I'm from the BBC. Start talking

The BBC has interviewed 6,000 people about their life stories on 12,000 hours of tape. You'll be hearing them for years to come.
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JEAN TROMANS is not a celeb. She's not part of our increasingly fame-obsessed culture. She's an ordinary person from Sheffield, but she has a story to tell: "In 1936 there was an appalling disaster - an explosion in which I think seven men were killed. The following shift had to go down to bring out the bodies. My father's pay slip indicates they weren't paid for that day's work as they didn't get coal - they got bodies."

Jean's story is part of the biggest oral history ever undertaken anywhere. The Century Speaks contains the life stories of 6,000 people recorded on 12,000 hours of tape by an army of BBC producers. It begins next week on the BBC's 40 regional radio stations, with each one broadcasting 16 half-hours of the stories by people from their area. In all 640 half- hour programmes will be broadcast, but this is just a fraction of the material collected. The complete recordings, the stories of 6,000 people, aged from five to 107, are to be donated to the national sound archive at the British Library.

The BBC has spent pounds 1.3m collecting the 6,000 stories with the money coming out of a special millennium budget. In each radio station a producer and a researcher selected 200 people to interview by advertising in local papers, libraries and by appealing on air. Most stations talked to 500 people before they selected those best able to tell their own tales. Techniques for drawing out life stories were a long way from normal journalism: producers were advised by Rob Perks of the national sound archive on the best way to get people talking. "In the end a news interview is designed to focus down on what someone is saying about a specific event," says Arnold Miller, executive producer of the series. "When choosing producers I was looking for people who could listen and open the subjects up.

"It needed more patience than you would believe," says Jan Rogers, the producer who conducted interviews for BBC Derby. "You had to know how to let talk go on so that you could get an emotional flow, while also getting a flow of information. They didn't have to have had fantastic things happen to them, they just needed to be introspective enough to tell their own stories," she says. "Although you do find that most people have lots of drama in their lives, you often had to stare at your shoes, while people who'd got emotional recomposed themselves." But the sessions were also often very funny. "It wasn't just people talking about deaths, there was much reflection on what they'd done with their lives. One man said he liked a particular politician as `he was a failure' and it seemed clear he was talking about his own life too."

One producer asked to be taken off the project as he was finding it too emotionally draining. Despite the British reputation for being reserved, most interviewers found people to be happily candid, some even shared things they'd never told close family. One man told Ms Rogers quite cheerily about his 30 years in prison for murdering his brother, and the days he used to run with the Kray twins. That lifer features in a programme themed around the impact of law and order. Other themes include growing old, eating and drinking, war, beliefs and fears, and families.

Every interview has been logged on mini-disc with a description of the subject and a precis of the story of their life. So as well as the British Library, the BBC too has a phenomenal archive of material to call on for the future. "If we want to do a programme on, say, the history of midwifery, we now have interviews with over 50 midwives.

"The 600 programmes we will air are just the tip of the iceberg and we could go through the material with different criteria and come up with completely different series. Many producers have already told me they have lots of programme ideas thanks to the material they've unearthed."

Oral history by its very nature puts ordinary people at the centre of our history. It removes the leaders and the celebrities, and instead gives voice to those who have so often been spoken for by others. The Century Speaks is broadcasting at its most democratic, even as broadcasting becomes an increasingly democratic medium. Popular histories, from The People's Century to What Granny did in the War, have learnt a lot from the traditions of oral history. Other areas of broadcasting, from Home Truths to the soap documentaries, have also come to understand that real stories from real people make the best broadcasting.