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Dave Isay: Collect Stories Not Admire View

The president of the oral history project says he would prefer to close his office door and work 12 hours straight but realizes that as a leader, he can't." We occupy three floors in a building in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that houses nonprofit arts organizations. My office is on the second floor.I don't get to our other floors as much as I would like. If I had my druthers I'd close my office door and work for 12 hours nonstop the way I did when I made documentaries. It's not possible to do that when you're running an organization, which is why the board hired our C.E.O., Robin Sparkman, last year.There's a window to the right of my desk with a view of an old church next door, but I'm usually too focused on working to look out much.When we moved here seven or eight years ago from Manhattan, I had the architect who planned our space recreate my office exactly as it was. I'm a man of routines.

11 years ago. Before that, I produced radio documentaries for my first nonprofit. The tapes above my desk are a great conversation piece. They go back 27 years. People enter my office, look at the labels and ask about one they've heard of. I have time to record only one or two interviews a year for the StoryCorps archives in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The majority of the stories we record aren't heard on the radio; they're sent to those archives. Once a week I meet with our production staff about the story to be broadcast on NPR each Friday. That's the highlight of the week.

A helping hand

My assistant's cubicle is across the hall from my office. She schedules my day for me in 15- or 30-minute segments. When I'm not traveling for fund-raising, I can pick up the day's schedule and know exactly what I'm doing and where I'm going. 2. Fuel for the engine I eat peanut butter and bananas during the day for energy. When I traveled all over as a journalist, I'd drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, but that all ended in my 20s. Now I drink two caffeinated teas a day, one at breakfast and one at lunch, and decaf tea the rest of the day. 3. Feeling like Sisyphus someone gave me a metal figure pushing a rock up a hill, which says it all about doing public service, nonprofit work. Fund-raising is a big part of it, but knowing that what you do touches people is a big incentive to get up and go to work in the morning. 4. A wrong righted Andrew White for The New York Times I keep a copy of the letter granting clemency to Moreese Bickham, a black man I interviewed 25 years ago. Moreese spent 37 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, including 14 years on death row, for killing two white police officers. He maintained that the officers had ambushed him and shot him in the stomach before he returned fire. A lawyer friend of mine helped him obtain clemency, and when he was released in 1996, we drove him to freedom.

When I started in radio, my father sent me an excerpt from Robert Kennedy's 1966 speech in South Africa about how striking out against injustice sends forth a ripple of hope that builds on itself. My father, who came out as gay the year he sent that, included a note saying that he had found the lines helpful. To me, the lines spoke to his life of activism. When he died in 2012, I had the excerpt and his note framed.5. A tribute to veteransIn 2007, Gordon Bolar, our liaison who runs a public radio station in Kalamazoo, Mich., had a son stationed in Iraq. Army Cpl. Matthew Bolar was killed on the last day we were recording people's stories at the station. I became friends with Gordon, who sent me a photo of Matt with his unit. Four or five years later, we started our military initiative to record the stories of post-9/11 vets and their families.
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