ISC Seeks to Break Agreement with NSN

The International Storytelling Center has asked a bankruptcy judge for permission to alter or annal nullify their contract with the National Storytelling Network.

This is a very personal moment for me – I am invested in the success of both these organizations. I am an active member of NSN and I believe that the ISC is essential for the success of the American storytelling revival. So who do I side with? I side with both organizations – being that I love them both – I am a child of two parents – long divorced – who are quarreling over money while the riches of the worlds drift through their fingers.

I know that many of you are mad at the ISC – I ask you to practice the better part of your nature and forgive… buy your tickets NOW to next years festival – I did – help this Jewel in the Crown of American Storytelling continue… I also ask the board members of NSN to defend NSN’s right to control the National Storytelling Festival and to negotiate with ISC as co-owners of the brand, name and event for the good of both organizations. Clearly no one wants to see ISC go down or NSN stripped of needed funding from the festival that represents members investment in the long term heath of the national storytelling festival.

A few articles on the fiscal history and current events with the ISC is below…

and an interesting rumor of returning to a really old model of the wealthy supporting the arts – yes!

more on the White horse…
Knoxvilebiz Times

The Rescuing Prince on the White Horse may not be so perfect… read a little bit on George Shinn’s Wikipedia entry.

But this article gives a great overview of how George Shinn may have matured and learned from his past mistakes…

Most recent update –

All the Best

Brother Wolf
PS: Please comment below for your thoughts on this event…


  • By B.Z. Smith, February 2, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

    It’s hard for me to even separate the two. In my mind they have always been one part of the other. Being a “West Coastie,” I’ve only gotten to Festival one time. Yet, it’s always been The Beacon on the Hill, The Mecca for tellers. Being a long-time member, I dearly love NSN. I can’t imagine our storytelling world without the two joined together.

  • By Tim, February 3, 2011 @ 2:48 am

    The largest part of ISC’s debt is the loan from the Federal government that was used for a building. It would seem to me (from far away, also on the West Coast) that the simplest way to bring revenue in line with debt is for the bank (or in this case, the US Dept of Agriculture) to foreclose. Does the Festival really need the building to survive? Was the building part of ISC’s attempt to generate revenue year-round? If so, is that succeeding? Of all the creditors, though, NSN is the only one (so far) that ISC is asking the judge to nullify the contract altogether. 10 out of 10 for fiscal common sense, but negative several million for legal (not to mention political/emotional) reasons.

  • By Rachel Hedman, February 3, 2011 @ 3:56 am

    As I was not at the meeting when the percentages were determined between ISC and NSN, I did not hear the reasonings behind that agreement.

    Why was the 18% chosen? What are ISC’s duties with the Festival versus NSN’s duties?

    Rather than an all or nothing approach, the amount of work and duties from each organizations need to be assessed. What really is fair?

    We are stronger together than apart. There are too many forces beyond the storytelling world that take away from the art being in the homes, in the schools, or in the workplaces.

    Until we tell again,

    Rachel Hedman

  • By Chara, February 3, 2011 @ 4:55 am

    I worked for NSN and had a lot of time to look at the contractual agreement between the two organizations. It was part of my job to be certain that we were in compliance with that contract. To give the ISC any reason to step away from the contract was tantamount to financial suicide at that point, so we knew that we had to be careful not to break the agreement. Things are different for NSN now- they seem to have their spending more focused than they did when I was there, but I know that the income that the ISC provides the Network is still very important to the financial health of the organization.
    The truth is that NSN will have to cut back so severely that I’m not sure how much of it will survive. The board has a lot of tough questions ahead, but I think that they’ve known for some time that they need to separate themselves from the geographical idea of Jonesborough (and the ISC) in order to really grow and adapt to the changes that the storytelling world is going through.
    Tim is right- the Festival doesn’t need a physical presence to survive, but the town of Jonesborough needs the ISC. They’ve partly built their financial success on the Storytelling Festival and the Center, and what would happen to the large, empty building in downtown Jonesborough? Much like the church that has housed numerous restaurants in the past few years, I would guess that it would change hands pretty frequently. Maybe the city could use it?
    Really, it all just makes me sad. The ISC is going down hard. So why take NSN down as well? Financially it does make sense, but it betrays a lack of concern for the storytelling world as a whole.

