Two years ago, NPR launched the Story Lab to give people in the newsroom a chance to take a break from their day-to-day jobs and experiment with a new project for a few weeks, whether that was a limited audio series or a podcast pilot.
The Story Lab, which is led by a team from across the organisation's news, programming, NPR training and NPR One app divisions, was expanded in October 2016 to also allow independent producers and people from NPR's member stations to submit pitches for projects.
"One of the goals of the Story Lab is to help evolve the sound of public radio, to find ways to work more closely with member stations, and to have a place where folks from outside NPR and public radio can come to develop new content," said N'Jeri Eaton, senior manager for programming acquisitions at NPR.
Ideas can be submitted online through the Story Lab portal, both for new projects and for existing shows that a producer or station would like NPR to acquire.
Pre-recorded audio is not required for new projects, however those interested have to fill out a proposal outlining elements such as the synopsis of their programme, the format and target audience. Producers also have to state what editorial resources they are able to provide and what resources would be needed from NPR, such as production or audio expertise.
Once a pitch has been accepted, the Lab will work with an individual or a team for two to six months to produce a pilot, which is then tested with a focus group and through the NPR One app. Based on feedback from listeners and what other shows are in the NPR pipeline at the time, it can be greenlit to become a regular series.
So far, the Story Lab has primarily focused on pitches for podcasts, radio shows and recurring news segments. Some examples of ideas that have been incorporated into NPR's programming include: Been There, a recurring segment on All Things Considered, featuring one-on-one conversations about people with a shared experience; and What's Good, a podcast where the hosts interview cultural movers and shakers such as Stevie Wonder.
"A lot of the things that have come our from NPR in the last year have been a variation of things from the Story Lab, so I think these programmes have benefited from people across the organisation collaborating early on to develop content and to find the best platform for it."
The team has also been running an annual Story Lab Workshop, a three-day event open to independent producers and NPR member stations. Teams are required to have between two and three people and at least one person has to have audio production experience.
During the course of the workshop, participants get time to work on a project idea with an NPR mentor, and they receive training in audio storytelling, project management, and translating audio stories to digital, among others.
"Whether they're from a member station or an independent team, often the idea they have is in addition to their already pretty loaded schedule, so having the time and space to meet with their team and having a mentor really helps."
Those participating in the event are also considered for a piloting agreement with NPR, which gives them additional financial support to develop their project. Pilots funded at the workshops include The Stoop, an independent podcast telling stories about black identity that "aren't always shared in the open", and Midnight Oil, a podcast about the 40th anniversary of the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
"It's something that can seem pretty specific to Alaska but it's actually an issue of interest to the rest of the country as well," Eaton said, "so it also helps member stations have more of a national reach".
"Another goal within Story Lab is not just to evolve the sound of public radio but also to reach out to the next generation of public radio listeners.
"We want to make sure we are developing content that speaks to the audience but also that we're bringing in a new audience, both more diverse and younger, so a lot of the content we are creating has those goals in mind."
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