps trailer stopped in Gulfport, Miss., where many victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita recorded their experiences. "We heard a lot of very harrowing stories, and a lot of very hopeful stories," she says.
"I'm just amazed at how resilient people are. We had one woman in her 70s who spent 91/2 hours in a tree with her family. People are really strong."
The emotional range of the stories they record is wide. Some pairs of old friends spend the entire time laughing, Tivnan says. "But we go through a lot of Kleenex.
"In New York, this big gruff guy came in with his wife, and he saw the box of Kleenex on the table. He kind of snorted and said, "People cry in here?'
"I said, "It's been known to happen.'
"By the end of 40 minutes he was in tears, talking about how much his wife and family meant to him. He's weeping, she's weeping."
Tivnan grins a little. "I'm feeling kind of smug."
But any smugness is momentary. "You can't stay cynical and do this job. There is no room for irony or sarcasm. And for a New Yorker, that's a new idea."
The intimacy of the tiny, dark recording booth allows people to be vulnerable, she says. "People say kind things to each other in the booth. They don't necessarily expect to, but they do.
"Often, people come in very reluctant, very nervous. But most of them come out glowing."
That glow is evident on the faces of Scott Nolan and his mother, Marilyn Nolan.
Scott works in development for WUSF. Marilyn is an administrator at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. In the booth, they talk about Scott's sister Renee, who died of brain cancer five years ago.
"I love telling Rene stories," Marilyn says afterward.
"But in all this time we had never really talked about how we coped with her death," Scott says. He beams at his mom. "I guess we got a little philosophical in there."
Preserving memories of family members was a major inspiration for StoryCorps, founder Dave Isay says.
As a radio producer for NPR for a couple of decades, Isay, 40, had long been intrigued by the oral histories recorded by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
In 1993, he produced Ghetto Life 101, an acclaimed documentary based on audio diaries by two teenagers on Chicago's South Side.
But his strongest motivation was a series of interviews he lost.
"I did interviews with all my great-aunts when I was just a kid, with my grandparents, everybody.
"Then, they all died. When I went looking for the interviews, the tapes had disappeared. Now, 25, 26 years later, I still look for them.
"I didn't want that to happen to anybody else."
He did the very first StoryCorps interview with his Uncle Sandy, talking about Sandy's late wife. "He's 91 now, and he still drives around New York City with that CD in his car," Isay says.
Isay calls StoryCorps "a miraculous little project."
"It's the worst business model you can imagine," he says. Participants are asked to make a $10 donation for their interviews, but the actual cost for each one is about $200.
"I'm out raising money every day."
The response to the project has been overwhelming, he says, not just from the thousands of people who have recorded interviews but from the many volunteers and facilitators.
There are about a dozen facilitators; they come from a variety of backgrounds and range in age from 21 to 61.
"We get hundreds of applications for each position. They're chosen basically because they're good listeners."
When the mobile booths were launched, they were envisioned as a 10-year project. Not any more, Isay says.
"We do want to record 250,000 stories in 10 years. But we want to go on forever. We want StoryCorps to be part of the fabric of American society."
-- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or firstname.lastname@example.org