Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hear About National Listening Day?

Listening To Ourselves

by Terry Plumb

One way to make a newspaperman wince is to request publicity for a day of observance. Hardly a day goes by when someone isn’t promoting a day or week dedicated to, say, the fight against cancer or the importance of eating more blueberries.
So when my younger daughter requested a column in support of National Listening Day, my initial reaction was lukewarm. When I learned that the third annual event would take place Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I was even more dubious. Every real American knows that’s the day we rush, lemming like, to the nearest mall. What was she thinking?
The more I thought about it, however, the merits of a designating a day for listening during Thanksgiving made sense. Despite the best efforts of supermarket chains and greeting card companies, Thanksgiving remains largely unsullied by commercialization. And with the possible exception of Christmas, it’s the holiday most associated with family.
First some background: National Listening Day is the creation of StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that provides people the opportunity to record and share the stories of their lives. It’s best known for the sometimes humorous, often gripping interviews that National Public Radio airs on “Morning Edition” each Friday.
StoryCorps is the brainchild of Dave Isay. A former radio documentary reporter, Isay believes passionately that the story of America is best told – not by politicians or talking heads who fill the airways with their ego-centric ranting – but by ordinary people speaking to someone who cares about them. The art of listening, he maintains, can be mastered by anyone and has the potential to enrich our lives, both as individuals and as a nation.
I first became familiar with StoryCorps several years ago while visiting our daughter in New York City. She took my wife and I to Foley Square, where StoryCorps maintains a permanent booth. She interviewed us for 40 minutes, asking such questions as how we met, what we remembered about our childhoods and what she and her older sister were like as children. At the end of the interview, we were handed a CD of the interview and, with our permission, a copy was sent to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where it’s preserved for posterity along with more than 30,000 similar interviews.
In the interest of disclosure, I need to say that our same daughter later would go to work for StoryCorps. She now manages the StoryCorps office in Atlanta.
StoryCorps doesn’t charge for its services, although donations are welcome. For National Listening Day, however, the organization isn’t asking for anything other than that people record their own stories, using tape recorders, cell phones or any other recording devices they may have around the house.
Typically, interviews are between family members, but I’ve heard excerpts of moving conversations between co-workers and neighbors. The only essential ingredients are curiosity about another human being and a willingness to listen to what they have to say.
To facilitate participation, StoryCorps has created a Web link,, where visitors may find tips on how to conduct an interview, find advice on choosing equipment, etc.
Best of all, there is a list of favorite StoryCorps questions that are likely to evoke fruitful responses. Some are designed for specific relationships. For example, you may want ask your mother, “If you could do everything again, would you raise me differently?”
There are sample questions for friends, questions about working, serious illness and military service – among others. War veterans are notorious for not wanting to talk about their battlefield experiences, but many will open up if asked, “How did war change you?”
Isay would say that just as there are no wrong answers, there are no wrong questions. Indeed, the use of such open-ended questions is a technique that journalists have long employed. Some experts say the best question a reporter can ask is, “What do you think about that?”
We seldom are asked that question. Even more rarely do we ask it of ourselves. Why bother when public opinion pollsters are constantly ready to tell us what we think.
National Listening Day won’t provide a cure-all for what ails we Americans, but it’s the least bitter medicine I’ve heard prescribed lately.

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