There Is No Cat

Groovy '60s Sounds from the Land of Smile!

Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Oral history for everyone

David Isay, probably the best long-form radio producer in America, has started what sounds like a fascinating new project. His best projects fall somewhere in between traditional journalism and oral history. Now he wants to expand the effort to record oral history in America, or at least in New York City to start with (New York Times link, registration required). He's setting up a booth in Grand Central Station where people can come to record interviews. The idea is that two people will come to the booth, one the interviewer and the other the interviewee. A facilitator there will give the interviewer some basic training in interviewing technique, such as how to ask open questions and how to keep your mouth shut, then let the interview commence. The participants will get a CD of the interview to take home with them, and Isay's project will keep a copy for posterity. Eventually, there will be booths around the country, some of them travelling to different locations. He's given it the clever name of StoryCorps. Interestingly, on the StoryCorps web site, I see that they're also going to be offering a portable StoryKit, consisting of a MiniDisc recorder, microphone, headphones, interviewing manual, and a CD offering examples, both positive and negative.

I've long been interested in oral history. When I was in college, I dated a history grad student, and one of her colleagues was doing his Ph.D. by conducting oral histories with residents of his home town in central Pennsylvania. Some of the other grad students didn't think that was a worthy subject of study, but I thought it was brilliant. I've conducted a little bit of oral history myself, particularly an interview Laura and I did with my grandmother back in 1996 as the first act I did in starting to research my genealogy. The recording I made that day is very precious to me, and even more so since my grandmother died in 2000.

Isay has many of his best radio documentaries/oral histories posted on his company's web site. If you listen to nothing else there, check out Ghetto Life 101, a half-hour long piece Isay co-produced with a couple of teenaged boys in a neighborhood in Chicago. The piece, produced almost exactly ten years ago, was one of the most spellbinding pieces of radio I've ever heard, and an excellent example of the crossover between oral history and documentary that Isay specializes in. Isay was also responsible for the Yiddish Radio Project, which aired on NPR's All Things Considered over a number of weeks, a fascinating exploration of a forgotten subculture.

I just find the whole concept of public interviewing booths incredibly interesting. It seems to me to be the project of a fertile imagination, and if anyone can pull it off, I think Isay is the person to do it.

Posted at 8:40 AM

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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