Henry G was the first recording I found, entirely by accident. At a thrift shop, I found the old portable reel-to-reel deck shown on the index page. I have two old Sony reel-to-reels at home, and this 'new' old one, in it's original box and packing, seemed like an ideal purchase. I figured if I didn't like the deck, I could get some money for it on eBay, or through some other outlet. I took it up front, paid for it, and brought it home. Upon examination, the original batteries had corroded through, leaving a mess inside the deck. I cleaned it up, checked that nothing was damaged, and put in two new batteries. Then, I threaded the tape, and switched it to play.
The voice of an old man came out.
This 3" reel of tape had spotty snapshots of a family's life recorded on it. This discovery led to an epiphany: there must be other tapes out there to be rescued. Packing a mini cassette player in my pocket, I listened to every unmarked tape I could find. I came up with some more recordings of people, children, mothers and teachers - little audible snapshots of life.
Then, I decided to put it online. What better place to put it? Reality is all the rage these days.
The commercial media's attempt at reality entertainment, however, isn't much like reality. It is composed & edited to produce suspense & create a story. Nobody is surprised over accusations that Survivor was rigged. It doesn't matter - the show is what was important. We watched the first episode, we met the characters, we watched in suspense every week as people were removed from the island, until the final moment when a winner was assigned, and then the series was over. Even America's Funniest Home Videos turned every clip into a mini-movie - anticipation, climax, resolution. Dad throws the ball, kid swings, hits ball into father's groin. Father turns and smiles to camera, hands at his crotch. We all laugh, because the story was encapsulated in a 10-second blip of film.
Real life isn't like reality television. Real life is boring and introspective. For every tape that is sent to America's Funniest Videos, hundreds of feet of of videotape, archives of children playing & birthday-candle-blowing, remain recorded somewhere.
Audio has more parallels to the written word. It is personal and confidential - it's between the writer and the reader, speaker and the listener. Some people record themselves on tape with the only intended audience being themselves. From time to time, I carry around a microcassette recorder to take notes on. I'd never consider carrying a camera or a videocamera to record my thoughts. Video & photographs are created with the expectation of having a broad audience, a cooperative experience of an event which occurred and was recorded in image. The visual records action, but words, spoken or otherwise, encompass expressed thoughts.
Without an event, there is not a beginning, climax, or end. Beginning, middle, or end are only significant in the sequence of words, and not due to the physics of the moment. The thoughts of the speaker come out as they are composed, using only the words that they require to vocalize what they think. Even without seeing the person, the emotion is expressed in the voice. The mind of the speaker has an outlet, a way to reach the outside world, through the human voice.
Without any of the characteristics of entertainment, there is not an audience for the recordings themselves. This American Life crosses the line between reality and spoken-word entertainment, but, as this interview with Ira Glass explains, TAL stories still produced to be narrative entertainment. As Ira puts it, "Yes, I believe that everyone has a story to tell, but I don't think everyone has a story to tell that you'd want to hear on the radio." Not a bad thing at all, mind you -- This American Life is one of the greatest programs in the media today. It's not what Voices From The Thriftshop is about.
The clips on this website aren't stories. Without being presented within the context of a story, these voices are just expression, without resolution and missing purpose. Like a snippet of someone else's telephone conversation heard due to crossed wires, the context that the voice lives within must be imagined, or interpolated from the little bit that was heard. However, unlike a contained story, the imagined environment of the sound snippet strikes a deeper chord.
The recordings on this website are not random, though: someone started the recorder, and someone stopped it. There was intent in their actions, a driving purpose which ultimately created the recording.
These people, recording themselves, expressing their thoughts verbally into a permanent record, opening up a peephole into their lives. The listener may never know why, but that may not be neccesary - the speaker had a reason for starting the tape, and for stopping it. The cuts that are here on the site have not been edited, cropped, or rearranged (with some minor exceptions, long recordings broken up). They are exactly what the speaker created. The speaker may have had a purpose, probably long forgotten, for starting the recorder, speaking, and ending the recording. What purpose, what context, that the recording represented exists no more, but the voices are still here.