Tell me a story

MARQUETTE – A small team of radio journalists with StoryCorps – a national nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing and preserving the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs – arrived in Marquette Monday with their MobileBooth to record the local history of Upper Peninsula residents.

When StoryCorps first contacted Northern Michigan University’s Public Radio 90, Community Support Coordinator Leigh Barry said she lobbied heavily to make sure they were able to come. The station received financial support from the Ray and Peg Hirvonen Foundation and the Eagle Mine, she said, as well as from NMU, which is providing housing for StoryCorps journalists.

“Given the type of history we have in the area – it’s one of those little hidden gems, so there’s so much (we’re) at risk of just kind of losing,” she said. “We want to make sure that our stories are told and preserved.”

Outfitted with a professional recording studio, the MobileBooth will be parked outside the Peter White Public Library for four weeks. Facilitators will record a total of about 120 to 130 40-minute sessions from July 5 until Aug. 7. With permission, stories are then archived in the American Folk Life Center in the Library of Congress as well as a local archive. Whether people give permission or not, they receive a copy of the raw interview free of charge.

Mitra Bonshahi, who has travelled across the country with the MobileBooth as a manager and facilitator, is the temporary tour manager for StoryCorps’ Marquette location. A student of the New School, a university in New York City, she is helping to set up the MobileBooth and will be succeeded as manager by Emily Janssen as she moves on to another tour site.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that everybody does have a story, even if they don’t think so initially,” she said.

StoryCorps, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has recorded over 50,000 interviews, making it the largest archive of oral histories in the U.S.

Bonshahi said part of the mission is to share, honor and value each other’s lives.

“(People) come out (of the booth) and they just feel special, which is pretty amazing. It’s almost like therapy,” she said. “People feel good; they feel important…I think that’s the best part about it, and being a facilitator, I’ve seen that time and time again.”

About half of the appointments were still available as of Wednesday, Bonshahi said, and people can sign up online by visiting www.storycorps.org or by calling 800-850-4406.

Interviewees are encouraged to bring a friend, neighbor or family member to record their stories with, which makes the session more of a conversation than a formal interview conducted by the facilitator. She said facilitators find that makes for a more comfortable experience and better overall recording. They see a lot of inter-generational interviews, she said.

“All age ranges are good,” she said. “But I think people do bring in people who are older because they want to get their story down for posterity. They want to share it with family members and friends.”

They only ask that interviewees be over 10 years old, she said, because kids tend to have a hard time sitting still for the whole interview.

While some stories will also be produced and played locally on Public Radio 90, only about 1 percent of interviews are edited down to the 2- to 4-minute segments that appear on NPR’s Morning Edition, Bonshahi said.

“On the radio, what you hear are highly edited segments, so people sometimes hear those and say, ‘I don’t know – my story’s not that great,'” she said. “But we remind them that there’s a little radio magic that’s happening.”

StoryCorps’ MobileBooth will be recording stories Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with each appointment lasting an hour and producing 40 minutes of raw audio.

“Everybody has something to say, and we don’t want just the big storytellers with a capital ‘S’ to come out,” said Barry. “We want everyone’s story because that’s what makes us who we are.”

Bonshahi said it is a privilege and honor to witness the stories shared, because it allows her to experience the communities she tours on a more intimate level, within the “sacred space” of the recording studio. She said her impression of Marquette has been very positive.

“I’m from New York where a lot of people don’t smile so much,” she said. “So the people are very friendly and everybody’s been very open…It’s just beautiful. It seems like a magical place.”

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.