Transcript for Dave Isay — The Everyday Art of Listening

April 17, 2014

David Isay: I remember there was an article about Borges in the New Yorker maybe 20, 25 years ago. And the last line he said the soul is contained in the human voice. And I was like that’s it. (Laughs). And I’ve been saying it ever since.

[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

Krista Tippett, host: This hour I get to have a conversation about the art of listening, and the impact of stories, with one of my media comrades and heroes, David Isay. You may have heard snippets from StoryCorps, the project he founded, on NPR. But radio pieces are just the tip of the iceberg. As Dave sees it, the StoryCorps booth - settings where two people ask the questions they’ve always wanted to ask each other - these are sacred spaces. Listening, he’s learned, is an act of love. And eliciting and capturing our stories is a way of insisting that every life matters.


I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

David Isay is the creator and president of StoryCorps. This oral history project has collected over 50,000 stories from across the country, with an archive at the Library of Congress.

Ms. Tippett: I just want to say how happy I am that you’re doing this and I understand that you’re having to step outside your comfort zone. So I just want you to think of this like we’re in a StoryCorps booth, and it’s just a little bit longer than 40 minutes.

Mr. Isay: Right. I’m very happy to do this.

Ms. Tippett: OK. I was thinking...

Mr. Isay: You know, I mean, I really feel so grateful to the show.

Ms. Tippett: Well...

Mr. Isay: Because in so many ways your show gave me the language to articulate StoryCorps.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, gosh.

Mr. Isay: So, I mean, I feel like if you took everything I’ve ever listened to, and put it in one pile, and your show, I’ve gotten a thousand times more kind of wisdom and insight from your show than everything else combined.

Ms. Tippett: Well...

Mr. Isay: So, I’m very, very, very grateful.

Ms. Tippett: Well thank you. I feel like we have kindred, listening spaces, sacred spaces, the way…

Mr. Isay: We sure do.

Ms. Tippett: ...you sometimes talk about what happened. So, this is exciting. And I really do also, I mean, I’ve been looking forward to this as, you know, I do a conversation and not just an interview, and so, you know, just to have this chance to talk to you about listening...

Mr. Isay: Sure.

Ms. Tippett: ...and so, let’s just plunge in. But I think you probably know this, that I always open with asking about the religious or spiritual background, was there a religious or spiritual background to your childhood? And I actually don’t — I’ve been reading as much as I could about you and interviews you’ve given, but I haven’t actually seen any reference to that, I don’t think.

Mr. Isay: Yeah, I, um, I went Hebrew school when I was a kid. And you know, I didn’t connect at all. And I think I’m culturally Jewish, and I went to a Friends school for high school, you know, and maybe a little more spiritually Quaker.  

Ms. Tippett: That’s interesting that you went to a Friends school, because that is a spiritual tradition of listening, really. I mean, that makes sense. And then…

Mr. Isay: Yeah, and I think, when I was there, I didn’t appreciate silent meeting as all, you know, I think most teenagers roll their eyes. But, you know, as I got older, I ended up — when I got married, going back with my wife and finding it very useful, and it’s just kind of my speed and my style.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And, then, I mean you definitely belong to a lineage of listeners of different kinds, right? Your father was a psychiatrist, your grandmother was an advice columnist.

Mr. Isay: Yes, she was.

Mr. Isay: You did do your homework. (Laughs)

Ms. Tippett: (Laughs) Yeah, right. It seems like, again, whether you were very aware of that or not, you were kind of soaking that up, I think, as a child.

Mr. Isay: Yeah, you know, and I also think, you know, I was not a particularly happy kid, and I always felt a little bit uncomfortable around kids my age. And liked to spend time with older people and kind of listen to them. And that was just my thing. A little bit weird, but there you go.

Ms. Tippett: All right, so there’s that story you’ve told that when you were 12 after a Thanksgiving meal, you interviewed your grandmother and her sisters.

Mr. Isay: Yes. I did. We had a tape recorder around the house, because my dad was a psychiatrist. And I guess he taped some sessions. I don’t know. There was — for some reason, he had a tape recorder. This was ancient history.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And it was Thanksgiving, and my grandparents were there. And I asked them to do interviews. I had a grandmother, as you said, who was an advice columnist at the New York Post for 50 years, and she had these sisters. They were all huge characters. I had an Aunt Bertie who was a complete nut. She insisted that she had invented fruit salad. And, well, she was just — I can’t even go into some of the other stuff. It’s not appropriate for radio. But she, you know, they were these wild characters, one more so than the next. And I brought them in to do a interview with them this Thanksgiving, and I, you know, I didn’t know what I was I doing, and I was probably kind of giggling during the interview and whatever. But I had their voices on tape. And then, you know, in successive years, when I was 13, 14, 15, that whole generation began to die off. And when I was in my 20s, I went looking for that tape. And couldn’t find it. And, I still look for that tape.

My father’s passed away, but his husband tells me to please stop bothering him about it. And, my mom also is not happy with me asking about the tape. And that’s partly, you know, with StoryCorps, every interview that we do goes to the Library of Congress, which means it’s safe as it can possibly be. So, you’re great-great-great-great-great-grandkids will get to, you know, listen to this interview. So that’s partly in response to kind of the dumb move of me losing this tape, because it’s the only record of these folks’ voices.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and I think, I mean, I have those, there are those cassettes in my life, too, right?

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: That have gone missing, that you remember.

