Sunday, December 4, 2011

StoryCorps' predictable plot

Here we go again: A charming upstart becomes an insatiable Fat Cat.
                                                             "Fat Cat" 2010 by ira upin
    (Oct. 30, 2013) 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 how does Isay manage to blow 11.4 percent of the budget on his full-time fund-raising?
    In many respects, StoryCorps -- which portrays itself as a unique medium of heartfelt Truth -- has become an elaborate fiction. 

The fabled booth was a striking sight in Grand Central from 2005 until 2008.

    As part of my research for this article, I have attempted to contact officials at StoryCorps, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the PBS program POV,  a couple of major donors and a subcontractor. As a result, CEO Isay has labeled me a "stalker."
    Please, David. If I were going to stalk someone, it wouldn't be you. As a purported journalist yourself, you should know that this is what's called "investigative reporting." You, on the other hand, are "slinking."
    StoryCorps officials admitted to CPB that they had refused from the outset to respond to any of my requests for information about their organization. They remind me of the Nixon White House. Bunker mentality. Paranoia strikes deep! They are determined to evade any media or regulatory scrutiny, and I came to understand why. They have a lot to hide. 
   My interest in writing this story began with an article in the New York Times this month that stated, "NPR listeners might be surprised to hear that the nonprofit StoryCorps has an annual budget of almost $10 million." That certainly did surprise me. I couldn't imagine what they could do with all that money, how they could possibly keep 140 people gainfully employed, and why they are always seeking even more millions of dollars. 
    It remains somewhat of a mystery, after all my research, and not the kind where they arrest the crook at the end. 
    StoryCorps famously began with one booth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City -- the appealing brainchild of a reputedly likable and tender-hearted man (the aforementioned Isay). 
    "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 slick, corporatized and aggressively self-promoting 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!
    Perhaps the most unsavory -- and arguably illegal -- aspect of StoryCorps' current modus operandi is that it uses premeditated deception to induce interviewees to sign over all intellectual property rights and copyright to their stories and photos, to be used in any form StoryCorps chooses, without further notice, in perpetuity. I explore this disturbing issue in fuller detail below.
    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."
    While the original idea was to archive the interviews at the Library of Congress, to provide a major oral-history resource for the nation, "Mr. Isay said the organization is now focused on creating more content" out of the interviews, using people's personal stories as a creative springboard for innumerable other ventures. This is where things get murky. "Use" is a key word here. Did people really choose to be StoryCorps raw material, or were they attracted by Isay's soothing vision of two people having an intimate dialogue in his special booth? 
Isay is looking for a new CEO, so he can be "freed up" to use his talents more fully.
    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 marketing instincts, persuaded NPR to become StoryCorps' "national broadcast partner" and to share some of its interviews with Morning Edition's millions of listeners (
    (Isay, who refers to himself as a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow and "best-selling author" pulled off another astute coup by getting a regular blog on the Huffington Post site, where he relentlessly glorifies everything StoryCorps does His work is also featured regularly in the Atlantic Monthly, whose foundation is a major supporter.) (He really is a genius).
    Isay's NPR 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.
    “In 50,000 interviews, nearly every time, people have cried in the interview,” Isay told the New York Times last month. This is unquestionably a great big whopper that describes Isay's goal, rather than reality. He wants to get everyone crying, for some reason. 
    And given all the research I've done on this subject, I gather that Americans really do love to cry. It's such a cathartic release, we just can't get enough. If an announcer says, "This next story will really get the waterworks going," people delay their bathroom breaks, grab that embroidered hanky, and turn up the volume. 
    StoryCorps engineers, shapes and manipulates the emotions of its interviewees and its audience. I disapprove.
    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 up to.

    "Only a very small percentage of StoryCorps’ best interviews (substantially less than one percent) 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 earlier this year. 
    I doubt it. I bet they've been having a great time.

