March 28, 2009

Storytelling Conferences: Shouting Down a Hole

There's a motif in several European fairy tales, where a sister has to rescue her brothers from a supernatural fate (such as their transformation into geese, or ravens), by remaining silent for a lengthy period, say, seven years, seven months, and seven days. Often, the consequences of remaining silent bring her hardship and grief, and in some stories she digs a hole in the earth, and into this hole releases a torrent of emotions in words and sobs. She must then cover the hole, and bury her emotions, so that no one will know that she has broken her silence.

Sometimes I think of storytelling conferences in this way.

Conference attendees gather from all over, get together to speak, but the logistics of the conference are such that if you weren't there, you'd never know that anything was said. For all intents and purposes, the conference covered over the hole where the discussion went on.

I don't envision gatherings of storytellers as sharing of grief, though. So the other vision I have is that of Fight Club. Or maybe a conference of ninjas. The attendees think of themselves as a secret brother and sisterhood, with knowledge to share among each other, but not to those outside the secret club.

Now I've been to some of these conferences. I've learned a lot at them, networked a lot, met some great people, seen some terrific stuff happen as a result of conversations that started at these conferences. I'm not knocking storytelling conferences per se.

I am knocking their dissemination and distribution.

I can think of a lot of historical reasons why storytelling conferences didn't publish proceedings, probably many related to logistics and money (i.e. no papers to publish (because the focus was not academic), there not being enough financial incentive to record and distributed keynotes).

That's all changed. The barriers to entry for publication and distribution have fallen dramatically with the advent of the World Wide Web.

Ten years ago, Story, from fireplace to cyberspace : connecting children and narrative (1998), a conference of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Allerton Park Institute published its proceedings as a journal. Nice to see that they've released all the contents digitally... so you can read what presenters like Anne Shimojima, Janice Del Negro, Joseph Sobol and Karen Morgan said there. (Link)

I can't find a single storytelling conference since then that has done the same. Online? In print? Anything? It's been ten years. (Please-- someone, anyone-- correct me! Show me I'm wrong!)

In 2007, I was not able to attend the National Storytelling Network's National Conference, held in July. In October, I inquired about obtaining a copy of a recording of a keynote. It took months for anything to happen (An audio of the keynote was, for a brief time, made available for sale. It is not currently). For that 2007 conference, the text of the keynote by Ron Turner is publicly available via the Web (link) for anyone to read. The text of the keynote by Jo Radner is publicly available via the journal Storytelling, Self, Society. (And good luck trying to get a hold of a copy of that particular issue of that particular journal if you're not an academic).

In 2008, Eric Wolf brought his own recording equipment to his panel discussion at the National Storytelling Conference and released the audio of the entire session on the Web as an mp3 file, under a Creative Commons license. I can't find any evidence that any other part of the conference is available, in text or in audio.
(BTW, Eric Wolf is singlehandedly doing the work of a national storytelling advocacy organization: via his podcast, he is disseminating discussion and insights from a wide variety of respected practicioners to an international audience. For free.)

<Oops. Left out a significant source of conference coverage and interviews on the Web: See comments, below.

With the economy what it is these days, I'm predicting that there will be fewer people in attendance at storytelling conferences this year. That makes it even more essential that these gatherings make an effort to share and disseminate widely the goings on.

I'm attending a storytelling conference next month. I had hoped to encourage liveblogging and twittering during my session. Turns out my room will not have WiFi coverage (although, there may be cell phone access if anyone wants to text out). I will be blogging from the conference.

Coming up in future posts: I'm going to look at various storytelling conferences held in 2009 across North America and rate them on their accessibility for those who could not be there in attendance. (I'll likely look at both accessibility during the conference (via blog posts and Twitter), and dissemination afterwards (via their own websites, YouTube, blogs, Storytell, etc)-- let me know in the comments if there is a metric you think I should track)


cjereneta said...

If you're within 50 yards of an ethernet access point I could lend you a cable and a base station and you could try to set up your own WiFi network...

About Sean Buvala said...


I am a little wonky on this post. It sounds like there's never been anything of audio value, available to the public, before Eric's very good work. I might have missed understood. has been doing podcasts of and from storytelling conferences before the word "podcast" existed. In the Amphitheater, we interviewed loads of storytellers and created audio events. We still do it. In the recent excitement of storytelling on the "Today Show" with Liz Weir, where did people go to learn more about Liz and storytelling? They went to, some 1400 folks came searching. I don't have the figures on how many actually listened to the audio. I am pretty sure we're the only national storytelling organization that has any audio out. I might be wrong on that.

My next Amphitheater will be with someone who went to India for storytelling, but scheduling is a hard monster right now.

We did most of this when audio recording things was a HUGE PITA. (Pain in...) In today's tech world, making audio is easy. Such a relief.

Now, where I agree with you is that the conferences themselves have not released any audio. And, they did not want to release it apparently. In a dozen years of doing this, I don't believe any of the conferences have ever made public comment of our work covering the before and after of their conferences. The exception would be Timpanagos in Utah, who, after we posted the audio, suddenly were "thrilled" I had been there. Of course, who paid for all that work and travel? did.

