Some legislators want to defund U.S. public broadcasting. If that happens, one organization that would be affected is StoryCorps.
Since 2003, StoryCorps has recorded and archived more than 30,000 interview sessions with ordinary Americans and, significantly, archived them at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit, but its 2009 annual report (the most recent available) showed that at least $500,000 of its roughly $6 million budget came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
The House of Representatives voted to eliminate CPB funding Feb. 19, and the Senate is now working on a version of the bill.
Some may view funding for the CPB as a political football, but the work of StoryCorps – recording unique American lives – is hardly that.
Interviews from StoryCorps are featured each Friday morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
The successful idea has spawned more outlets: books, animated films, podcasts, even an iPhone application that’s packaged as a do-it-yourself StoryCorps experience.
“We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters,” says the StoryCorps website of its endeavor. “At the same time, we will create an invaluable archive of American voices and wisdom for future generations.”
At the StoryCorps website, you can browse stories by topic. Right now, it lists 15 categories. Among them: Hurricane Katrina, Wisdom, Identity, Friendship. Other topics include Griot (featuring African-American voices) and Historias (featuring Latino and Latina voices).
These minority collections developed from special StoryCorps initiatives, which have also gathered accounts from people dealing with memory loss, for example.
StoryCorps recently launched the National Teachers Initiative, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the CPB. Selected stories about the impact of educators will be edited and broadcast on public radio stations during the 2011-12 academic year.
When you choose a story topic and browse the results, you get a list that’s simultaneously full of the mundane and perfectly compelling.
Consider this hit: “Retired New York City sanitation worker Angelo Bruno speaks with his friend and former partner, Eddie Nieves, about working together on their daily route.” Coupled with Angelo and Eddie’s picture, their story is irresistible.
Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ founder and president, wrote in the organization’s 2009 annual report: “At a time when a reality TV-choked media drives people to lower lows in pursuit of their 15 minutes of fame, StoryCorps celebrates the courage, grace, poetry, and dignity we find in the people all around us when we take the time to listen.”
Stories are recorded from all over the country, and each entry tells you where: New York, Los Angeles, Coral Gables, Birmingham and on and on.
Now there are permanent StoryCorps locations (e.g., New York) and mobile StoryCorps units – fittingly housed in an Airstream trailer. You can even rent professional equipment to record an interview at home.
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StoryCorps stories are populated by everyday people, a key to the project’s success.
Consider the case of Sarah Littman.
She took her 12-year-old son, Joshua, to a StoryCorps booth in Grand Central Station in 2006. For 40 minutes, Joshua, who has Asperger’s syndrome, peppered his mother with questions.
“Have you ever felt like life is hopeless?”
“Do you have any mortal enemies?”
“Have you ever lied to me?”
“From a scale of 1 to 10, do you think your life would be different without animals?”
“Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born?”
His questions and her responses – both soaked in honesty – are delightful. A month after their StoryCorps session, a clip from it ran on “Morning Edition” to much fanfare.
And on Mother’s Day weekend in 2010, StoryCorps premiered their exchange as a four-minute animated film. It received more than 600,000 views that weekend. (Sarah Littman has written about her StoryCorps experience and its aftermath in support of the CPB.)
Another StoryCorps original animation is “Germans in the Woods,” a story recounted by Joseph Robertson in 2005. Robertson was an infantryman in World War II, and in his mid-80s he talked about the saddest memory of his life (watch the short film above).
These animated stories, produced by Rauch Bros. Animation in Brooklyn, began airing on PBS in August 2010. To date, five animations of StoryCorps stories have been produced – one featuring Studs Terkel, who cut the ribbon on the original StoryCorps booth in New York’s Grand Central Station.
Terkel is one of the few names you’ll recognize in the sea of stories, though.
Instead, you’ll get engrossed in how Brian adopted 7-year-old Johnathan.
How Gary and Glen worked at the mortuary near Saigon during Vietnam.
How Florence, who has Alzheimer’s, remembers her husband.
How two voices in two minutes paint a life …
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.