    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?
   Isay refers to StoryCorps as "a public service." While it's certainly not devoid of social value, it has become primarily a dynamic, creative business venture that relentlessly maintains its status as a darling of major donors. Fund-raising and the diversification of its  products and services are its major focus.  
    StoryCorps and POV each received $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation’s latest round of Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions this past spring. Isay claimed much of it would be put into an endowment. 
   "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, and has repeatedly claimed that he was "fighting" to get the stories "out there"? Why has this repeated promise been put on the back burner over and over again? What has the money been used for instead?
    Isay offered a creative excuse earlier this year for why the archives have not been made available, especially since publicly available and cross-referenced archives were one of his founding goals.
    "StoryCorps owns the stories’ rights, but we have to be very, very careful,” Mr. Isay said, citing concerns about privacy and identity theft.
    Since when did he become concerned about this? By signing his release form, you say goodbye and farewell to your privacy.
    The truth is, he doesn't want to do the online archive. It's boring. It's not sexy.
    Isay is one of those guys who twists the truth one way and then another to suit the exigencies of the moment. I have rarely seen this phenomenon, except on Rikers Island and in movies about notorious con men.
    The Library of Congress associate said she had never been told by Isay or anyone else from StoryCorps about plans to make the archives available anywhere else, and urged me to be sure of my facts. It's hard to be sure of anything when you're dealing with these people. They can't get their story straight even among themselves.

receiving $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation’s latest round of Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions. - See more at:
receiving $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation’s latest round of Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions. - See more at:

    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. 
The Foley Square booth has been closed since 2011. Isn't it pretty?
    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?

    Did you know that if you record an interview in the StoryCorps booth, you are asked 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.
The Airstream StoryCorps booth visits Pullman, WA.
     Did you know that you will be provided with a list of suggested 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, you'll receive a "free" CD (according to Isay's Huffpost blog) of your interview, and you'll be given a release form to sign.
    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. I couldn't find a reference to this issue on StoryCorps' site.
    I finally dug it up. According to the StoryCorps entry, "the Facilitator will explain the release form, which allows StoryCorps to keep one copy and send another to the archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress." ((This is the precise language that libraries across the country, where many StoryCorps interviews are conducted, use to describe the form's purpose, as a Google search will confirm.) This is grossly misleading. It is the only reference to a release form on the entire site, and it is buried, when it should be highlighted.
    I wonder if people read this form as they are wrapping up their sessions. I wonder why it doesn't appear on the StoryCorps web site (if you do a search for "release form," nothing comes up), so people could be urged to review it before they make the decision to do their interviews (see update below).
    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.

    StoryCorps declined to provide me with a copy of this form, when I requested it on two occasions. I finally located a copy, but it's just "out there," by itself --  not even linked to the StoryCorps web site. (
    In an investigative interview with CPB after this article initially appeared, CEO Isay expressed surprise that the release form was in the public domain at all. He claimed it is StoryCorps' "intellectual property" and was intended to be kept private to protect it from "copycat" operations. But then he defended the extreme liberties taken by the release form by saying that they are "a standard part of oral history recording practice, not specific to StoryCorps." 
    There's quite contradiction there. And StoryCorps is the copycat. Americans have been collecting oral histories for generations. Isay's tweak has been to commoditize them.
    The claim that the release form merely "allows StoryCorps to keep one copy and send another to the archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress," is a lie.

    The StoryCorps release is extremely confiscatory -- even more so than I expected -- taking for itself all rights -- including the copyright to your story and picture -- to use in an unlimited number of formats and media. Why anyone would give "informed consent" to such a total forfeiture of autonomy is hard to fathom.  The release is characterized  as "permanent and irrevocable."
     UPDATE Nov 19: A woman who read this post emailed me that when she told the Storycorps facilitator she was going to upload her own CD of her own interview onto a geneaology site, so her far-flung family could hear it, she was told NO -- "That would violate StoryCorps' copyright." And this is from a little, open-hearted charity that claims to want nothing more than for people to “listen to each other”!

