StoryCorps and the lives of ordinary people

Recently I've taken a keen interest in oral histories, and in the technical and artistic feats behind creating audio stories and making them powerful and relevant. I am overwhelmed by how natural the journalists on NPR and its member stations make it seem. There is a lot of work, a lot of practice--and a lot of talent, really--behind making a compelling audio story. I'm interested because I am starting the groundwork on my own podcast project, a history podcast. The topic or range of themes, I don't know yet, but I have a few ideas I am working on. I want to take the notions of community and of roots, and really challenge notions of identity and nationality through the stories I seek (or happen to find) and the questions I ask. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am fascinated with the fluidity of nationality and its meaning in lives and across national boundaries. So when I sit down to think about communities, I inevitably return to this thought, to this theme in the multicultural lives we live today. There are more specifics that I can expound on later when I have solidified my project further.

But one of the first places I began looking for inspiration, of course, was the StoryCorps project, which is an initiative of NPR, and both are funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The StoryCorps project records regular people (with often far beyon regular stories to tell) who are interviewed by a friend or family member in booths located at various spots throughout the country (and in the traveling booth). Interviews are housed in the Folk Life Collection at the Library Of Congress, where they stand as historical record that the lives of everyday people matter in our past and in the present.

Beside the fact that NPR is absolutely my primary source of news, and I am admittedly an NPR-podcast junkie, the goal of StoryCorps is valuable and significant in ensuring that people feel both connected to the past, and feel that they matter themselves. This project cannot disappear now, just when technologies are allowing us to share stories in more ways than we ever could. It is a brilliant way of collecting oral histories, focusing on whatever the interviewer wants to know about their loved friend or family member. I am thinking I will take my dad sometime very soon.

I was reminded the other day of one of the most memorable stories ever to air on Morning Edition, the morning program that regularly airs a brief interview from the StoryCorps booth: that of mother Sarah Littman and her then-12-year-old son Joshua, who  has Asperger's. Their poignant conversation (which you can read more about and hear, here) received an incredible response, and is still considered a milestone event in their lives. Littman wrote about it recently, in an effort to illustrate how important StoryCorps's mission is, and to remind everyone how much it meant to her, her son, and everyone who heard and was moved by their story.

She had this to say:

I’ve tried to analyze why our interview had such an impact on so many lives. I’ve wondered: Is it because it helped raise awareness about Asperger’s syndrome? Is it because the interview helped people understand that seeing the world “differently” isn’t necessarily a bad thing? Is it because—and this is the gift of StoryCorps—it showed how much we learn from “ordinary” people (whom, it turns out, are really anything but) if we take the time to sit down and listen?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all of these things, but at the core of it all is that last question from my son. This question is at the root of what all of us, no matter who we are or what our age, gender, race, religion, or social status, wonder. Deep down, we all have the desire to know—Do you love me the way that I am? Am I who you expected me to be?

Josh is now 17 and a senior in high school. When applying to colleges for the fall, he chose to write his application essay about our StoryCorps experience. I plan to take him back to the StoryCorps Booth after his first semester for another interview to talk about this next chapter in his life.

StoryCorps’ single largest funder is CPB. The elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting would essentially be a death knell for StoryCorps, which not only has brought so much joy to so many, but in our celebrity-obsessed culture is an incredibly important reminder that every individual matters, and that there is so much to be learned from our stories if we’d only take the time to stop and really listen. This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s about what really matters.

Her sentiment and thoughts on the matter really got to the heart of how I had been feeling about the issue, and about how NPR and the programming I love could take a huge hit in the very near future. She just expressed those thoughts much better than I. So I ask you to also stand up for the value of all of our lives, big and small. Let Congress know everyday stories and lives matter in our collective past. I got a response from Sonny Perdue's people last week.

Do it for me! Where else will I get my daily 2+ hours of news and entertainment?