'Listening' a page-turner packed with historic revelations

In radio circles, it's a home run when you deliver a "driveway moment." That's when listeners in their cars reach their destination but are so captivated they can't bear to turn off the radio.

Listening Is an Act of Love is the book equivalent of a driveway moment: You won't want to stop turning pages.

The book springs from the recorded word: It is based on the largest oral history project in U.S. history. The interviews collected range from the everyday to the monumental. And it's a winning intersection of the business (the non-profit StoryCorps runs the project) and cultural worlds.

Each interview is a revelation. One session, for example, begins simply and builds to a stunning conclusion.

Taylor Rogers, 79, recalls the indignities of his job as a sanitation worker — lugging tubs of garbage from backyards with waste and maggots leaking down his shoulders, low pay, no benefits. After two co-workers were crushed on the job and their families weren't compensated, the workers attempted to unionize and went on strike, marching for 65 days.

At that point, it begins to dawn on the reader that this is no ordinary story. We learn that Martin Luther King Jr. arrived to help the sanitation workers. This was in 1968 in Memphis.

"He stopped everything, set everything aside, to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder: the sanitation workers. The day before that march, that's the day he was assassinated," Rogers said.

It's as if we're eavesdropping on history as it happens, from a perspective often overlooked.

That same sensation inspired the founder of StoryCorps, radio documentary producer Dave Isay. Awed by the historical power of recordings made by Works Progress Administration folklorists and writers who toured the country in the 1930s and '40s, Isay started the non-profit StoryCorps in 2003 to gather the stories of everyday Americans.

The idea, he says, caught on, and StoryCorps became one of the fastest-growing U.S. non-profits.

Anyone can make an appointment at a StoryCorps' recording booth, bringing along a loved one. A StoryCorps facilitator guides the 40-minute interview. Some suggested questions: What was your happiest moment? What are you most proud of? Is there anything you've always wanted to tell me?

The fact that the two people are already connected makes for unguarded, intimate conversations with riveting results.

At the end of the session, a CD of it is given to the participants. Another CD — if the participant approves — goes to an archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Snippets of selected interviews are played on NPR's Morning Edition. Starbucks is selling a deluxe edition of the book (with a CD) as the current title in its in-store book program.

For this book, Isay selected, fact-checked and edited 49 of the 10,000 or so interviews already conducted in the recording booths that travel the country, as well as those housed in New York's Grand Central Terminal and at Ground Zero.

In a world deluged 24/7 with stories of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, Isay says, it's important to take a deep breath, turn off the TV and focus on the people around us. At its core, the project tells people they matter and they won't be forgotten.

Others' stories are beyond heartbreaking. Douglas Paul Desilvey, 59, of Ocean Springs, Miss., tells of losing his entire family before his eyes in a house flooded by Hurricane Katrina. He lost his wife, daughter and his wife's parents.

And then there's Joseph Dittmar, who describes his harrowing and gruesome journey down from the 105th floor of Two World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

What emerges is a portrait of the American character, through circumstances from the mundane (a rural postmistress feeds baby chicks sent through the mail to keep them alive during a blizzard) to the incredible (a doctor on call in New Orleans' Charity Hospital during Hurricane Katrina holds down the fort in a powerless hospital for five days awaiting the National Guard or FEMA. It is people from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who finally arrive to evacuate patients by boat).

Though StoryCorps asks for $10 as a suggested donation for a session, it costs more than $250 to record each interview. (For more information, go to storycorps.net.)

This business model gave new meaning to the term non-profit, Isay writes, but the goal was to make StoryCorps accessible to everyone, making up the difference with donations and grants. Funding was touch-and-go at first, he writes, but StoryCorps now has support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, corporate sponsor AT&T, the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation.

With the stories in Listening Is an Act of Love, StoryCorps is doing what oral historian Studs Terkel called "celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated."

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