StoryCorps' predictable plot
"Fat Cat" 2010 by ira upin
During this past month, StoryCorps -- a favorite feature on NPR -- celebrated its 10th anniversary. Its founding premise was simple: Put two friends or relatives into a cozy, private booth -- along with a microphone and a box of Kleenex -- and magic will happen.
Magic did happen, according to series creator and CEO David Avram Isay, as tens of thousands of ordinary people experienced an extraordinary emotional intimacy, thanks to this modest format.
The real magic, though, was in the bank account. Astonishingly, StoryCorps has evolved into a $10 million a year enterprise, with 140 employees. Your tax dollars make up a third of the budget, and foundations pay most of the rest. So why is Isay a full-time fund-raiser, with an expense account of over a million dollars?
In many respects, StoryCorps -- which portrays itself as a unique medium of heartfelt Truth -- has become an elaborate fiction.
StoryCorps famously began with one booth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City -- the appealing brainchild of a likable and tender-hearted man.
"StoryCorps grew out of a very simple idea: We wanted to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record their life stories," Isay told POV in a 2010 interview.
Isay has deftly perpetuated the image of StoryCorps as a humble celebration of the common man, even as the organization has become a narcissistic, slick, corporatized endeavor with manic energy and ambitions. Ideas for spinoffs and new ventures come pouring out of his high-energy staff. Let's do an LGBT initiative! And a military one, too! And one on Alzheimer's! Let's expand to foreign countries!
The original plan was that the project would last for 10 years, Isay admits. But this gig got too fantastic. It got too gratifying. It got too rich. It got too big to die!
Isay became a sort of folk hero -- the Johnny Appleseed of pathos.
More to the point, he got the entrepreneurial bug. When millions of dollars are pouring in, it's like the proverbial "taste of blood."
"I decided to devote the rest of my life to it," he said.
So now, "The dream is to turn this into a sustaining national institution," with no end in sight. On the contrary, the 10th anniversary marks "a new beginning," that will involve "vastly expanding our reach."
StoryCorps probably would have remained a worthy but minor phenomenon if Isay hadn't had connections at NPR, where he had earlier produced several successful programs. Isay, with his savvy promotional instincts, persuaded NPR to become StoryCorps "national broadcast partner" and to share some of its interviews with Morning Edition's millions of listeners (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-beggar-wears-prada-or-why-i-stopped.html .) This was a stroke of genius.
The segment became hugely popular, and was soon granted a weekly slot. The audience was ecstatic about the power of the interactions that StoryCorps had captured on tape. Host Steve Inskeep admitted just a couple of weeks ago that he can't listen to the interviews for fear of breaking into tears on the air. "So I turn the volume down," he says. He's so sensitive!
Even the ultra-cool Vanity Fair referred to StoryCorps as a "listen and weep" feature in an Oct. 31 post.
Given all the research I've done on this subject, I gather that people just love to cry. I enjoy being moved, but I don't appreciate being manipulated, which is what StoryCorps is all about.
When you get your weekly fix of StoryCorps on Morning Edition, you are hearing something that is neither authentic nor representative of what StoryCorps is accomplishing.
"Only a very small percentage of StoryCorps’ best interviews are edited and produced for broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition. Interviews are chosen through a long and thorough editorial process," according to a somewhat buried entry on StoryCorps' web site. "We work hard to pull out the poetry of the language. You could think of each of these stories like a poem of regular people and that's what we do while editing."
StoryCorps manufactures a Product that presents itself as Poignant Truth, but isn't quite. It's a version of truth that's as "real" as all the other reality shows out there, which is to say that it has an agenda (an artifice), and it's expertly paced and molded, to ensure maximum impact and great ratings. There is an aspect of distortion and tweaking here that I think needs to be acknowledged.
StoryCorps' most recent ad slogan on NPR has been "Life Reimagined," which is the most honest it's ever been about what it does with our stories. It reimagines them, which is essentially what fiction does. It presents them through its own prism. It doesn't trust them to stand on their own and speak for themselves. That might not be entertaining enough. We might not need Kleenex!
The stories that the organization claims to treasure so deeply have become the means, rather than the end -- the means for amassing greater wealth and esteem. But the official line belies this dynamic. Here it is, as told to the New York Daily News earlier this month.
"We've grown a lot in the last 10 years, but we still think we're at the very beginning of this thing," Isay said. "We're going to keep, every day, fighting that fight to get that authentic, real American story out there."
