Dave Isay: “Listening Is an Act of Love”

“. . . [I]f we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us. . . . [W]e all want to know our lives have mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten.”

So says radio producer Dave Isay in his 2008 book, Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project. The book highlights just fifty of the more than sixty thousand stories that have been recorded through the StoryCorps Project since it began in 2003. StoryCorps is the largest single collection of human voices ever recorded.

The idea is simple: ask someone you love to tell you stories from her life and record the stories as she tells them.

So simple yet so powerful.

StoryCorps is the brainchild of Dave Isay, a legendary figure in radio documentary. Isay has received five Peabody Awards for his work and has also been a MacArthur Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. Recently, he won the tenth anniversary TED Prize, which came with a million-dollar award.

Inspired by the 1930s Works Progress Administration recordings of oral history interviews with Americans from all walks of life, Isay wanted to make it possible for contemporary Americans to tell their stories – with a twist.

Another dimension could be added, he felt, if close relatives and friends interviewed each other rather than having professional ethnographers collect the stories. Husbands interviewing wives, children interviewing parents, neighbors interviewing neighbors – anyone who has an interest in learning the story of someone in his life can bring that person to a StoryCorps booth and record a forty-minute, one-on-one conversation.

“Citizen interviews,” as they’re called, have an immediacy and intimacy that listeners everywhere find compelling. In fact, the stories that are played each Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition are among the show’s most popular features.

To ensure that the StoryCorps projects will be preserved, volunteers are asked to sign releases to have their recordings archived at the Library of Congress. More than ninety-five percent have said yes.

The impact, says Isay, is incalculable: “I’ve come to believe that there’s something of the soul captured in the human voice and that an audio recording is one of the most intimate and powerful records one can leave behind.”

Listening Is an Act of Love features a history of the StoryCorps project, fifty interviews representing a range of experiences from family and work to stories of 9/11, and an easy-to-follow set of instructions for recording your own StoryCorps-style interview.

Wondering how you can participate in StoryCorps? Next week is your chance. Friday, November 27, will be the annual, StoryCorps-hosted National Day of Listening. It was created as an alternative to Black Friday. What better way to spend Thanksgiving weekend than listening to a loved one tell you the story of his life! Learn more about the event – also known as the Great Thanksgiving Listen – and find out how to download the app and upload your story to the “Wall of Listening.”

Other volumes of StoryCorps interviews include Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorpsAll There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorpsand Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work.

The epigraph to Listening Is an Act of Love comes from the great American folklorist Alan Lomax: “The essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes . . . but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies.” StoryCorps is a fantastic way to honor and preserve the lives of those around us, our everyday heroes.

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Watch:Watch the TED talk Dave Isay gave when he won the TED Prize for 2015. The video runs 21 minutes.