Empowering Media That Matters
Home >> Future Public Media >> Public Media Showcase >> StoryCorps ramps up evaluation as their collection of American stories grows

StoryCorps ramps up evaluation as their collection of American stories grows

Katie Donnelly

StoryCorps, whose mission is "to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives," was launched by MacArthur Fellow Dave Isay in 2003. "StoryCorps is a new frontier for public media," Isay said when I spoke to him recently. "It speaks to core values. It's about turning public media into human service."

The project is both participatory and multiplatform. According to the StoryCorps website:

The project gives pairs of participants the tools and space needed to record a meaningful conversation about their lives. StoryCorps presents edited excerpts from these conversations, drawn from all parts of our diverse nation, on public radio, online, and through weekly podcasts, books, and other platforms. Recordings are archived for future generations at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and in a growing number of other national and local archives.

StoryCorps collects stories in several ways: "Door-to-Door" (StoryCorps representatives visit various community spaces with portable recording devices), "MobileBooths" (airstream trailers outfitted with recording studios stay three to six weeks in a given community), and permanent fully-equipped, fully-staffed "StoryBooths," which are located in New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta. As of September 2009, the project had collected interviews from more than 50,000 participants around the country. Selections from interviews are broadcast weekly on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, which reaches an audience of nearly 13 million nationwide.

One goal of the project is to capture the perspectives and histories of people who are not always well represented in mainstream media or conventional history. By doing so, StoryCorps helps to generate acceptance and shared understanding in order to "create a kinder, more thoughtful and compassionate nation." Current StoryCorps initiatives include: Griot, (African American stories), the Memory Loss Initiative (preserving the stories of people with memory loss), the September 11th Initiative and StoryCorps OutLoud (LGBTQ stories). StoryCorps' most recent initiative, Historias, focuses on collecting the stories of Latino Americans. Isay explained that this initiative has been wildly successful; they surpassed their year-long goals after just six and a half months. In addition to preserving the history of diverse populations, these initiatives generate positive emotional responses and help foster mutual understanding among participants and listeners.

Sometimes, StoryCorps experiences can lead to changes in attitude for participants. For example, the StoryCorps blog recounts the experience Marcos Najera had with family during a StoryCorps interview in Phoenix. Najera's parents and godmother discussed activist demonstrations they spearheaded in the 1960s and 1970s as founding members of Chicanos por La Causa, an equal rights advocacy organization. They discussed how "Chicano" became a powerful term for a shared national and political identity during that time period. After hearing these recollections, Marcos told his family: “To hear you guys talk about that is what is starting to make me want to reclaim the term Chicano for myself and for my own generation.”

There are countless examples of how StoryCorps interviews lead to shifts in knowledge and understanding as well as strengthened relationships among participants. Listen to a sampling of StoryCorps stories here.

StoryCorps is growing, and the organization is currently working with the Library of Congress to make their entire story archive available online by 2013. StoryCorps is also currently working to launch an education department in order to expand their presence in schools nationwide. This program will equip teachers with toolkits that allow them to incorporate StoryCorps stories and interview methods into their curricula.

Measuring Impact

As StoryCorps expands its reach, the project team is also taking a look at new ways to evaluate impact. StoryCorps hopes to eventually employ a two-phase approach to obtaining feedback from community partners. With the help of RTI International, StoryCorps has developed a new evaluation strategy. If funded, this evaluation strategy would allow StoryCorps to measure the experience of participants who tell their stories, listeners who hear the stories, and community partner organizations that help facilitate the process. In this plan, interview participants' experiences would be evaluated primarily through the use of surveys. Community partners would be evaluated initially through in-depth interviews with a representative sample of partners. The results of these interviews would then inform the development of a survey that will be distributed to all future community partners. Listener effects would be evaluated in through a more complex process. Linda Squires of RTI International, who helped StoryCorps develop the plan, explained:

In order to determine the possible outcomes that could be measured across different types of listeners and stories, we will conduct formative research using qualitative data collection methods (e.g., in depth interviews, focus groups). Participants will be asked to identify the range of emotions and cognitions experienced as a result of listening to individual stories, collections of stories on a specific topic, and to stories heard through different channels (e.g., podcasts, live radio broadcasts) and in different settings/contexts (e.g., alone, with others). Results from this formative research will be used to inform the development of a detailed evaluation plan to identify the impact of listening to StoryCorps stories. We will then implement the evaluation plan, likely using a mixed-method approach (interviews, focus groups, surveys) to measure the impact of a single topic stories or compilations of stories representing a range of topical areas (e.g., social justice, health, relationships) on a range of different types of listeners (e.g., new vs. long-term listeners; topic seekers vs. topic scanners). Results will be used to inform the development of approaches to gathering and organizing stories/content for listeners as well as inform the development of new initiatives.

Squires explained that they would also work with community-based organizations to assess the impact of the stories on their networks of users. They hope to distribute a feedback tool that can be distributed at “listening events” so that StoryCorps can measure changes in awareness and/or attitudes about specific topics presented at the events.

Isay noted that StoryCorps has heard tens of thousands of powerful anecdotal stories about their impact -- including participants who described the experience as "the most powerful 40 minutes of their lives." The project draws much of its strength from facilitating powerful emotional responses from individual users, but whether these emotional responses lead to tangible action (such as policy change), or the formation of publics is unclear at this point. StoryCorps would likely benefit from more specific outcome-based goals, and consideration of how the stories operate within networks. The implementation of a new evaluation strategy that measures actions as well as emotions, in conjunction with StoryCorps' vast collection of anecdotal evidence, will certainly provide a more comprehensive picture of StoryCorps' success as a public media 2.0 project.