Public Broadcasting, StoryCorps, and Me
By Sarah Littman
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). No federal funding for CPB might mean the end of StoryCorps, which for me would be a deeply personal tragedy. StoryCorps is the national public broadcasting project that gives everyday Americans the chance to record a 40 minute oral history interview with a loved one. A copy of each interview is archived at the Library of Congress so our great-great-grandchildren can get to know us through our voice and story. CPB is StoryCorps’ primary funder.
In 2006, I took my 12-year-old son, Joshua, for a “mother and son” day in New York City. We were headed to an appointment at StoryCorps. On the train into the city, I handed him a notebook and asked him to write down 10 questions that he wanted to ask me. I told him that when we got to the StoryCorps Booth in Grand Central Station, I would answer them. The questions he asked ranged from the political to the personal. They were thoughtful and not always easy—try answering “How does getting married feel?” when you’re in year three of a difficult divorce! When we sat for the interview, there was one question he asked that he hadn’t written down, so I knew it came straight from his heart: “Am I the son you wanted when I was born? Have I met your expectations?”
“The elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting might mean the end of StoryCorps.”
Such a brave and honest question—one that reflects the core of what every child wants to know from his or her parents, but few would ever have the courage to come out and ask. But coming from Josh, who has Asperger’s syndrome and was then living through the bullying nightmare that was middle school and constantly reminded of his differences from other children, it revealed an even greater vulnerability. It was an easy question for me to answer, but hearing it almost broke my heart.
A month later, a short clip of our interview, including Josh’s question and my response, was aired on NPR’s Morning Edition. The response was overwhelming.
We received hundreds of e-mails, from all over the country and even abroad. E-mails telling Josh what an amazing kid he was. E-mails from mothers, fathers, teachers, school principals. Letters from successful professionals with Asperger’s syndrome who’d been through similar experiences in school and who told Josh that it gets better. I put the letters in a binder so that Josh could read them when he felt down.
A few years later, StoryCorps animated our interview for broadcast on PBS. It was also viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. To this day we still receive e-mails from people who have been touched by our interview.
I’ve tried to analyze why our interview had such an impact on so many lives. I’ve wondered: Is it because it helped raise awareness about Asperger’s syndrome? Is it because the interview helped people understand that seeing the world “differently” isn’t necessarily a bad thing? Is it because—and this is the gift of StoryCorps—it showed how much we learn from “ordinary” people (whom, it turns out, are really anything but) if we take the time to sit down and listen?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all of these things, but at the core of it all is that last question from my son. This question is at the root of what all of us, no matter who we are or what our age, gender, race, religion, or social status, wonder. Deep down, we all have the desire to know—Do you love me the way that I am? Am I who you expected me to be?
Josh is now 17 and a senior in high school. When applying to colleges for the fall, he chose to write his application essay about our StoryCorps experience. I plan to take him back to the StoryCorps Booth after his first semester for another interview to talk about this next chapter in his life.
StoryCorps’ single largest funder is CPB. The elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting would essentially be a death knell for StoryCorps, which not only has brought so much joy to so many, but in our celebrity-obsessed culture is an incredibly important reminder that every individual matters, and that there is so much to be learned from our stories if we’d only take the time to stop and really listen. This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s about what really matters.
Join the campaign to save public broadcasting. Take action now at 170MillionAmericans.org.
In early 2006, 12-year-old Joshua Littman, who has Asperger’s syndrome, interviewed his mother, Sarah, at StoryCorps. Their one-of-a-kind conversation covered everything from cockroaches to Sarah’s feelings about Joshua as a son.