Person of the Week: David Isay

May 20, 2005 — -- Radio documentary producer David Isay has been documenting the lives of ordinary Americans for the past 20 years.

"I'm inspired by real life," he said. "When you talk to the people who are serving you coffee at the local luncheonette or the people who shine your shoes, those are the stories that matter. They are so much more interesting than the stories that we're inundated with all the time."

In a small soundproof booth nestled in New York's Grand Central Station, Isay kicked off his latest project called "StoryCorps." All it takes is two microphones, some Kleenex and a willing subject.

"It's actually a very simple idea," said Isay, explaining how the project works. "You bring your mother, your grandmother, anyone you want to our booth. You go in the booth, and the door shuts, and it's kind of this magical sacred space. For 40 minutes you sit across the table, and you talk about the big questions in life. At the end of the 40 minutes, the CDs stop rolling and one goes to you and the second stays with us and becomes part of the archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress."

On Thursday, Isay kicked off StoryCorps' nationwide launch at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Two StoryCorps buses will wind their way across the country, collecting the details of people's lives. Isay is hoping to conduct more than 250,000 interviews over the next couple of years.

Isay was inspired by the Works Progress Administration recordings of the 1930s. The oral histories of everyday Americans across the country remain the single most-important collection of American voices ever gathered.

"I think the historical archive is going to be hugely valuable because it's life as people live it from the bottom up through their own voices in the 20th and 21st century," Isay said. "I think it's going to really paint a picture of us, of America."

A wide range of people -- from Holocaust survivors to relatives of cancer victims -- have already imparted their touching stories.

"In so many instances when people come into the booth, one of the people in the booth start to cry." Isay said. "And I think it's because to bring your grandparent to the booth and to say, 'I care about you enough to hear what you have to say to sit here for 40 minutes and really listen to what you have to say,' is really a profound thing."

A Quiet, Observant Kid

Isay says he was a quiet kid growing up in Connecticut, always observant and obviously a good listener.

"I always liked to be around old people," he said. "I remember when I was a kid, the dream that I always loved to have was that I would go have tea with two little old people. It was crazy. I was a demented kid I'm sure."

Isay originally planned to go to medical school but says he stumbled into radio instead and never left. He believes everyone has something to say as long as there's someone to listen.

"I think it can make us a country that is better at listening to one another," Isay said. "And more compassionate and thoughtful and can help us remember what's important in life and why it's so incredible to be alive."

For more information on the StoryCorps project, go to

ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas filed this report for "World News Tonight."