For StoryCorps' David Isay, An Email Was Just 'One Small Step' Toward His Next Project

Originally published on October 26, 2017 11:46 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A few months ago, David Isay, the creator of StoryCorps, got a letter from a listener. It came after he was on the public radio show Indivisible talking about a new idea he had to get strangers with different political opinions to talk to each other. The subject line of the email was love the show, but it was actually very critical. David replied to the email and invited the guy to sit down for a StoryCorps interview, and the guy said yes. Here's them talking about that first email.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID ISAY, BYLINE: Do you want to read it to me, and then...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'd rather not. Please don't make me.

ISAY: OK. So I'll read it. So...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You go on.

ISAY: So it says, (reading) love the show. I apologize for the deceiving title to this email. Everybody sounds like the biggest bunch of crybabies on this show. You're making society weaker by the hour. Stop being a [expletive], and have some backbone. And man [expletive] up (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It sounds awful, and that is not the kind of person I am.

ISAY: What were you thinking?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was coming home from real estate class, and I don't even know what the topic was about. And while driving, you know, I just voice-recorded this quick email. I know it sounds bigoted, but that's really not the person I am. And I'm sorry about using the F-word.

ISAY: Were you surprised when I wrote to you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. I still am. Were you surprised to...

ISAY: I was surprised that you wrote back. I was surprised that you were such a nice guy. I was surprised you had the courage to do this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. I mean, of course. It's uncomfortable talking about this thing, you know? It's not me.

MCEVERS: David Isay is with us now to tell us how this conversation is part of his newest project. It's called One Small Step. Hi, there.

ISAY: Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So what came out of that conversation in the end?

ISAY: Well, so winding back a little bit, you know, StoryCorps' been around for a bunch of years. We've had about a half million people participate. Come to a booth, and you have a conversation. And to a person, those half million people have been people who know and love each other. And we've been kind of heads-down testing something new at StoryCorps for the last bunch of months which we're talking about for the first time publicly today. And that's basically seeing what would happen when you put two people who disagree politically together in a StoryCorps booth not to talk about politics but just to get to know each other as human beings.

I got the email of course. He hated me. I hated him. And I was on an airplane and, you know, took a deep breath and just wrote him and said, will you do an interview with me? And he wrote back and said, I'd love to, and I want to take you to dinner. And a month later, we were sitting together, doing this interview. Even just the act of us sitting - you know, shaking hands in the studio near where he lived in Rhode Island was amazing. Just to kind of look each other in the eye and, you know, let down our guard and see that this person who you would've thought you hated or was kind of inhuman was just another person was almost kind of thrilling, you know, and amazing.

I mean, it was - look. It's this - what we're trying to do is really difficult. And the dream with this is that we're just getting started, you know? We're going to start recording interviews in a large scale in a couple months from now. The odds are against this thing catching on, but it's not impossible. And we're going to fight with everything we've got to see if we can get the country listening to each other again and pump the brakes a little bit on the discordant division.

MCEVERS: So the idea is to get people who don't necessarily agree with each other to come into this space and talk to each other in the way that people who know each other do in StoryCorps.

ISAY: That's right.

MCEVERS: And how are you going to do it?

(LAUGHTER)

ISAY: Well, we're figuring that out still. I mean, there's lots of - there - we're going to - there's lots of different ideas. But right now we're looking for another big wave of volunteers as we move towards the winter and we get started who are interested in participating in some way. And for folks who are, go to our website. Go to storycorps.org, and give us your email. And let us know, and we'll be in touch.

MCEVERS: Well, David Isay, thank you so much.

ISAY: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: David Isay is the creator of StoryCorps and of the new project. It's called One Small Step.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUN RIVER NORTH SONG, "INTRO (FUNERAL) PARADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.