Tell me a story
National Public Radio’s StoryCorps project comes to Reno
It’s worth noting that at this frightening time of war and economic turmoil, we ought to be reaching out to connect with one another, yet it’s even harder to find common ground with anyone. There appear to be more divisions between us than ever—especially here in Nevada, where our legislative acrimony and economic fallout are arguably among the nation’s worst.
Maybe a nice story could help.
That’s essentially the thinking behind StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization committed to recording stories from the lives of everyday Americans. Excerpts from some of its more than 50,000 interviews have been broadcast on National Public Radio since 2003, and archives of the recordings are maintained at the Library of Congress, making it one of the world’s largest oral history projects. In 2005, StoryCorps began a cross-country tour, hitting the road in its Mobile Booth, an Airstream trailer fully outfitted with a recording studio. To date, the mobile tour has visited roughly 120 cities, and in April, the tour comes to Reno for a four-week stint.
“We’ve been to Vegas before, and definitely wanted to return to Nevada,” said Mitra Bonshahi, the Mobile Booth senior coordinator, in a phone interview. “Reno’s been hit really hard by the economy, and it’s a really important time to document what’s happening there. We wanted to come at this pivotal time in history. This is a great way to get the community together and support each other in a way that doesn’t take money to participate. We thought this might be a great way to do some community-building.”Corps values
While StoryCorps is certainly self-sufficient and can handle the interviewing process independently, it’s relying heavily on its host, KUNR radio, and co-sponsors, the University of Nevada, Reno, the city of Reno, and Nevada Humanities, for help with promotion, interview scheduling and accommodations for Mobile Booth staff during their 30-day residence.
As KUNR general manager David Stipech explains, the registration process for recordings is two-fold: In the first phase, community organizations are invited to spread the word of StoryCorps’ visit to their constituents, and from them will be culled 60 of the 120 total recordings to be held; following those registrations, the public will be invited to register, on a first-come, first-served basis, to fill the remaining 60 spots. Public registrations are available on kunr.org for two dates in April.
“These are everyday stories we’re looking for,” says Stipech. “We’re not looking for the movers and shakers, the local celebrities. … We want to hear from everyday people that we may not otherwise hear from. The focus is on the fabric of people interacting with each other, to see how we affect each other’s lives.”
Bonshahi says that the reason behind the involvement with community organizations is to uncover diversity. “Typically, NPR listeners are from white, upper- and middle-class backgrounds, so we work with these organizations to get people from diverse backgrounds. These may be literacy or youth organizations, groups that work with the homeless or those with disabilities … a whole cross-section of people.”
Organizations being asked to participate include the Nevada Arts Council, the Nevada Indian Commission, High Sierra Industries, Nevada Women’s History Project, ReStart Homeless Service, Disability Resources, Harolds Club Pioneers, Note-Ables, Sierra Nevada Ballet, Alzheimer’s Association of Nevada and others.
There are no criteria for how compelling or “important” your story has to be. You only need the desire to share it and someone to share it with. Recordings take approximately 40 minutes each, and the interviews will each involve two people: the interviewee, who shares his or her story, and a family member or friend who serves as the interviewer, prodding the storyteller and aiding his or her thoughts where appropriate. So, rather than a formal interview, the result is a conversation that evokes not only story, but the intimacy and importance of relationships, as well as the evolution of language and culture.
Once completed, StoryCorps will provide participants with a CD of the interview, and a copy of it will be archived in the Library of Congress’ National Archives. Plus, excerpts may, with participants’ permission, be aired on KUNR in the coming months.
A brief history
As a professor of history at UNR and director of the university’s Oral History Program, Alicia Barber sees the StoryCorps visit as a springboard for greater community involvement in the preservation of history. In light of the recent termination of state funding for the Oral History Program, after nearly 45 years, and the 43 percent budget cut to the Nevada Arts Council, which drastically affects the state’s historic preservation organizations, oral history recordings may be a way to get everyone involved in preserving our history.
“The task of history teachers is to convince people that history is relevant to our lives,” says Barber. “It’s not just about power players. By telling everyday stories, it makes us realize that we’re all historical players and can have an impact on our culture. It helps us to become contributing members of society, to realize that we all have an enormous impact on history, no matter what role we play.”
The Oral History Program differs from StoryCorps in that it seeks to document the history and culture of our region through recorded interviews with those involved. Whereas StoryCorps documents stories that are personally meaningful, the Oral History Program explores subjects of cultural or historical significance through interviews, very often turning those stories into publications or exhibits that chronicle historic periods. “Having lost, with our state funding, the broader mandate to preserve state history, we’ll be focusing more on the local community in the years to come,” she says.
So while UNR will be co-sponsoring the StoryCorps visit, Barber says her department’s role will be more in the promotion of the visit and maintaining the desire to record oral histories, rather than assisting with the actual recordings. In conjunction with the visit, the Oral History Program will conduct a series of workshops about how to conduct and share your own oral history. They will take place during and after the StoryCorps visit; several two-hour workshops are already scheduled for April 17, May 1 and May 22.
“Every week we get calls from people who would like to record their stories, but we just don’t have the resources to do that,” says Barber, explaining that workshops will deal not only with the logistical issues of recording and equipment, but also with ideas for what to do with your recording once it’s done. “The StoryCorps visit seems to have brought together a lot of community members who care about the telling and recording of history, and their arrival has prompted discussions that we hope will continue long after they’ve left the building.”
David Stipech emphasizes that, from a local public radio perspective, their mission of giving back to community is even more important at this critical period in Northern Nevada’s history. “In a time when the economy is pulling us apart and we’re all circling our wagons, we’re working to do a better job of connecting people, to break barriers and get people pulling together. That’s one thing StoryCorps does—it shows that we’re not really all that different from each other.”