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What StoryCorps should do next

March 18, 2015, 9:33 PM UTC
StoryCorps founder Dave Isay at TED 2015
StoryCorps founder Dave Isay speaks at TED2015 in March 2015 in Vancouver, Canada.
Photograph by James Duncan Davidson — TED

StoryCorps is a charming project begun more than a decade ago by the radio journalist Dave Isay. An audio documentarian, Isay had developed a specialty in giving voice to those who typically weren’t heard. On Tuesday night in Vancouver Isay accepted the 10th annual TED Prize, a million-dollar grant to make a wish come true that will help others. He talked about a man who appeared in one of his works, about the last of the flophouses in New York’s Bowery, who shouted “I exist” when learning he’d been featured by Isay. “The simple act of being interviewed meant so much to people,” Isay said.

With StoryCorps, Isay extended the people whose voices could be heard by the tens of thousands. Assisted by a StoryCorps facilitator, normal people can interview their loved ones or friends, thereby recording their stories forever. Quite a few of these interviews pop up on NPR, nicely blending journalism with oral history. StoryCorps sessions tend to feature a lot of crying, either by the people doing the talking or by listeners bearing witness to their poignant and heart-felt narratives. “It’s kind of like the anti-reality TV,” Isay told an audience at the TED 2015 conference. “ No one comes to StoryCorps to get rich or to get famous.”

Isay is using his prize money from TED to build an app, released Tuesday, to allow anybody with an iPhone or Android smartphone make their own StoryCorps recordings. A tutorial will walk users through the process. A single tap will allow them to upload their recordings to the Library of Congress. For more specifics on the app read Randall Lane’s observant write-up of Isay’s announcement.

StoryCorps is tiny. It operates on a $10-million annual budget and a full-time staff of 80. It also is a powerful vehicle, and it is brain-dead obvious (to me anyway) what its next step needs to be: It should transcribe and publish text versions of all its interviews. The sheer breadth of the interviews would become an amazing repository of searchable information about the human condition. Most people ask their fathers or mothers to recount the stories of their lives. Simply being able to search for a certain country in these accounts would be a tremendous resource to historians, sociologists, policymakers, and other researchers. And that’s just one idea.

Isay has thought of introducing transcriptions, but he says the technology isn’t up to snuff yet. He believes existing automated transcription programs can capture only about 70% of what people say. I suspect, however, that Isay is underestimating what’s possible. He’s a visionary journalist who, quite quaintly, is just now getting an education in the ways of the technology industry.

So here’s a suggestion, Dave. Bring this transcription concept to Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), and play them off against each other for the opportunity to fund exclusively the transcription of StoryCorps’ entire opus, present and future. The $1 million TED is giving you is chump change to these giants, each of which is intensely interested in search, has more cash than it knows how to spend it, and is genuinely interested in funding projects that extend access to knowledge. Google’s YouTube unit also will love your nascent efforts to animate in video format some of your interviews.

Isay told the TED audience Tuesday evening that every day people come up to him and say they wish they had interviewed their father or mother or grandfather or grandmother, but that they waited too long. I hope StoryCorps doesn’t wait too long to convert its treasure trove of spoken words into searchable text.

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