“People Want to Be Listened To”: StoryCorps’ New LGBTQ Initiative

To many NPR listeners, StoryCorps is the Morning Edition feature that makes us late for the office every Friday, because we have to take a few minutes to pull ourselves together after the story of the week makes us dissolve into tears. But the Morning Edition segments are just one aspect of the StoryCorps mission. Over the last 11 years, more than 50,000 people have recorded their stories in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco, or at the mobile StoryCorps booth that travels around the country.

Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, recorded the stories of participants in the 1969 Stonewall rebellion for his 1989 radio documentary Remembering Stonewall. His father, psychiatrist Dr. Richard Isay, who came out to Dave at the age of 52, was instrumental in persuading his profession to stop treating homosexuality as a disease. On June 28, StoryCorps launched OutLoud, a new initiative dedicated to recording and preserving LGBTQ stories from all across America.

Slate spoke with Isay about OutLoud, why the StoryCorps radio segments are so moving, and the importance of being heard.

As I understand the OutLoud initiative, there’s a special effort to find Stonewall pioneers and their contemporaries. A lot of those people haven’t always felt that the world was interested in hearing from them. How you get them to tell their stories? 

We’ll make a comprehensive effort to find people who were alive in the pre-Stonewall era—in the ’50s and ’60s in small towns all across the country, creating a record of what life was like for them. I think it is going to be very difficult to hear. It’s difficult now; then, it was probably difficult beyond our imagination. You know, it was a spiritual holocaust.

So the issue is finding the folks, finding the right partnerships to get people to the booth. But as far as talking, everybody wants to talk. We’ve done 50,000 interviews. When you do one of these interviews, at the end, you can sign a release for whether it will go to the Library of Congress or not. We really don’t care; we just want you to have this experience. I thought we’d have a compliance rate of 70 or 80 percent. It’s been about 99.9 percent. People want to be listened to, and they want to be remembered. So getting people to talk is not the problem. We just want to be sure we get the word out far and wide, so people who want to have this experience can get in touch with us, and we can give them the chance to participate in StoryCorps.

Some weeks I just can’t handle the Morning Edition StoryCorps segment. I can’t remember a single one that hasn’t made me cry. Do you have a theory about why they’re so moving?

I think StoryCorps is the opposite of reality TV. Nobody comes to get rich; nobody comes to get famous. It’s just an act of generosity. It’s authentic, it’s completely pure. There’s no ulterior motive. 

The stories we choose to tell are really just stories of everyday people living life in an exemplary way. These are stories about decency and small acts of kindness. I think what we’re trying to do every week is shake people on the shoulders and say this is what’s important

Life is hard, and a lot of these are hard stories, but I think they give people a sense of hope. These are very, very serious stories of people who have never been listened to, in many cases. And we’re just getting started. Some day we want to be this national institution that touches every family. The core idea of Story Corps is that every life matters—and every life matters equally. 

Having heard the stories for years on NPR, I always wonder if you do anything to confirm their accuracy.

Sure. We check the hell out of every story. Whatever the gold standard is: the New Yorker standard of fact checking. If you’re in the booth, you’re going to remember some things wrong, we don’t care. But anything we broadcast is thoroughly fact-checked. Everything you hear broadcast is true. We’ve done over 500 broadcasts, and only one of them did we have to kill because it didn’t check out. 

You mentioned earlier the huge percentage of people who sign a waiver so their interview can go into the Library of Congress. How easy it is for other people to access this archive? And once you get the new OutLoud project going, can people want to research LGBTQ history go and listen to the stories?

Sure. People can listen to all the stories at the Library of Congress. They’re cataloged, and the data on the stories is comprehensive. Right now, you have to physically go to the Library of Congress, but we’re working to get it on the web. We have issues to get through to make sure that people have informed consent—that they fully understand what it means to have stuff on the web, even though we have permission to do it. We’re starting now, slowly. But in the next three or four years, you’ll be able to search the archive of all the people who want their story to be public through Story Corps. But all of the edited stories, these 500 or so fact-checked stories, those you can find on our website.

If people are interested in telling their stories, or if they know older gay people, what should they do?

You can learn about making a reservation at one of the StoryCorps booths, or you can explore StoryCorps DIY. Contact us via the website. We’re not going to be able to get to every place in this country, although we’re sure as hell gonna try. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.