Audiences & Technology Series: Appalshop harnesses the power of storytelling

Still from Tom Hansell's “The Electricity Fairy”

By harnessing art and the power of storytelling, Appalshop is creating daring accounts of people on the edge of society.

We spoke with Nick Szuberla, Artistic Director of Appalshop, about their project Thousand Kites, which illuminates human rights violations in the Appalachian prison industry through radio and film documentaries.

This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.

Piama Habibullah (ArtsFwd): What is Appalshop all about?

Nick Szuberla (Artistic Director): Appalshop is a decades old media arts organization in the Central Appalachian Coalfields. It consists of a radio station, Roadside Theater Company, Youth Media Project, and a division of filmmaking.

PH: How did the Thousand Kites project get started?

NS: Kite is prison slang for sending a message. Thousand Kites is a multidisciplinary project started in the 1990s that grew in response to the growing prison industry in the Appalachian Coalfields. We were looking as artists to create our response to what was happening in our back yards with eleven prisons being built and reports of human rights violations. We began using radio to respond and built up a pretty large audience within the prison system and then began to innovate with that through film documentaries for public television.

PH: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced during this project?

NS: We’re a town of a thousand folks. The closest airport is 3 hours away. There aren’t universities or colleges. In Whitesburg, it’s very hard to hire anybody from the outside because it’s so rural. Early in the project, I cultivated a kid from high school, kept him on staff and developed him into our web designer. Then, he got a job working for the Blue Man Group, so it’s a success story, but he left!

Also, what we struggled with as a rural organization was building the technological capacity. When you go into the market looking for technology support, there are “off-the-shelf” project management tools that are expensive and not well suited to our needs. We have to work with our database person in Denmark, our web designer is in Washington State, we’re in Kentucky, our graphic designer is in Miami, and our radio producer was in Mexico City for 7 months. We do a lot of telecommunicating.

Another challenge is finding people who work with non-profit arts organizations who aren’t vultures and who will do something innovative.

PH: What are some of your successes?

Still from Tom Hansell's The Electricity Fairy

NS: One of our successes is that we launched the platform, it works and people are using it! For example, in the state of Virginia there is no parole. We used the Roadside Story Circle methodology and did an eleven-city tour. We gathered stories from criminal justice folks and victims of crimes and we convened and brought all these folks together. Then we trained them in low cost media production by distributing a hundred cameras and doing the training. They started with 200 people who were interested in tackling issues with parole. Their database now is 13,000 members all hosted on our platform.

Using art and the power of story, we drove to get to that number. We were able to get them into the legislative process, which ended up getting passed in the House. That would be 14,000 people who have no chance of parole would suddenly have an opportunity to serve many hundreds of years less of prison time. So, there’s a chance for that. In terms of policy change, the grass-roots folks love this capacity of having the technology and are able to come to it through storytelling, theater and the media production.

The criminal justice/media justice community came to us and said, “We want you to help us run a national campaign about changing the cost of prison phone calls.“ We met with the FCC and brought stories from our platform. The chairman of the FCC listened to first-person narratives that were generated through our work. It was pretty powerful and they said they wanted to host their campaign on our website, which is pretty cool. It’s opened up this type of cross-sector work.

This is what we’re able to do at the grass-roots level in leadership development. I think the trick is how to figure out how to reach out of the arts silo and work with other sectors to support what we’re doing.

PH: Where does the content come from?

NS: We have a 3-prong approach: there’s user-generated content, aggregate content and professional content, what we produce in-house. Of course, keeping all three of those rolling is the challenge. We have some work to do on the searchability of the site. Right now we’re adapting the site for mobile devices because when we looked at our Google analytics we saw that 30% of the visitors are now mobile.

PH: All your content is available for free.  Why?

NS: Our theory of change with Thousand Kites has always been to give away the content for free. We are building a bank of stories for people who are concerned with this issue to utilize. We have a creative commons license and that’s how people can use the content in various forms. That ended up equaling way more specialized funding coming back and a much larger impact than if we had tried a traditional distribution model.

PH: What’s next?

Thousand Kites reading, Lebanon, VA

NS: One of the goals is to look at where we are overall and look at some of the stories that are gathered and kick that back into the production and creation phase. We need to strengthen our communication, messaging and framing to bring people into our work and to share the stories.

We’re working with a consultancy to restructure our staffing to match the platform because we had a very traditional staffing model and it wasn’t really fitting our platform management. If you look at NPR, what you see is that they are now really conceiving themselves as platforms. We feel connected to that and the reality is that we have a very traditional, 1970s structure in business model and in funding. It doesn’t have to be that way.

PH: What are you looking to learn at the Continuing Innovation convening and from others in the field?

NS: I’m really interested in mobile devices, especially with low-income communities. As we see in Appalachia, the way that most people are getting on the internet is through their cell phone.

I want to hear from people who are way out there on the edge that will invigorate the conversation. To hear them reflect on what the challenges are and then to give us feedback as a field would be incredibly helpful.

Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.