StoryCorps project highlights listening in a noisy season

Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, has for the past six years been known by another, less common name: the National Day of Listening, established by the national oral history project StoryCorps. On that day, Nov. 29, people around the country are encouraged to interview someone they know — a relative, friend, or someone else they are curious about — and record the conversation. It’s a way to honor that individual and hear their stories, and, if they choose, to add to StoryCorps growing library of interviews.


Locally, the Day of Listening project is being promoted by local radio station KTOO-FM. The station will be broadcasting previous Juneau-based StoryCorps recordings during the Morning Edition program beginning next week and after 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, according to KTOO’s Jeff Brown.

One of the segments they may air is an interview between Juneau residents Sioux Douglas and Renee Guerin, who participated in the StoryCorps project in January 2009 when project representatives came to Juneau during an Alaska tour. Longtime Juneau resident Douglas said the choice to interview Guerin, a writer and a former actress who was one of the first Alaskans to go on Broadway, was an easy one.

“She’s one of Juneau’s most interesting celebrities — born and raised here and a Broadway actress ... I knew her story, though not in great detail, and knew it would be an interesting story to tell. And I knew her well enough to knew that she would tell it well.”

Douglas said her interview with Guerin was more like an informal conversation that unfolded naturally, but interviewers who want more structure can find a list of “good questions” on the StoryCorps website, as well as tips for getting a good recording and how to upload files. KTOO can also offer do-it-yourself tips, Brown said.

Though the Day of Listening isn’t specifically geared toward interviewing elders, both Douglas and Guerin spoke of the importance of asking older family and community members for their stories before it is too late.

Guerin herself served as interviewer for a KTOO radio program based on this idea in the 1990s called “Our Town” that focused on longtime Juneau residents.

“I think historically they are nice tapes to have,” Guerin said. “I hope they save them — some of the people were just wonderful and they’re gone now.”

Guerin also contributed to “Gastineau Channel Memories,” a two-volume work published by the Pioneer Book Committee that presents personal histories gathered from hundreds of Juneau families. And Guerin’s interviews with her own mother, a local pilot and photographer named Amy Lou Barney, formed the basis of her book “Amy Lou’s Alaska,” published in 1997.

Douglas said that, for her, the importance of learning family members’ stories is something she realized too late.

“I’m 71 years old, I’m old enough that my parents didn’t tell me their stories and I wasn’t smart enough as they were aging to be more specific about getting their stories — they came from an era when you didn’t do that, by and large,” she said. “I didn’t know to push it — and I regret that. And now that I realize that, I feel all the more strongly about encouraging people to tell their stories.”

More broadly, Douglas said she thinks listening to each other is especially important in the age of technology when many of our interactions lack physical human contact.

“I think this concept of listening is a huge antidote to what we are losing in humanity through modern technology,” Douglas said. “It’s a deep concern of mine. It’s wonderful to have that technology but we’re paying a price.”

She added that she supports projects like StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening 150 percent.

Those who wish to participate in the project will find a do-it-yourself guide for interviewing on the StoryCorps website

StoryCorps representatives visited Alaska for the first time in October 2008, making stops in Juneau, Fairbanks, Nome, Barrow, Dillingham and Unalaska. They were in Juneau for about a month, collecting stories, working in collaboration with KTOO and the Alaska Public Radio Network, the Juneau Public Libraries, the Alaska State Museum and Sealaska Heritage Institute. The collection of interviews is housed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library and at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

According to the StoryCorps web site, more than 90,000 interviews have been recorded since the project was begun by Dave Isay in 2003 as a way to create a “growing portrait of who we are as Americans.”

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the name of Renee Guerin's mother, Amy Lou Barney.


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