Oral stories of Wacoans frozen in history by tour

Courtesy Photo
The StoryCorps bus travels across America recording the conversations of ordinary people for preservation in the Library of Congress.

By Carmen Galvan
Staff Writer

StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization dedicated to recording and preserving oral history, is visiting Waco this holiday season.

The mobile tour began recording in Waco Central Library on Austin Avenue on Nov. 26 and will be scheduling appointments until Dec. 20, said Eloise Melzer, state supervisor with the StoryCorps mobile tour.

“Our mission is to record the stories of everyday Americans of all different backgrounds and walks of life,” Melzer said. “We want to record them and preserve them for future generations, and we want to archive their stories in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.”

The national oral history project records the conversations and interviews between friends and loved ones with the purpose of preserving their diverse life experiences and memories. Once recorded, the interviews have the possibility of being broadcasted through National Public Radio or other national media outlets, Melzer said.

The project was initiated by Dave Isay, a radio documentarian who has been producing radio documentaries for National Public Radio for years. Melzer said Isay developed a documentary that taught people to use the recording equipment to record their own lives and he produced a piece based on the collected footage.

“Through the process [Isay] saw how empowered people felt by documenting their life and the ability to ask questions of their family members that they normally wouldn’t ask,” Melzer said. “The participants also walked away with the recording of their family’s voices.”

This type of documentary inspired Isay to begin StoryCorps in 2003, and the project has expanded to a national organization since then, recording more than 35,000 conversations in all 50 states.

StoryCorps has three permanent recording locations in New York, Atlanta and San Francisco, but the organization’s mobile tour travels across the United States to capture the stories of different backgrounds and experiences.

“Every place we go we partner with public radio, and the mobile booth travels through the country,” Melzer said.

“We try to go to a diversity of places: large cities, small towns, rural areas, places where there is different diversity, history and experiences. We’ve never been to Waco before, so we partnered with KWBU and we are just thrilled to be here and to document the unique oral history of Waco.”

Brodie Bashaw, FM station manager for KWBU, a National Public Radio affiliate, said the StoryCorps visit is a great opportunity for citizens of Waco to have their life stories documented.

“I think it’s really going to help in opening eyes to the number of different cultures here,” Bashaw said.

“StoryCorps is a chance for John Doe and Jane Smith to go and tell their stories.”

The opportunity also emphasizes the tradition of listening, said Dr. Stephen Sloan, director of the Institute for Oral History and assistant professor of history.

“The focus of StoryCorps is that listening is important,” Sloan said. “Taking the time to listen and to really understand one another’s experiences is a dying art that is deeper than tweets or status updates. As our attention span gets shorter and shorter, it’s something we really need to be intentional about.”

Melzer said participants have 40 minutes to record their conversation, which may cover all life’s topics from honoring a deceased loved one to life lessons.

“We find that a lot of people say they don’t have a story, but everyone has a story and you ask one question and 20 minutes go by,” Melzer said.

“When you’re in the recording booth, it’s a really intimate experience because the world falls away and it’s just you two having a conversation.”

Participants receive their own copy of the conversation and the option to have their recording considered for national broadcast, but all recordings are preserved in the Library of Congress.

Melzer said that StoryCorps still has recording sessions available at the Waco Central Library. Appointments may be scheduled at www.storycorps.org or at 1-800-850-4406.