Mr. Isay: Yep. And, but this is an important one. (Laughs) My grandparents, like, loomed very large, you know. And I, you know, to me, I think you probably feel the same way. To me, the soul is kind of contained in the voice. So there’s just something very powerful about having that, you know, record of someone.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. But, you know, that idea that the soul is contained in the voice, I mean, do you have any kind of recollection of when you started to think about it that way?

Mr. Isay: Yeah, you know, I think, I was telling you before we went on the air that I tend to just kind of write down stuff that other people say. I’m a very linear thinker. And, I guess I’m a good collector of other people’s deep thoughts.  But I remember there was an article about Borges in the New Yorker maybe 20, 25 years ago. And in the last line he said, the soul is, you know, that the soul is contained in the human voice. And I was like that’s it. (Laughs). And I’ve been saying it ever since.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I have to say I agree with you, and it’s kind of — it’s a mysterious thing. It’s actually hard to break down any more than that, isn’t it? It’s just an experience you have.

Mr. Isay: It is, you know, I was talking about my dad a little while ago, and I lost him very suddenly about a year and a half ago. And, I had done a StoryCorps interview with him, but hadn’t really given it much thought. And he got diagnosed with cancer. He was perfectly healthy, working full time as a psychiatrist. And got sick, and he was dead nine or ten days later. And that night, you know, I listened to my StoryCorps interview with him for the first time, and I remember doing it and not thinking that there was anything particularly special about it. But then you listen to it and this is, I mean, it’s him. You know, and it’s your only way that my — I have two young kids. It’s the only way that they’re going to get to know my dad. There was actually — it was interesting, because I always — I feel that this is like kind of the vagaries of memory, and it’s kind of a side point, but when my dad was — he was a gay rights activist, and really a magnificent man. And very, very important to me. And I remember that I asked him when we were in the StoryCorps interview, what are you proudest of in life? And my memory of that was that he said the books I’ve written. And I always teased him. I said, dad we’ve done, whatever, 10,000, 20,000, as time went on, 50,000 interviews, and everybody says their kids. And you, the one person, you said, my books. And then, you know, the night — and I mean I just endlessly went after him, and the night he died, I listened to the interview, and I said, what are you proudest of? And he said my kids.

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Mr. Isay: Yep.

Ms. Tippett: Was that exchange even in there? Like what you remember? You just didn’t remember it?

Mr. Isay: Yes, and then he said, I’m also proud of my books.

Ms. Tippett: Interesting.

Mr. Isay: But that’s how memory works. You know, you kind of hold onto these images of people. And I guess there’s something about the way these interviews, the 40 minute StoryCorps interviews are structured...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: ...that it’s almost, I guess in some ways, we think of it as if you had 40 minutes left to live, what would you want to say to someone else? What would you want to learn about them? And in some ways, I think it’s maybe the best way to sum up who someone is in 40 minutes, although that’s a very difficult thing to do. But we have everything going for us, because it’s the voice, and it’s intimate.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And it’s honest, you know. I think of it as kind of the opposite of reality TV. You know, no one comes to get rich, no one comes to get famous, it’s just about — it’s about generosity and love.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. So, we’ll keep talking about all of that. I do want to note that you first got into creating documentaries, when you were, what, right in your early 20s, is that right?

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: ...at the beginning of your...

Mr. Isay: Yeah, radio documentaries.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: Right out of college.

Ms. Tippett: Which, on the surface, sounds different, but then when I really, really look at all the things you did, I think most, if not all, of your documentaries start with you handing the cassette recorder to other people.

Mr. Isay: Right.

Ms. Tippett: Who then — right? And so the documentary, it’s takes this form. And your first one, you know, started with one story, one couple, and a tape recorder, in 1987.

Mr. Isay: Right. Right. Do you want me to tell that?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, tell that story.

Mr. Isay: Sure. I mean, I was lucky to find my calling when I was a kid. And  I was actually heading to medical school to be part of this long line of psychiatrists in my family. And I actually took a year off to tutor and started a job tutoring kids at my school in science stuff, which I was pretty good at. And then one day, I was walking around the East Village where I lived, and I saw this window that caught my eye. It was a little storefront. And it was a 12-step recovery store with books and different stuff. And there was art in the window from this couple who ran it. And I started talking to them, and they were remarkable.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Isay: So this couple was — this was 1987, I think, maybe early ’88. And they started talking to me, and they said that they were both former transit workers, and they both had AIDS. He had been an IV drug user. And...

Ms. Tippett: And this is when AIDS was a death sentence.

Mr. Isay: That’s right. And they took me to the back of the store and said we want to show you something. And they’d created this kind of tongue-depressor model of this museum to addiction. And they started unrolling these blueprints of what was going to be on every floor of this Museum of Addiction. Again, just like the windows, just beautifully done in such incredible detail. And they told me that they were convinced that they were going to open this museum before they died. And that they were intent on doing that. And then pulled out a book that they had, a binder book, with — they had written to Donald Trump and everybody else, asking for money. And clearly they were form rejection letters, but in those form rejection letters, they saw hope. And I was just, you know, it just was this courage of conviction, like, just these incredible, beautiful people. And I went home. And this was the day when they had something called Yellow Pages. And I started going through the Yellow Pages and calling all the TV stations. I’d never heard of public radio. And they all said, no. And then I started calling all the radio stations, and I got to the local community station here, WBAI, and the news director, whose name is Amy Goodman, who’s now well-known for...

Ms. Tippett: Democracy Now.