Noble! But out where? What is he talking about? Fighting what and whom? Calm down, David -- you're losing touch with reality again. That "hero" complex keeps rearing its metrosexual head. "We've been working like dogs!" he told Current.org earlier this year. Frankly, I doubt it. I bet they've been having a great time.
THE STORIES ARE "OUT THERE" ALL RIGHT
You have to go to the Library of Congress -- which really is "out there" for most of us -- to hear those "authentic" stories.
Does anyone do that?
Yes they do, according to the very gracious Judith Gray, reference specialist at the Library's American Folklife Center. "I'd guess that on average people come in every other week or so, so perhaps 100-125 people per year," she informed me via email. The greatest number are those who have recorded an interview and own a CD of it, but are motivated to experience it in the atmosphere of the venerable Library, she told me.
She added: "People do need to make listening appointments in advance, so that we can locate and download the relevant narratives for access in the reading room."
So it seems that there isn't exactly a stampede of fans making it to the only "out there" that has been provided by StoryCorps.
The archive could arguably be called a flop at this point, which makes sense. If you were in D.C., would you choose to put on headphones and listen to a bunch of 40-minute CD interviews? How would you choose from among the thousands that are in the archive? And don't forget that they would lack the power and punch of those expertly edited and "facilitated" segments you're accustomed to hearing on the radio.
Maybe the major value of this archive is that a bunch of people can say, "I'm in the Library of Congress!"
But at what cost are these stories being gathered and filed away, during a time when taxpayer and foundation dollars might be better spent on suffering people and terminally ill ecosystems?
"Some money also will go toward taking the first steps in putting StoryCorps interviews online," he added, so the general public will have access to them.
Taking the first steps? The entire process was supposed to have been completed in 2012, Isay told POV in 2010.
Why didn't it, since Isay has characterized it as vital to the project, sand has repeatedly claimed that he was "fighting" to get the stories "out there"? The Library of Congress associate said she had never been told of any plans to have the archives available anywhere else and urged me to be sure of my facts. I am sure.
FLUSH WITH FUNDS, PLEADING POVERTY
Despite its millions of dollars in the bank, StoryCorps closed the Foley Square booth in New York "due to funding challenges" in a budget year that reflected a surplus of $640,000, according to Charity Navigator's data. The Grand Central booth closed in 2008. There are no booths remaining in New York City, even though funding was received in the most recent budget year from Carnegie Corporation of New York, New York City Council, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York Community Trust, according to SC's annual report.
But lots of money is being allocated to exploring "new platforms and synergies." That sounds like an MBA talking, not a liberal-arts guy in the nonprofit sector. And StoryCorps is becoming "increasingly a media outlet of its own, turning others’ stories into content for its Web site and other mediums," the New York Times recently observed.
StoryCorps’ "expanding fee-for-service recording business (in which libraries, corporations and others can buy StoryCorps services by the day) is largely delivered through door-to-door recordings," the organization's web site says.
It's starting to sound like a conglomerate, isn't it? Whatever happened to Mom and Pop? Whatever happened to the cute booths, and the "transformative" conversations?
YOUR STORY IS VALUABLE, BUT YOU PAY TO SHARE IT
Did you know that if you record an interview in the StoryCorps booth, you have to pay a $25.00 fee, even though tens of millions of dollars have been donated to enable this process? When you make an appointment, you must provide your credit card number. If you fail to show up, or to cancel within 48 hours of your slot, you will be charged $50.00. You will receive a CD of the interview before you depart, but StoryCorps' official transcription-service provider charges $90-$120 for a hard copy, according to Michael Sesling of the Audio Transcription Center.
Did you know that you will be handed a list of questions to ask while you're in the booth, and that a "facilitator" will be present to help add color and "authenticity" to your interchange? Isn't that rather surprising? I had the clear impression that these interviews were supposed to represent spontaneous engagement -- "the magic that happens when two people face each other over a microphone." Instead, it's show business.
When you leave the booth, your picture will be taken, and you will be given a release form to sign.
I wonder if people read this form as they are headed out the door. I wonder why it doesn't appear on the StoryCorps web site (it isn't even mentioned), so people could be urged to review it before they come to their interviews.
I had to consult the web site of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which is where the interviews are archived, to confirm that a release form is used by StoryCorps. Did you know that by signing it, you grant StoryCorps "all intellectual property rights" to your interview and photo? It can do whatever it chooses, in perpetuity, with the precious emotions you have freely shared. I disapprove.
