A 9-year-old boy approaches a man in a small-town Texas park. When they start chatting, the man gets an idea. He pulls out his smartphone, equipped with a new app from StoryCorps, and starts interviewing the boy.

The beginning of the conversation is unmemorable, if amusing. (What was the happiest moment in the boy’s short life? “My first sushi.”) But it takes a poignant turn when the man asks the boy how he’d like to be remembered. I’d like to stop racism, he answers, without hesitation. The middle-aged black man is clearly startled by the white boy’s response. What started out as a casual chat between strangers morphs into an encouraging cross-generational conversation about prejudice, history, and compassion.

The app that prompted this unusual interaction just made its digital debut. But StoryCorps has been active since 2003, facilitating some 50,000 interviews. Founder David Isay had been a radio producer who, while working on an audio documentary about the Stonewall riots, discovered the power that comes with wielding a microphone.

“The microphone gave me the license to go places I otherwise never would have gone and talk to people I might not otherwise have ever spoken to,” Isay told a captive crowd at TED2015. He quickly learned that his sources felt empowered, too. He recalled one exclaiming “I exist!” when he saw his photograph and story published.

“Over and over again, I’d see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people,” Isay said.

With StoryCorps, Isay set out to give both the interviewer’s power and the interviewee’s platform to regular people, who he knew to hold fascinating narratives and wisdom. Until now, all interviews have been confined to StoryCorps booths, which have permanent locations in three cities and on a trailer that tours the country.

“Over and over again, I’d see how the simple act of being interviewed could mean so much to people.”
Now, thanks to a TED prize, support from the Knight Foundation, and the expertise of Pittsburgh-based MAYA Design, anyone with a smartphone can access a virtual “booth.” On the free app, users are given simple instructions for recording an interview and uploading it to the public online archive and to the Library of Congress. The app works on iOS and Android platforms and allows users to share interview excerpts on social media.

“We’ve found a way to use technology to preserve an experience that is extremely personal, without being obtrusive,” said Greg Gibilisco, MAYA director of visual design, on the firm’s website.

Dozens of stories are already on the site. Many of the interviews mirror those told in the booths: oral histories of elderly relatives and moving conversations between close friends. But some of the participants, like the man in the Texas park, take advantage of the new mobility to strike up spontaneous conversations with people they find intriguing or different. Others tell stories in unconventional settings, like the back of a speeding cab.

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Screen Shot/ StoryCorps

Those who work with young people are probably already thinking about the app’s implications for learning.

Pittsburgh’s Hear Me is founded on the premise that storytelling—particularly of the digital variety—empowers and effects change. At Hear Me, a CREATE Lab initiative, teenagers use digital tools to record both personal and political stories. Their voices, often ignored in other settings, are amplified.

With projects like Hear Me and the StoryCorps app, kids might be drawn in by the fun technology or the spotlight, but in the meantime they develop a slew of other skills. Interviewing, of course, requires active listening. Being interviewed requires clear communication. Both roles demand collaboration and confidence.

The online archive is key. Teachers who lead digital storytelling units where student pieces are published have spoken about the effect of an audience.

In a National Writing Project report, educators commented on “the creativity and innovation that emerge when young people face challenges in conveying their interests to a wider audience.”

Back at the Texas park, interviewer and interviewee are wrapping up their session. The boy has segued into considering the dangers and merits of medical marijuana. The man, who had no expectations when he decided to open his new app, has been rendered nearly speechless by the kid’s precociousness.

“I don’t think anyone is going to believe this was unscripted!” he says, laughing on the recording.