Mr. Isay: ...a radio show called Democracy Now, right.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: She said, that sounds like a great story, but, you know, we don’t have anyone to do it. Why don’t you do it? So, I borrowed a tape recorder, and I went to them. And I really did have this moment where you know, when I sat down with the tape recorder and pushed, you know, back then it was play and record at the same time to record something.

Ms. Tippett: (Laughs) Yeah, right.

Mr. Isay: And started talking to them, I said, this — at that moment, I knew that’s what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. I was so, so...

Ms. Tippett: You were going to be pushing play and record and whatever form that continued to take, yeah.

Mr. Isay: ...lucky, at such a young age, forever, yep. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: Until they — even in the box, when they put me away, like play and record was my destiny and my fate.

[Music: “Guitar II” by The Kallikak Family]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with StoryCorps founder David Isay -  exploring his passion for collecting the voices of ordinary people.

Ms. Tippett: You did a documentary called Stonewall Remembered.

Mr. Isay: Right. Remembering Stonewall.

Ms. Tippett: Which — Remembering Stonewall, which was not autobiographical strictly, but really was kind of tracing part of your story in a way. Right?

Mr. Isay: No, for sure...

Ms. Tippett: Part of your story...

Mr. Isay: I mean, this was — this was the first...

Ms. Tippett: ...and your father’s story.

Mr. Isay: Yeah, I mean, I did — this was the first thing that I — the first documentary I actually ever did. And this was just months after the story I just told about the couple.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, I didn’t realize that was the first one.

Mr. Isay: Oh yeah. No, and this was — it was just about the same time that I had met the couple that I had discovered that my dad was gay. And...

Ms. Tippett: And you were — so you were in your early 20s and you hadn’t known before.

Mr. Isay: 21 or 22, no.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: No, I mean he was...

Ms. Tippett: And your parents were married, right?

Mr. Isay: ... they were. Yeah, and I knew that he was, you know, an activist, and talked about  gay rights, and I had just assumed that this was part of, you know,he was always someone who fought for kind of the underdogs and was very intent on making sure that everybody was treated with dignity. So I thought that was just kind of part of that. And it really didn’t occur to me that he was gay. Um, but I did find out by accident that year. Just probably around the same month that I did that recording. And, I was, you know, it was hard for me, because it was a really — kind of shook everything.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it shakes the foundations of what you — of your family identity.

Mr. Isay: Yeah. I’m not big on secrets, and holding secrets and all that stuff, as you can probably guess...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: ...from the work. So my dad mentioned to me, he mentioned Stonewall. And I kind of looked into it. And I’d never heard of it, and it was the riot that happened in late June of 1969 where at this bar, the Stonewall Inn, there was a riot. And it was the first time that gays and lesbians were, you know, mentioned in the paper. And it was just this — it was one of those, you know, it was the Rosa Parks moment. It was just one of these seminal moments where everything comes together and focuses at this one place, and this one time. And I took my tape recorder and did this documentary, and dedicated it to my dad, and you know, that was through that documentary, you know, I was able to find healing, you know, and open a conversation back up with my dad, which continued up until he died.

Ms. Tippett: So, you did your documentaries for, what, maybe 10 years, and then you started StoryCorps.

Mr. Isay: More than that.

Ms. Tippett: More than that?

Mr. Isay: Yeah, 15 years.

Ms. Tippett: 15 years. Wow, you started so young. And then —

Mr. Isay: And now I’m so old. (Laughs)

Ms. Tippett: No (laughs). You’re still young. And then you started StoryCorps, I believe, in 2003. Is that right?

Mr. Isay: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: And, so tell me how would you start to say what you had learned about listening that made you want to create StoryCorps.

Mr. Isay: Well, I thought of, and still think of StoryCorps as kind of the — it’s kind of the opposite of the documentary work that I used to do. And I did a lot of stories that were in places in places where people’s voices weren’t heard.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And I’d come to believe that the — for these folks, the act of being listened to was far more important than being in the documentary itself. And, could be transformative in people’s lives, because no one had actually ever listened to them. And, so the idea of StoryCorps was to take documentary and turn it on its head and say what this is about, and it is what it’s about, and continues to be about, is giving the people the chance to have these conversations, and be listened to. And in that act of sitting with a loved one, and being asked who are you, and what have you learned in life, and how do you want to be remembered, being reminded how much their lives matter. You know, it’s a very simple idea. But one thing I knew had to happen, both for the archival piece, because of what I was talking about with the tape that I had lost...

Ms. Tippett: You were — those tapes would never be lost.

Mr. Isay: Right. The fact that this goes to the Library of Congress tells people that their story is important enough to be part of American history.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Isay: And I hear all the time, every day, from people saying that the 40 minutes they spent in one of our booths is, you know, among the most important 40 minutes of their lives, which is something I hadn’t expected, but I guess I’m not terribly surprised.

Ms. Tippett: Right. So...

Mr. Isay: Have you done a StoryCorps interview, Krista?

Ms. Tippett: I have not. (Laughs).

Mr. Isay: OK, well, we’ve got to get you in the booth...

Ms. Tippett: OK, we’ll do it. We will.

Mr. Isay: OK.

Ms. Tippett: I can’t say no now, can I? So, I don’t just — I was going to say I sense, but I don’t just sense it, I know it. Like because I’m out in the world talking. People are so hungry for the knowledge of how to create these spaces, right, to create spaces for listening.

Mr. Isay: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And for even hearing their own voices. So, I just want to break it apart a little bit.

Mr. Isay: Sure.

