Experimenting with NPR’s new Storytelling Lab

Photo: Michael May (Credit: Matt Wright-Steel)

NPR is coming out of its car radio.

The nonprofit broadcasting giant is slated to break even for the first time in six years, according to Wired. That progress is rooted in a combination of good fortune and good strategy—podcasts are “in” this season, and the broadcaster is hoping to capitalize on on-demand streaming with the new NPR One app, a web and mobile “infinite player”—but NPR is also aiming to get ahead of industry trends.

That’s much of the impetus for the new Storytelling Lab, overseen by Chris Turpin, the vice president of news programming and operations. Run by senior producer Michael May, a former public radio journalist hired away from The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, the Lab gives NPR employees a chance to pitch and pursue passion projects away from the daily grind of their normal responsibilities, and then figure out how to bring the best ones to fruition.

How exactly it will operate is still up in the air, but that’s part of what makes the project interesting. When I talked to May and Turpin recently about their plans, it was the first time they had had a chance to chat since May’s hiring was announced at the beginning of June. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How does the Storytelling Lab work?

Michael May: The Storytelling Lab is based on the venture capital, innovation lab model. It’ll be a tournament sort of process. Anybody at NPR—although my understanding is it’s mostly geared towards the newsroom—can pitch to the lab. A panel will review all the pitches, and the person whose pitch is accepted will leave from all their duties for two weeks, and go into the lab.

My role is just to support their project any way it needs to be supported. That can be hands-on: I can do reporting, engineering—if it’s an audio story I might be mixing. I might be doing coordination: If somebody wants to come in and build an app, I don’t know how to code anything, but I can find someone in NPR who can work on coding for the website or the app to see if they have time to come into the lab for as much time as the project needs to happen. I’ll be filling a lot of roles depending on whatever is needed.

How was it created?

Chris Turpin: Some of the credit should go to Matt Thompson, who used to work here as director of vertical initiatives. Matt wrote a paper in which he outlined an idea of experimenting for a year on storytelling, on how we get our work out into the world, and we took that and evolved and molded that idea to address a little more directly what we saw as our challenge. We felt that we spent a lot of time focusing on our journalism in recent years, and we’ve become a top-ranked journalism organization, but we haven’t spent as much time developing our storytelling model, and we want to make sure we’re telling stories in a creative, inventive, and engaging way, not just in the newsmagazines but across all the platforms we’re working on. It’s a way to re-engage with thinking about how we can get the work we do to reach our audiences in the most compelling way.

What areas of innovation is the Lab focused on? Will it mostly be audio or podcasts, or more software or physical tools for broader usage, like The New York Times’ Research & Development group?

MM: I would say all of the above. The way I’m thinking about this is about the process. It’s about the lab existing, it’s about there being a way for people who have great ideas at NPR to have the time and support to make them happen. I don’t think any of us are looking for any particular gimmick. It’s not about us thinking we’re going to create a new tech platform—those things might come out of it, but we’re also going to be working on things that aren’t sexy at all. We might be spending weeks looking at a new way to do two-ways on radio.

I’m not afraid of using the word “entertaining,” either. I’ve never worked at NPR, but from a member station perspective—because I used to work at KUT-FM and cover school boards—there was always a sense that we were giving audiences what they need to know and it’s just like eating their greens. That has to die. Everything else we do needs to keep people glued to their radio. But not everything will be about a new shiny thing.

If we’re talking about a two-week cycle, it’s obvious a couple of these will have to go through a couple of these cycles. But there will be a lot of them. There are already a lot of great things happening at NPR. I don’t know if you’re aware about what the Visuals team is doing. For people in the newsroom who are doing more of what is the heart of NPR—the heart of journalism, the day-in-day-out news—some of this is outside of what they’re doing. This is a way to let a daily reporter say, “Hey, let’s do something visual. Let’s play around in something that isn’t on the radio.”

CT: I would totally echo that. We want to create a space where good ideas can reach their full potential. That can be very difficult in an organization where managers are worried about putting out today’s show and doing the work that needs to get done. We’re trying to create a space where these pressures don’t exist, make sure they can pitch it, make sure the right people are in the room to make sure it gets to proof of concept.

What sort of projects are going to be worked on in the first round? How many people are involved at a time?