  • By Stephen Hollen, February 3, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    The heartbreaking thing here is that if ISN is allowed to break the contract the future of NSN will probably be severely changed. The relationship will be affected… virtually gone.

    Storytellers (remember them? the ones the festival showcases!) will be affected when the contract is broken. NSN will not be able to provide as many services to storytellers. Fewer staff, less services to storytellers. all that will severely influence the perceived value to storytellers when they contemplate joining NSN and ask, “What’s in it for me?”

    ISN will turn its back on the relationship that helped the festival from the beginning. The Festival is not the building. Could it survive without the building… sure. However, it is great to have a place to point to, a place that is for storytelling.

    However, like Eric and others have said, it is a terrible decision any way it is sliced. Two wonderful organizations will suffer.

  • By Jo Radner, February 3, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    True, if ISC succeeds in breaking its long-term contract with NSN, NSN will have to pedal harder to get up the same hill. But I would hope that the situation would encourage MORE storytellers to join and support the national organization, to see that the lean, low-overhead membership organization (whose existence is in no way threatened by ISC’s bankruptcy) is crucial for the national (and international) representation of storytelling. After all, membership in NSN costs only $60 — you could spend that in one evening for a dinner for two and the movies! And NSN represents storytelling in important ways, advocating for addition of the art form to grant and directory categories, raising grants, sponsoring members. What’s “in it” for members isn’t only tangible services (the magazine, the conference), but national reputation.
    What saddens me most in the current situation is Jimmy Neil Smith’s discourtesy — his sudden public announcement that all the years of collaboration with national storytellers and with NSN should be wiped out in an instant because ISC has been financially imprudent. The festival payment to NSN would not go far to remedying a $4,000,000 debt load! But the loss of the congenial relationship will do nothing but hurt.

  • By Loren Niemi, February 3, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    Let me be very clear about the history that brought us to this moment.

    • The joint ownership agreement was negotiated to provide both NSN and ISC approximately 50% of the income after expenses from the festival.
    * 18% was the number arrived at by negotiation and to NSN’s credit it’s share was to come from the gross. The reason for this is simple, if it was to come from the net there was a risk that there be no net. ISC did and does not like having to abide by this stipulation.
    • Part of the agreement is that ISC would have the exclusive responsibility for the Festival programming. NSN did not like having to abide by this stipulation as it makes NSN’’s ability to help shape the content and income stream passive. The success of the festival stands of falls on ISC management.
    • The revenue from the festival is dependent on a combination of programming, marketing and the larger economic realities. Even if ISC had 100% of the revenue from the festival is would not meet it’s annual operating costs for the building, staffing and programming.
    • ISC’s debt did not magically appear, it has been growing over several years and has been added to by repeated borrowing. This is a fact of management practices on the part of the Board and staff that have nothing to do with NSN or even with the Festival which is the only part of ISC’s programming that is profitable (even after paying NSN’s 18%)
    • What ISC appears to be asking for now, is to do away with the entire contract – not merely the 18% but NSN’s co-ownership as well.

    I have asked NSN’s board to vigorously oppose the ending of the contract and in the event the co-ownership is severed to seek an injunction to prevent ISC from using the name “national storytelling Festival” or any variant of that. “Theft” of dollars that you contractually owe your partner because of your bad management is one thing, That can be negotiated or forgiven. Theft of name and ownership of the Festival is quite another and it is too much.

  • By Chara, February 3, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    Rachel asked: Why was the 18% chosen? What are ISC’s duties with the Festival versus NSN’s duties?

