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Power of Story: Dave Isay’s StoryCorps and the Viability of Audio Storytelling

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StoryCorps’ animated short Miss Devine

Nate von Zumwalt, Editorial Manager

How do we quantify the power of story? In this rapid-click era of social media “likes,” video on demand, and unprecedented access to story, the ability to measure impact is more problematic than ever. On Day 3 of the Sundance Film Festival, four panelists with keen–albeit disparate–relationships with story sat on the Power of Story: Weights and Measures panel to begin parsing these questions. 

Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps; Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove; Jess Search, CEO of BRITDOC; and Paul J. Zak, a scientist specializing in the neurobiology of narrative offered a four-pronged approach to the challenges at hand. But Isay’s StoryCorps presented perhaps the most unique and impenetrable angle, given that since 2003 his organization has strived to instruct and inspire people to record each others’ stories in sound. It is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, having collected and archived more than 50K interviews and garnered millions of listeners via StoryCorps’ weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and on their website. 

At a first hasty glance, StoryCorps is a 21st century anomaly. It’s medium of choice is technically antiquated and flailing among the Internet’s ecosystem of memes, Vines, and Buzzfeed articles that make YouTube videos seem as unwieldy as an Ayn Rand novel. But given due attention, the project is as creatively transcendent and meaningful as any mode of storytelling available.

“I used to be a radio documentary producer, and I loved audio–its intimacy and the power to go straight to the heart,” said Isay, regarding his loyalty to the medium. “We live in a digital age, so I knew with the impact we wanted to have we had to find ways to add tools to the storyboard.” Those tools include a more visual friendly animation accompaniment to some of the stories archived with StoryCorps. But Isay maintains that the centerpiece of his organization is and will continue to be storytelling through sound.

“Audio is very good for emotional stories. It’s a medium that plays to the imagination,” he suggested. “For all of its wonders, there are certain answers that technology won’t give us. Those are the human answers.” Unfortunately, the many intangible qualities that define audio stories also tend to make the aforementioned task of evaluation more elusive. “How do you measure magic? Evaluation is important, but it has to be carefully and thoughtfully done,” said Isay. “Evaluating [StoryCorps] is somewhat easier to do, because it’s about how someone feels coming out of an interview as opposed to how they felt going in.” That emotional transformation rests at the crux of the StoryCorps mission.

“If you were going to boil StoryCorps down to one sentence, it would be that every life matters equally.” I’d reckon that assertion needs no evaluation.

For more on StoryCorps, check out “Listening Is An Act of Love,” an animated special screening streaming through Feb. 13 on POV. 

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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