How StoryCorps uses WordPress to enable storytelling everywhere

StoryCorps.me enables anyone to create and share powerful stories. Just launched as an iOS and Android app, the website that provides the app infrastructure is built on WordPress, utilizing the WordPress REST API. Here’s how StoryCorps.me came to be.

StoryCorps is an organization that aims “to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives.” Featured stories are broadcast nationally on NPR.

StoryCorps has published more than 50,000 interviews with almost 100,000 participants since they launched in 2003. A small to mid-size non-profit organization, StoryCorp’s interviews are logged in the Library of Congress, and over the years they have created new and ingenious ways to enable storytelling.

There are recording booths in a number of cities throughout the country where anyone can go and record an interview or story. The first was in Grand Central Station, though it’s since shut down due to budget issues. However, booths are open in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Chicago where anyone can make a reservation to record.

They also have an Airstream trailer that travels the country and records interviews all over the place. Creating ways for people to share stories is the heart of StoryCorps mission.

The StoryCorps MobileBooth. Credit: StoryCorps Flickr

The StoryCorps MobileBooth. Credit: StoryCorps Flickr

One WordPress developer that worked on the StoryCorps project told me, “I cry almost every time” as they listen to StoryCorps on their local NPR station every Friday morning. The stories tend to be very powerful. I was nearly brought to tears by one where a lady hugs her son’s murderer. Another moving story (from my hometown no less), features a father that comes to terms with his daughter’s homosexuality. Or there’s one where President Obama interviews a boy who overcame adversity to join My Brother’s Keeper.

Record stories anywhere

The latest initiative for creating ways for people to share their story is via StoryCorps.me, a website and companion apps that make it easy for anyone with a smartphone to record an interview and publish it.

StoryCorps.me is built on WordPress, and utilizes the WordPress REST API to enable access to a customized content architecture. The StoryCorps app utilizes the API to consume data and publish stories from the app back to the website.

I interviewed Dean Haddock, Director of Digital & Technical Innovation at StoryCorps, about how the idea for the app came about, how they use and think of WordPress, and other insights from their short three month development period.

Listen to the interview:

Direct Download

A national day of listening

Dean says he thinks the StoryCorps app really dates back to a program they ran three years ago called A National Day of Listening, where instead of shopping on Black Friday, they hosted an event where people could tell stories.

Dean’s team expanding on the idea, and the event turned into a micro-site using SoundCloud’s API that made that process easier. That project eventually expanded into the idea that would become StoryCorps.me.

Funding for the app

The StoryCorps app was funded thanks to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay winning this year’s TED Prize, with a substantial amount of research and development conducted under the 2014 Knight Foundation Prototype Award. He gave a TED Talk in Vancouver just a few weeks ago, where he shared how everyone has a story to tell.

Dave Isay at TED

Dave Isay at TED

The TED Prize is awarded to an individual with a creative, bold vision to spark global change. By leveraging the TED community’s resources and investing $1 million into a powerful idea, each year the TED Prize supports one wish to inspire the world.

– TED Prize website

His wish after winning the TED Prize was to “to grow this digital archive of the collective wisdom of humanity.” During the TED Talk, he noted that StoryCorps is “the single largest collection of human voices ever collected.”

The new app makes this mission even more plausible, by having almost no barrier for interview creation. The $1 million TED Prize made it possible.

Development of the StoryCorps app

storycorps-app

With “one tap”, interviews can be created and uploaded to the StoryCorps.me website and the Library of Congress archive.

Dave shared some of his vision for the app during the TED Talk:

Imagine, for example, a national homework assignment where every high school student studying U.S. history across the country records an interview with an elder over Thanksgiving, so that in one single weekend an entire generation of American lives and experiences are captured.

Development of the app was managed on three levels.

The StoryCorps team did project management, communication, and handled RFPs for app and website development. They also ensured that everything fit the StoryCorps model, and ensured that the new website and app talked to existing StoryCorps software and APIs properly.

10up built the website infrastructure, manages scalability issues, and managed the integration of the WordPress REST API.

MAYA design designed and built the app for the end-user, utilizing PhoneGap so that the app could be launched simultaneously to both iOS and Android platforms.

“We knew we going to use WordPress before we started looking for partners to help us build this thing.” As a “small to midsize non-profit,” StoryCorps has few resources. StoryCorps.org has been on WordPress, and they wanted to use WordPress for StoryCorps.me as well.

The development phase was quite short: from funding to launch took only three months. They launched at TED after receiving the funding last October.

For public facing web technology, WordPress is so flexible and so malleable and amenable to whatever we need to do with it, that it really wasn’t much of a question whether this was the right platform.

What their real question was, Dean shares, was how WordPress could scale if and when they hit a million users, and that’s why they brought in 10up.

What they learned

They are really pleased with how the project has gone so far. However, not everything was a success. They had to pivot and make adjustments as they went along and learned new things and requirements.

Dean noted, “You have to be willing to completely submit to the process.” He says it wouldn’t have succeeded if 10up and Maya weren’t committed as StoryCorps to the success of the project.

They also learned what Dean calls “more tangible” things, like the usage of PhoneGap. Without using a tool like PhoneGap, they wouldn’t have been able to “get to market as soon as possible.” However, he admits the app could be slightly better if it were built in a native platform to either iOS or Android.

Powerful stories

I really enjoyed digging into StoryCorps mission and the new StoryCorps.me project. I’m addicted to their stories, and some of the stories that have been uploaded — such as those in the audio intro — are really endearing.

While there may be an element of noise to the StoryCorps.me archive, it’s already evident that many gems will emerge, and who knows what ideas people will come up with for creative ways to perform interviews and record stories.

The apps are available on Google Play and in the App Store. It’ll be improving over the next weeks and and months. If you’re excited about technology at StoryCorps, you can reach Dean at dhaddock@storycorps.org or you can also report issues or ask questions about the app at contactus@storycorps.me.

StoryCorps is a great testament to WordPress and its ability to be an infrastructure to an app at scale, while also enabling efficient development cycles. This is probably my favorite utilization of the new REST API yet.