StoryCorps project records everyday people

June 13, 2006

 

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StoryCorpsWhat: Oral-history project recording interviews with regular Americans.

When: Thursday-through July 2. Times vary.

Admission: Free, but donations are requested; must have a reservation.

Where: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Oakland.

Details: 800-850-4456 or www.storycorps.net.

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By Michael Machosky
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, June 5, 2006

Who will remember you when you're gone?That's easy to answer if you're a president or a Beatle or Barry Bonds — but less so for the rest of us. Family and friends, of course. But what about 100 or 200 years in the future?

It's impossible to say with certainty. But if the StoryCorps project is successful, it may not be that hard to get to know distant ancestors fairly well.

StoryCorps, partnered with the Library of Congress and National Public Radio, wants to record the stories of everyday people all over America. The goal is to get at least 250,000 Americans throughout the next decade to sign up to interview a friend, parent or spouse in one of StoryCorps' soundproof recording booths.One of their two mobile booths — in a shiny silver Airstream trailer — is coming to Pittsburgh Thursday and staying through July 2 in front of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

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"It's a pretty powerful way of honoring someone, by saying 'Your story matters, and I want to preserve it,'" StoryCorps coordinator Matt Ozug says.In other parts of the country, Eric Givens interviewed his 100-year-old grandfather, Arthur Winston, about his work ethic. Winston worked for 72 years at the LA Metropolitan Transit Authority, missing only one day on the job. Friends Gregg Goins and Steve Nelms interviewed each other about their lives as fast-talking North Carolina tobacco auctioneers.

Alissa Magrum, of Austin, Texas, interviewed her life partner, Tammy Stanley, for the future benefit of their 1-year-old daughter, Ella.

"It turned out to be sort of humorous, because we had child care arranged to meet us there to watch the baby while we did our interview — but that person didn't show up in time," Magrum says. "So we had Ella in there with us in the tiny StoryCorps booth. She's a very verbal child, so you can hear her in our interview babbling away."

All recordings will be filed in the Library of Congress. Participants will take home one copy of the interview on CD, and, for the first time, a local library — the Carnegie — will get a copy for its archives.

Short StoryCorps segments from around the country can be heard between 5 and 9 a.m. Fridays during NPR's "Morning Edition," which airs locally on WDUQ-FM (90.5). WDUQ also will air additional selected local stories throughout the summer.

"We have no idea how valuable these recordings will be in the future," Ozug says. "Our touchstone is the recordings made in the '30s by the Works Progress Administration, which were incredibly valuable (to historians). And certainly, for the family, it's incredibly valuable to have someone's voice on tape.

"These stories of 'ordinary people' are so much more valuable and important (to historians) than the stories of celebrities — the Donald Trumps and Paris Hiltons that we're barraged with everyday," Ozug says.

Magrum simply wanted her daughter to know how much thought and care went into bringing her into the world.

"We wanted to be, on some level, a really great example of a same-sex couple starting a family in a very supportive environment," she says. "We both work; we have supportive family; we volunteer in the community; we mow our grass. Our child is surrounded by so much love — and that's not always the story that gets told."

The StoryCorps mobile recording booths are designed to shut off the outside world. Participants get to have a 40-minute conversation with no distractions — rare these days, given the pace of modern life.

"The idea is a pretty simple one," Ozug says. "Basically, the founder of StoryCorps had pioneered this form of citizen-recorded documentaries, where he would give the microphone over to the participants, and allow them to do a lot of the recording. He found there's a great power in giving a mike to somebody and allowing them to ask the questions they've always wanted to ask."

Of course, people can say whatever they want — StoryCorps doesn't have a staff large enough for rigorous fact-checking.

"No, there's no mechanism for checking," Ozug says. "In all honesty, you'd be lying to your daughter. Maybe there are some embellishments — stories get remembered differently than they actually occurred. But that's the case with any kind of history."

If you're nervous about how you'll react when the door shuts and the microphones click on, don't be, Ozug says.

"Often, grandma or grandpa says 'I don't have anything interesting to say,' or 'Oh, don't waste your time on me,'" Ozug says. "Then the door closes; the mikes go on; and 40 minutes later, they're holding on for dear life, and don't want it to end."

It costs the organizers about $200 to do each interview, so those who participate are asked to contribute at least $10, or more, if they can afford it. Reservations fill up quickly, so interested parties are advised to sign up as quickly as possible.

Great questions

• What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

• What are the most important lessons you've learned in life?

• How has your life been different from what you've imagined?

For friends

• What is your first memory of me?

• Was there a time when you didn't like me?

• Is there anything you've always wanted to tell me but haven't?

For grandparents

• What was your childhood like?

• What was my mom/dad like growing up?

• What's the worst thing she/he ever did?

• Do you remember any songs you used to sing to him/her? Can you sing them now?

For parents

• How did you choose my name?

• If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?

• What advice would you give me about raising my own kids?

Growing up

• What is your earliest memory?

• Did you have a nickname? How did you get it?

• How would you describe a perfect day when you were young?

School

• What kind of student were you?

• What would you do for fun?

• Are you still friends with anyone from that time in your life?

Love

• What was your first serious relationship?

• How did you meet your wife/husband?

Working

• Do you like your job?

• What did you want to be when you grew up?

• What lessons has your work life taught you?

Religion

• What role does religion play in your life?

• Have you experienced any miracles?

Source: StoryCorps

Michael Machosky can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7901.

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