When Dave Isay founded StoryCorps in 2003, his concept was simple: Put two people in a room together, with a microphone, and push them to ask and answer questions. By listening, the participants would learn about each other. But the mission is much bigger than that: The stories recorded by StoryCorps are archived via the organization’s partnership with the Library of Congress, and thus become a part of the permanent national record. The personal becomes universal. And each person’s story reminds us of our common humanity, whatever our differences.
Seventeen years later, more than 600,000 people from all 50 states have recorded their stories. But how do you share and preserve stories this way during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the concept of being in a room together – which sits at the very heart of the StoryCorps mission – is suddenly, and for the foreseeable future, fraught with peril? That was the quandary that Isay and StoryCorps faced when the lockdowns went into place.
The answer was at once simple and difficult.
The technology to conduct digital interviews via video conference has existed for years, but StoryCorps had resisted it. The shared physical space, and especially the microphone, has always been as important to the experience as the participants. The intimacy, and the mic sitting between, brings an added sense of importance to the exchange. In different rooms, with different microphones, would it still be StoryCorps?
“We’ve never done anything that’s not face to face,” says Isay, who worked as a radio documentary producer before launching StoryCorps. But in the first few days of the lockdown, conversations that Isay had with epidemiologists made clear that the existing ways for users to record interviews simply wasn’t going to work.
“We have an app but using it would have basically meant throwing your phone six feet across the room to the person you’re interviewing, which made absolutely no sense,” he says. “So we realized we had to do something very quickly.”
The result is StoryCorps Connect, a user-friendly digital platform launched last month that seamlessly unites interviewer and interviewee via video conference. The meeting is simple to arrange – one person signs into the StoryCorps Archive and obtains a link to send to the person they’ll be interviewing. Once clicked, the video room launches, and the interview can begin. After it’s over, the audio is sent to the StoryCorps database at the Library of Congress and the participants choose whether they want to also make the conversation available to other StoryCorps users. In any case, they can download the interview to their own computers.
Given security and privacy concerns around video conferencing, however, the StoryCorps team tested the new service for several weeks to make sure it was what Isay considered “bulletproof” and that interviews could reliably be conducted and preserved. Only the audio and a still image of the participants is sent to the Library of Congress. The video does not.
Simplicity was another requirement. Among the main priorities of StoryCorps is to allow people a way to pass down stories from generation to generation by interviewing older family members and friends. When all you have to do is set up your grandparents in front of a microphone at a table with you, that’s easy. Require a device like a computer, tablet or smartphone, and a data hookup, and it becomes less so.
StoryCorps Connect isn’t foolproof, but it’s pretty close. And with hundreds of interviews already completed since its launch, technical difficulties have been few and far between. Personal, universal, historical. Now digital.
“We’ve gotten more and more pickup every day,” Isay says. “And I think it’s got really powerful implications for people dealing with isolation and loneliness. Our elders are going to be in isolation for a really long time, unfortunately, and this is a way to connect in a deep and profound way and have a meaningful conversation with someone you care about that becomes part of American history.”
Necessity breeds invention, of course, and Isay thinks that the digital changes to StoryCorps are here to stay past the pandemic that forced its introduction. Face-to-face interviews will always be preferred, he says, but the Connect technology now gives people for whom those types of settings aren’t possible a way to participate.
“One of the things we’re working on,” says Isay, “is getting people across political divides, who are strangers, to talk to each other. So this allows us to put people who are geographically apart together.” StoryCorps formalized its commitment to bridging the differences that divide Americans in 2018 with the One Small Step initiative.
For now, the focus is on sharing and keeping stories about what life is like during these unprecedented times, and Isay says StoryCorps is uniquely positioned to chronicle the current moment for history.
“People say to me all the time: I wish I had interviewed my mother, my grandmother, my sister, but I waited too long and they died,” he says. “So this moment is a lesson to us all not to wait, to take the time to tell people who mean something to you how much you love them just by saying who are you, what have you learned in life and how do you want to be remembered?”