Ms. Tippett: You know, you’ve said, when you’re in the StoryCorps booth, you’re in this sacred space. That’s a big way to start. But, I mean, tell me what makes it sacred.

Mr. Isay: Well, it’s interesting, because I had a couple of theories based on the hundreds, maybe thousand interviews that I’d done. And one was that you needed the sacred space to do the interview in. So, you know, we created this booth that — where the lights are low, and you well know what happens when you walk into a recording studio. There’s this kind of sucking sound when the door shuts and...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: ...you’re in complete silence.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And, so we built our booths that way, to be these very, you know, kind of peaceful, comfortable places. And then the other theory was that we needed to have this experience you needed a facilitator present. And...

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Isay: ...these facilitators, are these people who work for StoryCorps, and they call it bearing witness to these interviews.  

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And a couple years into the project, we realized that we could — that the facilitators could set up equipment in any quiet room anywhere, and people would essentially have the same experience. So the actual physical space turned out not to be as important as I thought, but the presence of a facilitator, who are hired because they’re great listeners, was and remains very, very important to the experience.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, so I wanted to ask you about that role of the facilitator, and reason I think it’s important to describe it, is that, you know, when a lot of people imagine a facilitated conversation, they imagine that person really leading the conversation, structuring it, right?

Mr. Isay: Oh, that’s interesting. I never thought of that.

Ms. Tippett: Intervening. But I think it’s so, I mean, to me, it says it all when you say that they are bearing witness. And so there’s...

Mr. Isay: Yeah, well, they say that. That’s how they describe...

Ms. Tippett: ...a human dynamic then. In a way, Dave, even though these conversations are so intimate, like unbelievably intimate, between people who’ve maybe known each other all their lives, it adds a communal dimension. Right?

Mr. Isay: You’re absolutely right. Many times you’ll have someone and their parent in the booth, and there might be some kind of a, you know, stress in their relationship. And when they’re asking a story and the parent will say, I’ve told that story before. But then they turn to the facilitator. And  the facilitator kind of becomes the ears of the world. And that person in the booth realizes that and just begins to open up and speak. So, there’s something about those three people in the booth that’s just perfect, you know.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And so, we’re not going to mess with it.

Ms. Tippett: And 40 minutes, is there a magic about 40 minutes?

Mr. Isay: Nope. I mean, I don’t know. Different people have different theories about interviewing. But I always found that the best material happened when people were able to focus. And, you know, when I did these interviews when I was making documentaries, I mean, I think you know this feeling. It’s just this very, very intense listening. It’s almost like there’s like a laser beam between my eyes and the person who I’m interviewing’s eyes. And I almost want to put my hands on their shoulders as we’re talking. It’s kind of a lock-in kind of experience.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And the energy is so intense, that it runs out pretty quick. So, we picked 40 because we run on the hour, and it’s 10 minutes to get ready for the interview and 10 minutes to cool down.

Ms. Tippett: So, yeah, but it’s important...

Mr. Isay: And again, that kind of works.

Ms. Tippett: ...to have that structure. Yeah.

Mr. Isay: Yeah. So it’s a better structure, and it works. And, the facilitators will always say, start by asking that question that you’ve always wanted to ask, cause the time goes by so quickly. So, they become these, you know, very intense conversations from beginning to end and people are pretty spent by the end.

Ms. Tippett: You know, that’s interesting, because I do something that when I first started, you know, in public radio, they told me you can’t do this, right? I do 60 to 90 minutes. And I think what happens is that a real conversation fills the space it’s given, right? And I often find that the thing builds and builds, and you kind of have to make a commitment sometimes in our show for the first 10 or 20 minutes, because then the conversation really gets going, and you can imagine this. We’ve had editors come in who say, just start there. Right. Like start in the middle.

Mr. Isay: Right.

Ms. Tippett: Where the thing is — where you’ve got this peak moment. But, you know, I say that’s not how a conversation works. You get to that moment.

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And you can’t — it’s not fair to the listener or the conversation to not let it build. But it’s a different dynamic.

Mr. Isay: And I think, I mean, I think that when you’re in the 60 to 90 minute range, you’re in the same range of 40. I mean, those are not long interviews, when you’re talking to someone about their entire life.

Ms. Tippett: The sweep of their life, right. Right. Right.

Mr. Isay: And, you know, I think the difference with the StoryCorps interviews is that in many cases these two people who, you know, know this other person better than anyone else in the world. So they can start at that spot.

Ms. Tippett: And then you have no — also no video in the booth, right?

Mr. Isay: Nope. Never will.

Ms. Tippett: So tell me in your words why that’s important.

Mr. Isay: You know, it goes back to a bunch of things we’ve been talking about. I mean, the voice, to me, you know, the power of this thing is the voice. The lights are low. You don’t have to worry about what you look like. And video just wouldn’t add anything. We do a photograph of everybody at the end of the interview. But again, the way it’s set up is just, you know, it’s simple and perfect, so we don’t mess with it. When I started StoryCorps, I actually didn’t know if we’d have stories for the radio. And I didn’t care that much. I thought that if did have stories, they’d start repeating, because there are only so many conversations a grandkid could have with a...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: ...grandparent. But, it turns out that they don’t repeat, except that, you know, they all are in some ways about the great themes of human existence. But...

Ms. Tippett: Right, I heard you say birth, life, and death is one (laughs).

Mr. Isay: yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: Comes down to.

Mr. Isay: All of them.

[Music: “Hill of Our Home” by Psapp]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with David Isay through our website, onbeing.org.


