Preserving Personal Pasts — One Story at a Time

The stories are out there: in Brooklyn, in Atlanta, in San Francisco, in Mesilla, N.M., and in tiny Upstate New York towns like Rensselaer Falls.

Jasmyn Belcher ’06 believes that everyone anywhere has a story to tell. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Each quarter, former WRVO staffer Jasmyn Belcher ’06 produces a month’s worth of weekly segments for broadcast on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” The job requires hours of listening to StoryCorps archives and traveling to find new stories in communities across America.

“It’s really about listening. A lot of people just want to be heard,” she says.

As one of three producers for StoryCorps — a nationwide nonprofit oral history project — Belcher combs through some of the 40,000 archived interviews and also seeks out undiscovered stories hiding in hamlets, villages, towns and cities coast to coast.

Since 2003, some 60,000 Americans of all ages and walks of life have shared their stories in StoryCorps’ two traveling booths or at studios in Manhattan, Atlanta and San Francisco. Some recordings become two-minute segments featured Fridays on National Public Radio. All of them reside in the Library of Congress’ national archives.

Many volunteer to share their stories at the stationary sites or traveling booths that stop in communities across the country, but others start with Belcher and her colleagues.

She might start with a theme inspired by the calendar — Christmas or Black History Month, for instance — or a current event/hot topic and begin scouring the archives. Stories also surface in daily newspapers or suggestions of participants.

Belcher contacts these potential storytellers in advance to gauge their proclivity to participate.

MORE: Record your own history

A former reporter and producer for WRVO-FM, the NPR affiliate on campus where she earned upward of 40 awards over her three and a half years on staff, Belcher says she has made a satisfying transition from facts to feelings.

“As a reporter, I was always seeking the truth, and now I feel like I’m helping everyday people find their own truth,” she says. “Participants come into our booth knowing this is a safe space where they can share their most intimate feelings and memories.

“It’s really an opportunity to leave a legacy,” she says.

MORE: Hear some of Jasmyn’s interviews

Growing up outside of Rochester, Belcher was an inquisitive kid “always asking questions.” Interviewing came naturally to her, and the discovery of journalism in college and the “intense” instruction of mentor Ron Graeff made broadcast her professional pursuit.

“I learned so much about the world and my community just by thinking like a journalist,” says Belcher, who enrolled at Oswego looking to study zoology. “I always had an interest in sitting down with people and recording their stories.”

She co-produced the “Stories to Tell” series with fellow alumna Kate DeForest Percival ’96 and Mark Lavonier while at WRVO. Her true inspiration for the StoryCorps career, though, was grandma.

Shortly after Belcher’s grandfather passed away, she joined her grandmother on a personal pilgrimage to Rensselaer Falls in New York’s North Country. Belcher asked questions as her grandmother pointed out landmarks like the place she met her husband and the roller skating rink the couple once frequented.

Then she listened.

“I was used to talking to congress-men and pressing them to get the story,” Belcher recalls. “That was my first experience interviewing someone I was very close to. It was so honest and raw — I wanted to take extra care of her words.”

The same sentiment applies to her current work preserving the American experience one interview at a time.

“They trust us … I want to do right by these people. These are their memories,” Belcher says. “It’s extremely fulfilling and very meaningful.”

2 thoughts on “Preserving Personal Pasts — One Story at a Time

  1. It is especially meaningful for me to read a story about Jazz. She is a very special person in my life. Her grandfather and I were cousins and her granda and I are best of friends, ( life long ). Someday she will do a story about Rosella Liscum, her great grandmothers best friend. We all have that Rensselaer Falls connection. And, what a great story it will be.

    • Thank you for sharing that, Marlene. And thanks for reading. I particularly enjoyed my conversations with Jasmyn for this story. She is certainly passionately about her work, which is so important to preserving the “people’s history” of our country. Just as I’ve always believed as a journalist, everybody has a story.

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