StoryCorps founder Dave Isay is passionate about the power of the spoken word.
"There's something about the intimacy of the voice of a story honestly told that's like an adrenaline shot to the heart," says Isay.
Isay has felt that "adrenaline shot to the heart" ever since a day in 1988 when he walked down Seventh Street in the East Village. He was preparing to go to medical school until he met two recovering heroin addicts who had a dream of building a museum of addiction in a neighborhood storefront.
Isay says he called all of the TV and radio stations in town. The only station interested in the story was the community station WBAI, who advised him to do the story himself.
"When I pressed play and record on a cassette recorder and they started talking about their lives and their dreams," Isay recalls, "I knew I'd found the thing I was going to do for the rest of my life."
The medical world's loss was radio's gain. Isay's documentary work has garnered five Peabody Awards and a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award.
He is now known primarily as the founder of StoryCorps, a non-profit organization that records and preserves the stories of everyday Americans.
Inside special booths, average people tell their stories to a friend, a family member or a StoryCorps facilitator.
"We created these rooms as kind of sacred spaces, with the lights low, very warm," Isay explains. "But I don't think it's the room. It's this once-in-a-lifetime chance to ask the questions you always wanted to ask, to have the conversations you have always wanted to have."
Since 2003, StoryCorps has conducted 35,000 interviews around the country, all of which are stored in the Library of Congress.
In New York, the StoryCorps booth was initially located in Grand Central Terminal before it was relocated to Foley Square. A select few of the interviews recorded there have aired on Friday mornings in StoryCorps' weekly slot on national public radio.
It's easy to get Isay to wax poetic about StoryCorps – but not about himself.
"StoryCorps is a project about listening," he says. "I'm much more interested in listening than answering the questions."
At the StoryCorps offices in Fort Greene, Isay is surrounded by tapes, audio files and stories – always stories. This idea that every person's story matters has already taken him around the country. Now, Isay wants to create an annual National Day of Listening. In 2008, Isay first suggested that families take an hour on the day after Thanksgiving to interview their loved ones.
What compels a man to wake up and think that he can turn one of his ideas into a national phenomenon?
"I guess it's a little bit crazy," Isay says. "I've always been pretty dogged, I don't give up on stuff. I believe in the power of this thing and the potential of this thing to really change the country and move the needle. The greater truth is that there is more that unites us then divides us – and if we take the time to listen to each other, we're going to find out that there's a lot more that we share in common than not."
Isay says he was influenced by the work of both his parents. His mother was in publishing while his father was a psychoanalyst.
But there were also external influences that would later inform Isay's radio work – like one of his favorite movies, "Diner."
"Every character, every face in the background is perfect," Isay says of the 1982 Barry Levinson film. "Every minor character is a character you won't forget. And that attention to detail was magnificent to me."
Isay says he had loving parents, but was still a miserable kid. He started to come into his own at Friends High School, but it was after graduating from NYU, on the cusp of going to medical school, that Isay truly blossomed when he detoured into radio documentaries.
"The microphone gave me the license to ask questions and have conversations I otherwise could not have had," he says.
It brought him into mining towns, Native American reservations, prisons, and Bowery flophouses.
"Doing the documentaries had a huge impact on my life," Isay says. "And that impact is what you see in StoryCorps, because it convinced me of the truth of this idea that every life matters. If you take the time to listen to people, you're going to find poetry and grace and wisdom. And from people who you might not have thought you would find it there."
Isay's documentaries, which aired on NPR, took Isay a part of America he had not seen. Among his works was a profile of inner city kids in Chicago.
"They didn't have a working toilet," Isay remembers. "They were using a bucket to go to the bathroom in, and there were roaches crawling all over people's faces at night."
Isay was constantly on the road, occasionally with comic results.
"I was flying into Charleston, West Virginia, when I was supposed to be in Charleston, South Carolina," he recalls of one episode. "So I had to hump it in the rental car."
But there was nothing funny about the effect of the radio documentaries and subsequent books on the people he interviewed, like the men of one Bowery flophouse.
"I showed this guy his story in the flop-house book, and he kind of paused and he looked at his picture," Isay remembers. "Then he grabbed the book out of my hand and he started running down the hallway, holding the book over his head, screaming, 'I exist, I exist!'"
The work also had an effect on Isay's relationship with his family. In 1988, just after Isay decided to forego medical school for radio, he found out that his father was gay.
Isay responded by doing a documentary, "Remembering Stonewall," on the 1969 Stonewall uprising that served as the catalyst for the gay rights movement.
"That was a gift to him, doing that documentary, and it was very important to me and I know it was very important to him. And it was certainly a turning point in our relationship," Isay says. "Seeing his struggles through life made me want to make sure that people who may be outside of the mainstream and people that may be underdogs are celebrated, and that they feel like their lives have value. That's really important to me."
Isay is now married and a father of two young children. When he flies around the country, it's often to raise money for StoryCorps, which has grown from four to 100 employees.
From Isay's first piece about the museum of addiction, through documentaries on subjects ranging from Yiddish radio to executions in Texas, and finally through StoryCorps, one belief has never changed: that we all have a story worth hearing.
"No one is looking for 15 minutes of fame," Isay says. "This is about nothing but the generosity of listening. And when you hear one of these stories, you realize that you're listening to something real and you're often hearing humanity at its best. And I think when you're listening to that sort of story of everyday people – with their acts of kindness and courage that we don't take the time to honor – you're walking on holy ground."