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The Listening Project: Six Degrees of Conversation

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Tony Phillips Tony Phillips 18:24, Wednesday, 28 March 2012

(Editor's note: Friday 30 March sees the launch of The Listening Project, an ambitious new partnership between BBC Radio 4, BBC local and national radio stations, and the British Library. We are asking people up and down the country to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative. Some of these conversations will be broadcast across BBC Radio and archived by the British Library, preserving them for future generations. Here, Commissioning Editor Tony Phillips talks about how he devised the project.)

The Listening Project has been a long time coming. Like many ideas it has its origins in several places and people. The idea of inviting two people to record a conversation they really want to have - and asking them to share it with the BBC and the British Library - was not simply a notion I had discussed with Radio 4 Controller Gwyneth Williams over many coffees over many years. In truth my fascination with personal testimonies goes back to when I was a vaguely employable actor but determined to go to university, read a few books and figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. These are the six steps that led to The Listening Project:

1. I found myself in a bookshop flicking through a little book called To Be A Slave by Julius Lester. It was based on oral history interviews recorded in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers Project with former slaves in the Deep South. What struck me most was the preface: "If you want to know what it was like to be a slave you need to talk to the person who wore the shoe". 

2. I went from theatrical obscurity to life as an undergrad at the University of East Anglia reading American History. They didn’t do oral history. I stumbled across the work of the great Chicago-based oral historian Studs Terkel (below) and relished his conversations with everyday Americans in books like Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

Studs Terkel 

3. Discovering Studs prompted me to have a go at my own oral history project, which led me to the BBC.

4. As a young features producer in 1993 I had a watershed moment hearing a documentary called Ghetto Life 101 made by US documentary producer Dave Isay. Isay trained up two little African American kids and invited them to record their lives in the projects of Chicago's South Side.  Who better to tell that story than those two kids LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, who "wore the shoe"?

5. A decade later I read about a project called Storycorps. A booth was set up in Grand Central Terminal (below), New York, with the simple aim of recording conversations between two people who were friends or family members. Perfect for radio, perfect for a kind of oral history. This was Dave Isay’s project; Studs Terkel officially opened the booth.

Storycorps booth in Grand Central station

6. I went about trying to bring this spirit to the BBC. And so originated the Listening Project. With BBC stations across the country, the British Library and our audiences, we are attempting to capture this nation in conversation - conversations we all need to have but conversations I hope we all enjoy listening to and learning from.

  • You can hear conversations from the Listening Project on the website at bbc.co.uk/listeningproject, where you can also share your conversations with the BBC and the British Library
  • Tweet us about the Listening Project on @bbcradio4 using #listeningproject



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