Burns, WETA and partners began planning their community engagement effort as they developed the series. The “Untold Stories” project – designed to engage diverse audiences – was conceived in 2004, five years prior to broadcast. Ultimately, it would include research, the inclusion of specific stories in the series, middle school education materials, a separate full-length documentary, translations of the series into numerous languages, local station events and content, and mini-documentaries to use online and in the parks themselves.
Defining the Need
The engagement goals for The National Parks emerged almost organically from Duncan and Burns’ long and collaborative relationship with the National Park Service (NPS), and that organization’s efforts to attract a more diverse set of visitors. Although the NPS does not track the ethnicity of its 270 million annual visitors, independent studies indicate that minorities use national parks far less frequently than whites. Nina Roberts, assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism at San Francisco State University told participants at a National Parks kickoff event that surveys show 83 percent of park visitors to be white, 13 percent African-American, 11 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian, and 1 percent Pacific Islander and American Indian.
A number of reasons contribute to this gap in park use, some logistical (e.g. prohibitive cost of travel), and others cultural (e.g. lack of minority representation in park programs and exhibits). The NPS clearly understands the negative effects that this disparity can have in the long term, stating in a May 2009 report, “The national parks’ most ardent supporters are visitors, and if visitation is not representative of the racial, ethnic, and generational diversity of America, crucial support could be lacking in the future.” A sense of stewardship infused the initial movement that created the national park system, and remains fundamental to its preservation.
Identifying Partners and Allies
Florentine Films’ most important ally for the “Untold Stories” projects was the National Park Service itself. Early in production planning, Florentine agreed to share with the NPS the database of archival footage and photos that it would create during the production process, and the NPS opened its national archive in Harpers Ferry to Burns, Duncan and their researchers. Florentine also agreed to create short, evergreen A/V materials appropriate for use in the parks (more on these mini-documentaries later).
In terms of financial support, a number of foundations and nonprofits provide funding for environmental issues, but Burns and Duncan were able to find kindred spirits in their specific efforts to show how Americans from many backgrounds have shaped the parks: The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the National Parks Foundation.
Ira S. Hirschfield, president of The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, wrote “From our early conversations with Ken and Dayton, it was clear that these extraordinary filmmakers would produce a compelling, dramatic, and visually stunning portrayal of the history of the National Parks. We also were intrigued by the idea that this film could help all Americans see a piece of themselves in the story of the National Parks, and foster a deeper appreciation of our nation’s rich diversity and how it continues to shape who we are.” The Fund provided the largest outreach grant in PBS history for the “Untold Stories” project.
The National Parks Foundation was established by Congress in 1967 to “strengthen the connection between the American people and their National Parks by raising private funds, making strategic grants, creating innovative partnerships and increasing public awareness.”
Other project partners included The Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Expedia, the Student Conservation Association and REI.
Determining Target Audiences
The partners agreed early on that target audiences for the engagement efforts would be Americans of diverse backgrounds, and secondarily, middle school students exploring the history of the national parks in social studies classes.
Through the “Untold Stories” project, Burns, Duncan and partners were interested in affecting what target audiences knew and felt about the national parks. (In evaluation parlance, these changes would be to “awareness” and “attitudes.”)
First and foremost, they wanted audiences to know that national parks are everywhere – in 49 of 50 states, and in many urban settings. The parks are accessible and often quite inexpensive to visit. Second, they wanted audiences to be aware that these spaces belong to all citizens – that the very idea of the national parks is a democratic one. Third, they wanted audiences to understand that Americans of all backgrounds have contributed to the development and stewardship of the national park system.
These changes in awareness lead naturally to changes in beliefs. The “Untold Stories” project sought to infuse diverse audiences with a sense of pride, ownership and investment in the national parks – a belief that everyone, regardless of age or ethnicity, is entitled to use these wonderful spaces, should feel welcome in them, and has a responsibility to preserve them.
Often, the third leg of an outcome plan is changes in behavior. The engagement team wanted to manage expectations among the partners and funders, so while it was logical and appealing to think that people of diverse backgrounds exposed to “Untold Stories” would visit national parks with greater frequency, it was not an explicitly stated outcome.
Forming the Engagement Team
WETA of Washington, DC, was the presenting station for The National Parks (as they have been for the last 25 years). Anne Harrington, WETA’s Director of Interactive Media and Outreach, served as the touchstone for all engagement efforts. The team also included Ken Burns, co-producer Dayton Duncan, a production/operations coordinator from Florentine Films, a social media/web strategist, and representatives of the National Park Service and other groups.
Harrington kept in touch with the team on a regular basis through phone conferences, and, due to a shared home base in Washington, DC, was able to meet often with both the National Park Service and the National Parks Foundation.
The National Parks engagement team developed a number of compelling strategies for their “Untold Stories” project.
While WETA did not conduct a formal outcomes-based evaluation of the “Untold Stories” project, they did find ways to solicit and collect information about project results.
First, 61 station grantees used NCME’s “PlanIt” software to determine audiences, establish hoped-for outcomes, plan engagement activities, and report on project successes. WETA also provided stations with participant surveys that they could use at local events, to help determine the impact of content and discussions.
Additionally, WETA secured the services of Applied Research and Consulting, LLC to track and report on grant results. (See more about the station grants below.)
Engagement planning began planning soon after program conception – almost five years in advance of broadcast. The timeline extended well beyond the broadcast as well, primarily to host and manage the many resources available on the PBS.org companion site.
Fundraising began as the series was being conceived and scripted; the budget for the “Untold Stories” project was completed early in this process. Costs for engagement were approximately 13% of the total National Parks series budget.