The problem also is that the model that most conferences and organizations used is "monetizing" content. I remember one very recent national director of another group who was very direct about that. When I challenged her to release the backlog of content to the world, she looked at me with astonishment and said, "But we haven't figured out how to monetize that yet. There is no way I am going to release that." Storytelling organizations, some, tend to think of the academic model- eclectic journals and so forth- rather than mass distribution.

We've produced podcasts, training and interviews. We're still doing it at, including my latest podcast- which was a video. And, you seem to like the word :-) , so I'll say it. For Free.

We're working on the August Unconference here in Phoenix. You can bet that our hotel will have WiFi- and your welcome to be part of the blogging/audio team for that, if you'd like. Of course, you'll get paid a huge percentage of the no money we take in on the 'net offerings. I hope your coffers can hold it.


Podcasts for Biz:

Other Audio:

Connecting Stories said...

Right on Tim - but there are a few out there - What about Talk Story Radio in Hawaii? Jeff Gere does post the tales told at his event.

Still - some conferences have recordings of concerts and keynotes up the whazooo that have never been published except to attendees on demand. But never really published - on line or anywhere else.

About Sean Buvala said...

Yes, Jeff at TalkStory. He's had us on TV for a lot of years!

Tim said...

Oops. Egregious error of omission on my part, neglecting, which indeed has been posting audio interviews not only before it was easy to do so... but before it was easy to listen to them online.

(Frame of reference bias: I got my first iPod about the same time that Mr. Wolf began his podcast)

So, I am officially adding Sean Buvala of to the list of folks who are doing the work of a national storytelling organization by themselves, on their own dime, without support from an "official" national storytelling organization.

Connecting Stories said...

Speaking of shouting down a hole...while what you write always hits me as perfect, on reflection, are we doing with the utzing and shaming into action strategy? - perhaps a new mode of action is in order?
Just sayin' - I have not had any real success with this MO*
modus operandi

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

Dear Tim:

I am thrilled to report that the Weber State University Storytelling Festival will have an upgrade in the use of technology in February 2010.

Eventually, the website will be improved. It will include a place for people to submit applications online if they want to audition to tell at the event. We will also accept video web links.

The WSU Storytelling Festival Board has already discussed having a partnership with the filming department on campus. We will have optional release statements from the national tellers as well as the regional tellers as to filming live.

I expect we will use the material for commercials, sharing on the website, and possibly selling DVDs.

There are workshops taught by the national tellers besides the performances. We shall see how they will feel on giving permission.

At least we are talking about how we can use technology as a tool to reach out to our audience as well as to the future audience.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman

About Sean Buvala said...

Hmm, utzing? Oy.

Some of us have used all the other strategies for a quarter of decade. :-) They do not work. However, some groups will occasionally award or pay the utzers to go away- and that's when the message gets out.

Organizations that have 500K budgets but yet do not and will not communicate with their followers deserve a little tease every now and then. It is the sacred role of the Jester and Fool. It is a part one can be "ordained" to play. I can't speak for Tim, but I know my role. My currently developing role, outside of Jester at Tim's blog comments, is that of Mime. It pays better and I have less headaches.

Rachel: Sorry, too much hand-holding for me. Why bother with releases after the fact? How about on the submission form: "Your presentation will be recorded and presented in a variety of media forms." Then anyone who applies to present knows they will be beamed about the world. If they don't like it, they don't have to apply. If you present at the UnConference here in August, your presentation will be made available to the public. Period. Personally, I have presentations you can rebroadcast and some you can't. So, I won't do the "can'ts" at Weber or UnConference. I will gladly and with joy do the "cans."

Tim: Keep shouting down the hole. Yes, RealAudio was cutting edge when we started and the only game in town, proprietary and all. Not so much now. Now, I go directly to mp3's and hope to have the site reflecting that soon. You are doing a good job here and there's nothing but admiration for you from me. You stretch my brain.

Cathryn Fairlee said...

Hi Tim,

The NSN board has read your eloquent blog and offers you a chance to do just that - record the 2010 LA Conference. Form a committee and go for it.

This is an official invitation to do something concrete about the issue. Whaddya say?

CAthryn Fairlee
Pacific Regional Director, NSN

About Sean Buvala said...

It appears that your utzing and shaming have moved up the mountain. Take the bright, shiny apple (it's good I am sure, but xray it first) after you do the ream of paperwork.

Woo hoo!

Connecting Stories said...

daayum!This was an eye opener -
I do believe I am encouraged to go right back to my evil ways! Utzing and shaming and naming too!

Right on Tim!

Jeff Gere said...

Hi All, Hi Tim & Sean,

Out here in the middle of the Pacific such postings would be of great value. I'm also struck with how little attention is shared to recording ANYTHING ANYWHERE... Conferences or Festivals. At the upcoming Talk Story Conference (July 16-20, www.nsntalkstoryconference,com) I plan to record and post several sessions. I'd like to open it up to Skype attendance as well. I invite folks to look at the AWESOME line-up and come to Hawaii, or go to to grab some Paicific Storytelling Pod Casts. Media and storytelling- the new frontier! Eric Wolf, and you two are among the few pioneers. Strength, continue my brothers! And for you who read these words, go fill your head with what IS already on-line for you. A treasure awaits you. Jeff Gere