Making History: StoryCorps Puts Digital Recording in the People’s Hands

Article ImageYou can't live forever, but thanks to a StoryBooth coming to a town near you, you might be able to live on in digital form (and even tell your grandkids what life was like before the Internet, though they might not believe you). StoryCorps, a national project designed to inspire people to record others' stories, was formed in 2003 when Sound Portraits Productions—a nonprofit production company founded in 1994 by MacArthur fellow David Isay, which produces radio documentaries from neglected corners of the American community—teamed up with the Library of Congress and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to make digital recording accessible to the general public.

StoryCorps was inspired by an early twentieth-century program, the Work Progress Association's Federal Writers' Project, which was introduced during the Great Depression to keep invaluable personal records from those who had lived through momentous nineteenth century events from slipping into oblivion. In that same vein, Isay wants to keep everyday people's stories about everything—from growing up during the Great Depression to meeting their spouse to surviving Hurricane Katrina—from being lost or forgotten.

StoryCorps operates using StoryBooths, soundproof booths equipped to produce on-the-spot, broadcast-quality recordings. Two permanent StoryBooths are based in New York City—the first, opened in October 2003, is in New York's Grand Central Terminal, and the second, intended to serve as an interim memorial to the victims of 9/11, opened at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan in July 2005. Over the project's slated ten years, StoryCorps plans to collect nearly 250,000 interviews. After one year in New York, the booths had already recorded more than 2,000 interviews. StoryCorps' interviewees are from all walks of life—most refreshingly un-famous, some from exotic locales, some from just down the street, and some from those for whom a personal digital recording would otherwise be out of reach. "We have had such a range of stories—from inmates at a prison in Salem, Oregon, to recent Katrina victims in Biloxi, Mississippi—that have really been incredibly enriching for us," says StoryCorps director Matthew Ozug.

With a suggested donation of $10, anyone can pair up and interview one another for 40 minutes in the StoryBooth, assisted by a trained volunteer facilitator who helps guide the interviews by suggesting lines of questioning. What the interviewees ultimately say, however, is completely up to them. As soon as the interview is finished, StoryBooth users walk away with their own digital recording of the session.

With permission, a copy of the interview also goes to the national StoryCorps Archive, a part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (which also houses some of the stories recorded by the WPA). Although the American Folklife Center has been working to convert its recordings of oral histories into a digital format to preserve them, StoryCorps recordings are one of its first collections to be "born digital."

In addition to their place among American folk history archives, StoryBooth interviews find a home on WNYC, New York City's public radio affiliate. Each week, WNYC plays selections recorded at the StoryBooth located at Grand Central Terminal on The Brian Lehrer Show. Dean Cappello, VP of programming at WNYC, feels that StoryCorps serves a critical community and historical function. "StoryCorps honors the experiences of people at all levels and encourages them to share with others. We're provoking many more people across the city to visit a booth and share a story with someone close to them. In many ways, that's so much more important than the radio part of this."

In order to broaden the project's reach, in April 2005 StoryCorps hitched up two StoryBooths and hit the road, one heading east and the other heading for the American West. Each MobileBooth has an ambitious year-long inaugural road trip lined up. They'll cover 25 cities in 16 states (including a month-long stop in New Orleans), spending between two and three weeks in each city, collecting up to 100 interviews per stop.

StoryCorps is determined to put the power of digital recording in as many hands as possible. Even if they won't be coming to your town, the Web site features a DIY recording guide with interviewing strategies and equipment guides. Additionally, StoryCorps is running a pilot program that allows users to rent a limited number of StoryKits, containing a MiniDisc recorder, two MiniDiscs, a broadcast-grade microphone, and headphones. For $100, which includes shipping-and-handling costs as well as a copy of the interview CD, users have seven days to create their own StoryBooths, no matter where they're located.

Although the grant that funds StoryCorps is for a decade, the StoryCorps team feels the project will have a lasting impact. "We really think of StoryCorps as a movement," says Ozug. "We think by the time we complete this project, StoryCorps will be in public libraries, school classrooms, and in other public spaces."

It's hard enough to get the family together once a year to take a picture yet, remarkably, people have responded enthusiastically to StoryCorps' mission. Unlike home videos and fading photos, digital recordings offer a more permanent and personal way to store individual memories. "We live in a time of reality television and blogging and confessional media," explains WNYC's Cappello. "People want to see themselves reflected in whatever media they consume, and they want to participate. Listeners of all tastes want to connect to others through sharing stories." So, if you're in the mood to share, grab a relative, friend, or just interview the most interesting person you can find at a StoryBooth near you.