    I have no idea about the 18% (I suspect I might have been able to answer that question in the past, but now I have no memory of why it may have been) but NSN has NO duties with the festival. There are some provisions for NSN involving the festival (a tent to house the org’s information and National Story Night space, time and some minimal advertising). The ISC is solely responsible for the festival. I can tell you that this is because the two organizations were at one time, one organization, and splitting it meant dividing the two organizations by function- one who organized events in Jboro, and one who was specifically a professional arts organization. So why is NSN being paid? Because the festival carried the arts organization financially from the beginning.
    @ Steven: NSN is already operating on a minimal office staff (down to 2, I think, from the 8 that worked there when Karen Deitz was in office) and they’ve already cut services back, and streamlined them to make them more efficient. I’m not sure where or what they will cut, but it will be much like cutting your arm off to escape the canyon, I imagine.

  • By Fran, February 3, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    One more benefit provided to NSN at the Jboro festival in odd-numbered years: a venue for presentation of NSN’s ORACLE awards. (In even-numbered years, when NSN has a national conference, awards are presented there.) If the relationship between ISC and NSN is broken, I don’t know where the ORACLE ceremony will take place.

  • By Jeff Gere, February 3, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    Sitting West of West in Hawaii,
    I wish that ISC had done more to generate a new audience through media (you who know me know what is coming)…. using the summer shows as a set for staging video, subscription streaming, or public TV. It is painful that nothing is being done with the mountains of National Festival recordings for radio programming. Radio would build a bigger audience, expand the presence of storytelling in the lives of America, and grow the Festival audience.
    So, in negotiating a settlement with ISC, I suggest NSN claim the right to use these resources (with artist permission,of course, and who wouldn’t give it?) for that purpose, since ISC is apparently not interested. Then create programming and post shows on the NSN Website! Start NSN Radio! That would make the NSN Website a ‘place to go’ for our aging membership and the Twitter Kids too. And build audience. LA Conference recordings are coming, and that’s a start in the right direction.
    Like Eric, I hope both NSN and ISC survive, I’m sorry we’re at this point, NSN may gain from this ’shortfall’ (as suggested above), and I LOVE the creation of this ING.
    Aloha, Jeff Gere

  • By Brother Wolf, February 3, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    Due to spamming comments are moderated – expect a short two to three hour wait for your post to be approved.

    Would you consider purchasing your ticket for the 2011 festival?

  • By Loralee Cooley, February 4, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    Small comment about this huge, sad brouhaha. Only about a week ago, Jimmy Neil Smith and I linked up on LinkedIn. I sent a short note, saying how many good memories my husband Ed and I had of so many festivals. (We ran sound in the Sisters’ Row Tent for several years) Jimmy Neil responded warmly to my comments, and then encouraged me to come to this year’s festival. Only a few days later comes this bombshell to sever ties with NSN on the whole festival project. Hmmmm…

    While I have no suggestions today, I do have a great deal of sadness, as well as anger: how DID we get to this juncture?!?

  • By Loralee Cooley, February 4, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    Although I made wrote something only a few minutes ago, I want to add some comments about two very astute contributors.

    Loren Niemi has made the very wise observation about the legal/ethical mess of the possibility of dissolving the partnership between ISC and NSN. His concern about artistic rights is valid. As I read it, this deals with the name and “provenance”–my term–of the festival being non-negotiable, and should be something NSN needs to own, rather than allow ISC either to kill it or steal it.

    The other wise observation came from Jeff Gere, and dealt with all the archived recordings that the former NAPPS kept from festivals over the years. He is right on target with the suggestion that these now-historic recordings should be made available over a NSN blog, website, radio feed, or such. I can speak of some of those recordings, since my husband and I ran the sound for several years (as indicated above) at Sisters’ Row Tent and, occasionally, at Tent on the Hill. We DID those recordings in those tents, with our own equipment, but turned over all tapes to NAPPS at the end of each festival. One particular instance I recall was a remarkable storytelling by Gamble Rogers. He himself had been so blown away by the synergy between him and the audience that he had asked my husband for a copy of the tape. We had no way to make a copy on site, and Ed suggested he check with the NAPPS office after the festival to arrange for one. Have no idea what became of his request. And Gamble drowned not long after.

    It strikes me that American Public Radio, NPR, or other public radio venues [maybe even the new SONGZA?]—or creating our own—might be one real possibility for launching such an effort. Of course, with the whole question of arts funding, etc., that might be trying to load more onto the pack mule of public broadcasting than it can manage. (FYI and for what it’s worth, I serve on the board of High Plains Public Radio, which covers parts of six states.)

