CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Stalking StoryCorps

Joel Kaplan

December 4, 2013

Anyone who has ever listened to NPR's Morning Edition is familiar with StoryCorps.

The independent non-profit has been recording thousands of people's stories since 2003 and shared many of those stories with NPR's audience, thanks in large part from funding from CPB.

But at least one listener is not so enamored with StoryCorps and questions both the company's behavior, ethics and the release form it requires participants to sign.

Sylvia Kronstadt has been on somewhat of a crusade to expose StoryCorps and has written a number of blog posts condemning the company and its founder, David Isay.

"I contacted CPB because CPB is the major funder of StoryCorps and I though you might share my concerns about its ethics and finances," Ms. Kronstadt wrote.

"NPR, from what I have been told, merely airs snippets of less than one percent of StoryCorps interviews. It does not, unless I am misled, have any other relationship with StoryCorps—certainly not any oversight responsibilities.

Isay is their friend and former colleague. His organization is entirely separate. I just wish someone cared enough about what is really going on to set things right."

In a follow-up conversation with my research assistant, Ms. Kronstadt said, "I am a very disillusioned old hag. I find the evolution of StoryCorps, as I outlined in my blog post, to be so disappointing, given its delightful premise. But I am also angry that trusting, ordinary Americans are deliberately being misled about SC's vast ambitions, its plans to use their lives for its benefit and also the fact that so much precious charitable money is being used (as much as Isay can get… It's endless) when other causes are so much more urgent."

Ms. Kronstadt is correct that CPB is a major funder of StoryCorps. In 2011, for example, StoryCorps received a $900,000 grant to visit 10 cities across the United States, conduct 1,250 interviews and produce 50 two to three minutes segments for broadcast on Morning Edition.

By my calculations, since 2003, CPB has awarded 23 grants to StoryCorps totaling more than $15 million. More than $1 million of those grants went to animate some of the StoryCorps stories.

"When I learned about all the animation that's being done with people's stories and about the DVDs and best-selling books, …I wondered if these tens of thousands of people who have hopefully, excitedly entered the stories booth are asked to sign a release form that permits their life stories to be used in these says," Ms. Kronstadt wrote.

She said it has taken her weeks to find the release forms signed by the participants and only after she blogged about it, did she finally obtain a copy of the form. Ms. Kronstadt said the form allows StoryCorps to use the name, voice and likeness and life stories of those participants in a variety of formats including publications:

"This release plainly violates StoryCorps' mission statement and its carefully cultivated public image as a modest, humane effort to chronicle and preserve the precious interactions between loved ones. Instead, StoryCorps is becoming a multimedia conglomerate. It is nonprofit in name only.

If StoryCorps wanted people to know what they're getting into, the full consent form would be on the website, featured prominently. But if they read the form, they'd probably be scared off. I certainly would be.

Isay's charming little back-story, and his love-for-humanity pitch, has simply blinded everyone to what StoryCorps has become."

StoryCorps and Mr. Isay, as could be expected, view the situation from a completely different perspective and accuse Ms. Kronstadt of stalking the company.

"The writer has been posting wildly inaccurate statements about StoryCorps all over the internet in recent weeks, as well as contacting our partner organizations, staff and who knows who else," Mr. Isay said. "We've been around for 10 years. We've done 50,000 interviews. We've never had an issue or a question about the release form before."

Virginia Millington, Manager of Recording and Archive for StoryCorps, adds:

"There are inaccuracies in Sylvia Kronstadt saying that we are asking people to sign over their life stories … We are only asking for the right to the interview, the 40 minutes that make up the StoryCorps interview.

In one blog post, I think Sylvia says that the release form is handed out as they're walking out the door. That's completely inaccurate. We go through the release form, explain in detail what it means to our participants and offer them the opportunity to review it at length. The other thing I want to mention is that we do not require any participant to sign the release form. We offer them the opportunity to do so, and over 95 percent of them will. But we don't make it a requirement.

In addition, we offer a couple levels of the release. The general release that most people sign does give us the right to make that story available for broadcast, for publication, to send that to a partner, such as The Library of Congress, or to other individual libraries across the country. We also, again, offer the opportunity to not sign the release. In that case, the participant keeps the copy of the interview, and we will only keep a record with their name if they call later wondering what happened to their interview.

She also says that we turn people into cartoons without their permission. Every time with the animation, we contact that person and walk them through that process, so we're not doing anything with these interviews in terms of broadcasting if our participants aren't aware of it."

Because much of Ms. Kronstadt's complaint centers on the release form, Ms. Millington provided the ombudsman with several general points about how the form is handled:

  1. The release (or consent) form is a standard part of oral history recording practice, not specific to StoryCorps. In oral history best practices, a release form allows for the use of the interview by the interviewer or, preferably, a trusted archival institution.
  2. After recording a StoryCorps interview, every StoryCorps participant is given the opportunity to review our release form before deciding whether or not to sign it.
  3. To ensure informed consent, facilitators are required to walk participants through a standard set of release form talking points when introducing the form to participants
  4. No participant is required to sign the release form, and may opt out of signing the release if they wish to do so. Every participant leaves with a copy of their interview regardless of their decision about the release form.
  5. The release form does not give StoryCorps the right to "all intellectual property rights and copyright to [participant's] lives and photos" (October 30 blog post). The StoryCorps release form grants StoryCorps the copyright to a participant's 40-minute recording.
  6. Although StoryCorps references the release form on our website, we have never posted the full release form online. There have been few requests to see the release form, and many have been from for-profit StoryCorps "copy cats" businesses. However, we would be more than willing to post the release form for participant review.

Finally, Mr. Isay responded to specific allegations made by Ms. Kronstadt:

In terms of the animation special that aired on PBS last month, Ms. Kronstadt said it cost taxpayers a million to produce, Mr. Isay said the CPB funding for that special was $325,000.

Ms. Kronstadt said that Mr. Isay has an expense account of more than $1 million. Mr. Isay said he does not have an expense account.

She also said that StoryCorps charges a $25 fee to record an interview. Mr. Isay responds by saying that "We don't charge any fee to record an interview. We do ask for a voluntary donation at the end of the session."

Finally, Ms. Kronstadt objects to StoryCorps charging participants for a transcript of their interview.

Mr. Isay said, "We provide each participant with a free CD copy of their interview. If participants request a transcript, we recommend an independent transcription service that we have found to be professional and reasonably priced."

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