CT: We actually started the lab like a pop-up restaurant. We’ve been bringing in a couple of producers to test it out, get some of the kinks out, before Michael gets here. We had over 20 pitches over the first round, ranging from newsmagazine segments to ideas to build new kinds of apps, so there’s a very wide range of pitches we’re working through. The first project is actually a blog about food, to a greater or lesser degree. And then we just went through a pitch session today for the next group that will follow after this one, and the one we selected is a really interesting idea involving music groups, video, working closely with particular units in the newsroom to produce something that is a hybrid between news storytelling, music video, journalism, and classic NPR storytelling. I don’t even have the words to describe it. It’ll be really great if it works.

MM: One thing that Chris and I talked about is that in the pressures of the newsroom is there isn’t a lot of room for failure. If a story gets killed, that’s a tragedy. Part of this is giving people a chance to try things, and they may not work, but that’s okay. Hopefully there will be lessons even in the failures that might be useful for the newsroom.

CT: We’re already sort of finding that if you put one pitch together with another pitch, you might actually have something that will work better. We expect a lot of these pitches to not necessarily be on the air or distributed, but it can help our thinking with what we can do or where we can go that’s imaginative and meaningful for the audience.

How do you judge which pitches should be worked on?

CT: The basic principle is that we didn’t want this to be judged by the usual suspects. We asked for volunteers across the newsroom and have a diverse group of folks, from different backgrounds and different expertises, to sit and serve in our little “Shark Tank” and interview the candidates for the lab.

MM: The one thing I’m very curious about is how did the pitches eventually get decided: Democracy, or consensus, or did you and the acting producer make the call?

CT: I very much tried to sit out. I participated in the conversation but I didn’t vote in either round. I think in the end we pretty much met consensus after a pretty rigorous discussion. The first round we fielded a lot of discussion about what exactly are we doing here. We wanted to make this genuinely about getting people who are very thoughtful, smart, and creative in the newsroom, and get them involved in choosing ideas that have value and might serve us well as we served the audience.

MM: We’ve talked only about what happens at the beginning of these rounds, but another interesting thing, and when the rubber hits the road, is for some of the bigger ideas, there’s going to have to be a bigger process about how we develop it beyond the two weeks, whether it’s working beyond it or handing it off to another team.

CT: And that’s where management will have to get involved. We have a team dedicated to podcast development, so podcast ideas will probably be pushed to them, or I might say, that might be a good All Things Considered segment, so you should spend some time there to work it out.

Will any of these projects come from pitches from NPR member stations, or maybe be executed as collaborations with those stations?

CT: I hope there will be ideas pitched that will be collaborative. Working on a closer relationship with stations is one of our priorities over the next year, so I’m hoping some of the ideas that come forward will be looking for collaboration. As for opening up pitches to member stations, in my dreams that will happen, but in the short term we have to serve the newsroom because we have finite resources.

MM: Some stations have their own labs. WBUR and WNYC come to mind.

NPR has had an especially great year in podcasts—considering the success of shows like Invisibilia—so how is the Storytelling Lab planning to play into NPR’s larger strategy with podcasting?

CT: I think from our perspective it’ll help to serve good ideas for podcasts, and I hope some of these ideas will go to the so-called “Team Atlas” in programming.

MM: From my perspective, I think NPR has an incredible opportunity to put its stamp on the podcasting world. I would say, with some very obvious exceptions, podcasts tend to not be really reported. They’re more idea-driven, a couple of people talking about big ideas with beautiful sound. I think there’s a real space for long-form reporting that NPR is great at. What can NPR do with more time, is what I think of when I think of NPR and podcasting.

CT: I think you hit on something there, Michael. What is the role that the newsroom, that reported journalism, plays in podcasting? I think that’s an area that we can help.

MM: To go a little on a limb, I think part of it is finding opportunities for podcasts that may be around a news event, say an election to take one enormous example. You can see opportunities there. And you talked about some member stations, there are already some projects happening like that, and I’d like to see some. I don’t think a podcast needs to go on forever to be great.

Gabriel Rosenberg is a Pittsburgh-based journalist going to school in Connecticut, and a former intern for CJR. He tweets on @GabrielJR.