"Listening is an Act of Love"

"Listening is an Act of Love"

  • Posted on: 16 October 2006
  • By: Eli

Inside a converted Airstream trailer three middle-aged women, one with a baby in her arms, are smiling and posing for a picture. Moments earlier, they had emerged from a dimly lit space reminiscent of a diner booth, but with two studio-grade microphones in place of salt and pepper shakers. With their recording session finished, the three laugh and chat as they receive their CDs. Are they aspiring musicians? Voice talent for a radio ad? Neither, just long-time book club buddies who've recorded a conversation for the oral history project called StoryCorps, in Boston through the month of October.

Some well-known CCTV members and folks-about-Cambridge are among those who have participated in the ongoing project, which claims "Listening is an act of love". The story of Sue Hyde and her daughter Jesse McGleughlin can be found on the WBUR website, or you can listen right now by clicking here (will play in RealPlayer). Brother Blue and Ruth Hill also stopped by the StoryCorps trailer and are featured on the StoryCorps blog.

After the three book club buddies leave the studio-in-a-trailer, I ask Maddy Nussbaum, an artist and the StoryCorps facilitator who helped them, to tell me more about the project. Two new arrivals step into the recording booth with the other facilitator, Pat Estess, and we sit down at the opposite end of the trailer to talk.

StoryCorps is the brainchild of veteran audio documentarian David Isay, and the project is designed to build an expansive oral history collection by inspiring people to record each others' stories. "It's our contention that the stories of regular folks are just as interesting as the stories of celebrities," says Isay. Over 8,000 recordings have already been made. Two specially-equipped Airstream trailers are the mobile studios where these recordings can happen. These "MobileBooths" are on tour, traveling around the US to gather peoples' stories. There are also two stationary "StoryBooths", including the original 2003 Grand Central installation, and there may be more in the future. Maddy tells me that "The importance of the booths is giving people the safety of a space where they can be truly honest. It's a sacred space and it's very freeing. The most amazing things come out."

Anyone can make a reservation for a 40-minute recording session and then bring someone they'd like to interview. Right from the start it's a unique experience because, as Maddy notes, "It's rare in life that anyone will sit and listen to you for 40 minutes!" Many people bring family members, and the interviews are often intergenerational. At the end of the session participants receive a CD and, with their permission, the finished recording is also sent to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for archiving. You may also hear excerpts of selected interviews broadcast on NPR.

The facilitators are present in the sound-proofed booth when the conversations take place. They all went through a "StoryCorps bootcamp" that included finding a partner and being recorded themselves. In addition to operating the equipment, Maddy explains that she may ask a couple warm-up questions. "I try to help people forget that the mics are there," she says. Though she assures me that as a facilitator her role is "totally non-judgemental", that doesn't mean she isn't affected by what goes on, and adds, "I often find myself crying, or laughing, along with the participants." Her favorite interviews "are when two people come in and discover something about each other", and she says that although she first thought the motto "Listening is an act of love" a little trite, she has come to believe it.

Fundamental to StoryCorps' mission is the belief that the stories of our friends and family are of the highest value, and that telling stories or listening to others' is a vital way to deepen our relationships. These beliefs are woven into community media organizations of all stripes, including public access. The StoryCorps project is a great reminder for community media-makers and audiences that the most compelling and rewarding media we can make is often about the lives of the people to whom we're closest.

The MobileBooth is in Boston through the end of this week, but all timeslots are booked. You can find out more about StoryCorps by visiting StoryCorps.net.