StoryCorps partners with KZFR community radio
StoryCorps’ Airstream mobile recording studio parks in Chico
An auspicious addition to downtown the last two weeks is an Airstream trailer that’s taken long-term parking on the north side of Chico’s City Plaza. The outside is shiny silver with red-lettered “StoryCorps” emblazoned on each side of the aluminum shell, while inside is a soundproofed recording studio considered by some a rolling, rambling “sacred space.”
StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is “to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives.” Founded in 2003 by David Isay, it has recorded more than 30,000 stories to date at permanent sites and from outreach programs and mobile units like the one visiting Chico.
StoryCorps also has a radio show that broadcasts selected stories Friday mornings on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
On a recent blustery day, Seren Bradshaw volunteered on behalf of KZFR FM 90.1, which is hosting the organization’s stay here. She answered the questions of curious passersby and helped those with reservations to record stories fill out paperwork and explained how it works—two people have a conversation with minimal input or interruption from the facilitators. Participants receive their own copy of the conversation and can have another copy submitted to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
A few days earlier, Bradshaw participated herself, interviewing her husband, Larry, about growing up the son of an alcoholic logger.
“We talked about how he got from living in a dirt-floor cabin in the woods somewhere in Oregon to today. He’s a marriage and family therapist intern and works with kids.”
The Bradshaws are making copies of the CD for their children and grandchildren, and opted to submit a CD for posterity.
Mobile site coordinator Lily Sullivan said that, in addition to the broadcast and oral history aspects, StoryCorps serves a deeper purpose: “One of the important parts of the project is getting people to make time to sit down with someone they care about and really honor them through asking them important questions,” said Sullivan, who has spent two years on the road with StoryCorps.
“The mission statement used to be ‘To honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.’ We just changed that last year to be a little bit more concrete in terms of what we do, but that’s still definitely still at the heart of our work.”
Sullivan confirmed that listening to life stories can be quite a ride.
“People carry a lot, and I think there’s something about the booth, it’s soundproofed and quiet and we kind of think of it as kind of a sacred space, and it can be very emotional,” she said. “Of course, we’re not robots and not immune to going through what happens in that 40 minutes. The time really belongs to the people having the conversation, but that doesn’t mean we can be immune to what’s going on.
“I feel profoundly moved, inspired, delighted and taught by almost every conversation that I get to sit in on. It’s an honor.”
StoryCorps mobile units spend about a month in each location, and Sullivan says some communities have a strong tie that links the stories together, citing Fresno and Akron, Ohio, as examples: “In Fresno, farming and agriculture are so much a part of people’s lives that they figured in many of the stories. Akron is the ‘Rubber Capital of the World,’ so people couldn’t talk about Akron without talking about Goodyear and Goodrich.
“But it’s mostly universal themes that happen everywhere, whether you’re in Miami or some tiny town in New Hampshire. Things like family and people who’ve inspired them or taught them. More than objective things, people end up talking about people.”
Inside the trailer, Charlotte Jones just finished interviewing her friend Stephen Anderson Jr. about living with a wheelchair. Their eyes were still a little red but both beamed about the experience they’d just shared.
“It was hard for the first minute, then after that it was really easy,” Anderson said.
“He really has a story to tell, and he really did great, it’s so easy here,” Jones said. “All of us as human beings each have an important story, and to actually have the chance to tell that story is wonderful.
“This is very safe, and this is really something that people need to do more often.”