Every story, every voice, every life matters equally

StoryCorps founder Dave Isay speaks for WYSO fundraiser

By Leo DeLuca
Photo: StoryCorps founder Dave Isay will speak at the Mathille Theater in the Schuster Center on Friday, June 21

StoryCorps is a vastly popular oral history project listened to by millions each week via NPR’s Morning Edition. Dave Isay – founder of StoryCorps – will speak at Dayton’s Schuster Center Friday, June 21, as part of a fundraiser for local NPR affiliate, WYSO. Isay is the recipient of six Peabody Awards, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and has helped produce three New York Times bestselling books based around StoryCorps.

A plebeian-centric effort, StoryCorps mission is both simple and profound: “To provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives.” Traveling from city to city, StoryCorps facilitators help families, friends and loved ones interview one another and relay anecdotes from their lives.

From fleeing across the American border to life as a single mother, StoryCorps interviews document the tales of our country in candid fashion. According to Isay, the microphone has “the power to give people the license to have conversations they’ve never had before.”

Over the past nine and a half years, StoryCorps has culled more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants. Two copies of each interview are produced: one goes to the participants of the interview and the other is preserved at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.

Isay notes, “To me, the stories you get through StoryCorps are the real American stories – particularly for people who feel they are outside of the mainstream and go relatively unheard. For these people to know that their story is important enough to go to the Library of Congress reminds them how much their life matters. That is really at the core of what we’re doing. StoryCorps is both a massive oral history project and a social justice project. It reminds us all that every story, every voice, every life matters equally.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Dave Isay on StoryCorps, Studs Terkel, his renowned father Richard Isay, WYSO and more.

When did you dream up the idea for StoryCorps?

You know, I’ve been interviewed 50,000 some times and I don’t think anyone’s actually ever asked me that question. It was probably eighteen months before starting StoryCorps that I had the idea and started circulating it among the people I worked with at the little radio documentary company I had been running. I had been doing radio documentaries for fifteen years before that, so I wrote a memo of my thoughts and sent it around the office. Over a week, the idea formed and 18 months later we opened in Grand Central. -Dave Isay

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian, actor and broadcaster Studs Terkel was at the StoryCorps ribbon cutting in 2003. How old was he at that time? What did he say? 

Studs must have been around 91 at that time. He remarked, “We know who the architect of Grand Central Station was, but who laid these floors? Who built these walls? Who painted this ceiling? Those are the stories you need to find through StoryCorps.” We’ve been trying to live up to his mandate for the last nine and a half years. -DI

Your father Richard Isay was a famous psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, author and gay activist. Along with other accolades, he appeared on “Larry King Live,” “Oprah,” “20/20,” “The Morning Show” and more. Did his background in psychology predispose you to becoming a heartfelt listener? 

My dad was definitely an amazing guy. He was a gay activist and I think it was more his interest in the underdog that inspired me. I grew up in the 1970’s and it was very different back then. He had no patience for blowhards and he was very interested in making sure everyone was treated with dignity. That was the influence more than the psychiatric piece, although a lot of people in my family were psychiatrists, so I guess it was a little engrained in me. -DI

Your father is a hero in the LGBT community. With his legacy, and with June being LGBT Pride Month, have you considered conducting a StoryCorps piece centered on the LGBT community? 

We’ve done eight major national initiatives. I’ve been working for five years to launch an LGBT initiative and it will finally happen next June. It’s going to be called Out Loud and it’s going to be a massive recording effort around the country with a focus on people who were alive before [the] Stonewall [riots], intergenerational interviews and memorials to people who died during the AIDS epidemic. I’m very excited about it. It’s not announced and this is the first that I’ve talked about it. That is very much in the spirit and memory of my dad. -DI

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m very excited to be raising funds for WYSO – a legendary station. There are two very famous hotbeds of creativity in the country. One is WBAI here in New York and the other is WYSO. Tons of NPR people came out of there and it’s a very special station. Neenah (Ellis) who runs WYSO is a radio legend, so it’s a pleasure and a privilege to come out and do some fundraising for them. -DI

StoryCorps Founder Dave Isay presents “The Power of Listening” on Friday, June 21 at 8 p.m. at Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. The is a pre-show reception at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit storycorps.org and wyso.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Leo DeLuca at LeoDeluca@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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