The story behind StoryCorps

March 04, 2013

For more than a decade, the public radio project StoryCorps has been inviting America to sit down and chat.

storycorpsLisa Polito, left, and Leslee Dean are traveling with StoryCorps -- which is parked at Phoenix Art Museum through March 23.(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

Since 2003, the oral history initiative has been on a permanent road trip, recording more than 45,000 true-life tales from the country’s biggest cities to its smallest towns. And right now, the StoryCorps Airstream is parked outside the Phoenix Art Museum.

After every interview, participants huddle together in the distinctive silver trailer. Facilitator Leslee Dean snaps rounds of photos, making sure to get a good one.

These particular pictures, of a mother and her young son, draw a long day to a close for Dean. Rest is crucial for the staff, as traveling so much and meeting so many people can be overwhelming. But Dean says that’s also part of the draw.

“And I’ve always felt comfortable moving around and really enjoyed going new places and hearing people’s stories,” she said.

Now Dean has that in spades. She’s been on the road for five months, from Detroit to Chicago, southern Texas to Santa Fe. Most days she’s in the mobile booth’s recording studio, helping strangers capture some of their most intimate memories. As Dean puts it, these stories remind her of her own humanity.

“So that’s the common thread that runs through them, is that human aspect of it and the hope that they have,” she said. “Even if they’re talking about something that’s very sad.”

These memories can be deeply affecting, even for a seasoned journalist like Lisa Polito. Before Polito became a StoryCorps site supervisor, she spent years as a public radio producer in Oregon.

LisaStoryCorps staff often have long days, which include plenty of recording and paperwork. Above, site supervisor Lisa Polito finishes up a day of recording.(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)

“There are times, when, as a facilitator, the story makes you cry, makes you cringe, makes you laugh, makes your heart ache for someone,” Polito said.

Of course, that’s what StoryCorps is all about. This mix of emotions is part of why Polito recently jumped into this project in her mid-40s -- even though most of her StoryCorps colleagues are about 20 years younger. To her, there’s always something interesting about every story.

“And it is not at all difficult as a facilitator to value every story we hear,” Polito said.

Every StoryCorps recording will be archived at the Library of Congress, and a few will even make it on air during NPR’s Morning Edition. As for her future, Polito is less certain. She has nearly a year left on the road. After that, anything is possible.

“You only get one go ’round in life,” she said, “and you gotta take advantage of the opportunities to really fully live it.”

The StoryCorps booth will be at the Phoenix Art Museum through March 23.