Implementation of “The Untold Stories” project was not without its complexities. It was a significant and lengthy effort that called upon the partners to work closely together, and to address multiple activities in tandem.
Engaging Audiences in Advance of Broadcast
A preview website on PBS.org was completed seven months prior to air, and featured a 27-minute promotional filler for the series. Two weeks prior to air, the full site was uploaded, with interactive tools, teacher materials and content from the “Untold Stories” project.
The “Untold Stories” initiative was announced at a major press event and forum in San Francisco on Earth Day 2009, entitled “Parks for All.” At the event, producers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan formally handed over the “Untold Stories” materials to the NPS to be used in national park settings, and were made honorary National Park Rangers. The guest list of 300 included national partners, local partners such as the Golden Gate Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, scholars, park rangers, public media staff and enthusiastic park visitors.
As part of a comprehensive public relations/engagement campaign for the series, Burns and Duncan traveled to station-organized events around the country, speaking in lecture halls, schools and national parks. These events began many months in advance of broadcast.
Here, Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, featured in the series and in the “Untold Stories” project, meets President Barack Obama at a Washington, DC screening.
Working with Stations
Because the series was expected to perform very well for Florentine, WETA and PBS, a great deal of effort was expended getting stations ready to maximize its reach and impact. At public media conferences, all-day sessions helped stations explore the content, resources, interactive tools and educational materials created for the series.
The engagement plan for “Untold Stories” also included a significant investment in local station activities. More than 61 local public television stations received grants to engage underserved audiences and middle school students. Grant program goals included:
10 stations received grants ranging from $10,000 to $15,000, and 51 stations received grants of $7,500 each. The larger were competitively awarded early in 2009, many months in advance of broadcast. These grants required stations to partner with a local national park.
Burns meets rangers at the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area – key engagement partners for KCET in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Michael Fuller, KCET
The smaller grants replicated many of the successes of the larger. Stations used the NCME “PlanIt” tool to apply, which helped them to create clear outcomes statements and to plan activities. They partnered with parks, educators, churches, newspapers, tribal groups, organizations serving specific ethnic communities, etc. Here’s a sample of activities conducted:
Burns and Duncan work with students, rangers and Seattle public television station KCTS at IslandWood National Park
A complementary set of 35 grants was provided to national park units by The National Parks Foundation. Entitled “America’s Best Idea” grants, these were designed to help parks reach out to local communities and public media outlets. They supported photo and essay contests, summer camps, the production of mini-documentaries, audio and digital recordings of oral histories and more.
Monitoring and Reporting on Early Engagement Results
Just after broadcast of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, PBS issued a press release detailing the program’s excellent ratings (33.5 million viewers) and large number of web hits (2.5 million page views). This information buoyed funders and partners, affirming the wisdom of the money and expertise they had expended on the series.
WETA’s Anne Harrington, the lead engagement specialist for the series, made sure to send anecdotal highlights to funders and partners – the phone calls, letters and e-mails received by Florentine, PBS and WETA describing the impact of "Untold Stories" engagement on individual lives.
At the end of their projects, all “Untold Stories” station grantees were required to respond to a 36-question survey asking about their work and accomplishments. The results were compiled by a third party evaluator, and distributed to partners and funders.
Planning for Sustained Engagement
The PBS.org National Parks companion site continues to be hosted and managed, and will be for a number of years. Users can browse stories submitted by park enthusiasts from around the nation, use images from the documentary on their desktop, or send e-mail postcards showing their favorite parks. They can watch the “Untold Stories” mini-docs, or review segments that were good, but not able to be included in the series. Teachers can find evergreen materials for social studies classes, including lesson plans, daytrip activities, and place-based digital storytelling modules.
Of course, the “Untold Stories” mini-documentaries will be on display at national parks for many years to come, illuminating for countless visitors the contributions made by Americans of diverse backgrounds to national park history and stewardship.
Embedding the Engagement
Stations that had received engagement grants for “Untold Stories” reported the creation of enduring relationships with new partners (citing in particular the mission alignment of national parks and public media), as well as new underwriters and donors. Some created ongoing park-related features on their websites and news programs; others expanded their capacity to collect and manage user-generated content, and to work with teenaged media-makers.
While it wasn’t an explicit goal for “Untold Stories,” the project embedded lifelong skills amongst other participants. Parks and rangers improved their capacity to reach and engage diverse audiences, teachers and young people learned from the project’s place-based digital storytelling modules, and national partners and funders learned how to use the network of public media outlets to drive changes in citizen awareness and attitudes.
As mentioned earlier, WETA secured the services of a third party evaluator to summarize grantee results, and present them to funders and partners. Station grantees also participated in a post-broadcast NCME webinar with their peers in public media, providing insights and benefits gained from their work with partners, teens, parks and teachers.
Undoubtedly, the “Untold Stories” project was included in numerous annual reports for 2009, as it was in that of The National Park Foundation. The Foundation wrote “Today, shifting demographics are changing the face of the nation. More Americans are migrating to urban areas, meaning time spent in nature is limited, especially for our children; and while park visitation is on the rise, it does not reflect the full, rich diversity of our nation. Connecting people with national parks presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The need to create new programs and opportunities that connect underserved and under-engaged audiences has never been greater.” The report included a summary of the Foundation’s “America’s Best Idea” grant program, which had supported 35 national park units, working with public media stations.
PBS and WETA continue to examine ways to capture and communicate the power of the "Untold Stories" project, as well as Ken Burns' other community engagement work. It's especially important to capture and communicate the impact of community engagement projects in a shifting media distribution environment, and as foundation and corporate philanthropists face economic challenges.