Arriving late to StoryCorps

by Sofia Anjum, FCLC ‘22

This fall I began an internship at StoryCorps, an oral history non-profit in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It’s a straight shot on the C, but I generally have to hop on the A express and transfer to the C local one stop early. I generally have to do this because I am generally always just a little bit late.

Friday October 18, I was late to the all-staff meeting. At such meetings we listen to StoryCorps’ weekly NPR segment as a team and discuss how the 3-minute cut was distilled from a 40-minute recording. I walked in as meekly as one could, tiptoeing in my pink flats just the two steps I need to cross from the hallway into the sixth floor common space. Then I leaned against the light switch and plunged the room into darkness. I want to die! I clicked the lights back on, and someone was smiling at me. He was older and had gray hair and glasses and looked very familiar. I work on 7. Maybe he works on 4?

He smiled at me and said, “Oh, I did that, too.” His posture was a little poor, his smile gold. I smiled back and whispered, “Thanks,” feeling a lightness disproportionate to his minute acknowledgment of me. Next time I’m on 4, I’ll make sure to ask how his day is going. He totally works on 4. Yeah.

Then this person moved through warm applause for the sixteenth anniversary of StoryCorps to the front of the room. I realized I didn’t recognize him from 4, I recognized him from his Ted Talk and his Wikipedia page and his picture on the StoryCorps website and his Genius grant and his status as one of my personal idols.

Dave Isay had smiled at me. The person who began StoryCorps in a little booth in Grand Central, a booth with two microphones. His vision was to turn documentary work upside down, to record two people (who typically know each other well) having a conversation for forty minutes. To record the conversation for its own sake, its value not contingent upon polish or distribution. Its value contingent upon knowing that every person has a story. 

In his own words, that day in October 2003, “Nobody came.” Until they did. All kinds of people. Everyone. And then they came with force of numbers to recording stations in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, hundreds of partner radio stations and hospitals, the itinerant Mobile Tour trailer, the StoryCorps app…. 

These hundreds of thousands of conversations are stored at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps has facilitated the largest oral history project in human history.

And StoryCorps has facilitated a renaissance in listening. 

On Friday, October 18, I leaned against the same light switch as Dave Isay and somehow, in the dark, he saw me clearly. I’m not saying I’m never going to wash my jacket again. I’m just saying that that is very cool to have almost literally rubbed shoulders with someone whose life work embodies my belief in integrity in communication. 

Communication is the comprehensive art and intimate love of coming to know one another clearly. Clearly means leaving your preconceptions, prejudgments, preferences at the door. Clearly means that when someone needs to speak, you are receptive. You’re there. You’re not looking for the crack in their story that will allow you to neatly insert your own premeditated bit.

Clear communication – human connection – can only begin by listening to others with undivided attention. 

I’ve always believed this in a removed, romantic way, in my little bedroom in Georgia, listening to music, running away in a book. I’ve always known genuine connection to be infinitely powerful. StoryCorps has shown me that it is immediately possible.