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StoryCorps comes to Utah — to help preserve the heartbeat and history of humanity

Since its founding in 2003, StoryCorps has recorded more than 600,000 conversations; in its monthlong stay in Utah it plans to add dozens more

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Dean and Shannon Hale are pictured next to the StoryCorps recording studio in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

Dean and Shannon Hale are pictured next to the StoryCorps recording studio in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. The Hale’s discussed their relationship for the StoryCorps interview.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Late last week, an Airstream trailer pulled into a parking space on West Temple in downtown Salt Lake City and hasn’t moved since.

Normally, the trailer would’ve gotten a hundred parking tickets by now, but that hasn’t happened, all because of the big red letters painted on the side: StoryCorps.

Anyone who knows what StoryCorps stands for knows that you don’t turn away its signature mobile van when it comes to your town, let alone give it a citation or tow it away.

It may not be able to cure inflation or the drought, or bridge the divide in Washington, but it can help restore your faith in mankind.

* * * 

The concept behind StoryCorps is so simple, so basic, when you hear it you think, “Nah, that’ll never work”:

Two people who know each other sit down in a recording booth and have a 40-minute conversation about the topic of their choice. When they’re finished, they get a copy of the recording and another copy is sent to the Library of Congress to be preserved in perpetuity.

That’s it. That’s StoryCorps. The object is to get people — anyone and everyone — to share their stories with the world, preserving in the process the heartbeat and history of humanity.

David Isay, the New York-based radio producer who came up with the idea, certainly wasn’t betting his house it would go anywhere when he set up a small recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Station in 2003 and invited passersby to step inside.

It was an experiment to see if anyone might be interested. In New York City no less. Would people even make eye contact, let alone stop for 40 minutes to have a conversation?

In recounting the history of StoryCorps, Isay admits, “I had no idea if it would work.”

But it did work. Four people had their conversations recorded that day in Grand Central Station, and there was a line waiting behind them.

Thus encouraged, Isay poured his heart and soul into expanding StoryCorps. By 2005, two Airstream mobile booths — forerunners to the one parked on West Temple — were launched in Washington, D.C. That same year, StoryCorps stories became a regular part of NPR’s national “Morning Edition” broadcast. The popularity of these segments spawned a StoryCorps podcast, featuring narratives based on StoryCorps conversations. In 2015, a StoryCorps app was created to allow people to record their oral histories in the privacy of their own cellphone.

As a result, in not quite 20 years, StoryCorps has recorded more than 600,000 individuals and filed in excess of 300,000 recordings in the Library of Congress. It is the largest single collection of human voices — and stories — ever gathered.

Hosted by KUER, Utah’s NPR affiliate, the StoryCorps mobile booth will remain in downtown Salt Lake City until Sept. 24 and then move to Ogden for a two-week stay, from Sept. 26 to Oct. 7, before moving on to Las Vegas.

The first on-location Utah StoryCorps recording took place Thursday, Sept. 8, the day the Airstream pulled into town. KUER invited acclaimed local writer Shannon Hale (author of “Princess Academy,” “Austenland” and dozens of other published books) to have the inaugural conversation.

Shannon selected her husband, Dean, to be her interview partner. Not sure going in exactly what they’d talk about, they wound up spending their 40 minutes discussing their relationship and love for each other.

Afterward, they talked about “what a cool experience that was.”

“I didn’t think we were that interesting,” quipped Dean.

Shannon confessed she hadn’t heard of StoryCorps when KUER called.

Thinking it was a media event, the first question she asked was, “What do they want from me?”

Nothing but a conversation, she was told.

“I found out they don’t want something out of you,” she says, “they want you to get something out of the experience.”

Alas, Dean and Shannon didn’t get to record their session inside the Airstream. COVID-19 restrictions have rendered the mobile booth inoperable until mask-wearing goes completely away. Instead, the StoryCorps Salt Lake conversations are being recorded inside the Museum of Contemporary Art on West Temple — as the Airstream sits on the curb out front as a marquee.

In Ogden, the Airstream will be parked outside the Weber County Library at 2464 Jefferson Ave. Recordings will take place inside the building. 

Six conversations will be recorded each day StoryCorps is in Utah. To see if a slot might be available, you can go to KUER.org, although be forewarned you’ll likely be put on a waitlist because StoryCorps fans started lining up as soon as the Airstream made its grand entrance onto West Temple. Everyone has a story, and StoryCorps has shown there is no shortage of people who would like to tell us theirs.