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StoryCorps founder steps up to the mic

For six years, the public radio project known as StoryCorps has been fostering - and recording - the conversations of thousands of ordinary Americans. Morning Edition airs one every Friday. All of them are archived at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps creator Dave Isay is in Charlotte this evening to promote the new StoryCorps book, "Mom." He will be at Joseph Beth Booksellers at SouthPark Mall at 7 p.m. He also spoke to WFAE's Scott Graf. 

Scott: So tell us exactly how the story core project came about?

Dave: Well it grew out of kind of every experience I ever had in my life. I mean I guess the most important kind of thing that led to the creation of story core was I used to be a radio documentary producer for public radio.

I did a documentary maybe 20 years ago with two kids growing up on the south side of Chicago, where I gave them tape recorders and had them record themselves-the stories of their lives, interview their family, their friends, their teachers. I saw that having these kids take a tape recorder and interview a loved one gave them license to have conversations they'd never had before, and that as people in this documentary died over the years - and now almost everybody except these kids have passed away - these tapes became incredibly important to them.

So out of that and many, many other experiences, StoryCorps started 6.5 years ago, which you know is this incredibly simple idea. You bring a loved one to the booth-your grandmother, a friend, a bus driver-anyone you want to honor by listening to their story. You're met by a facilitator who works for StoryCorps, who brings you into the booth and closes the door. You sit across from your grandmother for 40 minutes, the facilitator's in the corner. And you listen and you talk, and you honor a loved one by saying 'tell me about your life'.

People think about it as kind of a chance to leave a legacy.

Scott: The project you mentioned its simplicity, and it really is. But yet what we hear on the air is so profound. Is there an irony in that that you recognize and appreciate?

Dave: I think the idea is simple. It's not rocket science. It's two people and two microphones and a couple of CD burners. And the stories are profound, but it's not that they're complex. Why they're profound is because they're real. We're surrounded by so much phoniness everywhere we look and listen 24 hours a day. And when you hear one of these stories you're hearing someone being honest, being authentic, and often in these stories you're hearing humanity at its best. And when you're hearing humanity at its best, you're kind of walking on holy ground.

Scott: Is there a type of story you feel is more important than others?

Dave: We look at every one of the 30,000 interviews that have been done as equally important. And it's really... we look at ourselves as, you know, a public broadcasting and a public radio project, and a social service in many ways. We're here to serve people.

Almost every week I hear people recognize a little bit of themselves in someone who they thought was so different than them. And it's that act of recognizing yourself in someone you thought was different that I think has the potential to build bridges, and remind us that there really is much more that unites us than divides us in this country, and that we should spend you know less time screaming at each other and more time listening to each other.

This is such a particularly divisive time in the country, and when you get down to it, you know, we really care about the same things and there isn't that much that separates us.

Scott: Are you surprised it's lasted six years?

Dave: I would have been. When we launched, it was a day-to-day thing, and we came very close to having to shut down in the very beginning. But ... about a year into the project I saw the power of this thing and decided to stop being a radio documentary producer and devote the rest of my life to growing story core into a national institution.

So we hope now that it won't be around for another six years, but really another, you know, hundreds of years. Our goal now is to touch the lives of every family in America with StoryCorps, and that this project can really seep into the culture and remind us of the poetry and power and grace of the stories we find all around us when we take time to listen, and remind us of the importance of stopping and putting down your Blackberry, putting down your computer, and whatever it is we're going to be using 50-100 years from now, and having real communication with a loved one, looking them in the eye and saying, 'Tell me about your life.' And telling someone how much they mean to you just by being really curious, and letting them talk about who they are, what they care about and what they've learned.