So StoryCorps makes you pay to tell your story, and then it generates funds by taking possession of your story, and configuring it in a variety of marketable ways. (The two major online obituary sites do the same thing: They claim the "worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to publicly display, use, reproduce, modify, create derivative works from, and distribute (your) content in any form, in connection with the Web site or other affiliated or related ventures in perpetuity. You also grant us the right to use the Material and any facts, ideas, concepts, know-how or techniques for any purpose whatsoever, including but not limited to, developing, manufacturing, promoting and/or marketing products and services.")
I wonder how far StoryCorps will go in exploiting the "intellectual property rights" it obtains from you.
THE STORY OF "D'OH!"
One thing we know so far is that it might turn you into a cartoon. It is producing quirky animations, using the voices recorded in the booth, which run on PBS and YouTube and are featured on the Atlantic Monthly web site as well as its own (http://storycorps.org/animation/ ). Some subjects might find these amusements to be delightful. Others could certainly feel trivialized, caricatured, misrepresented or used.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if StoryCorps employs its "intellectual property rights" to develop an "Our Town"-like theatrical production, or maybe even a rock opera like "Rent," or a multimedia museum exhibit, with your face projected on the walls, and your voice wafting through the gallery, and music that complements your words ("She's a Bad Mama Jama"), and boxes of Kleenex everywhere. Things seem to be headed in that direction -- which is to say in every direction that all those brainstorming StoryCorps whiz kids can imagine. Your words may resound in ways you never dreamed of.
StoryCorps is marketing its first DVD, making added use of the booth interviews. It has published three New York Times best-selling books "by David Isay" that consist of nothing more than an introduction from Isay and "stories edited from transcripts of StoryCorps interviews" that all those "common people" paid to record. The fourth book, "Ties that Bind," was released this month by Penguin Books, and uses the same format. Penguin re-released "Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project," to coincide with Isay's national tour to promote the book, StoryCorps and himself. Both the new book and StoryCorps are advertising heavily on NPR.
"Against unspeakable odds, at their most desperate moments, the individuals we meet in 'Ties That Bind' find their way to one another, discovering hope and healing." Isay writes, in his time-tested, melodramatic style. "Commemorating ten years of StoryCorps, the conversations collected in 'Ties That Bind' are testament to the transformational power of listening."
Isay cannot legitimately take credit as author of these four books. Those who shared their lives with StoryCorps provided all of that best-selling content. He, or more likely one of his many underlings, selected and edited the interviews, but that does not confer authorship. Do these books anthologize contributors' profound experiences, or do they cannibalize them for the welfare of a voraciously expansionistic "charity"? Who gets the profits from these blockbusters? There is no entry in the budget that refers to book income, but a $64,000 "book advance" was paid to someone, according to tax filings.
Cartoons can be an endearing and even captivating art form, but one might question whether it's moral to appropriate what was said by two people in the intimacy of a booth into something that has an entirely different vibe and context. StoryCorps is using these stories as fodder, as creative inspiration and as "tunes" on which it can "riff." It repurposes and reconfigures heartfelt memories into popular entertainment, and in doing so, it cannot help but alter the Truth that the interviews conveyed.
I assume that "Listening is an Act of Love" will enchant many viewers, but I am very uncomfortable with the creative license that has been taken. It seems exploitative to me. It trivializes real people. It uses them to further the StoryCorps brand.
A STORIED TREE GREW IN BROOKLYN
Isay launched Brooklyn-based StoryCorps in October 2004 in a small booth in Grand Central Station. When ABC News honored him as "Person of the Week," it reported, "Isay is hoping to conduct more than 250,000 interviews over the next couple of years."
Ten years later, only 50,000 interviews have been conducted, according to Isay's introduction to his newly released book, "The Ties that Bind." The research specialist at the Library of Congress says that in fact only "35,000+" interviews have been conducted during a time when -- according to Isay's own promises -- 1.25 million should have been recorded and archived.
How could Isay fail so dramatically to be clear-eyed about his potential for accomplishment? "Blinded by ambition" hasn't become a catchphrase for no reason. Maybe "fueled by hunger for acclaim" is even more to the point.
He told NPR in 2005 that "while the Grand Central StoryBooth was the first permanent facility, StoryCorps plans to open soundproof recording booths across the country, where Americans can bring older relatives — or other loved ones — to conduct broadcast-quality oral-history interviews with the guidance of a trained facilitator."
That hasn't happened either. There are booths in Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. Grand Central closed long ago. There are two mobile booths built from converted Airstream trailers that travel around the country, recording stories in cooperation with local NPR affiliates. They have visited six cities in the past four months.
But these stunning failures to live up to its own projections have been more than made up for by StoryCorps' success in raising money, its continuous stream of new "growth opportunities," and by the way it has insinuated itself into our hearts.
WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?
This adorable shoestring operation increased its funding by two-thirds from FY 2011 ($6.6 million) to FY 2012 ($10 million, according to the New York Times). It nearly doubled its staff.
Its income, according to IRS filings, consists of 33 percent from the tax-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other government entities; 35 percent from foundations; 12 percent from corporations; and less than four percent from individuals.
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
Mr. Isay's aggressive fund-raising efforts consumed more than 11 percent of the budget (nearly a million dollars), according to an extrapolation from Charity Navigator data (PRI spends four percent; NPR spends six percent).
It is hard to imagine how that much money could be blown on courting donors, and it's hard to imagine why so much money needs to be raised at all. StoryCorps' premise was simplicity. But now it's seeming more One Percenty:
Tickets for its 10th Anniversary "Inaugural Gala" Celebration on Oct. 31, hosted by Stephen Colbert, were $1,000 and $2,500 per person, $25,000 for a table. So much for the Common Man!
In his speech, Colbert offered some sage advice on listening to the "touching pieces", Vanity Fair reported. “You’re going to want to stay hydrated, because when we start playing these StoryCorps clips, you’ll be crying like John Boehner chopping onions while being crowned Miss America,” he warned.
STORYCORPS IS ALWAYS THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT CHAPTER
In addition to raising money to meet its current needs and goals, StoryCorps "will also work to secure capacity-building funds and build a reserve fund," which is another way of saying "seduce as many donors as we can."
Even though Isay is characterized by the New York Times as "a full-time fundraiser," the organization is seeking to hire "an accomplished Director of Institutional Giving who will ...develop strategies to grow institutional funding from current and prospective foundation, government, and corporate entities (and) lead a comprehensive multi-year development strategy," according to a consulting firm that has contracted to do an executive search.
"We fund-raise throughout the year to help cover costs of recording, archiving, and preserving each interview and to continue our mission," the web site states, failing to give any inkling of how this can require $10 million a year.
StoryCorps' annual report lists hundreds of major donors, among them the most famous foundations in the country.
The new CEO will be assisted by a new Development Associate for Communications, who will "design and maintain donor-database procedures for gift acknowledgments, solicitations, membership structures, benefit and premium fulfillments, cultivation, and special event tracking, with input from Associate Directors for Institutional & Individual Giving," and "work with Development senior management to create and maintain income metrics and campaign analysis," among many other duties.
This is one big, mean, money machine! It's quite off-putting, and it's somehow escaped scrutiny.
THE MAN WHO ATE EVERYTHING
You, and everyone StoryCorps can scrounge up, are raw material that is being gathered as sweepingly as NSA gathers intelligence. They want it all. They'll figure out how to use it as they go along.
I am afraid StoryCorps has become infected with that pesky elixir known as testosterone. It surges toward ever-bigger HUGENESS (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2011/07/boys-club-how-men-ruin-everything_06.html ), blindly and mindlessly gathering to its bosom more money, people and projects, with little apparent regard for its core mission.
Has David Isay has gone a little crazy? The sweet, two-people-and-a-microphone thing has evolved into an omnivorous blob, that wants, above all else, to grow, and to Keep Growing.
STUDS TERKEL WOULD HAVE A SPIT
Studs Terkel, who -- along with the WPA Oral History Project -- inspired the creation of StoryCorps, would be disgusted. I was privileged to be interviewed by this unforgettable man for two hour-long radio segments, and then he took me on an eight-hour drinking tour all over Chicago (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2011/12/on-tour-for-penthouse-fully-clothed-but.html ). He distrusted big institutions. He was scornful of grandiose ambitions. He respected enterprises -- such as all those neighborhood bars we visited -- that established a nice niche for themselves, and served their constituents with honor and reliability. Today's StoryCorps would make him spitting mad. "They've been corrupted!" I imagine him saying. "They've betrayed everything they claimed to cherish. They're just like all the other fat cats!"
But Isay says of his pledge to Terkel -- which was to keep his focus on ordinary people -- "We’ve fought like hell in the intervening time to, you know, live up to what he asked us to do."
THE NEVER-ENDING STORY
Theoretically, StoryCorps wants to archive EVERYONE's story, where it can repose in a massive vault forever, giving each of us a bit of immortality.
"It'll be a long time until we get into the millions, but I think it'll happen," Isay tells Mother Jones in its November-December issue (it certainly will, David, at the rate you're going). "We will be able to turn this into an institution (that will live) long after we're gone, and people won't necessarily understand what this archive contains for hundreds of years from now."