    This is just one of eight stipulations in the release form:

"TRANSFER OF RIGHTS: In consideration of the recording and preservation of the Interview, conducted on or about the date set forth below, I hereby relinquish and transfer to StoryCorps all title and literary property rights that I have or may be deemed to have in the Interview. I understand that these rights include all rights, title and interest in any copyright, pursuant to United States copyright laws. I understand that my conveyance of copyright encompasses the exclusive rights of reproduction, distribution, and preparation of derivative works, as well as all renewals and extensions.
     I understand that StoryCorps and its licensees may, without further approval on my part, exhibit, distribute, edit, reproduce, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and broadcast the Interview, or any portion thereof, in all media, including but not limited to: radio, television, compact disc, in print, and on the Internet, as well as any successor technologies, whether now existing or hereafter developed."
    You also agree that StoryCorps “may use my name, voice, photographic likeness and life story in connection with the exhibition, reproduction, distribution, publication, public performance, public display, broadcast, and promotion of StoryCorps, without further approval on my part."

Isay refers to the booth as a "magical sacred space."
    So StoryCorps requests that 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.") 
     Even after being confronted by CPB with the deceptive wording StoryCorps uses to get the release form signed (which he flatly denied: he claims there is always full disclosure), Isay did a video interview on the Huffington Post site prior to the Thanksgiving Special in which he repeated the usual promise that signing the consent form merely allows StoryCorps to have your interview archived at the Library of Congress. Period. (
    He did not disclose -- as we have proven repeatedly -- that the "fine print" legalizes a sweeping transfer of rights from you to StoryCorps. It gives StoryCorps ownership. 
    On the video, Isay said he was surprised that so many people sign away even this minor invasion of privacy, because "these are intimate, profound monents" that occur in the recording booth.
    But these "intimate, profound moments" aren't merely being collected for posterity, as Isay claimed in the interview. We've already established that. I wonder how far StoryCorps will go in exploiting the "intellectual property rights" it obtains from you. 

    One thing we know so far is that it might turn you into a cartoon. Isay initially wasn't interested in animating the stories, according to him. "The experience itself is perfect," Mr. Isay told the New York Times in 2010. "You honor someone by listening to their story."
    He should have stood his ground. StoryCorps was about the quiet holiness of the booth. It was about voices, "simple and unvarnished." It was about "the power of listening."
    But when two ambitious, enterprising young animators got CPB to fork over $325,000 in tax funds (at a time of extraordinary deficits and gridlock) to produce six four-minute segments, the power of cash and greater fame won out, and the project was off and running.
    (The Rauch brothers claim it was in fact Isay's idea to animate the interviews, but it doesn't really matter. What does matter is the credibility of those who use our tax funds to fulfill their dreams.)
    StoryCorps and the animators -- brothers Mike and Tim Rauch --  continue to create the 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 ( 
    Some subjects might find these amusements to be delightful. Others could certainly feel trivialized, caricatured, misrepresented or used. When people enter the "sacred space" (to use Isay's term) of the StoryCorps booth, it's safe to assume they don't expect to wind up as characters ready for guest spots on "The Simpsons."  
Miss Lizzie Devine was a real person. How must her kinfolk feel about this caricature?
If someone did this to my Mama or Grandma, there'd be hell to pay.

     Lizzie Devine, above, is a case in point. The Rauch brothers acknowledge that their caricature "brings to life" a persona that isn't evident in the StoryCorps interview of two siblings who reminisce about her. The animators admit in the December issue of The Atlantic Cities that they took extraordinary liberties in order to create a comical figure, and they are gratified when audiences laugh at her (
    The title of that article gives one pause: Should our most intimate stories become animated shorts?
    If StoryCorps decided to add visuals to its repertoire, why did it make the images so disconcertingly distorted? Why not make them appear normal (even attractive), rather than warped and dysmorphic?  And why are the surroundings so grungy? These are real people, with dignity and feelings. They displayed great generosity and forbearance in allowing themselves to be used for our amusement and as the Rauch brothers' creative playthings. Many of those who are caricatured are deceased, and obviously were unable to give consent. Did StoryCorps make any effort to seek out their surviving loved ones and get their blessing? I don't think so.