I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.


[Music: “Hill of Our Home” by Psapp]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being - today with David Isay, the creator of StoryCorps. We’re talking about our shared love of listening and the importance of creating spaces to tell our stories to each other.


You may have heard StoryCorps vignettes on NPR - short edited versions of 40 minute conversations between two people who know each other intimately. This oral history project travels the country and has collected over 50,000 stories, with an archive at the Library of Congress.

Ms. Tippett: One criticism sometimes of StoryCorps on NPR, you know, of the radio pieces, is that they’re kind of emotionally manipulative. I mean, they just take you into this deep dive of, you know, (laughs) that makes you cry.

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: In a number of seconds. And...

Mr. Isay: Yeah, I don’t, you know, I don’t think of it that way. I mean, I think what’s happening, I hope, is that when people hear these stories, they’re walking in the footsteps of someone who they, almost by definition, they thought was very different than themselves, but I think that, you know, these are — sorry. That was a telephone on, unexcusable.

Ms. Tippett: (Laughs).

Mr. Isay: I thought I had turned that off. Hold on, let me try this again.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Isay: So...

Ms. Tippett: I forgive you.

Mr. Isay: Thank you. So...

Ms. Tippett: Because you said your — the StoryCorps booth is like a confessional and I’m...

Mr. Isay: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: ...you’re absolved of your sin here.

Mr. Isay: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Isay: I don’t — I think there’s nothing about these — you’re not watching these people from the outside. And I think that most of them aren’t sad. People get emotional when they hear StoryCorps stories, and from what I can tell it’s because they’re authentic, when we’re surrounded by so much stuff that’s not. And, you know, they’re generous, and you’re hearing about regular people living lives of generosity and often courage and decency. And you’re kind of showing us this path and when you hear those kinds of stories, you’re kind of walking on holy ground. And I think that’s why people get emotional when they hear them. And I think that for some people, getting emotional makes them uncomfortable. And...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: ...the criticism may come from there.

Ms. Tippett: I guess what also occurred to me when I was getting ready to talk to you, is that what you can’t do in boiling even 40 minutes down, I mean, 40 minutes is not a long time, but in your story, you talked about secrets, right? And every family has secrets.

Mr. Isay: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And, secrets are painful and your mother has actually written a lot about this. I mean, she works with this. And so what we all know is that if you sat down for 40 minutes and had a true conversation about birth, life, and death with the people you know best, there are going to be hard things in that 40 minutes, also, possibly redemptive at the same time.

Mr. Isay: Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, I think that’s what you do. You create a space in which the hardness and the redemption are there together, but I just...

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I think maybe that is what cannot be condensed into two minutes, or three minutes, or five minutes. And so...

Mr. Isay: What, you know, as you’re speaking, it reminds me of something, you know, I’ve taken a lot from the different people you’ve had on your show. And I always — I carry around me whenever I give a speech a little, like, thing that I read beforehand that kind of reminds me about what it is, and why we’re doing it. And one of the people on your show, I don’t — I think it might have been Rachel Naomi...

Ms. Tippett: Oh, Rachel Remen, yes.

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Listening generously.

Mr. Isay: Yep. She said that the keepers of wisdom in our culture are the people who’ve experienced the most difficult things in their lives. And the view from the edge of life is much clearer than the view that most of us have. And you know, I think that we’re in the kind of wisdom business. And what we’re trying to do every week is let people learn from someone else about the lessons they’ve learned in life. And a lot of times, it comes out of, you know, difficult circumstances.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Yeah. You make this equation, listening is an act of love. And I just wondered if you’d talk about that a little bit.

Mr. Isay: Yeah, I mean, I think that sitting and being present with someone, and asking them important questions is something that doesn’t happen that often during the course of day to day life. And is one of the most profound and powerful ways we have to tell someone else how much we love them. Just asking them who they are and what they’ve learned in life. And how they want to be remembered. It’s just, you know, I always find, I do maybe one or two StoryCorps interviews every year. And it’s always, you know, in the middle of like this crazy day, and I’m like I really don’t want to do this. And it’s usually a staff member who’s been with us for, you know, five, or six, seven, eight, nine years, who’s leaving. And then I’ll go and sit with this person, and it’s like time stops. You know. And it’s one of the most remarkable and kind of nourishing experiences that I know of. In many ways, I think, StoryCorps is about mortality. And I was with Ira Byock earlier this week, who was, I think he was just repeated on your show very recently.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, we had him on the show. He’s a physician who works with people who are dying, and.

Mr. Isay: And, you know, in many ways he talks about the four things you say to someone, which are thank you, I love you, forgive me, I forgive you. And that’s something that he talks about as being conversation people want to have before you die.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. Isay: And in some ways, I think what’s happening in StoryCorps is that you have the opportunity to have that conversation, you know, now. I mean, we’re all dying, I guess.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right. Right.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I don’t know if you experience this, too. I said this a minute ago a little bit but I’ll, you know, I’ll say it again. I feel like there’s this — it’s kind of like we’re remembering that we’re listening creatures. But the way we set up our culture in the last period, you know, it doesn’t actually make space. You know, that listening is kind of an everyday art, and it’s a social technology. But we have to — we almost have to put lofty language around it like that (laughs) to, you know, you have to create StoryCorps, right? I don’t know, I’m not really asking a question, I’m just thinking out loud.

