After amassing a huge collection of recorded voices in the United States and creating a popular fixture on public radio, the national oral history project StoryCorps is going global.
Project founder Dave Isay recently won the 2015 TED Prize of $1 million to help carry out his wish for a worldwide expansion. On Wednesday, Isay announced the launch of a new StoryCorps smartphone app to help bring the oral history project to other countries. The app was launched as Isay's TED Talk was released online.
StoryCorps, based in New York, records 40-minute interviews between two regular people, usually friends or family members, with the help of facilitators at sites across the country to show that everyone has a story and that every life matters. An interview airs every Friday on NPR. Since the project was created in 2003, about 100,000 Americans have participated.
More than 60,000 interviews have been recorded and archived at the Library of Congress and on the StoryCorps website, making it the "single largest collection of human voices ever gathered," Isay said. Many stories inevitably draw laughs or tears as people share their memories and ask probing questions. It's the power of human connection, and that can easily translate to a global audience, Isay said, though the questions can be adapted to different cultures.
"We're trying in this country to move the needle a little bit on getting us to listen better and become a more compassionate, thoughtful country that recognizes the dignity in everyone's life and story," Isay told The Associated Press. "But I don't think we've even begun to touch the tip of the iceberg on what this thing could be and the impact it could have on people's lives. We have a long, long way to go."
The new app will serve as a digital facilitator of sorts so that participants can record StoryCorps interviews on their own. The app guides them through drafting questions, making the recording on a smartphone and uploading it to StoryCorps and the Library of Congress.
Isay said he could imagine StoryCorps calling on high school students studying U.S. history to record interviews with their grandparents or other seniors to capture an entire generation's stories in a weekend. Internationally, StoryCorps could create a global day of listening, replicating a tradition that's begun on the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S. Or the project could facilitate conversations among people on opposite sides of a war to help people learn more about each other.
"I think the technology is the easy part, and getting people to use it is the hard part," Isay said.
StoryCorps will look for partners and volunteers in other countries, potentially through radio networks or national libraries, to help expand the idea. Already the U.S. State Department has approached StoryCorps about potentially expanding in Africa.
The TED Prize funded the $500,000 development cost for the app and its technical infrastructure, and about $500,000 has been spent on staffing and website support. StoryCorps will have to raise at least $2.5 million more over the next three years to continue the global effort, Isay said.
For its founder, StoryCorps is an important counterbalance to the fleeting conversations of social media by capturing conversations that endure.
"My personal dream of the app is maybe someday people take this app and go into homeless shelters and hospitals and maybe even prisons and honor people who feel like their lives don't matter ... and asking them who they are, how do they want to be remembered," Isay said. "Interviewing them is kind of the highest use of StoryCorps."