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Oct. 19, 2016, 1:53 p.m.
Reporting & Production

With its broadened Story Lab, NPR is looking to build up its next generation of shows and podcasts

“We are trying to be very conscious that pulling a lever in one place has an impact elsewhere.”

Where do new radio shows and podcasts come from? For an organization as big as NPR, that’s a complicated question. When you consider the work that takes place in member stations and among independent producers, the list of potential birthplaces for new shows is nearly impossible to keep track of.

“We want to be strategic about program development and make sure people across content divisions are in conversation with each other,” Anya Grundmann, NPR’s VP of programming and audience, told me. “We’ve gotten pretty good at thinking across the organization. Shankar Vedantam started as a segment on Morning Edition, which is now also a podcast. Our politics podcast has changed how our politics news sounds. We are trying to be very conscious that pulling a lever in one place has an impact elsewhere.”

To better create an environment where that sort of cross-pollination happens, NPR today announced an expansion and restructuring of what it calls its Story Lab — a multi-part initiative that includes teams from programming, NPR’s internal News Lab, NPR Training, and the listening app NPR One. Grundmann, together with VP for news programming and operations Chris Turpin, heads it up.

Testing and incubating new ideas has been happening at NPR, of course, but spread across a number of different units and in a number of distinct ways. NPR One has served as its own lab for testing (and getting listener data from) pilots, such as an environmental podcast. Last year, what was then called the Storytelling Lab (led by Turpin and Michael May) launched to formalize processes by which NPR staffers can pursue and pitch longstanding passion projects outside of the standard news cycle, then figure out how to bring those ideas on air. The newly reframed Story Lab aims to bring those and other efforts under a common structure.

“We’ve been trying to unleash new voices from within NPR and partner stations, and Story Lab plays a big role in that,” Steve Nelson, NPR’s newly appointed director of programming, said. “The idea is to take a successful innovation hub and broaden it across the entire organization.”

“The new Story Lab group is designed so that I can say, ‘OK, I made this thing, now I’ll hand it over to this bigger group to do what I’d been trying to do alone,'” May said. “I’m still going to be an advocate for my projects on my side, but when it comes to show creation, things have been streamlined.”

One output from NPR’s recent innovation efforts was announced today: In June, in partnership with AIR, NPR hosted a storytelling workshop at its headquarters for 12 teams chosen through an open application process to hone specific projects. NPR today announced the three podcast ideas it’s chosen to fund pilot episodes for. (The other nine teams from the workshop are also still plugging away at their projects.)

The new and improved Story Lab is trying to open up more ways for ideas to surface from people who might otherwise have no obvious outlet. NPR Training and AIR will hold another training program next March for at least 10 teams (applications opened Wednesday, and independent producers are welcome).

“We’re looking for a mix of ideas from a mix of places and backgrounds, in a mix of formats — not just podcasts, but radio series, investigative projects. The goal is to bring a variety of ideas into the building of the workshop,” Eric Athas, a member of the NPR Training team, said. (NPR Training also runs public workshops online and does a range of internal work, from helping a new podcast hone workflow to assisting another team with technical audio skills.)

“We’re looking for shows and podcasts that are going to reach a younger audience and be more diverse,” Nelson said. “Internally, we’ve been reaching out to different shows and different talent who can make shows, though we’re not ready to talk about [those projects] yet.”

May’s Storytelling Lab lives on, but morphed into what is now called the NPR News Lab, which is part of the new Story Lab. (We speak from experience here: There are too many things in journalism named “Lab.”) It will continue to serve as an internal incubator for early-stage ideas, which can move on to a pitch and pilot review process. May holds callouts for ideas (which don’t need to strictly adhere to hard news — the last theme was “humor”), embeds with interested people on the news side who have specific ideas, and runs “mashup” days where people from different desks take two days off the daily grind to get to know each other’s work and share ideas. “Ideas” aren’t full-blown podcasts or new on-air shows, May stresses; they can be a series of pieces that run on one of the newsmagazines, or a segment from a producer who has a story idea but has never voiced a piece before.

“People are still excited about putting things on the radio. We’re not just going to be launching a new podcast every month,” May said. “We take a lot of care figuring out what we’re putting out in the podcast space, and if you really want to get what you’re working on through our story lab sprints, a podcast is going to be much more scrutinized. [But] we still have an incredible opportunity to bring some of that podcasting spirit onto our shows.”

NPR is launching an online portal to handle pitches from both within NPR and outside it and to make the process more systematic and transparent.

“Previously, if you had an idea internally, you’d go to Michael May and apply for the internal Story Lab. But there are people across the organization who have tremendous ideas, so how do we make sure all the ideas go through one place to be evaluated?” said N’Jeri Eaton, senior manager of programming acquisitions and Nelson’s partner-in-crime focused on looking outside of NPR for new contributors and podcasts. “Once the portal is up, [you’ll be able to] go pitch your idea, and it’ll be reviewed on several points.”

Eaton is making no prescriptions for the types of shows NPR wants to acquire. Rather, she said, NPR is evaluating shows based on the strength of the overall proposal, the potential audience, and the feasibility of the project — what it would take to get it up and running, whether it has a business model, how much it would cost to produce episodes on a regular basis.

“I think there’s maybe this perception that we have one central show we’re comparing all these other potential new projects to,” she said. “But we’re really evaluating each one independently for what it’s bringing to the table that we don’t currently have. There’s no single set of metrics we’re looking at.”

Photo of a NPR member station mug by Elvin W. used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 19, 2016, 1:53 p.m.
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