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StoryCorps Wins The TED Prize And Builds An App That Lets Anyone Record An Interview On Their Phone

The TED prize means that oral histories are now at the tip of your fingers. Go record someone!

For 11 years, StoryCorps has been recording the life stories of people from across the U.S, filing them away so that future generations can understand their great-great-grandparents and beyond. But it has been limited in scope because of the StoryCorps model: a facilitator and two people who are part of each others lives in conversation, talking for 40 minutes in a booth. Now, with the release of a new StoryCorps app, anyone can participate in the program.

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Dave Isay, the founder and president of StoryCorps, was just awarded the $1 million TED Prize, given to one person each year as a means to grant their big wish for the world. Isay’s wish: to archive the wisdom of humanity. The TED cash went towards the development of the app, available for iOS and Android, that lets anyone conduct guided interviews with loved ones. Those interviews are then saved and sent off to the Library of Congress to be permanently archived.


StoryCorps began when Isay, a former public radio producer, started thinking about how interviews can be important moments in people’s lives–especially people who are not used to having the spotlight shone on them. “I wanted to take the radio documentary and turn it on its head,” he says, “Normally you interview people and create a work of art, entertainment, or education. I wanted to flip that, to say the purpose is being listened to.”

At first, the nonprofit had a single booth in Grand Central Station. Now, over a decade later, some 65,000 people have been interviewed in all 50 states. StoryCorps is now the largest collection of American voices in existence. The archive is so large that a researcher could look for interviews with specific groups say, transgender people of color in the Bay Area, and find a number of them.

StoryCorps’ original booth is gone. These days, the organization records interviews on mobile tours and in major U.S cities.

The basic model is this: the two people in conversation go into a booth. A StoryCorps facilitator conducts the interview, marking down whether it would be good for broadcast. At the end, the interviewees gets a CD copy of the interview, and another copy goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps works with over 500 nonprofits every year to spread the word about its services.


The most moving interviews are condensed into short pieces for a weekly segment on NPR’s Morning Edition. Others make it into the StoryCorps podcast.

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The app is a little different. Instead of relying on a trained facilitator, the interviewer is prompted with questions to guide them through the interview process. Interviews can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as 40 minutes, and interviewers can star notable moments during the chat. While the interviews go to the Library of Congress and the website, (if consent is given), StoryCorps doesn’t plan to use them for broadcast–at least, not yet. Isay doesn’t currently have the resources to scour through the submissions looking for broadcast material.

“Maybe it will be some crowdsourced way that things bubble up. For the time being, everything on NPR will be from the classic StoryCorps,” says Isay. “The million dollars is spent. We are dead out of money come tomorrow.” That probably won’t be the case for long, now that the well-heeled TED audience (and the world) knows that StoryCorps is in need of more funds.

Isay has big plan for the app. He hopes that either this Thanksgiving break or next, every student studying U.S. history will be assigned to record a grandparent or an elder, so that an entire generation of Americans can be recorded in a single weekend.

“I would love to see people going into nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons, and having people give voice to people who feel like their lives don’t matter,” he says. “The core idea of StoryCorps is that every life matters equally.”

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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