Dave Isay: Tell Me a Story

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Seth Fleischauer interviews his grandfather William Jacobs.

Radio documentarian Dave Isay is in the market for people who love to talk about themselves. Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, a national project he founded in 2003 that encourages everyday Americans to share the stories of their lives. Isay has quite a story to tell himself. He's won a MacArthur "Genius" grant, a Guggenheim, five Peabody Awards, and a slew of other broadcasting awards, and has written four books. But he's modest when he talks about his listening project. Each StoryCorps conversation (between two family members or friends) at a StoryCorps location is recorded for free on an audio CD; a second copy is saved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. These conversations can also be heard weekly on the Morning Edition program on NPR. Now, Isay has edited a compelling new book with dozens of StoryCorps profiles, Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the Storycorps Project (Penguin Press). TIME's Andrea Sachs spoke with Isay, 42, from Chicago, where he was on his book tour:

TIME: How did you come up with the idea of StoryCorps?

Dave Isay: I was a radio documentary producer for public radio for about 20 years. I did a documentary about 15 years ago with two kids growing up on the south side of Chicago, in a housing project. I gave them tape recorders and had them record a diary of their life for one week, and do interviews with family members and friends. And I saw when I gave these kids the tape recorders — when, for instance, one of the kids crawled into bed with his grandmother with a tape recorder — that the microphone gave him the license to ask questions that he'd never asked her before. The conversation continued after the tape recorder was turned off. When his grandmother and so many other people in the documentary died, these tapes became incredibly important to these young men. So that was certainly one of the inspirations for starting the project.

When I was a kid, I did an interview with my grandmother and her sister. My grandmother was this larger-than-life character and her parents had died in the flu epidemic of 1918. They were orphans, and she raised up her sisters. And I interviewed her and two of her sisters. My grandmother died when I was 15; the other sisters died; and when I was 17, I went looking for that tape. I wasn't able to find it. And still, to this day, when I go to my parents' house, I go searching for that tape. I know that I'll never be able to find it. The fact that the Reporting Center is now part of StoryCorps at the Library of Congress means that the participants' great-great-great grandchildren can someday hear their ancestors' voice, which is extremely important to me.

Of course, [we're] walking in the footsteps of heroes like Studs Terkel, who cut the ribbon on our first booth. It's all about the idea that our stories, the stories of everyday people, are as interesting and as important as the nonsense we get about celebrities 24 hours a day from all corners. If you really take the time to listen, you'll find poetry and grace and eloquence and humor in the stories of people we find all around us

Have any of the interviews been shocking?

I think in almost every interview surprising and sometimes shocking things happen. We have 10 or 15 questions that work best. One of those questions is: Is there anything you wanted to tell me that you haven't told me before? That invariably leads to revelations that are surprising. One of our very, very first interviews was a grandkid who brought his grandmother to the booth, a very typical kind of interview. At the end of the interview, he says, "Grandma, is there anything you want to tell me that you haven't told me before? She said, "Well, I want you to know that when I was a kid, I was molested by my uncle." She hadn't told anybody in the family about that. It's an opportunity to kind of clear the slate and put the truth out on the table. I know it was very important to her and to her whole family, the whole interview experience. In fact, she invited StoryCorps to her 90th birthday party to play the tape and honor her by listening to the stories she recorded. I think there are surprising things that are said in the booth all the time, but there are never any Jerry Springer kinds of moments. People really treat this with incredible respect. The mission of StoryCorps is to celebrate and honor each other's lives through listening and we've recorded interviews with every kind of person you can imagine, every age group, every part of the country, every part of the socioeconomic ladder, and across the board people have been wildly respectful of this. I think they see how seriously we take the interview process and they take it even more seriously.

Would I be right in thinking there have also been a lot of tears?

Yes. Almost immediately when the CDs start rolling, people start to cry. I think there are a bunch of reasons for that. One is that we live in a culture where we spend so much time kind of disconnected, quick messaging, or watching TV and all the screens in our house, the Blackberries, the computer screen, and it's kind of rare...for all of us to look someone in the eye and tell them you love them by listening to them. Just the act of someone saying, I want to hear about your life, moves people to tears almost in every single interview.

If I'm interested in doing one of these interviews, what should I do?

To participate, you make a reservation and come to one of our booths. [See www.storycorps.net]. The booths in New York are usually one of the easiest ones to get reservations. The ones that are traveling across the country tend to sell out immediately. We see people traveling hundreds of miles to come to participate in the project. And I think the reason why this has caught on is because at its core, StoryCorps tells people they matter and they won't be forgotten, which is all any of us really want to know. But even if you can't get to a StoryCorps site, I really encourage people to take time during the holidays and grab a relative and go into a quiet room, close the door, and if you have a video recorder or a tape recorder or just a pad and pencil, take 40 minutes, 50 minutes or an hour and just ask them about their lives...It's a hectic time, but the greatest gift you can give is this gift of listening.