Carmen Radelat, of Silver Spring, Md., grew up listening to her mother's stories. A Spanish immigrant to Cuba, Radelat's mother, Florencia, attended the University of Havana at the same time as Fidel Castro before she settled permanently in the United States.
For Radelat, her mother's stories were experiences Radelat wanted to record and preserve for her family. When Radelat heard the StoryCorps mobile recording studio would be making a stop in her town, just outside of Washington, D.C., she signed up to interview her mother.
"[The StoryCorps] experience was important for me to gain a personal perspective of her life," Radelat said. "As an independent woman of her generation, I'm proud of all she's been through."
In addition to preserving Florencia's story for Radelat's family, their interview is one of more than 45,000 collected and archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress as part of the StoryCorps project, which has a goal to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, preserve, and share their stories.
You are probably most familiar with the StoryCorps interviews that air on Morning Edition each Friday. Edited from the original 40-minute interview, stories like Radelat and Carmen's expose listeners to compelling stories told by average people.
The Value of the Human Voice
Nine years ago today, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay launched what has now become the one of the largest collections of human voices ever gathered with a recording booth set up in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. With nearly 90,000 participants to date, Isay describes StoryCorps' mission as a public service.
"We want to celebrate the American story that's happening everywhere, from small towns to Native American reservations to prisons," he said. "It's important for us to bring StoryCorps to as much of America as possible. We are trying to cover the widest possible swath of America and the American story."
StoryCorps achieves this access by touring across the country, taking this opportunity directly to the people. While the organization's main office is in Brooklyn, NY, a number of StoryCorps staff travel year-round to communities across America; with them comes an Airstream trailer equipped with a soundproof recording studio.
According to Isay, the StoryCorps MobileBooth is a valuable way to bring in people from the community who want to be interviewed, or who want to interview a friend or relative. And to make sure the local residents are aware of this opportunity, StoryCorps teams up with radio stations, libraries, and other community partners to spread the word.
Virginia Lora, a StoryCorps facilitator, has traveled with StoryCorps' MobileBooth since June 2011. Lora works inside the studio where she records and observes interviews. If needed, she inserts questions to help guide the conversation between a pair of participants. If a participant comes alone, she becomes the interviewer.
"Listening to a conversation is a beautiful thing," she said. "As a listener, there's a much shorter distance to travel to connect with a story."
The studio space inside the booth is small and intimate. For 40 minutes, participants talk through stories from their life – from broad reflections to detailed moments.
"People are very open and honest during their interviews," Lora said. "Inside the studio there's more freedom for what people say – they're more dynamic and spontaneous. Some prepare more than others, but their words don't have to be a final draft."
At the mobile booth, Lora greets participant Liz Norton, who was scheduled to interview her father, Norman Bernstein. "My father is 92 and fabulous, with a lot to tell," Norton said.
As an NPR listener, Norton said she finds herself connecting to the "smallness" of the stories she hears on Morning Edition. "A story doesn't have to be grand – even the smallest of stories can have such universal reach," she said.
For Bernstein? "I'm just happy to spend time with her," he said about his daughter.
Each StoryCorps participant is given a CD recording of their interview. In addition to being preserved and archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the interviews are sometimes in the collections of that city's libraries and community centers.
Staff from StoryCorps select the interviews that will eventually air on Morning Edition. From a full-length 40 minute interview, they edit it down to a one-to-two minute "teaser" clip then send it off to NPR Morning Edition Senior Producer Barry Gordemer for a final review before airing.
"[StoryCorps] understands the larger picture," he said. "They're sensitive to the natural rhythm of a conversation that gives context to the story."
According to Gordemer, listeners relate to StoryCorps because these aren't always the stories that are the main news headlines of the day.
"These stories provide a window to what America is like at this point in time," he said. "They're not scripted, so there's a raw element of a conversation that's captured."