Mr. Isay: No, but I mean, I don’t know, it makes me think all of us are capable of this. I had thought that with StoryCorps, I had wondered whether people on the interviewing side were going to be able to do it. And everybody is able to do it. And, you know, StoryCorps was created the same year as Facebook. And in some ways, it’s...

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK.

Mr. Isay: And I do, you know, think that there’s something I can’t put my finger on. We’ve kind of been talking about this earlier, but I think listening to these stories or participating, that I don’t know, it brings you in. And it’s not an observing thing. It’s like a deep kind of connection thing. And I find, sometimes, with some of the technology stuff, and I’m, you know, thank God for technology, StoryCorps couldn’t happen without it. But I — there’s like a remove and an observing thing as opposed to a connecting thing. And listening carefully, and you know, people will ask, especially when I used to do documentaries, how do you get people to open up? Whether I was in prisons or whatever, and I’d say just be genuinely curious, don’t be a jerk, and you know, just really listen closely to someone, and you know, remarkable things are going to happen.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: I was talking to — there’s a great writer, Alex Kotlowitz, who I was talking to recently, and we were talking about, we’re doing stuff with post-9/11 veterans. And, we’re talking about this kind of experience of when you’re talking to folks who have served, and folks in all circumstances, you know, someone will tell this amazing story and then, you know, you say, have you ever told that story before? Answer’s no. And then, you know, why not? Well, no one’s ever asked.

[Music: “City of Lights” by Languis]

Ms. Tippett: Is there an opening question? Doesn’t StoryCorps have a list of suggested questions? Or is there a...

Mr. Isay: Right. Yes, so we have...

Ms. Tippett: ...is there a way to begin?

Mr. Isay: ...the 10 most popular questions.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And then we have like many, many others that people can choose from, depending on who they’re interviewing. And also, you know, fill in the blanks that people can ask. And, you know, the 10 most popular questions are, you know, big life questions that we talked about before. You know, how do you want to be remembered? And that sort of stuff. And again, it goes back to this idea that the microphone gives you the license to have these conversations that you don’t normally get to have.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and also as...

Mr. Isay: So people jump in with difficult questions.

Ms. Tippett: ...that you have people together who already have an intimate bond and...

Mr. Isay: Right.

Ms. Tippett: ...so they don’t have to get there. So they can — you can really plunge into those questions. I mean, can I ask you, when you interviewed your father, what questions you brought...

Mr. Isay: Sure.

Ms. Tippett: ...into that? The things you’d wanted to ask?

Mr. Isay: Yeah, no, I mean, I think I spent a lot of time talking about his childhood. Because that was something he told us about a lot when we were growing up. And I wanted to find out some stuff about who his parents were, and try and get that down. And then, you know, some of the bigger questions, like, the how do you want to be remembered sort of questions, as well.

Ms. Tippett:People ask me why I always start with this — some version of the question about the spiritual or religious background of someone’s childhood.

Mr. Isay: Right. It’s funny, I never — I listen to the show, and I never realized that.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, well, you don’t always hear it, because...

Mr. Isay: I guess you do. You include it on every show?

Ms. Tippett: Well, we have...

Mr. Isay: No.

Ms. Tippett: You know what? Interestingly, this is one of the things in the beginning, I didn’t feel like NPR to me, do you know (laughs), right? So we used to edit it. You used to not hear it. And the thing is, it is absolutely true, that everyone has an interesting story in response to that question, even a cradle atheist, right, has a great story to tell about the spiritual background of their childhood.

Mr. Isay: Right.

Ms. Tippett: But, the real reason for me that the question is essential is that — where it plants people in themselves.

Mr. Isay: That’s right. Yep.

Ms. Tippett: And so, I don’t have that shared experience with somebody I’m talking to. But it opens them up in a place that’s softer, and more searching. And then it makes other things possible later.

Mr. Isay: Yeah, I mean, I think people have their set pieces...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right.

Mr. Isay: ...and I — probably no one has ever been asked before about their, you know, religious background growing up, so immediately, you’re throwing them out of that whatever it is, like the skip on the record player that they’re used to telling the same stories over and over again.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. So, Dave, you know, I just want to say to you, since here we are, in this conversation that you may or may not remember this, but you came to American Public Media when I was just starting my show, you know, in 2003. And, I don’t even think it was a weekly show yet, and I know you’d never heard of me, and I asked to see you. I asked to meet you, because you were in the building. And you so generously agreed and you had no idea who I was, or what my work was. But  I think I told you that I felt like you were a role model, that your approach to listening was so kindred to me. And it just occurred to me as I was getting ready to talk to you, and I’m reading about, that you actually listened to me at a moment when I say most of the people in our industry were just not ready, or interested, in — and, you know, also what I was doing wasn’t good yet. You know, I had to learn what I was doing. So, I just — I want to thank you for that, actually.

Mr. Isay: Well, thank you. I mean, that’s one of the things about a StoryCorps interview, which is — I love, is that often at the end of the interviews, the person doing the asking the questions we suggest they might want to turn the tables and thank the person that they’re interviewing for the influence they’ve had on their lives. So I told you before we turned on the tape that, you know, On Being and, you know, Speaking of Faith before that, have had a profound influence on helping me articulate and understand what we’re trying to do with StoryCorps. You know, sometimes, we live — what we’re doing is a little bit out of sync with the pop culture, right?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And it’s easy to get kind of psyched out and say like, what are we doing? You know, what are we doing here?

