Well Told Story

“Well Told Story combines the power of good stories with strategy, creativity, deep analysis and hard science, to design and produce communications that spur positive social changes that can be proved and measured.”

The opening chapter

There’s a good story behind Well Told Story. It begins in Kenya, when the makers of a documentary TV series realised that the people they were trying to reach were those who were unlikely to have televisions, as well as the limitations of TV as a medium to convey complicated social issues and information in an engaging way that could lead to sustained behaviour change.  They started making comic strips out of still photographs from the TV programmes to send to people who expressed an interest after the TV show. These leaflets became so successful in their own right, as a means of information and behaviour change, that they decided to discard the TV show completely – and cut straight to the comic. They did this through the creation of a new business called Well Told Story.

They soon turned their attention to Kenyan youth: a group who make up a majority of the population (more than half of Kenyans are under 18, and nearly three quarters are under 30) and who display great innovativeness and entrepreneurial flair, yet who were rarely being served by the media in a productive, intelligent way. This meant a large proportion of the Kenyan population was left with a vast need – and hunger – for information.

They focussed on how they might use media to activate this population, and channel their energies towards innovation and enterprise. The solution was to engage Kenyan youth in a story via a multi-media approach, embodied by a monthly comic, a facebook page, downloads for mobile phones, and a daily syndicated radio show. The multi-media approach engages different segments of their young audience, and helps drive people towards more engaged forms of media participation, and real world action.

The story unfolds

The comic and parallel radio show, ShujaazFM, revolve around four characters: Boyie (DJ B), Maria Kim, Charlie Pele and Malkia. The main character 19-year-old Boyie, left school in 2009 but could not afford to go to college and remains job-less. He has the option to join a neighbourhood gang, who earn money through extortion, but he wants nothing to do with them. Instead he wants to help the members make something of their lives. So he sets up a secret pirate radio station in his bedroom and hacks into the airwaves of other radio stations and broadcasts a daily show Shujaaz FM (Heroes FM in Sheng, the Kenyan youth slang).

The show reaches out to Kenyan youth with practical ideas they can use to improve their lives. Boyie calls himself DJ B – his secret identity. He communicates to his listeners in Sheng and asks them to send him text messages with ideas on making money and better living. He in turn shares those ideas with youth around the country through his radio programme. The other characters are all fans of DJ B’s show and call in with stories and ideas of their own for him to share. These ideas then form the content of the daily Shujaaz FM radios show and are the stories in the monthly comic books, and the topics discussed on DJB’s Facebook page. The characters are an essential part of the approach, becoming trusted confidants to their audience. DJ B, for example, receives 100 calls a week.

 “With power and authority monopolized by an older generation that’s proven to be devoid of ideas, the underlying message of Shujaaz is it’s time for young Kenyans to take charge of their own futures.”[i]

The subjects that have been the focal point have ranged from seed soaking, to helping street children, to national cohesion, to hate speech.

The comic is distributed nationwide inside the Daily Nation newspaper and via thousands of Mpasa money kiosks in the Safari-com mobile phone network. Over half a million are in circulation every month, more than double the biggest national newspaper, with an estimated readership of 5 million reads a month, and 12.5 million have been distributed in the last two years. Their comics are “truly unique” in the media space: “it’s the right language, the right story about the world that our audience inhabits. We’re the only people to have drawn the slum … who validate these ordinary lives that young Kenyans are living.”[ii]

Alongside the comic book, Well Told Story produces DJB’s daily radio show which they syndicate to 23 FM stations every day – the only syndicated radio programme  in the country. The story also plays out on Facebook in a powerful way: with 50, 000 views per month to their Facebook page, and 650,000 conversations. This is helping Well Told Story to shift things from a relatively unmediated conversation, to a “crowdsourcing conversation that everybody can correspond to.”[iii]

A success story

Well Told Story is going from strength to strength, starting a new chapter for Kenya by winning an International Emmy Award, the country’s first, in Cannes in April 2012. The success of their model goes beyond an engaging multi-media approach – and can also be attributed to a sustainable and transferable business model, a young staff, and a focus on learning and improvement.

Well Told Story operates as a socially oriented business, not a charity. Around 40% of their costs are met by commercial partners, for example via product placement. The other 60% comes from work with likeminded development organisations who want to drive behaviour change. Each of the four characters bring a story with them each month, with each story representing the interests of one of their partners. They usually work with four partners a month, and have clear conditions for these partnerships: they don’t allow any partner to take more than a quarter of the content, and won’t work with partners whose messages are not felt to be in the best of interest of the audience, or whose messages they don’t believe in. Their young employees – a staff of 26, with an average age of 23, who research, write and draw the comics and produce the radio show and social media – ensure that the messages ‘speak’ to their audience.

A new character, an amateur detective, has joined the cast to help carry out a longitudinal research panel, to gather formative and baseline information as well as standing as a “a way of instantly taking the temperature of Kenyan youth.” Well Told Story are also conducting a randomised control trial with Georgetown University to do a controlled study to isolate the impact that Shujaaz is having on particular behaviours within a given timeframe. Previous tests about self-efficacy amongst young people who regularly read the comic have found a statistically relevant spike in the efficacy of regular readers. However, the challenge lies in moving people beyond inspiration and into action. At present, they’re spending time tweaking the design of the stories, and experimenting with ways to sustain a gentle pressure, and push people from self-belief into real world activity.

The approach has great potential for transferability, both in terms of its business model, medium and content (around 75% of their stories are considered applicable beyond the boundaries of Kenya – for example, those centring on entrepreneurialism or citizen agency and human rights) and the hope is to expand into other parts of east Africa, including Tanzania and Uganda.

Well Told Story: http://welltoldstory.co.ke/


[ii] Rob Burnet, Director, Well Told Story, Interviewed February 2012.

[iii] Rob Burnet, Director, Well Told Story, Interviewed February 2012.

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