Will our rapidly declining planet even be alive hundreds of years from now? Maybe we need to spend all that "story" money on some reality, and get busy saving the human race instead of archiving interviews.
StoryCorps is constantly counting its collection, using words like "terabyte," the way a rich man might lovingly count his money. It reminds me of the Mormon quest to document the family histories of everyone who ever lived, all the way back to Adam. Church data -- three billion pages of family records -- are stored in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, excavated 600 feet into a Utah mountain. The Church is currently digitizing records in over 45 countries, with 200 cameras going full-blast, 24 hours a day.
This sounds like a concept that Isay would love. His vision has expanded, from intimate moments to Big Data, Metadata, cross-referenced and fact-checked. It has become almost a neurosis -- this mindless, voracious acquisitiveness -- something akin to hoarding. Isay started out like a lovable little kid collecting baseball cards, and then obsession kicked in.
"We hope to grow StoryCorps into a national institution that touches the lives of every American family," he declared.
It almost sounds like megalomania.
SWEETENING THE EXECUTIVE SUITE
StoryCorps is currently advertising for several high-level positions, including a new CEO, who will "free Isay up" so he can "foster the creative vision of StoryCorps in specific areas that leverage his expertise, networks and passion; to further develop resources and relationships with major funders and other external stakeholders" and expand his speaking and writing careers. The new leader will have a "Complementary and Synergistic Partnership with the Founder/President."
The new CEO's responsibilities "will include overseeing the development of new revenue sources, and leading the strategic assessment of new opportunities. In addition, s/he will build organizational capacity to support and take advantage of opportunities...to meet our goal of vastly extending our reach while building a sustainable institution...(and) stimulate the creation and expansion of services.
StoryCorps is also recruiting additional external relations, development, finance and programs personnel.Naturally, this will add at least hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budget.
IT'S MY STORY, AND I'M STICKING TO IT
I loved StoryCorps from the start, even though I resented the notion, reported by the New York Times, that "the weekly segment has a reputation for making listeners cry." I don't appreciate being "played" -- manipulated -- but I have been mesmerized by pretty much every StoryCorps segment I've ever heard. If StoryCorps' masterful editors can't make them mesmerizing, they don't get on the air.
I first realized that "everyone has a story" when I conducted "in-depth" interviews of fellow students for my junior high school newspaper in the 1960s. I was shaken to learn that kids I had callously dismissed as stupid or boring were at least as interesting and worthwhile as the "cool people." This insight was beautifully enriched when I moved to New York, where my interactions with all kinds of people dramatized the fact that no one is "ordinary." I found courage, dignity, wisdom, devotion and integrity in the unlikeliest of places, including the day room at the House of Detention for Men on Rikers Island.
So when StoryCorps was launched, I found it to be wonderfully compelling. I think most of us enjoy being emotionally impacted by our fellow beings, whether we are moved to tears or delighted and inspired by them. I believe this is actually akin to a drug trip: We crave the chemistry, the carbonated exhilaration, that comes from responding powerfully to these stories. Can you feel the endorphins? And when they are broadcast on NPR, the stories do bind us together.
Even so, I became uneasy about the segments quite soon after they became an NPR feature. I sensed an artificiality in the exchanges, despite the apparent earnestness of what was being said. The questions seemed unnatural, stilted. Like they were being read, rather than coming "straight from the heart," as advertised.
I was dismayed, but not surprised, to read a few years later that --- as I mentioned earlier -- the interview questions were provided by StoryCorps to those who entered the booth. I felt betrayed. It seemed to me that this was an insult to those who came to have a meaningful interchange.
Today, StoryCorps offers a list of "great questions" on its web site to help prospective interviewers compile their own lists. These questions remind me of the two times I have been "interviewed" by elementary school children, who had been assigned to interrogate an adult. Here are examples of StoryCorps trademarked queries:
- Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
- What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
- Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
- Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
- What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
- What is your favorite memory of me?
- If this was to be our very last conversation, what words of wisdom would you want to pass on to me?
- What are you proudest of in your life?
- How would you like to be remembered?
- Do you have any regrets?
These aren't stupid questions, but it is deflating to absorb the fact that they were "developed and refined" by a multimillion-dollar enterprise. At least they don't ask what is your favorite color or your favorite book. Those are the hard ones.
David Isay is the conductor. We are the instruments. When he lifts his baton, and motions us to play, we can have no idea what he'll eventually do with the special sound that each of us contributes. Our music comprises his creative and entrepreneurial playground. He says he's having the time of his life.