Ms. Tippett: You know, I think that out-of-sync-ness feels important to me to dwell with. I mean, just a minute ago, you — I love this, that StoryCorps started the same year as Facebook. And, I also think that when I talk about how there’s kind of a cultural awakening in this sphere, you know, there are a lot of related phenomenon, although many of them are quite different. I mean, Facebook is related in a way. You know, we are reaching out to each other. You know, TedTalks. Right? But, the growth of those things is spurred by some of the same impulses that we are actually of interest to each other. But those things don’t require the commitment. You’ve said before, you know, what I’m looking for is poetry on the margins. And you know, poetry hurts a little bit going in. Marie Howe, the poet, said that to me. It’s like something we crave, and yet we have to kind of steel ourselves to take it in.

Mr. Isay: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And so, and I think, you know, wonderful things have always happened on the margins of human history. So I just think, kind of naming the fact that this listening — listening as an act of love is so much more than being quiet while the other person speaks.

Mr. Isay: Yeah. No, it’s true. And it is out of sync. You know, I was just looking at you had, I think it might have been a couple of weeks ago, Walter Brueggemann...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: ...who said our culture is organized against history. There’s a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: And, you know when you talk about the criticisms of StoryCorps, and I don’t get too many of them, but again, I feel like, you know, it’s a little out of step with the culture, but this is what we should be doing. We’ve just got to keep going, keep going. And I’m sure you’ve had that feeling, as well.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Absolutely. I wondered if you’ve ever heard this quote of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Do you know who he is? He was a mid...

Mr. Isay: Oh yeah of course.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah the German — he was a German theologian. He died in a Nazi prison. Have you ever heard him on listening from his book Life Together?

Mr. Isay: No, but I’m going to have to write this down.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, well, and I can send it to you. But I love, love, love, love this quote. It’s like one of my favorite — it’s my favorite words in the annals of theology on listening. And then I just said, how exciting, how fun it would be to read it to you. So I’m just going to read you parts of it. It’s kind of a long section, but, some of my favorite lines. And Bonhoeffer thought so hard and deeply about, you know, this was his book Life Together, about Christian community, about human community.

So he says, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His word, but also lends us His ear. He says, Christians especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something, when they’re in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life.” Isn’t that great stuff?

Mr. Isay: Beautiful. Beautiful. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Isay: You know that time we met, and I do remember that, you told me, you said I think you should read — and I guess that I might have just been starting to create StoryCorps. You said you should read Parker Palmer.

Ms. Tippett: Yes. The Quaker author. Right.

Mr. Isay: Yep, which I did. And that was an influence, as well. You know I think of — there’s that quote — and again, I don’t know if this is an apocryphal story or not, but there’s a story about Dan Rather interviewing Mother Theresa. And he asked her what she said during her prayers. And she said: “I listen.” And, Rather then said, well, then what does God say to you? And she said, “He listens.”

Ms. Tippett: Really? I’m so glad you told me that. I’ve never heard that before.

Mr. Isay: There’s one quote I can give back to you.

[Music: “Merlion” by Emancipator]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with my fellow listener,  StoryCorps founder David Isay.

Ms. Tippett: And that title of Parker Palmer’s book, this little book, Let Your Life Speak.

Mr. Isay: Yep.

Ms. Tippett: ...also, you know, could be a — it could be like a mission statement for you or me, in a way.

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, to say that StoryCorps, that this work of listening is about every life mattering.  And I know it’s obvious to you. And I know you’re living it. It’s just not actually a sentence that, when you say it, I think everybody who’s listening is, oh yeah. It makes sense. It’s something we may know, but we don’t know how to articulate, um, or live.

Mr. Isay: That’s it. That’s StoryCorps in a nutshell. Every life matters. But you know, the funny thing is that other than interviewing people, I can be a really terrible listener.

Ms. Tippett: (Laughs) Really?

Mr. Isay: I mean, the worst.

Ms. Tippett: OK, this is...

Mr. Isay: I’m impatient.

Ms. Tippett: ...this is the confessional aspect of our StoryCorps, of our booth experience here.

Mr. Isay: Yeah, I am just a terrible listener.

Ms. Tippett: Are you really?

Mr. Isay: But — yes. But...

Ms. Tippett: Would your children say that?

Mr. Isay: No. No.

Ms. Tippett: (Laughs)

Mr. Isay: But my wife would.

Ms. Tippett: (Laughs)

Mr. Isay: (Laughs) And the people who, you know, at times I can be a great listener, but you know, it takes a lot of focus and energy, and you know, all of us have our moments. You know, and I don’t — I’m impatient. But again, what StoryCorps does is it forces you back into the space where you can kind of find your highest self.

Ms. Tippett: This is probably why it’s another very simple reason that listening is not something that we do all the time. It’s work. It’s a commitment. And I, you know, but again, I, you know, to all the people out there who I run into say, you know, we want to make room for listening. It’s something that we have to start practicing more, right?

Mr. Isay: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: It’s just something...

Mr. Isay: And it’s something you never — you just never regret.

Ms. Tippett: You never regret.

Mr. Isay: You know, it’s like, you know, all this — it’s, you know, when you’re talking about the kind of social media stuff and it’s nourishing as opposed to being depleting. And I find that there’s so much, out there, that we’re all addicted to in the kind of content and other stuff that we, you know, encounter. Or many of us are addicted to. There’s some lucky people who aren’t. But all that stuff just feels like it chips away at you a little bit, you know. And what I hope happens with StoryCorps and certainly happens with your show is that it’s additive as opposed to kind of taking something away, that it nourishes who you are.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. Right. And in a way, by creating structures, you know, creating a booth, or creating a project, or whatever else other people can create, you know, where they live, you kind of you send some courage out, right? For people to walk into that experience that they may want, but that requires something of us.