 DANNY AND ANNIE: A StoryCorps favorite:
I wonder if these two dear people expected to be depicted in a cartoon, looking like this.
The man, who is shown as having a massive red nose, died of cancer the day this aired.
Here's the real couple. See the resemblance? I don't.
Why did they make Gweneviere Mann and Yasir Salem look so weird?
She was heroically rebuilding her life after having a brain tumor removed.

Piece image
The real people -- a splendid pair.
The taciturn Kay Wang"went reluctantly" to the booth, and died just weeks later.

Piece image
The Wangs: Why did StoryCorps skew their beauty?

I knew Studs Terkel. Studs was a friend of mine. This is not Studs Terkel.
This is Studs -- humane, charismatic, and expansive.

Run like hell from those StoryCorps animators! Pants on fire!
   These animations must be lots of fun, but at whose emotional and financial expense? 
Miss Lizzie Devine was a real person. How must her kinfolks feel about this caricature?
 She never heard of StoryCorps, and certainly didn't choose to become a comical public figure.

Mean, lean Lizzie Devine. StoryCorps done crossed the line. She wasn't a witch!
    The animators say audiences get a good laugh out of Miss Devine. Maybe I'm just a big party-pooper, but I am not amused. If someone did this to my mother, or to my mother's mother, there would be hell to pay.
   And if StoryCorps feels entitled to take this much "creative license" with people, what might it do next?
   Speaking of "The Simpsons," that series certainly does a better job of animating real people than StoryCorps does, without ever making any claims about being true to reality.
George Harrison.

James Brown.

Larry King.

Jay Leno.

Tom Jones.
    A full hour of StoryCorps' animated segments will  air on PBS on Thursday, November 28 at 9 p.m. (Thanksgiving night) as a special presentation of POV. (Since StoryCorps refers to the 60 minute program as a half-hour program, I am guessing that the second half will be an interview with the principals.)
     "Listening is an Act of Love" will feature six selections from StoryCorps' archives. This ambitious project was also paid for by CPB, at an estimated cost of over a million dollars and took over a year to produce.  In spite of its big budget, StoryCorps used the Kickstarter website to plead for donations from the public.
    I attempted to gain insight on this special from POV, the Rauch animators and the CPB media relations office. All refused to comment.
   Two minutes of animation can take 8-10 weeks to produce, the Rauch brothers have admitted.
    You can buy a copy of the DVD for about $50, which seems a bit predatory, but I'm no expert on DVD pricing. Certainly there is money being made by someone.
Such a precious memento.
    Isay named himself executive producer of this program, which must have added a nice little boost to his income. His pals for this and other animated projects are the previously mentioned Rauch brothers, whose profit-making enterprise depends almost entirely upon StoryCorps. Their only other income is from "interstitials, education shorts, and commercial spots." I am still exploring the financial ties between Isay and the Rauch operation.
     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. The cartoons make most everyone look somewhat comical, which hardly seems fair. And by making the StoryCorps experience visual, in violation of its own founding premise about "the simple power of the human voice," it has subtracted power rather than enhancing it. It has turned off the part of our brains that would have been imagining these people and these scenes ourselves. We would have done a better job.
Mean, ugly librarian. A black- and-white way of seeing the world.
  Isay claims to love voices. I love faces: real faces, not the flattened, denatured, inexplicably dull or garish, and not-very-bright cast of characters that StoryCorps has unleashed. Why mess with the joy and vitality of visages such as these:
StoryCorps' ravishing faces: No animation required -- or desired.
     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. The segments have a modest charm and soothing way of unfolding, but the animation aspect still seems exploitative to me. It trivializes real people by turning them into "characters." It uses them to further the StoryCorps brand. 
    I think maybe I should turn the Rauch brothers into a short story. It would be based upon the facts, as are their animations, but I would unfurl my imaginative energies to turn them into "my creations." I could have such a good time, adding details and nuances that I "inferred" would be applicable to their real personas. I could become a "best-selling author," like Dave Isay, with my notorious "Rauch" trilogy.
What fun I'd have, creating their psyches, mannerisms and ethical dilemmas.
    I wonder how they would feel.

