The silver bullet Airstream trailer parked on the north side of the Santa Fe Plaza looks like a sleek mobile home, or maybe one of Santa Fe’s eclectic food trucks. But inside the Airstream, behind a closed door, is a recording studio in miniature.
Two large microphones loom over a table. High-end recording equipment dominates the built-in cabinets, and the room is close and silent — words disappear almost as soon as they’re spoken, thanks to soundproofing that envelops the trailer’s curved walls.
The Airstream is the mobile home of StoryCorps, a Peabody-award-winning nonprofit headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., that records the stories of the nation’s everyday people. The trailer arrived on the Plaza on Jan. 9 and will stay there until Feb. 9. This week, the recording sessions were relocated temporarily to La Fonda due to heating issues, but the plan is to return to the trailer when the weather and technical fixes permit.
Founded by David Isay in 2003, StoryCorps is based on the idea that everyone’s stories are vital. At its semi-permanent story booth locations around the country (Manhattan, San Francisco, Atlanta and elsewhere), and in its two Airstreams, trained StoryCorps facilitators help two people who know one another conduct a 40-minute interview. So far, nearly 90,000 interviews have been archived. Call it the democratization of recorded history — StoryCorps exists to hear the histories of your grandmother, second-grade teacher, neighborhood bartender. The focus is generally on the big, essential questions: Who are you, and what’s happened in your life?
During StoryCorp’s time in Santa Fe, seven 40-minute-long interviews are conducted daily by appointment only, and anyone can sign up to participate, either online or over the phone. Participation is free, though donations are suggested. At the end of each session, interviewer and storyteller get a CD recording of their interview to take home. For those who give permission, interviews are archived at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, and selected interviews are aired regularly on NPR stations around the country. In Santa Fe, the program is co-sponsored by KSFR, 101.1 FM, and the New Mexico History Museum.
On a windy afternoon the week the Airstream opened for business here, friends Allan Shedlin and Tom Maguire stepped out of the recording booth. Shedlin is the founder and president of Reel Fathers, a Santa Fe and Washington, D.C.-based organization whose mission is to support and promote good fathering through story and film. Maguire serves on Reel Fathers’ advisory board.
Interviewing is part of Shedlin’s everyday work with Reel Fathers. “I’d known about what Allan calls his ‘daddying’ interviews for quite a while, so I sort of knew what to expect,” Maguire said. “We’ve talked a lot about what it means to be a father. … Still, he sandbagged me,” Maguire said, good-naturedly elbowing Shedlin in the ribs. “He asked me things I never expected.”
“It’s different when you’re talking to a friend,” Shedlin said. “Often, in an interview, I jump-start it by sharing a few of my own experiences. But when you’re talking to someone you know, you don’t have to jump-start it. You’re already right there.”
This StoryCorps trailer is staffed by three women, who will travel around the country for nearly a year to gather stories. Before coming to New Mexico, the group was in McAllen, Texas, and its next stop is Phoenix. Anna Berlanga is one of two bilingual (Spanish and English) mobile facilitators. While Shedlin and Maguire recorded their interview with another bilingual facilitator, Leslee Dean, Berlanga staffed the front of the trailer. The two are supervised by Lisa Polito, and all three take turns assisting in the recording booth.
“The storyteller and the interviewer decide what they want to talk about,” Berlanga said. Interviewers and storytellers talk about everything — they tell stories about when they were children, dispense advice and sometimes get to know one another better.
Berlanga mentioned that during two separate Santa Fe interviews, one with a man and one with a woman, the storytellers mentioned the personal impact of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “They were different interviews on different days,” Berlanga said. “But both of them choked up and talked about [the assassination] as the first moment they realized that the world was changing and different.”
Occasionally, storytellers arrive on their own. Photographer Herb Lotz’s recording partner canceled at the last minute, so Lotz was interviewed by a facilitator. Lotz described the scope of his interview, which touched on topics from coming out to his family as gay at 17, to his service in the Vietnam War, to his frustration with the lost momentum of the women’s movement.
“It felt like we talked for 10 minutes,” Lotz said. “I cried a few times. When you’re a young man, you can see the future, but when you’re an old man, you don’t see the future, you see the past. I can’t see what’s coming, and there’s something poignant in that. … The fact that [StoryCorps] is saving this kind of history is important, because so much is lost over time.”
With smartphones and social media, documenting personal photographs is a daily occurrence for many people. But recordings of voices are rare.
“A lot of people have photographs,” Berlanga said. “But that audio component is so important. On a personal level, my dad died six years ago, and I’m forgetting the sound of his voice. History is told through the stories of important people, but the really important people are the everyday people. And there’s so much meaning carried in the sound of a voice.”
StoryCorps stories can be heard each Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition. KSFR will incorporate audio gathered in Santa Fe into upcoming broadcasts. Listen to stories for free online at http://storycorps.org/listen/.
Contact Adele Oliveira at 986-3091 or email@example.com.