Mr. Isay: No, and it does take courage. You know, and you know, when we have booths in cities they’re always full, but there aren’t, you know, huge waiting lists. And when we have like a mobile booth that pulls into a town, we can have hundreds and hundreds, maybe more people on a waiting list two minutes after — two seconds after reservations open. And I think that’s because people know that this booth is only there for six weeks. And they’ve got to get in. And, that kind of creates this kind of tension as opposed to when something’s kind of in your town and it’s very easy to say, because you’re dealing with hard stuff, and you’re dealing with mortality, and you’re dealing with connection, it’s easy to say, I can do it next week. I can do it next week. I can do it next week. You know, so that’s something that — that’s something that we see.

Ms. Tippett: Well, are there tools, are there things you’ve learned through StoryCorps that do make you a better listener, even though you say you’re constitutionally not inclined that way?

Mr. Isay: That make me a better listener?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Or things, you know, tricks. Like if you ever catch yourself just being a human being and not the head of StoryCorps.

Mr. Isay: Yeah. No, I mean, you know when you’re listening carefully and when you’re not. You know, it’s that, I mean, we’ve kind of come back to this a couple of times. It’s like when you’re locked into another human being. Either you’re locked in or you’re not. You know and I was an equally bad listener before starting StoryCorps, but also did very, very intense interviews with people. So, no, so I haven’t — that hasn’t changed for me. You know, I think that what has changed, well, there are a couple of things. I mean, I think that what I’ve learned is I knew that being listened to was important to people, but I don’t think I understood how important it was. And how widespread it is that people feel like they’re not listened to and never heard, and have things that they want to say and leave behind. And, you know, I think StoryCorps itself has made me a much more hopeful person. It’s made me much more hopeful about people and you know, much more committed to the idea that we focus so much on what a very, very, very, very, very, very few people have to say. And that we would be such a better and stronger country if we kind of widened that out and listened to what the rest of us have to say and have learned in life.

Ms. Tippett: And do you find that the stories you hear as part of being part of StoryCorps, that they kind of work on you, in you, as you then live your life?

Mr. Isay: Oh, yeah, totally. I mean, you know, I get the question a lot, like, how come you don’t spend all day crying? You know. And I don’t spend all day crying. But I’ve learned a lot of things. I mean, from listening to these interviews that I carry around with me all the time. I mean, I think of — there’s an interview with a father who lost two kids on September 11th. And he talks about how the last words he said to his kids and the last words he heard were I love you and what kind of comfort that gives him. And you can bet that I say I love you many times every day. You know, I think that there are very, very simple lessons that run through these stories that have completely shaped my life and the way that I live it.

Ms. Tippett: Mmm, that’s wonderful. Well, Dave, you say that your gift is collecting other people’s deep thoughts and that’s certainly true, but you have so many deep thoughts of your own, and I’m really grateful to you for sitting down with me and I’m really excited to put this on the air.

Mr. Isay: Well, thank you. This was really — this was really fun.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Isay: I wrote a note to myself — I wrote, just surrender.

Ms. Tippett: Good.

Mr. Isay: On the copy.

Ms. Tippett: Good. (Laughs). OK, well you did — congratulations. I think you accomplished that.

[Music: “Black Wood Crimson” by Talkdemonic]

Ms. Tippett: David Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and the National Day of Listening.  His books include Listening is an Act of Love, All There Is and Ties That Bind.  


StoryCorps is partnering with the Berkeley Center at Georgetown on a new foray exploring Americans’ religious stories - the American Pilgrimage Project. StoryCorps’s archives are held at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

And here’s an excerpt David Isay edited and shared with us - from the StoryCorps interview he did with his late father, Richard Isay. It’s never been broadcast publicly before.

David Isay: What was the happiest moment of your life?

Richard Isay: When, I think I was about 11 years old and my mother came after me with a hairbrush and chased me around the bed and I held her arms and she couldn’t hit me anymore.

David Isay: Are you serious? Is that the happiest moment of your life?

Richard Isay: (Laughter)Yeah. I think I am happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. So it’s— happiness is a continuing process.

David Isay: What do you think is the most important thing that you’ve accomplished in your life? What are you proudest of?

Richard Isay: I’m very proud of you kids. I am very proud of the work I’ve done. And I am proud of being able to turn my life around and make it into a happy and good one.

David Isay: You think about dying?

Richard Isay: All the time.

David Isay: Are you scared of dying?

Richard Isay: No, I think about, well I don’t want to be infirm. I think about not having good times with Gordon anymore. It’s more an absence of that. You think I was a good father?

David Isay: I think you were a good father, you’re still a good father.

[Music: “Black Wood Crimson” by Talkdemonic]

Ms. Tippett: To listen again or share this conversation with David Isay, go to our website onbeing.org.

We are also happy to announce that there is now an On Being App — find it in the iTunes store, download it for free, and get every week’s episode as soon as it’s live. We’re going to refine and expand our app this coming year, and we will welcome your feedback and suggestions. And you can always follow everything we do through our weekly email newsletter. Just click the newsletter link on any page at onbeing.org.

[Music: “Walk In The Sky” by Bonobo]

Ms. Tippett: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, and Joshua Rae.

Voices on the Radio

is the founder of StoryCorps and the National Day of Listening. His books include Listening is an Act of Love, All There Is and Ties That Bind.