The Pub #54: NPR Story Lab head Michael May, live via Shindig

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A food podcast, a short film about young men in a housing project, a Korva Coleman puppet named “Korvacita” — they’re all products of NPR’s new Story Lab, an innovation unit that started last June.

Headed by veteran producer Michael May, the lab works primarily in short cycles called “sprints.” NPR employees pitch ideas and get two weeks to try them out.

Not all of the products lead to ongoing programs, and that’s OK, May said.

“A big part of the lab,” he told me on The Pub, “is for the employees here to have a chance to do something different and to take some risks, and not necessarily that every one will lead to every NPR employee having their own podcast!”

On this week’s episode, we interview May before a live video chat audience via Shindig, and he even entertains a few pitches from the crowd. (Thanks to Shindig for sponsoring the episode!)

Also, we celebrate The Pub’s first birthday! Watch a replay of the complete Shindig show.

The Pub’s first birthday party with NPR Story Lab head Michael May from Current on Vimeo.

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We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me at adam@current.org or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to adam@current.org either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

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Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

  • Mark Pugnar

    Here’s another idea for a possible new podcast show; Why not try to reboot a popular show that was cancelled? It might be possible to bring back the popular Talk of the Nation as a new podcast.

    • MarkJeffries

      A live call-in talk show turned into a recorded podcast? I don’t think so.

      Besides, if “TOTN” was going to come back, it would have to be with Ray Suarez back hosting (and that could be, considering that Al Jazeera America’s going under). That’s when the show was at its peak before he left and Juan Williams took it downhill fast (and Neal Conan was never able to completely pull it out of its tailspin). In the end, the hardcore NPR audience just doesn’t care for talk radio (and that’s why Air America was unsuccessful and why NPR news-talk stations have been more successful than progressive talk radio). Obviously, some people love Diane Rehm and Tom Ashbrook and some will tolerate them, but the preference is still for either a straight interview like Terry Gross or as a newsmagazine.

      • Mark Pugnar

        TOTN was just an example of a show that has been cancelled. The suggestion was to reboot a former show. Are there no shows that have been cancelled that could be rebooted?

        • Aaron Read

          Well, one could examine Chris Lydon’s “Open Source” as a “reboot” of the old “The Connection”. He’s even back on WBUR for an hour a week. It’s not really directly analogous since the show revolves around Chris as a radio personality, and Chris (AFAIK) doesn’t have the desire to put up with the rigor of a daily talk show again.

          If anything, the shows that were cancelled that ought to be brought back are “Tell Me More” and “News & Notes”. Michel Martin seems otherwise engaged with WATC, but I wonder if Farai Chideya would be interested in returning? In the abstract, I certainly hope she would…both N&N and TMM were excellent shows that didn’t deserve their fates.

          • Aaron Read

            That all said, it can be argued that NPR, particularly on the radio/broadcast side of things, has a real innovation problem. The blame for this goes as much on the network as it does on individual member stations; there’s nothing more risk-averse than the program director of a radio station. Makes it damn hard for anything new and different to get traction since the likelihood of wild success with new listeners is very low whereas the likelihood of unhappy existing listeners who complain is very high.

            Bottom line, however, is that recycling an old show really is just exacerbating this “innovation problem.”

            AFAIK, most – if not all – of the major recent podcast successes have all been long-form-story-based. That format often doesn’t play as well on broadcast radio vs podcast to begin with, and it’s real questionable whether it would play well during public radio’s greatest needs: middays Mon-thru-Fri.

            (FWIW, I personally think the time is LONG overdue for ATC to begin at 3pm ET instead of 4pm, considering that drive time rush hour starts at 3pm for most of the Top 50 markets…hell, maybe even the Top 100. But that’s another argument for another post.)