Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Radio producer Dave Isay first made his mark with stories like Ghetto Life 101, for which he enlisted a pair of precocious eighth-graders to document their lives in a Chicago housing project. He saw how putting the kids in charge of the recording gear gave them license to ask questions they might never have asked otherwise—and how the mere act of participating in these very personal interviews "could transform people's lives."
Click on the arrows below to listen to some greatest hits from Ties That Bind:Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps.
In 2003, he launched a project called StoryCorps, setting up a booth in New York City's Grand Central Terminal where anyone could walk in and interview a relative, a friend, or even a complete stranger for 40 minutes. The project's mobile recording booths have ambled through 174 American cities to date, helping collect more than 50,000 interviews involving 90,000 people. The recordings are archived in the Library of Congress, and choice bits are broadcast weekly on NPR's Morning Edition. For its 10th anniversary this month, StoryCorps is releasing a greatest hits book, Ties That Bind, and throwing a gala hosted by Stephen Colbert.
StoryCorps has also launched initiatives to capture the voices of special demographics: ethnic minorities, teachers, seniors, people with memory loss, even one dedicated to preserving Alaskan heritage. The archive is a paean to unsung heroes—people like Ted Weaver, a janitor and chauffeur in pre-civil-rights era Knoxville, Tennessee, who stayed up late to teach himself algebra so he could help his son Lynn with homework. (Lynn tells of his father's modest feats in a recording embedded in the box above.)
Isay, the recipient of six Peabody awards—radio's highest honor—and a MacArthur "genius" grant, calls these recordings "poems of the human voice," but artistic merit is hardly the point. "People know that their great-great-great-great-grandkids are going to get to hear their voice someday, and this will be maybe the only thing they leave behind," he told me recently. "There'll be pictures and other things, but the soul is contained in the voice."
Mother Jones: I've read that StoryCorps was inspired by the oral history projects that came out of the New Deal.
Dave Isay: I used to go to the American Folklife Center in DC and listen to those interviews. There may have been less than 100 recorded on these discs—a bunch of them by John Lomax. I remember a recording of guys in a pool hall right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and you can hear the balls, people shooting pool in the background and these guys, very beautifully and clearly recorded, talking about about what was about to happen. It just kind of transported me back in time.
MJ: I gather some academics don't consider StoryCorps true oral history?
DI: Yeah, I think because the people who are asking questions aren't academics, and there's a time limit. And that's fine. We feel like we walk in the footsteps of oral historians and Studs Terkel, who loved StoryCorps! I'm not so concerned about what people call it, I'm just kind of concerned that people take the time to have these conversations.
MJ: Did you set up StoryCorps this way in the hope of eliminating the biases an outside interviewer brings into the process?
Scientists have found that drought means Engelmann spruce trees (pictured on Red Mountain Pass, Colorado, above) have weaker defenses against spruce beetles, triggering an outbreak in hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado's forests.
Since the late 1990s, mountain pine beetles have swept through millions of acres of forest in the Rockies, turning hillsides of trees a rusty red and then grey as they populate trees and kill them. In Colorado, this outbreak seems to have peaked in 2008 and 2009; but just as one species slowed, another—the spruce beetle—has picked up steam. A new University of Colorado study published in Ecology reveals how drought was the driver of the rise in spruce beetle activity and resulting tree deaths in Colorado's high-elevation forests in recent years. The drought is in turn linked to changes in sea surface temperatures that are expected to continue for decades to come. In the long-term, such massive insect infestations could dramatically diminish North American forests' ability to retain water and sequester carbon—meaning trees will be less effective at balancing out the human toll on the environment.
So far, fewer acres of trees have been affected by spruce beetles than mountain pine beetles, but there are more spruce forests in Colorado than Lodgepole pine, so there's "no reason to expect the percentage mortality to be less or acreage affected to be any less" than it was for the mountain pine beetle epidemic, said Tom Veblen, coauthor of the study and a geography professor at CU.
Radio host Roman Mars, creator of the architecture-and-design podcast 99% Invisible, wasn't always interested in the structures around him—"I found architecture kind of distancing, quite honestly," he says—until the day he embarked on a boat tour of Chicago. The guide pointed out how one of the Montgomery Ward buildings was explicitly designed without corner offices to prevent squabbling among company vice-presidents over who should get one. It "made me realize I wasn't invested in the aesthetics of buildings, but I loved the stories of buildings a whole lot."