    Now I’ll hush.

  • By Fran, February 4, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    I’m excited by the suggestions for making widely available the festival recordings which have been archived for so long. (I hope and pray they HAVE been safely archived!!)

    Question: if there’s even a wiff of a possibility of any profit to be made from such ventures, would ISC let go of them? I suspect they’ve been mangered all these years because ISC did not have facilities or staff to do it.

  • By Tim, February 4, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

    Reporting from inside the courtroom on what ISC is specifically asking, from the Jonesborough Herald Tribune

  • By Brother Wolf, February 4, 2011 @ 3:56 pm


    In my interview with Jimmy Neal there was no discussion of the debt – but we did talk about the festival recordings and basically the ISC tried it back int eh 90’s and was not satisfied with the results… I think this is really an old media new media. Jimmy Neal is brillent with his old media strategy and just less comfortable with the new media – internet – podcasting etc where this sort of nich market has real legs…

  • By Yvonne Healy, February 5, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    Wouldn’t making a donation to both ISC and NSN be more helpful? Why buy a festival ticket until you know the Court’s decision about ownership? At least you get the tax benefit if the festival administrator ISC goes belly up and you lose the benefit of attending. Meanwhile you help both organizations.

  • By Brother Wolf, February 5, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

    I think – Yvonne – that you are making the same mistake that everyone else is making the National Storytelling Festival is co-owned and managed by the ISC – just because the ISC has forgotten that – does not make it true. When planning a festival like the NSF early ticket sales help the festival organizers to demonstrate the health and vibrancy of the festival to the bankruptcy court. The court is managing the fiscal future of the ISC not NSN. Correct me if I am wrong – but it seems to me that the National Festival is an important cultural icon and that by purchasing tickets now we are investing in the long term health of NSN, NSF and ISC or whatever organization takes over as managers of the festival. I am not a fan of this option – just recognizing that it is very possible.

    I would rather that the ISC continue to do the great job they have been doing running the NSF. Most of the debt problems date form the building issues and can not written off as poor festival management.

    If the ISC goes Belly up the festival will still exist – because it is co-owned by NSN and the other creditors will want to retain the value of their steak in the ISC. I wish the festival to remain so I again encourage my readers to purchase tickets before the next bankruptcy court hearing.

  • By Yvonne Healy, February 5, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

    Thanks for explaining your opinion.

  • By Cathryn, February 8, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    And if ISC does proceed and succeed in negating its contract with NSN, one of its smaller creditors, how would it effect the attendance of the festival? I do wonder if JNS has thought of this.

    It has often been said that in the “divorce” of ISC and NSN, JNS got the house, NSN got the kids. What saddens me most is that the financial obligation between JNS and NSN has always been something he wants to be rid of. The contract obligation of ISC to NSN was based on the festival, which was and is a financially solvent enterprise. The mismanagement of ISC post divorce agreements should not affect that obligation.

  • By Brother Wolf, February 19, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    The core of ISC argument to the court is that NSN has not retained membership and is already in breach of contract – and in danger of losing even more members and becoming unimportant to the national storytelling community.

  • By Mary Hamilton, February 23, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    NSN and ISC are equal co-owners of the National Storytelling Festival. As such, it might seem reasonable for them to co-produce the Festival and split the National Storytelling Festival profits 50/50. However, at the time the formal, legal, Festival Agreement was negotiated, the staff producing the festival recoiled at the idea of being under the direction of not one, but two Boards of Directors and feared chaos and disruption in Festival production if two new entities had to come to agreement on every aspect of National Storytelling Festival production, when lack of agreement was already the motivation for the creation of two new entities in the first place.

    In addition, The National Storytelling Festival was the primary source of income for the National Storytelling Association (formerly NAPPS), so neither of the entities being created were willing to give up ownership of this event. Therefore the Festival Agreement that the two entities, now known at NSN and ISC, are legally bound to established “The Festival shall be equally co-owned by MSO and COO.” (MSO became NSN. COO became ISC.)

    But back to the split. The specific numbers 18% gross to NSN and 82% gross to ISC were arrived at by examining the financial records of previous National Storytelling Festivals (minus the “special event” festivals such as the 10th anniversary event). A look at those financial records revealed that 50% of the net/profit equaled approximately 18% of the gross. Thus NSN, as co-owner receives 18% of gross. The ISC receives 82% of gross and is free from constant oversight by NSN on Festival production matters. This also means that if ISC manages to more efficiently produce the festival, it possible that the net ISC generates from its work producing the festival could generate more income for ISC than an amount equal to the 18% of gross that NSN receives. This is fitting in exchange for the work ICS does. That NSN receives 18% of the gross without doing any of the work of production is also fitting since NSN is an equal co-owner of the event, and NSN agreed to not exercise production or artistic control of the Festival, so NSN has kept their part of the agreement (as opposed to behaving like a lazy partner, as some claim!).

    So, the numbers – 18% and 82% of the gross – were arrived at to reflect the equality of the co-ownership of the event, so each entity would receive approximately the same portion of the profit (as befits equal co-owners) with the potential for increased financial rewards for production efficiency for the producing entity.
    Mary Hamilton (who knows this information because of her service on the committee that represented the interests of MSO, which became NSN, during the negotiations which resulted in the formal, legal agreements ISC has now asked the courts to ignore.)

  • By Mary Hamilton, February 23, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    By the way, there is nothing in the legal agreements about membership levels, and NSN is not in breach of any contract with ISC.

  • By Brother Wolf, February 23, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    Thanks Mary for your fact correction…

    I have invited someone from the ISC to post or comment here – there perspective seems under represented. As I said above – I agree with everything you have said – but I remain open to dialog with the ISC as a member of NSN. I would rather not be guessing as to there arguments.

  • By Elaine, February 25, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    I thank everyone on NSN and ISC boards who have worked long and hard to make this partnership work.

    I never was in favor of the ISC developing a center with a large Jonesboro – it was too expensive from the beginning and much as I loved Jonesboro, it was hard to get to on a regular basis.

    Twenty years ago, I was working with a couple of people who wanted to put NSN outreach on-line in collaboration with a university in No. Carolina. We had an internet afficianado and storytelling teacher who was willing to donate to the storytelling community the time to set it up; the plan included giving students experience about storytelling as well as advanced computer development. Internet access would have made all memories of the Festival’s history more accessible in an easier to reach location. We felt there could be a smaller museum developed of photos and memorabilia in Jonesboro which could be available to travellers and festival goers. I think the need to protect intellectual property could have been addressed in that ageement but leadership at the time backed away from it.

    Storytelling at the festival and other Jonesboro events during the year, as well as the storytelling and tellers around the country who connected with the Cradle of Jonesboro would have dynamically continued to provide “high touch”.

    Perhaps you could say I was weak on dreams but I just saw many impractical things about it. I thought the direction of NSN at the time to promote and support tellers and festivals around the country was a good one; that did not require a large building.

    I dropped back my participation in part because of this arrangement between NSN and
    ISC. Now that things have come to where they
    are I give prayers and good wishes to both. And hope there can be a Win that comes out of it.

  • By Laconia Therrio, February 27, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

    As a former NSN member I’m intrigued by the vitriolic responses and assumptions regarding personalities. I’m touched by Yvonne Healy’s desire to “heal” the rift between ISC and NSN; but did this rift had to happen years ago? I’ve always wondered that, thus my own disassociation from NSN.

    This just might be an opportunity for those who consider themselves storytellers to be open not only to being understood, but also to try to understand.

    But I could be totally wrong……..

  • By Brother Wolf, February 28, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    This is one of the reasons that I have encouraged people to have a discussion here – I want these ideas examined – not just dismissed. I have not been able to find anyone in my network who will represent the ISC point of view and I deeply regret that failure. While I believe that NSN is essentially correct and right – I also do not believe that the loudest argument should carry the day – just because it is popular or load. I will continue to search for someone who is able to represent the silent view of ISC. (Clearly I can’t involve employees of ISC as they are involved in a Lawsuit – hence my difficulty.)

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