Lili Shank, a former anchor and reporter for KCTV 5, has always liked the sound of the human voice – and people’s stories. Shank recorded her children when they were young to preserve the sound of their youthful voices. Almost 20 years ago, Shank taped her father sharing his war stories. The recordings carried meaning for Shank and her family, something she could hold onto as dear ones moved away or died.
When she left KCTV 5 in 2005, Shank dabbled with taking oral accounts of family and friends. “Then Story Corps came along,” said Shank, referring to the popular recording project of National Public Radio. “That inspired me.” In 2008, Shank and friend Courtney Holmes started Voices in Time, a company that specializes in audio recordings that capture a loved one’s memories in their own voice. “We were just passionate about helping people share their story and preserve it,” Shank said. “It’s really hard to do it on your own – you want to talk to someone … and our job is to listen.” The two women joined the Association of Personal Historians and attended the organization’s conference – and they asked lots of questions. “I saw others working in this field all over the country,” said Shank, who lives in Johnson County. “I needed a chance to pick their brains.” Armed with advice, as well as Shank’s background in broadcasting and Holmes’ experience on the administrative side of a non-profit, they formed Voices in Time.
Q: Why did you decide to have a partner in this business?
“I thought having a partner was key,” Shank said. “I needed the fun and energy of collaboration to sustain it.”
Holmes said working with a partner has been productive.
“As entrepreneurs, collaboration with Lili has been key,” Holmes said. “The variety of ideas and the energy that each of us brings to the table is always motivating and encouraging.”
Shank had taken the Kauffman FastTrac entrepreneur program and put those business principles to work for the new business. She handles the marketing side of things and Holmes handles the billing and other administrative tasks. Both women do the interview.
Here’s how Voices in Time works. After a request is made by telephone or through the company’s website, an extensive biographical form is filled out on the person to be interviewed. Voices in Time gets in touch with the customer about what the interview should focus on.
“We try to build rapport with them,” Shank said. “There are real barriers to doing it yourself, so we take over and nudge until they get it done.… They may feel apprehensive beforehand, but generally they are honored and pleased when it’s done.” After getting some background, the personal historian who does the interview prepares some questions and talking points that the customer reviews beforehand. The interview is scheduled at the person’s home with one of three facilitators; sessions average 90 minutes. “We go to the home to make it easier and more comfortable,” Shank said. “Somewhere quiet in the home without a lot of background noise.”
Q: While recording, you don’t have family members present. Why?
“We learned early on it’s much better for a non-family member to lead the conversation – they are more relaxed, they tend to tell the whole story, and family dynamics don’t enter into it,” Shank said. With the help of a part-time audio editor, the interview is edited “to take out the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and long pauses,” Shank said. “We clean it up so it’s listenable and people can enjoy it.”
Q: Why did you choose only the medium of audio for your product?
“I think the voice is the thing in recording loved ones. The person you are interviewing is more relaxed,” Shank said. The stories are more powerful and intimate because the listener’s imagination is activated, and you can visualize any way you want. “It’s a more affordable price point, as well. We wanted it to be affordable for anyone.” Sessions begin at $400 and include two CDs of the edited interview in personalized cases. There are add-ons, including online access; long-distance sessions are also available through Skype for those living out of the area.
Q: What have you found most challenging with Voices in Time?
“Getting the word out there about what we do,” Holmes said. “Most people have never heard of a personal historian, but when I describe my job they tend to instantly identify and think of a loved one whose voice they miss.”
Most of the company’s business has come by word of mouth.
“It’s a high trust, high-touch business,” Shank said. “You want to know someone who’s used Voices in Time. It’s very much about trustworthiness and integrity. That’s why I’m not sure how effective conventional advertising is for us.”
Since going into business four years ago, the women have done hundreds of interviews.
“We expanded a year ago, adding a personal historian in Denver and in Nebraska, both of whom found us,” Shank said.
Shank and Holmes enjoy what they do helping others preserve their history.
“Our favorite thing to hear is, ‘I never heard that story before,’ ” Shank said. “We are linking generations.”
“I leave each recording session feeling honored and grateful to be able to help someone tell their stories,” Holmes said.
“I love what I do, so I see doing this for a long time,” Shank said. “If the right people came along, I can see expanding this outside of our current areas.”