Art Beat: Dave Isay's Calling | WMUK

Art Beat: Dave Isay's Calling

Dec 31, 2020

StoryCorps founder Dave Isay
Credit Harvey Wang

Dave Isay founded StoryCorps in 2003, inviting people to come inside a booth at Grand Central Station in New York and record a conversation with someone important to them.

Since it began, more than 600,000 conversations have been recorded and stored at the Library of Congress. Some make it on the air on NPR stations across the nation. Others find their way into print in a series of books by Isay. The latest is Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (Penguin Random House, 2016).

“When I was a kid, I was headed to medical school,” Isay says. “Everybody in my family were doctors and for many of them it was a calling. But it wasn’t what I was meant to do, and I kind of knew that at the back of my head. One day, as I was getting ready to go to medical school, I tripped over a story that really spoke to me. I was living in New York, in Manhattan, at the time. It was a pair of people who had found their calling running a store. They were former heroin addicts dying of AIDS. This was in the late 1980s. They had decided to build a museum to addiction before they died.”

Credit Penguin Random House

Isay tried to market their story to radio and television stations. All but one passed on it. And the one that did bite told him, "It’s a good story, do it yourself." So, he did.

“I borrowed a tape recorder and recorded (the couple) and knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” Isay says. He's been recording stories ever since.

Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work is Isay’s fifth collection of StoryCorps conversations. It's a print version of just a few of the stories he recorded of people talking about their passion for their work. The storytellers are young and old. Public defenders, waitresses, teachers, social workers, and many others tell how they found their calling and why they are committed to the work they do.

David Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and its parent company, Sound Portraits Productions. His radio documentary work has won five Peabody awards. Isay has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a United States Artists Fellowship. He's the author, or co-author, of many books based on the Sound Portraits radio series, including Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago and Flophouse.

The WMU Alumni Book Club held virtual book club meeting with Dave Isay on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, to discuss Callings. The recording of the Zoom event can be viewed here. 

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.