Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Word of mouth — StoryCorps interest grows as more people voice their tales

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Ross and Annie Kendall’s four kids have heard the stories of life on the family’s Kodiak Island setnet site multiple times. Shoot, they grew up living many of them:

What the remote site was like when the Kendalls first started fishing it 30 years ago — a 12-by-16-foot cabin with no electricity.

How the fish would be covered with burlap soaked in water, sitting in the sun with magpies pecking the eyes out until the tender came.

How it’s changed today — a satellite phone and periodic e-mail connection, and a covered, refrigerated seawater system to keep the fish pristine in 35-degree seawater as they wait for the tender.

And the, as Annie puts it, “schizophrenia of being in one place every summer and living somewhere else in the winter.”

“The kids would roll their eyes and go, ‘Oh yeah, that story again,’” Annie said.

The stories may be old news for the Kenai couple’s now-grown children, who spent summers growing up at the setnet site with their parents. But they’ll be brand-new to the millions of radio and Internet listeners across the country that may hear them on National Public Radio in the future.

The Kendalls recorded their descriptions of life at the Kodiak setnet site at the Kenai Community Library on Monday, as part of the StoryCorps program.

StoryCorps is an independent, nonprofit oral history project where everyday people record stories about their lives through interviews by friends or family members. Since 2003, program staff has been traveling the country, recording tens of thousands of stories in 40-minute sessions, which are archived at the Library of Congress.

Participants get a free CD of their recording that they can share with whomever they like. Some stories are aired on NPR or posted on the StoryCorps Web site.

StoryCorps staff has been in Alaska since Oct. 15, and will be here until April 30, 2009, facilitating interviews in Fairbanks, Nome, Barrow, Dillingham, Unalaska and Juneau. Alaska stories also are being archived at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Public libraries in other areas of the state, including Kenai, have volunteered to be recording sites.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for people and families in the community to participate in that. Just basically to share some of those stories with other people,” said Julie Neiderhauser, with the Kenai library. “It’s a good thing for families. It gives that person being interviewed an honorary role as the family historian.”

The library has been hosting recording sessions since Nov. 4. It was scheduled to continue through Nov. 26, but may add another week if more people want to make recordings.

Participation started a little slow, probably because folks were waiting on the sidelines to see how the project works, Neiderhauser said. As more people participate, word of mouth spreads and dispels some of the initial trepidation people may have had.

“I think the permanent part,” is what may scare people away, Neiderhauser said. “This is going to be stored and people go, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I say?’”

She recommends thinking about questions and topics to discuss before coming in, and the library has a list of suggested questions to ask if people get stuck.

Another misconception is that conversations have to be about something momentous. Not so, said Joy Morgan, with the library.

“It’s meant for people to record a conversation, whatever they feel like talking about,” she said.

Morgan and her father-in-law, Dick Morgan, were one of the first duos to do a recording. She interviewed him about being a civic leader in the early days of the city of Kenai. Another group, a grandmother and granddaughter, talked about what it was like living in the area in homesteading days.

But stories don’t have to be historic. Even young adults have plenty of experiences and insights to share.

“It can be anything people want to talk about. People think it has to be really important, but everyone has a story, something they can talk about that’s really interesting,” Morgan said.

For the Kendalls, StoryCorps was a chance to share experiences that may seem foreign to people in the Lower 48.

“To us it’s a normal aspect of our lives. Maybe not in Alaska, but to other people, it’s a pretty unusual lifestyle, and you never know how long that will go on for,” Annie Kendall said.

The process was painless, Ross Kendall said. Call the library or stop by and set up a recording appointment. Fill out a few release forms when you get there. Listen to a short tutorial on how to use the recording equipment. Push record, and you’re off.

The first five or 10 minutes were a little unnerving, getting used to not being able to make side comments and wondering if they’d have enough to talk about, Annie said.

“All of a sudden I looked and it was 35 minutes and I was thinking of all these big points we still wanted to make,” she said.

Both being teachers — Ross retired and Annie at Nikiski North-Star Elementary School — the idea of oral history intrigued them, and they enjoy listening to StoryCorps broadcasts on NPR.

“To me it’s a neat opportunity to be able to be part of that and to feel like you had something sort of interesting to talk about,” Annie said.

StoryCorps recording sessions are available at 9 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. Recordings last 40 minutes. To reserve a slot, call the library at 283-4378.

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