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StoryCorps founder shares how storytelling changes the world

SHARE StoryCorps founder shares how storytelling changes the world

There was hardly a dry eye in the expansive hall of the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City in early February as the crowd of thousands — assembled for family history conference RootsTech — listened to 90-year-old Lyle Link talk about his wife of nearly 70 years, Marion.

"I don't know (what made me love her). It was something I couldn't help," Link said. "All I can say is ... life was so beautiful —"

"Is," Link's granddaughter, Carly Dreher, interrupted.

"It is so beautiful..." Link trailed off, a sharp inhale stopping his voice. "I'm terribly, terribly lonesome."

Perhaps it was the memory of lost loved ones that caused so many assembled at the Salt Palace that day to weep over Link's story. But it's just as likely they wept for the same reason they'd come to RootsTech: the universal truth that, someday, Link's loss would inevitably be their own.

These are the kinds of moments StoryCorps founder David Isay lives for: Stories that reach into the human heart and demand to be felt, even if the experience is foreign, the characters unfamiliar.

StoryCorps is a nonprofit group that travels the country giving people like Link and his granddaughter the chance to record and share their stories for all to hear, preserved for history at the Library of Congress (it can also be heard every Friday morning on many local NPR affiliates or on NPR's StoryCorps webpage).

Since its inception in 2003, StoryCorps has collected what RootsTech called the largest collection of human voices ever recorded — 65,000 interviews with about 120,000 Americans from all walks of life, generations and backgrounds. Its goal is simultaneously simple and lofty — by collecting stories from young and old, rich and poor, average and extraordinary, StoryCorps hopes to at once preserve history and, as Isay puts it, "collect the wisdom of humanity."

"The final product doesn't matter," Isay said at RootsTech. "It's about people connecting. The power of authentic stories is infinite."

The Deseret News caught up with Isay to talk about why the simple act of sharing and hearing family stories matters.

Deseret News: What inspired you to start StoryCorps?

David Isay: I was doing a lot of radio documentary stuff in prisons and housing projects and places where people felt that they hadn’t been heard, and I saw that the act of being interviewed could be beneficial. That’s what StoryCorps is. The microphone gives you license to have these extremely important conversations. I like to think we’re collecting the wisdom of humanity, because no matter where you are in this country, everybody talks about what’s really important to them, and what’s really important is family.

Deseret News: StoryCorps is full of family stories — whether it’s the kind we’re born into or the kind we create for ourselves. Was the goal to focus on family stories?

David Isay: Nope. That came about on its own through what we call the StoryCorps experience. It’s about having the license to have this intense conversation with someone you care about. When I first started doing this, I was a little afraid of what would happen and whether this would work because when I was making radio documentaries, I think part of me felt there was something special about me doing the interview. Like I added some sort of magic to it that these things wouldn’t be said if I weren’t there. But now with StoryCorps, it’s clear that anybody can do it. You just have to listen, which is something journalists, writers and documentarians do, but anyone who listens is capable of getting these great stories.

Deseret News: StoryCorps’ motto is “Everyone has a story.” Why is StoryCorps' work important?

David Isay: It reminds people that their lives matter and that they won’t be forgotten. And I’m here to tell you, that’s true. When StoryCorps first started, it was mostly conversations between grandparents and grandkids and I really thought it would start repeating itself (meaning the stories would be similar and repetitive). That still hasn’t happened and it kind of captures the diversity of this country. I believe that the soul is contained in the human voice. When you hear a story honestly told, at its best you’re going to be walking in the footsteps of someone very different from you and yet you’ll recognize yourself in that person. When you can do that, it makes you forget any fear you may have had and it can help you understand. There’s so much xenophobia in the world today and what StoryCorps does is it reminds us that we share so much more than what divides us.

Deseret News: Does it matter more in this day and age?

David Isay: It is important anytime, but if we’re talking about now specifically, just think about cellphones. We’ve got these means of technology that are so advanced in the area of communication, but they seem to draw us further into ourselves. At this moment when we’re more focused on ourselves, I think anything that encourages us to look outward and give to another person by listening to them and asking them about themselves is important. StoryCorps is about being generous enough to share your story and listening to the people around us.

Deseret News: Sometimes social media can be more about talking past each other than to each other so that it’s almost not communication.

David Isay: That’s right, and StoryCorps is about meaningful communication and a lot of stuff on social media maybe isn’t meaningful. (StoryCorps) is about humanity. StoryCorps has so much in common with end of life and hospice in that when you are dying, the hospice people talk about the four things you want to say to someone, which are "thank you," "I love you," "please forgive me" and "I forgive you." We’re all dying in one way or another, so I think StoryCorps gives you the opportunity to share your story in a way that matters.

Deseret News: You mentioned in a presentation at RootsTech that StoryCorps functions as a kind of “answer” to modern news media emphasizing the negative. What's missing from the media that StoryCorps provides?

David Isay: Well, it isn’t all media, but I heard someone say recently that hate is louder than love. We’re trying to turn up the volume on love. Those kinds of stories that are about hate or violence are much more seductive. Again, it’s not all media, but there’s often an emphasis put on things that make us afraid because fear sells. Politics, for example — a lot of what we see in politics is very scripted and (StoryCorps) is authentic. The news does have to tell those stories, but I don’t think stories that emphasize hate are the whole story. That’s not the truth of what this country is and what the people are like. The truth is, it’s harder to tell these (StoryCorps) stories. It’s a lot easier to just work off a press release than talk to a real person.

Deseret News: For people who are new to StoryCorps, what do you hope they get out of listening?

David Isay: Whether they listen or participate, I hope they know that StoryCorps is a reminder whispering in our ear what’s important, what really matters. It clears out the white noise and lets us focus on what we really care about. When people realize their StoryCorps interview is going to the Library of Congress, where their great-great-grandchildren can go and hear them long after they’re gone, they’re kind of speaking to the future. It’s an opportunity to tell the people around you that they matter to you and that everyone should listen.

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson