Listening as an Act of Love
David Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant and 2015 TED Prize. His new StoryCorps book is Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work.
May 12, 2016
MR. DAVID ISAY: I remember there was an article about Borges in the New Yorkermaybe 20, 25 years ago. And the last line he said, “the soul is contained in the human voice.” And I was like, that’s it. [laughs]. And I’ve been saying it ever since.
MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This hour I get to have a conversation about the art of listening and the impact of stories with one of my media comrades and heroes, David Isay. You may have heard snippets from StoryCorps, the project he founded, on NPR. But radio pieces are just the tip of the iceberg. As Dave sees it, the StoryCorps booth — settings where two people ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask each other — these are sacred spaces. Listening, he’s learned, is an act of love. And eliciting and capturing our stories is a way of insisting that every life matters.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: David Isay is the creator and president of StoryCorps. He’s also won a MacArthur Genius Grant and, more recently, the TED Prize. StoryCorps has collected over 60,000 stories from across the country, with an archive at the Library of Congress. I spoke with him in 2014.
MS. TIPPETT: I just want to say how happy I am that you’re doing this, and I understand that you’re having to step outside your comfort zone. So I just want you to think of this like we’re in a StoryCorps booth, and it’s just a little bit longer than 40 minutes.
MR. ISAY: Right. I’m very happy to do this.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. I was thinking …
MR. ISAY: I really feel so grateful to the show, because in so many ways, your show gave me the language to articulate StoryCorps.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, gosh.
MR. ISAY: So I feel like if you took everything I’ve ever listened to and put it in one pile, and your show, I’ve gotten a thousand times more wisdom and insight from your show than everything else combined. So, I’m very, very, very grateful.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, thank you. I feel like we have kindred listening spaces, sacred spaces, the way…
MR. ISAY: We sure do.
MS. TIPPETT: …you sometimes talk about what happens. So this is exciting. And I really do also — I’ve been looking forward to this as — I do a conversation and not just an interview, and so just to have this chance to talk to you about listening …
MR. ISAY: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: So let’s just plunge in. I think you probably know this, that I always open with asking about the religious or spiritual background — was there a religious or spiritual background to your childhood? And I actually don’t — I’ve been reading as much as I could about you and interviews you’ve given, but I haven’t actually seen any reference to that, I don’t think.
MR. ISAY: Yeah, I went to Hebrew school when I was a kid. And I didn’t connect at all. I think I’m culturally Jewish — and I went to a Friends school for high school — and maybe a little more spiritually Quaker.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s interesting that you went to a Friends school, because that is a spiritual tradition of listening, really. That makes sense.
MR. ISAY: And I think, when I was there, I didn’t appreciate silent meeting as all. I think most teenagers roll their eyes. But as I got older, I ended up, when I got married, going back with my wife and finding it very useful, and it’s just my speed and my style.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And then, you definitely belong to a lineage of listeners of different kinds, right? Your father was a psychiatrist, your grandmother was an advice columnist, your mother, very much in this …
MR. ISAY: Yes, she was. You did do your homework. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: I did. [laughs] It seems like, again, whether you were very aware of that or not, you were soaking that up, I think, as a child.
MR. ISAY: Yeah, and I also think — I was not a particularly happy kid, and I always felt a little bit uncomfortable around kids my age, and liked to spend time with older people and listen to them. And that was just my thing. A little bit weird, but there you go.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s that story you’ve told that when you were 12 after a Thanksgiving meal, you interviewed your grandmother and her sisters.
MR. ISAY: Yes. I did. We had a tape recorder around the house, because my dad was a psychiatrist. And I guess he taped some sessions. I don’t know. There was — for some reason, he had a tape recorder. This was ancient history. And it was Thanksgiving, and my grandparents were there. And I asked them to do interviews. I had a grandmother, as you said, who was an advice columnist at the New York Post for 50 years, and she had these sisters. They were all huge characters. I had an Aunt Bertie who was a complete nut. She insisted that she had invented fruit salad. And, well, she was just — I can’t even go into some of the other stuff. It’s not appropriate for radio. But she — they were these wild characters, one more so than the next.
And I brought them in to do a interview with them this Thanksgiving, and I didn’t know what I was I doing, and I was probably giggling during the interview and whatever. But I had their voices on tape. And then in successive years, when I was 13, 14, 15, that whole generation began to die off. And when I was in my 20s, I went looking for that tape and couldn’t find it. And I still look for that tape.
My father’s passed away, but his husband tells me to please stop bothering him about it. And my mom also is not happy with me asking about the tape. And that’s partly — with StoryCorps, every interview that we do goes to the Library of Congress, which means it’s as safe as it can possibly be. So your great-great-great-great-great-grandkids will get to listen to this interview. So that’s partly in response to the dumb move of me losing this tape, because it’s the only record of these folks’ voices.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and I think — I have those — there are those cassettes in my life, too, that have gone missing, that you remember.
MR. ISAY: Yep. But this is an important one. [laughs] My grandparents loomed very large. And I think you probably feel the same way. To me, the soul is contained in the voice. So there’s just something very powerful about having that record of someone.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. But that idea that the soul is contained in the voice, do you have any recollection of when you started to think about it that way?
MR. ISAY: Yeah, I think — I tend to just write down stuff that other people say. I’m a very linear thinker. And I guess I’m a good collector of other people’s deep thoughts. But I remember there was an article about Borges in the New Yorker maybe 20, 25 years ago. And in the last line he said “the soul is contained in the human voice.” And I was like, that’s it. [laughs]. And I’ve been saying it ever since.
MS. TIPPETT: I have to say I agree with you, and it’s a mysterious thing. It’s actually hard to break down any more than that, isn’t it? It’s just an experience you have.
MR. ISAY: It is. I was talking about my dad a little while ago, and I lost him very suddenly. And I had done a StoryCorps interview with him, but hadn’t really given it much thought. And he got diagnosed with cancer. He was perfectly healthy, working full time as a psychiatrist, and got sick, and he was dead nine or ten days later. And that night I listened to my StoryCorps interview with him for the first time, and I remember doing it and not thinking that there was anything particularly special about it. But then you listen to it and this is — it’s him. And it’s your only way that my — I have two young kids. It’s the only way that they’re going to get to know my dad.
There was actually — it was interesting, because I always — I feel that this is like the vagaries of memory, and it’s a side point, but my dad was a gay rights activist, and really a magnificent man. And very, very important to me. And I remember that I asked him when we were in the StoryCorps interview, “What are you proudest of in life?” And my memory of that was that he said “the books I’ve written.” And I always teased him. I said, “Dad, we’ve done, whatever, 10,000, 20,000, as time went on, 50,000 interviews, and everybody says their kids. And you, the one person, you said, “my books.” And then, the night — and I just endlessly went after him, and the night he died, I listened to the interview, and I said, “What are you proudest of?” And he said “My kids.”
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MR. ISAY: Yep.
MS. TIPPETT: Was that exchange even in there? What you remember? You just didn’t remember it?
MR. ISAY: Yes, and then he said, “I’m also proud of my books.”
MS. TIPPETT: Interesting.
MR. ISAY: But that’s how memory works. You hold onto these images of people. And I guess there’s something about the way these interviews, the 40-minute StoryCorps interviews are structured that it’s almost — in some ways, we think of it as if you had 40 minutes left to live, what would you want to say to someone else? What would you want to learn about them? And in some ways, I think it’s maybe the best way to sum up who someone is in 40 minutes, although that’s a very difficult thing to do. But we have everything going for us, because it’s the voice, and it’s intimate, and it’s honest. I think of it as the opposite of reality TV. No one comes to get rich, no one comes to get famous, it’s just about generosity and love.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. We’ll keep talking about all of that. I do want to note that you first got into creating documentaries when you were right in your early 20s, is that right? Right at the beginning of your …
MR. ISAY: Yeah, radio documentaries. Right out of college.
MS. TIPPETT: Which, on the surface, sounds different, but then when I really look at all the things you did, I think most, if not all, of your documentaries start with you handing the cassette recorder to other people. And so the documentary, it takes this form. And your first one started with one story, one couple and a tape recorder, in 1987.
MR. ISAY: Right. Do you want me to tell that?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, tell that story.
MR. ISAY: Sure. I was lucky to find my calling when I was a kid. And I was actually heading to medical school to be part of this long line of psychiatrists in my family. And I actually took a year off to tutor and started a job tutoring kids at my school in science stuff, which I was pretty good at. And then one day, I was walking around the East Village, where I lived, and I saw this window that caught my eye. It was a little storefront. And it was a 12-step recovery store with books and different stuff. And there was art in the window from this couple who ran it. And I started talking to them, and they were remarkable.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. ISAY: So this couple was — this was 1987, I think, maybe early ‘88. And they started talking to me, and they said that they were both former transit workers, and they both had AIDS. He had been an IV drug user.
MS. TIPPETT: And this is when AIDS was a death sentence.
MR. ISAY: That’s right. And they took me to the back of the store and said, we want to show you something. And they’d created this tongue-depressor model of this “Museum to Addiction.” And they started unrolling these blueprints of what was going to be on every floor of this Museum of Addiction. Again, the windows, just beautifully done in such incredible detail. And they told me that they were convinced that they were going to open this museum before they died. And that they were intent on doing that. And then pulled out a book that they had, a binder book, with — they had written to Donald Trump and everybody else, asking for money. And clearly they were form rejection letters, but in those form rejection letters, they saw hope. And I was just, you know, it just was this courage of convictions, just these incredible, beautiful people. And I went home — and this was the day when they had something called Yellow Pages — and I started going through the Yellow Pages and calling all the TV stations. I’d never heard of public radio. And they all said no. And then I started calling all the radio stations, and I got to the local community station here, WBAI, and the news director, whose name is Amy Goodman, who’s now well-known for…
MS. TIPPETT: Democracy Now.
MR. ISAY: …a radio show called Democracy Now, right. She said, that sounds like a great story, but we don’t have anyone to do it. Why don’t you do it? So I borrowed a tape recorder, and I went to them. And I really did have this moment where, when I sat down with the tape recorder and pushed — back then it was play and record at the same time to record something.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah, right.
MR. ISAY: And started talking to them, I said, this — at that moment, I knew that’s what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. I was so, so lucky, at such a young age…
MS. TIPPETT: You were going to be pushing play and record and whatever form that continued to take, yeah.
MR. ISAY: Forever, yep. Until they — even in the box, when they put me away, like play and record was my destiny and my fate.
[music: “Guitar II” by The Kallikak Family]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with StoryCorps founder David Isay, exploring his passion for collecting the voices of ordinary people.
[music: “Guitar II” by The Kallikak Family]
MS. TIPPETT: You did a documentary called Stonewall Remembered, which —
MR. ISAY: Right. Remembering Stonewall.
MS. TIPPETT: Remembering Stonewall, which was not autobiographical strictly, but really was tracing part of your story in a way.
MR. ISAY: For sure.
MS. TIPPETT: Part of your story and your father’s story.
MR. ISAY: This was the first documentary I actually ever did. And this was just months after the story I just told about the couple.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I didn’t realize that was the first one.
MR. ISAY: Oh yeah. No, and this was — it was just about the same time that I had met the couple that I had discovered that my dad was gay.
MS. TIPPETT: And you were — so you were in your early 20s and you hadn’t known before.
MR. ISAY: 21 or 22, no. No, I mean he was …
MS. TIPPETT: And your parents were married, right?
MR. ISAY: They were. And I knew that he was an activist and talked about gay rights, and I had just assumed that this was part of — he was always someone who fought for the underdogs and was very intent on making sure that everybody was treated with dignity. So I thought that was just part of that. And it really didn’t occur to me that he was gay. But I did find out by accident that year. Just probably around the same month that I did that recording. And, I was — it was hard for me, because it was a really — shook everything.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it shakes the foundations of what you — of your family identity.
MR. ISAY: Yeah. I’m not big on secrets, and holding secrets and all that stuff, as you can probably guess from the work. So my dad mentioned to me, at some point when we were talking — he mentioned Stonewall, and I looked into it. I’d never heard of it. It was the riot that happened in late June of 1969 where, at this bar, the Stonewall Inn, there was a riot. And it was the first time that gays and lesbians were mentioned in the paper. And it was just this — it was one of those — it was the Rosa Parks moment. It was just one of these seminal moments where everything comes together and focuses at this one place, and this one time. And I took my tape recorder and did this documentary, and dedicated it to my dad, and that was through that documentary I was able to find healing and open a conversation back up with my dad, which continued up until he died.
MS. TIPPETT: So you did your documentaries for, what, maybe 10 years, and then you started StoryCorps.
MR. ISAY: More than that.
MS. TIPPETT: More than that?
MR. ISAY: Yeah, 15 years.
MS. TIPPETT: 15 years. Wow, you started so young. And then —
MR. ISAY: And now I’m so old. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: No. [laughs] You’re still young. And then you started StoryCorps, I believe, in 2003. Is that right?
MR. ISAY: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: So tell me, how would you start to say what you had learned about listening that made you want to create StoryCorps?
MR. ISAY: Well, I thought of, and still think of StoryCorps as the — it’s the opposite of the documentary work that I used to do. And I did a lot of stories that were in places where people’s voices weren’t heard. And I’d come to believe that the — for these folks, the act of being listened to was far more important than being in the documentary itself, and could be transformative in people’s lives, because no one had actually ever listened to them.
So the idea of StoryCorps was to take documentary and turn it on its head and say what this is about, and it is what it’s about, and continues to be about, is giving the people the chance to have these conversations, and be listened to. And in that act of sitting with a loved one, and being asked who are you, and what have you learned in life, and how do you want to be remembered, being reminded how much their lives matter. It’s a very simple idea. But one thing I knew had to happen, both for the archival piece, because of what I was talking about with the tape that I had lost …
MS. TIPPETT: You were — those tapes would never be lost.
MR. ISAY: Right. The fact that this goes to the Library of Congress tells people that their story is important enough to be part of American history. And I hear all the time, every day, from people saying that the 40 minutes they spent in one of our booths is among the most important 40 minutes of their lives, which is something I hadn’t expected, but I guess I’m not terribly surprised.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So, I don’t just sense this …
MR. ISAY: Have you done a StoryCorps interview, Krista?
MS. TIPPETT: I have not. [laughs]
MR. ISAY: OK, well, we’ve got to get you in the booth.
MS. TIPPETT: OK, we’ll do it. We will. I can’t say no now, can I? So, I don’t just — I was going to say I sense, but I don’t just sense it, I know it. Because I’m out in the world talking. People are so hungry for the knowledge of how to create these spaces, to create spaces for listening. And for even hearing their own voices. So I just want to break it apart a little bit.
MR. ISAY: Sure.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve said, when you’re in the StoryCorps booth, you’re in this sacred space. That’s a big way to start. But, tell me what makes it sacred?
MR. ISAY: Well, it’s interesting, because I had a couple of theories based on the hundreds, maybe thousand interviews that I’d done. And one was that you needed the sacred space to do the interview in. So we created this booth that — where the lights are low, and you well know what happens when you walk into a recording studio. There’s this sucking sound when the door shuts and you’re in complete silence. And so we built our booths that way, to be these very, peaceful, comfortable places. And then the other theory was that we needed — to have this experience you needed a facilitator present. And these facilitators are these people who work for StoryCorps, and they call it “bearing witness” to these interviews.
And a couple years into the project, we realized that we could — that the facilitators could set up equipment in any quiet room anywhere, and people would essentially have the same experience. So the actual physical space turned out not to be as important as I thought, but the presence of a facilitator, who are hired because they’re great listeners, was and remains very, very important to the experience.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, so I wanted to ask you about that role of the facilitator, and reason I think it’s important to describe it is that, when a lot of people imagine a facilitated conversation, they imagine that person really leading the conversation, structuring it, right?
MR. ISAY: Oh, that’s interesting. I never thought of that.
MS. TIPPETT: Intervening. But I think it’s so, to me, it says it all when you say that they are bearing witness. And so there’s…
MR. ISAY: Yeah, well, they say that. That’s how they describe it.
MS. TIPPETT: …a human dynamic then. In a way, Dave, even though these conversations are so intimate, like unbelievably intimate, between people who’ve maybe known each other all their lives, it adds a communal dimension. Right?
MR. ISAY: You’re absolutely right. Many times you’ll have someone and their parent in the booth, and there might be some stress in their relationship. And when they’re asking a story and the parent will say, I’ve told that story before. But then they turn to the facilitator. And the facilitator becomes the ears of the world. And that person in the booth realizes that, and just begins to open up and speak. So there’s something about those three people in the booth that’s just perfect.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. ISAY: So we’re not going to mess with it.
MS. TIPPETT: And 40 minutes, is there a magic about 40 minutes?
MR. ISAY: Nope. I don’t know. Different people have different theories about interviewing. I always found that the best material happened when people were able to focus. And when I did these interviews when I was making documentaries — I think you know this feeling. It’s just this very, very intense listening. It’s almost like there’s like a laser beam between my eyes and the person who I’m interviewing’s eyes. And I almost want to put my hands on their shoulders as we’re talking. It’s a lock-in experience. And the energy is so intense that it runs out pretty quick. So we picked 40 because we run on the hour, and it’s 10 minutes to get ready for the interview and 10 minutes to cool down.
MS. TIPPETT: So, yeah, but it’s important…
MR. ISAY: And again, that works.
MS. TIPPETT: …to have that structure. Yeah.
MR. ISAY: Yeah. So it’s a better structure, and it works. And the facilitators will always say, start by asking that question that you’ve always wanted to ask, cause the time goes by so quickly. So they become these very intense conversations from beginning to end and people are pretty spent by the end.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s interesting, because I do something that, when I first started in public radio, they told me you can’t do this, right? I do 60 to 90 minutes. And I think what happens is that a real conversation fills the space it’s given, right? And I often find that the thing builds and builds, and you have to make a commitment sometimes, in our show, for the first 10 or 20 minutes, because then the conversation really gets going, and you can imagine this. We’ve had editors come in who say, just start there. Start in the middle, where the thing is — where you’ve got this peak moment. But I say, that’s not how a conversation works. You get to that moment. And you can’t — it’s not fair to the listener or the conversation to not let it build. But it’s a different dynamic.
MR. ISAY: And I think, I think that when you’re in the 60-to-90-minute range, you’re in the same range of 40. Those are not long interviews when you’re talking to someone about their entire life.
MS. TIPPETT: The sweep of their life, right.
MR. ISAY: And I think the difference with the StoryCorps interviews is that, in many cases, these two people who know this other person better than anyone else in the world. So they can start at that spot.
MS. TIPPETT: And then you have no — also no video in the booth, right?
MR. ISAY: Nope. Never will.
MS. TIPPETT: So tell me in your words why that’s important.
MR. ISAY: It goes back to a bunch of things we’ve been talking about. The voice, to me, the power of this thing is the voice. The lights are low. You don’t have to worry about what you look like. And video just wouldn’t add anything. We do a photograph of everybody at the end of the interview. But the way it’s set up is — it’s simple and perfect, so we don’t mess with it. When I started StoryCorps, I actually didn’t know if we’d have stories for the radio. And I didn’t care that much. I thought that if we did have stories, they’d start repeating, because there are only so many conversations a grandkid could have with a grandparent. But it turns out that they don’t repeat, except that they all are in some ways about the great themes of human existence.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I heard you say birth, life, and death is what it always comes down to. [laughs]
MR. ISAY: Yeah, that’s right. All of them.
[music: “Hill of Our Home” by Psapp]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with David Isay through our website, onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
On Being is supported in part by Penguin Press, publishers of the New York Timesbestselling book by Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry to the Mystery and Art of Living. The Washington Post says, “Becoming Wise challenges all forms of dogma in science, politics, and philosophy, as well as religion, and it affirms the holiness of the body and the glory of the inquiring mind.” Available now wherever books are sold.
[music: “Hill of Our Home” by Psapp]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with David Isay, the creator of StoryCorps. We’re talking about our shared love of listening and the importance of creating spaces to tell our stories to each other.
You may have heard StoryCorps vignettes on NPR — short, edited versions of 40-minute conversations between two people who know each other intimately. This oral history project travels the country and has collected over 60,000 stories, with an archive at the Library of Congress.
MS. TIPPETT: One criticism sometimes of StoryCorps on NPR, of the radio pieces, is that they’re emotionally manipulative. They take you into this deep dive, as you say, that makes you cry in a number of seconds.
MR. ISAY: Yeah, I don’t think of it that way. I think what’s happening, I hope, is that when people hear these stories, they’re walking in the footsteps of someone who they, almost by definition, they thought was very different than themselves. But I think that these are — [phone noise] Sorry. That was a telephone on, unexcusable.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]
MR. ISAY: I thought I had turned that off. Hold on, let me try this again.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. I forgive you.
MR. ISAY: Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: You said your — the StoryCorps booth is like a confessional. You’re absolved of your sin here.
MR. ISAY: Thank you. I appreciate that.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. ISAY: I think there’s nothing about these — you’re not watching these people from the outside. And I think that most of them aren’t sad. People get emotional when they hear StoryCorps stories, and from what I can tell, it’s because they’re authentic, when we’re surrounded by so much stuff that’s not. And they’re generous, and you’re hearing about regular people living lives of generosity and, often, courage and decency. And you’re showing us this path, and when you hear those kinds of stories, you’re walking on holy ground. And I think that’s why people get emotional when they hear them. And I think that for some people, getting emotional makes them uncomfortable. And the criticism may come from there.
MS. TIPPETT: I guess what also occurred to me when I was getting ready to talk to you is that, what you can’t do in boiling even 40 minutes down — 40 minutes is not a long time. But in your story, you talked about secrets, right? And every family has secrets. And secrets are painful, and your mother has actually written a lot about this. She works with this. And so what we all know is that if you sat down for 40 minutes and had a true conversation about birth, life, and death with the people you know best, there are going to be hard things in that 40 minutes, also.
MR. ISAY: Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: Possibly redemptive at the same time. I think that’s what you do. You create a space in which the hardness and the redemption are there together. But I just — I think maybe that is what cannot be condensed into two minutes, or three minutes, or five minutes.
MR. ISAY: As you’re speaking, it reminds me of something I’ve taken a lot from the different people you’ve had on your show. And I always — I carry around me whenever I give a speech a little thing that I read beforehand that reminds me about what it is and why we’re doing it. And one of the people on your show, I think it might have been Rachel Naomi Remen.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, Rachel Naomi Remen, yes. “Listening generously.”
MR. ISAY: Yep. She said that the keepers of wisdom in our culture are the people who’ve experienced the most difficult things in their lives. And the view from the edge of life is much clearer than the view that most of us have. And I think that we’re in the wisdom business. And what we’re trying to do every week is let people learn from someone else about the lessons they’ve learned in life. And a lot of times, it comes out of difficult circumstances.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You make this equation, “Listening is an act of love.” And I just wondered if you’d talk about that a little bit.
MR. ISAY: Yeah, I think that sitting and being present with someone, and asking them important questions is something that doesn’t happen that often during the course of day-to-day life, and is one of the most profound and powerful ways we have to tell someone else how much we love them. Just asking them who they are and what they’ve learned in life. And how they want to be remembered.
I always find — I do maybe one or two StoryCorps interviews every year. And it’s always in the middle of this crazy day, and I’m like, I really don’t want to do this. And it’s usually a staff member who’s been with us for five, or six, seven, eight, nine years who’s leaving. And then I’ll go and sit with this person, and it’s like time stops. And it’s one of the most remarkable and nourishing experiences that I know of. But in many ways, I think, StoryCorps is about mortality. And I was with Ira Byock earlier this week, who was …
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, we had him on the show. He’s a physician who works with people who are dying.
MR. ISAY: Yeah. In many ways, he talks about the four things you say to someone, which are “thank you,” “I love you,” “forgive me,” “I forgive you.” And that’s something that he talks about as being a conversation people want to have before you die. And in some ways, I think what’s happening in StoryCorps is that you have the opportunity to have that conversation now. We’re all dying, I guess.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. I don’t know if you experience this, too. I said this a minute ago a little bit but I’ll say it again. I feel like there’s this — it’s like we’re remembering that we’re listening creatures. But the way we set up our culture in the last period, it doesn’t actually make space. That listening is an everyday art, and it’s a social technology. But we have to — we almost have to put lofty language around it like that to — you have to create StoryCorps, right? I don’t know, I’m not really asking a question, I’m just thinking out loud.
MR. ISAY: It makes me think — all of us are capable of this. I had thought that, with StoryCorps, I had wondered whether people on the interviewing side were going to be able to do it. And everybody is able to do it. StoryCorps was created the same year as Facebook. And in some ways, it’s — I do think that — there’s something I can’t put my finger on. We’ve been talking about this earlier, but I think listening to these stories or participating, that, I don’t know, it brings you in. And it’s not an observing thing. It’s a deep connection thing. And I find, sometimes, with some of the technology stuff, and I’m — thank God for technology, StoryCorps couldn’t happen without it. But there’s like a remove and an observing thing as opposed to a connecting thing. And listening carefully. And people will ask, especially when I used to do documentaries, “How do you get people to open up?” Whether I was in prisons or whatever, and I’d say, just be genuinely curious, don’t be a jerk, and just really listen closely to someone, and remarkable things are going to happen.
I was talking to — there’s a great writer, Alex Kotlowitz, who I was talking to recently, and we were talking about, we’re doing stuff with post-9/11 veterans. And we’re talking about this experience of when you’re talking to folks who have served — and folks in all circumstances — someone will tell this amazing story and then you say, “Have you ever told that story before?” The answer’s no. And then you say, “Why not?” “Well, no one’s ever asked.”
[music: “City of Lights” by Languis]
MS. TIPPETT: Is there an opening question? Doesn’t StoryCorps have a list of suggested questions? Or is there a way to begin?
MR. ISAY: Right. Yes, so we have the 10 most popular questions. And then we have many, many others that people can choose from, depending on who they’re interviewing. And also fill-in-the-blanks that people can ask. And the 10 most popular questions are big life questions that we talked about before. “How do you want to be remembered?” And that sort of stuff. And again, it goes back to this idea that the microphone gives you the license to have these conversations that you don’t normally get to have.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and also as you say, that…
MR. ISAY: So people jump in with difficult questions.
MS. TIPPETT: …you have people together who already have an intimate bond and so they don’t have to get there. So you can really plunge into those questions. Can I ask you, when you interviewed your father, what questions you brought into that? The things you’d wanted to ask?
MR. ISAY: Yeah. I think I spent a lot of time talking about his childhood, because that was something he told us about a lot when we were growing up. And I wanted to find out some stuff about who his parents were, and try and get that down. And then some of the bigger questions, like, the “How do you want to be remembered?” sort of questions, as well.
MS. TIPPETT: People ask me why I always start with some version of the question about the spiritual or religious background of someone’s childhood.
MR. ISAY: Right. It’s funny, I never — I listen to the show, and I never realized that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, well, you don’t always hear it, because …
MR. ISAY: I guess you do. You include it on every show?
MS. TIPPETT: Well, we have — you know what? Interestingly, this is one of the things in the beginning, it didn’t feel like NPR to me, you know? [laughs] So we used to edit it. You used to not hear it. And the thing is, it is absolutely true that everyone has an interesting story in response to that question, even a cradle atheist has a great story to tell about the spiritual background of their childhood. But the real reason for me that the question is essential is that — where it plants people in themselves.
MR. ISAY: That’s right. Yep.
MS. TIPPETT: And so, I don’t have that shared experience with somebody I’m talking to. But it opens them up in a place that’s softer and more searching. And then it makes other things possible later.
MR. ISAY: Yeah, I think people have their set pieces. And probably no one has ever been asked before about their religious background growing up. So, immediately, you’re throwing them out of that, whatever it is, the skip on the record player that they’re used to telling the same stories over and over again.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, Dave, I just want to say to you, since here we are, in this conversation, that — you may or may not remember this — but you came to American Public Media when I was just starting my show in 2003. And I don’t even think it was a weekly show yet, and I know you’d never heard of me, and I asked to see you. I asked to meet you, because you were in the building. And you so generously agreed and you had no idea who I was, or what my work was. But I think I told you that I felt like you were a role model, that your approach to listening was so kindred to me. And it just occurred to me as I was getting ready to talk to you, and I’m reading about you, that you actually listened to me at a moment when I’d say most of the people in our industry were just not ready, or interested, and also what I was doing wasn’t good yet. I had to learn what I was doing. So, I just want to thank you for that, actually.
MR. ISAY: Well, thank you. That’s one of the things about a StoryCorps interview, which I love, is that often at the end of the interviews, the person asking the questions, we suggest they might want to turn the tables and thank the person that they’re interviewing for the influence they’ve had on their lives. So that means a lot. I told you before we turned on the tape that On Being and Speaking of Faith before that have had a profound influence on helping me articulate and understand what we’re trying to do with StoryCorps. Sometimes, we live — what we’re doing is a little bit out of sync with the pop culture, right? And it’s easy to get psyched out and say, what are we doing? What are we doing here?
MS. TIPPETT: But that out-of-sync-ness feels important to me to dwell with. Just a minute ago, you said — I love this — that StoryCorps started the same year as Facebook. And I also think that, when I talk about how there’s a cultural awakening in this sphere, there are a lot of related phenomena, although many of them are quite different. Facebook is related in a way. We are reaching out to each other. TED Talks. Right? But the growth of those things is spurred by some of the same impulses, that we are actually of interest to each other. But those things don’t require the commitment. You’ve said before, “What I’m looking for is poetry on the margins.” And poetry hurts a little bit going in. Marie Howe, the poet, said that to me. It’s like something we crave, and yet we have to steel ourselves to take it in. And I think wonderful things have always happened on the margins in human history. So I just think naming the fact that this listening, listening as an act of love is so much more than being quiet while the other person speaks.
MR. ISAY: Yeah. No, it’s true. And it is out of sync. I was just looking at — you had Walter Brueggemann, who said, “Our culture is organized against history. There’s a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope.” And when you talk about the criticisms of StoryCorps — and I don’t get too many of them — but, again, I feel like it’s a little out of step with the culture, but this is what we should be doing. We’ve just got to keep going, keep going. And I’m sure you’ve had that feeling, as well.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Absolutely. I wondered if you’ve ever heard this quote of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Do you know who he is?
MR. ISAY: Oh, yeah, of course.
MS. TIPPETT: He was a German theologian. He died in a Nazi prison. Have you ever heard him on listening from his book Life Together?
MR. ISAY: No, but I’m going to have to write this down.
MS. TIPPETT: I can send it to you. But I love, love, love, love this quote. It’s one of my favorite — it’s my favorite words in the annals of theology on listening. And then I just thought, how exciting, how fun it would be to read it to you. So I’m just going to read you parts of it. It’s a long section. And Bonhoeffer thought so hard and deeply about — this was his book Life Together, about Christian community, about human community.
So he says, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to His word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His word, but also lends us His ear.” He says, “Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they’re in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life.” [laughs] Isn’t that great stuff?
MR. ISAY: Beautiful. Yeah. You know that first time we met – and I do remember that — you said, I think you should read — and I guess I might have just been starting to create StoryCorps. You said, you should read Parker Palmer.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. The Quaker author. Right.
MR. ISAY: Yep, which I did. And that was an influence, as well. I think of — there’s that quote — and again, I don’t know if this is an apocryphal story or not, but there’s a story about Dan Rather interviewing Mother Theresa. And he asked her what she said during her prayers. And she said, “I listen.” And, Rather then said, “Well, then, what does God say to you?” And she said, “He listens.”
MS. TIPPETT: Really? I’m so glad you told me that. I’ve never heard that before.
MR. ISAY: There’s one quote I can give back to you.
[music: “Merlion” by Emancipator]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with my fellow listener, StoryCorps founder David Isay.
[music: “Merlion” by Emancipator]
MS. TIPPETT: That title of Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak, also could be a mission statement for you or me, in a way. To say that StoryCorps, that this work of listening is about every life mattering. And I know it’s obvious to you. And I know you’re living it. It’s just not actually a sentence that — when you say it, I think everybody who’s listening is like, oh yeah. It makes sense. It’s something we may know, but we don’t know how to articulate or live.
MR. ISAY: That’s it. That’s StoryCorps in a nutshell. Every life matters. But the funny thing is that other than interviewing people, I can be a really terrible listener.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Really?
MR. ISAY: The worst. I’m impatient.
MS. TIPPETT: This is the confessional aspect of our StoryCorps, of our booth experience here.
MR. ISAY: Yeah, I am just a terrible listener.
MS. TIPPETT: Are you really?
MR. ISAY: But — yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Would your children say that?
MR. ISAY: No. No. But my wife would.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]
MR. ISAY: [laughs] At times I can be a great listener, but it takes a lot of focus and energy, and all of us have our moments. And I don’t — I’m impatient. But, again, what StoryCorps does is it forces you back into the space where you can find your highest self.
MS. TIPPETT: This is probably why it’s another very simple reason that listening is not something that we do all the time. It’s work. It’s a commitment. But, again, to all the people out there who I run into who say, we want to make room for listening. It’s something that we have to start practicing more, right?
MR. ISAY: And it’s something you never regret.
MS. TIPPETT: You never regret.
MR. ISAY: It’s like all this — it’s when you’re talking about the social media stuff, and it’s nourishing as opposed to being depleting. And I find that there’s so much out there that we’re all addicted to in the content and other stuff that we encounter. Or many of us are addicted to. There are some lucky people who aren’t. But all that stuff just feels like it chips away at you a little bit. And what I hope happens with StoryCorps, and certainly happens with your show, is that it’s additive as opposed to taking something away, that it nourishes who you are.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And in a way, by creating structures, creating a booth, or creating a project, or whatever else other people can create where they live, you send some courage out, right? For people to walk into that experience that they may want, but that requires something of us.
MR. ISAY: And it does take courage. When we have booths in cities, they’re always full, but there aren’t huge waiting lists. And when we have a mobile booth that pulls into a town, we can have hundreds and hundreds, maybe more people on a waiting list two minutes after — two seconds after reservations open. And I think that’s because people know that this booth is only there for six weeks, and they’ve got to get in. And that creates this tension. As opposed to when something’s in your town, and it’s very easy to say — because you’re dealing with hard stuff, and you’re dealing with mortality, and you’re dealing with connection, it’s easy to say, I can do it next week. I can do it next week. I can do it next week. So that’s something that we see.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, are there tools, are there things you’ve learned through StoryCorps that do make you a better listener, even though you say you’re constitutionally not inclined that way?
MR. ISAY: That make me a better listener?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Or things you know. Tricks. Like if you ever catch yourself just being a human being and not the head of StoryCorps.
MR. ISAY: Yeah. You know when you’re listening carefully and when you’re not. It’s that, we’ve come back to this a couple of times. It’s like when you’re locked into another human being. Either you’re locked in or you’re not. And I was an equally bad listener before starting StoryCorps, but also did very, very intense interviews with people. So, no, that hasn’t changed for me. I think that what has changed — well, there are a couple of things. I think that what I’ve learned is — I knew that being listened to was important to people, but I don’t think I understood how important it was. And how widespread it is that people feel like they’re not listened to and never heard, and have things that they want to say and leave behind. I think StoryCorps itself has made me a much more hopeful person. It’s made me much more hopeful about people and much more committed to the idea that we focus so much on what very, very, very few people have to say. And that we would be such a better and stronger country if we widened that out and listened to what the rest of us have to say and have learned in life.
MS. TIPPETT: And do you find that the stories you hear as being part of StoryCorps, that they work on you, in you, as you then live your life?
MR. ISAY: Yeah. Oh, totally. I get the question a lot, like, “How come you don’t spend all day crying?” And I don’t spend all day crying. But I’ve learned a lot of things from listening to these interviews that I carry around with me all the time. There’s an interview with a father who lost two kids on September 11. And he talks about how the last words he said to his kids, and the last words he heard, were “I love you,” and what comfort that gives him. And you can bet that I say “I love you” many times every day. I think that there are very, very simple lessons that run through these stories that have completely shaped my life and the way that I live it.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s wonderful. Well, Dave, you say that your gift is collecting other people’s deep thoughts and that’s certainly true, but you have so many deep thoughts of your own, and I’m really grateful to you for sitting down with me, and I’m really excited to put this on the air.
MR. ISAY: Well, thank you. This was really fun. I wrote a note to myself — I wrote “just surrender.”
MS. TIPPETT: Good. [laughs]. OK, well you did. Congratulations. I think you accomplished that.
[music: “Black Wood Crimson” by Talkdemonic]
MS. TIPPETT: David Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and winner of the 2015 Ted Prize. He’s just released a new StoryCorps book titled Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work.
StoryCorps’ archives are held at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In addition to their recording booths, and as part of the TED Prize, StoryCorps has created an app that allows users anywhere to record and upload their personal interviews directly to a digital archive.
And here’s an excerpt David Isay edited and shared with us from the StoryCorps interview he did with his late father, Richard Isay.
DAVID ISAY: What was the happiest moment of your life?
RICHARD ISAY: When — I think I was about 11 years old and my mother came after me with a hairbrush and chased me around the bed, and I held her arms and she couldn’t hit me anymore.
DAVID ISAY: Are you serious?
RICHARD ISAY: Yeah.
DAVID ISAY: Is that the happiest moment of your life?
RICHARD ISAY: [laughs] I think I am happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. So it’s — happiness is a continuing process.
DAVID ISAY: What do you think is the most important thing that you’ve accomplished in your life? What are you proudest of?
RICHARD ISAY: I’m very proud of you kids. I am very proud of the work I’ve done. And I am proud of being able to turn my life around and make it into a happy and good one.
DAVID ISAY: You think about dying?
RICHARD ISAY: All the time.
DAVID ISAY: Are you scared of dying?
RICHARD ISAY: No, I think about — well, I don’t want to be infirm. I think about not having good times with Gordon anymore. It’s more an absence of that. You think I was a good father?
DAVID ISAY: I think you were a good father, you’re still a good father.
[music: “Black Wood Crimson” by Talkdemonic]
On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Tess Montgomery, Aseel Zahran, Bethanie Kloecker, and Selena Carlson.
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