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Radio Tracks

Turning a page to save stories for posterity

Email|Print| Text size + By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2008

Radio is an ephemeral medium, gone as soon as the song or interview has passed. But with a little motivation, the folks behind the airwaves will try to capture that moment, whether for posterity or for charity.

Posterity motivated David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps. Since 2003, the producer and MacArthur fellow has been responsible for helping approximately 15,000 people across the United States record their stories through interviews by friends or family members. These aren't full biographies; at two to five minutes long, they are instead slices of life, as when a Korean woman tells her daughter how she and her husband learned to express love in the English language, or a retired Texas bounty hunter explains to a friend why he quit his dangerous job.

But they are idiosyncratic, providing original portraits of real people, and so when Isay hit the 10,000th story last January, he marked the occasion by collecting 50 of those tales into book form, "Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life From the StoryCorps Project."

The book, like the short radio features that air Fridays on NPR's "Morning Edition" and may also be heard at storycorps.net, celebrates everyday life.

"All the stories in this book really revolve around the great themes of human existence - love and death and family - and out of those emerge an astonishing array," says Isay, who also wrote a foreword for the book. "No matter how far you are from the person telling this story, you're going to find someone you recognize in the story."

Turning the oral stories into text was a challenge. Created in recording booths across the country, the interviews ranged in clarity, brevity, and tone.

"Stories for the radio have to be very linear and straightforward," explains Isay. "With the book, the stories can be much more complex and can loop around. What you're looking for in radio is that moment where story and voice and mood all come together into this magnificent three minutes. Sometimes people are saying something phenomenal, but the energy or tone of voice isn't right - but it will work for the book."

If the book marks a milestone, it doesn't mean an end. "We're working hard to grow [StoryCorps] into a national institution," says Isay, who notes that the number of participants keeps increasing. "We want the experience to be accessible to everyone who wants to participate."

Similarly, WBOS-FM (92.9) has made a few smaller steps toward posterity. This month sees the release of its fifth annual fund-raising CD, "WBOS Studio 7: Live From the Archives," which benefits Camp Harbor View, a summer camp for at-risk children on Long Island in Boston Harbor.

Along with the charity recipient, the featured artists change each year. On this fifth outing, the disc features live tracks ranging from Martin Sexton's folk to Sarah Borges's rock, all recorded either in the station's studios or at station-sponsored private concerts at Boston's First Act Guitar Studio.

"It's always a snapshot of what's happening" at the station, says WBOS music director Dana Marshall. "We had numerous artists who had been back to Studio 7, but it made sense to keep it new."

That means live cuts from pop-rocker KT Tunstall ("she had just purchased a new electric guitar," says Marshall) and roots-rocker Dennis Brennan ("Dennis tells great stories, and he's got such great local roots"), as well as a dozen others. Most of the artists, says Marshall, played a few songs and were interviewed on air. Sadly, the disc only features the music.

"The only thing you're not able to get on our CD is the tone of Ryan Adams's total performance," says Marshall. "He played three songs and was absolutely fantastic, but he was quite the character between songs. He went on about everything from Fergie to his newfound sobriety, and then he goes back to his guitar. It was a trip, frankly."

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