“How have I impacted your life?” asks Niya, an American high schooler. “I loved you from day one,” answers the warm voice of her grandmother.
The touching exchange was recorded for StoryCorps, an oral history project that lets people share snippets from their lives or preserve precious memories of those close to their hearts.
“I enjoyed that one-to-one time,” the ninth grader said of her interview, which joins the ranks of a slew of others aired on National Public Radio every Friday.
In the span of just three minutes, NPR broadcasts excerpts from often deeply personal and frank conversations, allowing listeners to get a feel for what moves their fellow Americans, otherwise perfect strangers.
Started 12 years ago by Dave Isay, a radio reporter, the project recently launched its smartphone app, StoryCorps.me, in the hopes of making it easier for people to participate.
Niya became involved thanks to her English teacher in Hyattsville, Maryland, near the US capital — herself an avid listener.
“It’s such a little beautiful routine that I have driving every Friday, and I’m happy when I catch it on the air,” said Victoria James.
“You just burst out laughing because something someone said was funny or it’s such a powerful story that you start tearing up.”
An ad for the program’s new app caught James’ attention, and she assigned her students at Northwestern High School the task of interviewing a relative over the US Thanksgiving weekend in November using the new tool.
Niya, who shared her interview with classmates over warm drinks, chips and sweets, said she doesn’t get to speak to her grandmother that much anymore — so the assignment was a bit like old times.
During their talk, played for the class on portable speakers hooked up to her smartphone, Niya’s grandmother told her how she had dreamed of becoming a nurse but ended up a bus driver instead.
All interviews archived
“The goal of StoryCorps was for people to sit down and have a conversation with a loved one, to actually have that experience,” said CEO Robin Sparkman.
All StoryCorps interviews are archived and accessible to the public in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington.
Its director Betsy Peterson said people who knew each other well — family members or close friends — were often likely to prompt the best stories.
Case in point, back in the classroom Niya’s fellow student Gabriela asked her mother, in Spanish, why she dropped out of school. Another student, Madai, queried her sister-in-law about her first date in a New York fast food joint.
Since Isay opened up his first recording booth in New York’s Grand Central Station, the ways of recording an interview have changed drastically.
Several US cities now have a permanent location where people can go to tell their tales. In addition, a trailer outfitted with a recording studio crisscrosses the country to connect with storytellers.
And now the app makes it possible to record conversations virtually anywhere.
In just 10 days around Thanksgiving, some 50,000 interviews were recorded, doubling the StoryCorps archives amassed since 2003.
Before it’s too late
Sparkman stressed that sharing is crucial to helping people “understand each other a little better”.
According to Peterson, an individual story can reveal larger historical threads or trends.
“History is not just events that are done by great men and women but… it is a broader narrative that reveals what a country or what a nation is, what a cultural group is,” she said.
Over the years, StoryCorps has focused on specific groups or themes, such as the LGBT community, military veterans and 9/11.
Much like her students, James also got in on the game, interviewing her father and finding out new things about him in the process.
“Maybe there is a day when you don’t have the opportunity to ask those kinds of questions anymore,” she said.