Isay, Kotlowitz talk oral history, preservation

    “The soul is contained in the voice.”

    StoryCorps founder Dave Isay spoke with Medill and Center for the Writing Arts professor Alex Kotlowitz about the project Tuesday evening in the McCormick Tribune Forum. They played audio and animated clips from StoryCorps to augment the conversation.

    In order to "record, share and, preserve the stories of our lives," two people who know each other are brought into a booth to conduct an interview with each other for 40 minutes. The facilitators record the audio and the clip is preserved in the Library of Congress.

    “The critical thing is the facilitator,” Isay said. “The physical space is built almost as a sacred space, but there’s something magical about that first person in the booth.” Participants can choose if and how much the facilitator speaks during the recording time.

    Since its 2003 inception, StoryCorps has collected over 45,000 conversations. NPR plays a two-minute clip from a conversation each Friday. PBS runs animated clips from the project.

    “There’s no bullshit. This is an honest conversation. You can really tell when someone’s being sincere or not,” Isay said.

    Isay befriended Kotlowitz, of One Book One Northwestern fame, while he worked on NPR's Ghetto Life 101. LeAlan Jones, who as a 13-year-old was featured in Ghetto Life 101, was in attendance Tuesday. They played a clip of Jones speaking with his grandmother about the origins of his name for the audience. Isay said that Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, was the primary inspiration for Ghetto Life 101.

    “Ghetto Life 101 was a big ‘ah-ha’ moment for me,” Isay said. He discovered that “being listened to tells people that they matter.”

    One year after founding StoryCorps, Isay stopped producing radio documentaries to focus solely on StoryCorps. He said that he wanted to turn StoryCorps into a “sustainable national institution.” He is often on the road in order to raise money for the project.

    Isay played an animated clip that aired on PBS of Carl McNair, whose brother Robert was a physicist on the Challenger space shuttle. Carl recorded the piece in a StoryCorps booth.

    “Some people hate these, really hate these,” Isay said, because it broke from the radio form. He then added, “But I’m the boss, and I like them."

    Both Kotlowitz and Isay praised Studs Terkel for his oral histories of Chicago. Terkel, at age 91, cut the ribbon at the grand opening of StoryCorps in 2003. StoryCorps drove up to Terkel’s driveway to record a conversation with him in 2005 – the clip was played Tuesday, though Terkel has since passed away.

    At the outset, Isay feared for “Jerry Springer moments,” where participants would leave the booth at each other’s throats. While murder confessions, engagements and other shocking announcements have been made in StoryCorps booths, the reaction from participants is almost universally positive, according to Isay.

    After a brief Q&A, Isay played "Danny and Annie," a love story in honor of Valentine’s Day. Despite a short stature and heavy Brooklyn accent, Danny had “more in his heart than all of Hollywood’s leading men,” Isay said.

    “[Danny and Annie] was really powerful and touching. I started crying,” Medill freshman Kalina Silverman said. “This is exactly what I want to be doing in journalism.”

    Kotlowitz and Isay signed copies of their books before the conversation. Isay’s latest book came out last year. Kotlowitz’s latest project, a This American Life installment about how a Chicago high school copes with a rash of violence, will premiere Friday on NPR. StoryCorps will open a permanent booth in Chicago’s Cultural Center in May.


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