    Although it's always "the Rauch brothers" who are credited with these entertainments, as if it were a little back-room operation, they actually have a staff of seven to 12, and a publisher. Like all good small businesses, they created jobs. And it appears that we're paying the salaries.
    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.
Mean Daddy!

StoryCorps may turn your Daddy into a rather cartoonish cartoon. Do you mind?

    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, but he not only does that -- he also personally claims the copyright: From Ties That Bind, by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group, LLC. Copyright © Dave Isay, 2013.  Copyrights on the three previous books are claimed by Isay's predecessor company, Sound Portraits Productions.
    Those who shared their lives with StoryCorps provided all of that best-selling content. Isay, 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. 
    Isn't that odd?
   The rollout of the latest book is also timed to coincide with the animated Thanksgiving special.
    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 more to the point.
Isay piled up staffers, just as he piled up stories. MORE is not enough.

    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. That's it. 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.

San Francisco's permanent booth, one of three nationwide, is in the Sala Webb Center.

The mobile  booth will be in Los Angeles from Oct.23 to Nov. 16.
     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.

    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. 
    You, too, can help bankroll this little rich kid,  as a supporting friend, patron or benefactor, each level requiring a different contribution commitment, and each with its own special thank-you gift ("swag-ger"), which are the usual water bottles, branded umbrellas and CDs. My favorite is the also-trite tote bag, which "advocates" receive for a $3,000 contribution. It's much cuter than NPR's:
Spread the word, brother!
    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! And for $25,000, StoryCorps promised to come right over to YOUR HOUSE and let you do an interview there. Cozy!
    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.

The hilarious Colbert put on a great show for fancy-pants StoryCorps fans.
"A good time -- plus seared shrimp and steak -- was had by all."
Even Bill Clinton said "hey!" Wouldn't it be fun to be in a StoryCorps booth with him?
    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 Booth that Poured.
    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 (, 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, 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 ( 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."

 Studs Terkel and Dave Isay cut the ribbon at the first StoryBooth in Grand Central Terminal.
    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 take a long time, 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. 
Massive LDS Granite Mountain Records Vault. Impervious!

Oh my heck, those Mormons are serious!

     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. 

   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 meet our goal of vastly extending our reach while building a sustainable institution...(and) stimulate the creation and expansion of services. 
    (UPDATE Dec. 16, 2013: According to the New York Times, StoryCorps has hired Robin Sparkman, currently the editor in chief of The American Lawyer magazine, as its "first ever" chief executive. "Mr. Isay, 48, will continue to be the public face of the organization, serving as creative director and focusing on fund-raising. In a telephone interview, he said that he had long wanted to hire a chief executive, and StoryCorps was now able to do so, thanks to 'an ever-strengthening board' and recent successful fund-raising, including its first benefit gala and a $1 million MacArthur Award," the Times reported. Sparkman identified her top goals as adding more booths and increasing the number of donors.
    (If each of us could become a fund-raiser, with ourselves and our families as our "nonprofit," wouldn't we all have more fun and get richer? The perks and the food are fabulous, and you get to "hobnob.")
     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.

And 10 years of brilliant (albeit kind of greedy) fund-raising.

    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. 

They had great stories, no editing required.
     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.
   StoryCorps is so proud of its questions that it has turned them into a curriculum that "uses StoryCorps content and interviewing techniques to enhance students' skills in the areas of speaking and listening, self awareness, and social awareness." The program is being implemented, supposedly, in 40 classrooms in four cities, this year. I say supposedly because StoryCorps has encumbered this rather mediocre project with considerable bureaucracy and sternly worded requirements, including a two-day "training program" for teachers, as well as performance benchmarks. It seems pretty presumptuous to me.
"Let's put more passion into it, people!"
    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.