In 2010, when an architecture trade group partnered with San Francisco radio station KALW to launch a bite-size design segment, Mars, who'd gotten his start at the station nine years earlier, jumped in to produce. Soon he was doing longer stories about things most if us take for granted: a decrepit bridge in Golden Gate Park, highway stripes, the modern toothbrush, the dark logic of solitary-confinement cells.
Flames from the High Park Fire west of Ft. Collins in June 2012.
The severe flooding that barreled through the Colorado foothills last week and took at least 8 lives resulted from a freak tempest that's been deemed one of the worst in the state's history. In just a few days, Boulder received more than half its normal annual precipitation. It's quite a reversal from the persistent drought and destructive wildfires Coloradans have recently contended with; in 2010, the Fourmile Canyon fire outside of Boulder became the state's most destructive to date, until it was surpassed last summer by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires of 2012, which caused tens of thousands of evacuations along the Front Range. These extreme swings—from parched and burning to flooded—have led some to wonder if climate change is at play; Chris Mooney does a great roundup of the thinking on this in a piece yesterday.
Torrential rainfall, rather than past wildfires, was the biggest factor in Colorado's flooding.
There's also been speculation that effects from these recent wildfires could have worsened the flooding: A National Geographic post points to how a lack of vegetation causes denuded hillsides to fail to trap enough water, and Live Science notes that debris slides were spotted in recently burned regions like the High Park Fire area and Boulder's Fourmile Canyon. There's good reason to wonder if burn-scarred areas might've exacerbated the problem. Wildfires affect soil quality and can increase stream flows and erosion by 10 to 100 times compared to normal forests. Scorched hillsides can send more debris down canyons.
The experts I reached out to with this question agreed that flash floods are often a result of thunderstorms hitting burned areas with repellent soils and lack of vegetation. But most of Colorado's recent flooding doesn't exactly fall under this scenario: "Remember that the area that has been burned compared to the area where rain fell is relatively small," says Lee MacDonald, a hydrology expert at Colorado State University. Some of the rivers that were flooding and causing problems last week, such as in Big Thompson Canyon, weren't coming out of large burn areas, he says. Instead, the unusual rainfall—deemed "biblical" by the National Weather Service—was the biggest factor in all the runoff.
Wildfires have a large effect on small and medium flooding events, but when rainfall is off the charts, the effect of burned areas shrinks. "It's going to be difficult to separate out the part of the flooding that was increased because of fire because it was just so much water," says Kevin Hyde, a post-doc studying post-fire erosion at the University of Wyoming. Proximity could play a role: "the closer you are to the burned areas," Hyde adds, "the more impact the rainfall has."
Still, the compounded damages from the cycle of wildfire and flooding could very well be amplified on the Front Range in coming years. Climate models foretell larger regional storms, and scientists have also predicted bigger, more intense wildfires in Colorado's future. "What is that going to mean for the people living in the mouth of these areas?" wonders Hyde. If the 100-year flood that turned Boulder inside out last week is any indication, living at the base of the Rockies—while arguably worth it—isn't getting any less complicated.
Square dancing at the 2012 Berkeley Old Time Music Convention
When I catch fiddler Suzy Thompson on the phone, she's pretty amped to tell me about the 10th annual Old Time Music Convention in Berkeley, California. As BOTMC's director and founder, Thompson has coaxed old-time musicians from around the world to not only perform at the small annual festival, but to lead its square dances and workshops with eager local participants and amateurs. The outdoor string band contest, held at the park near the Berkeley Farmers' Market, often takes center stage: jug bands, Italian tarantellas, a Greek band complete with undulating belly dancer—"anything goes as long as it's unplugged," the program reads. The result is a gathering modeled after Appalachian fiddle and banjo conventions that emphasize "doing rather than just watching." There's not much separation between the stars and the regular folk who take part.
That attitude is what attracted Foghorn Stringband fiddler Sammy Lind to old-time music in the first place. "I was really drawn to the social aspect of it," he tells me during a break from his current tour in Washington. "I loved getting together; it felt great to be part of a crew of people like that."