A collaboration among PRX, New England Public Media and a Massachusetts nonprofit aims to boost audio documentary projects in the state with training and technical support.
The Mass Humanities Audio Storytelling Project offers participants four months of training in story development and production, as well as access to equipment and recording space and a stipend to produce a pilot episode of an audio documentary centered on communities in Western Massachusetts.
The nonprofit working with PRX and NEPM is Mass Humanities, an organization that promotes transformation and equity through the humanities in the state. In 2021, it launched a new strategic plan focused on collaborating with Massachusetts residents and highlighting the ideas and stories that shape the commonwealth, according to Executive Director Brian Boyles.
With the Storytelling Project, the organization is seeking to support smaller organizations and gain a broader understanding of the state’s past, present and future narratives.
“We knew that we needed to find partnerships on the creative side and on the distribution side so that we could get those stories to bigger audiences,” Boyles said. He emphasized the importance of collaboration to the project and ensuring that both the storytellers and the stories being told are treated with respect.
“That led us to these great partners who have really contributed a lot to how we understand the work and how we understand the story,” he said.
The initial cohort for the project consists of four participants selected by Mass Humanities, PRX and NEPM. Each is producing an audio project that complements the nature of their ongoing work. The participants are a local community arts and humanities organization; a doctor exploring the lives and careers of Black female physicians in the U.S.; a historical preservation association that is producing audio resources and supplements to accompany its collection; and a scholar who archives and shares stories from Massachusets communities and is creating an audio documentary.
Dr. Khama Ennis is the creator of Faces of Medicine, the podcast about the lives and careers of Black female physicians. Working with PRX, NEPM and Mass Humanities has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, she said. Ennis highlighted the orientation sessions in particular, which have allowed creators to give each other feedback and build strong foundations for their projects.
“I have benefited so much from the wisdom and feedback provided in this program and have come out with a pilot episode of a podcast,” Ennis said in an email. “I’m looking forward to getting this episode out into the world and I know it is only the first of many to come.”
‘We want to be stewards of these stories’
On the creative development side, PRX has been responsible for providing training and equipment for the creators, applying an accelerated curriculum over several months and offering a design framework to help bring the stories to life.
“Our participation in this program has been about how we can equip these creators to broaden their skills around audio as a form and take stories that they already have developed and created products and initiatives around, but adapt those for audio,” said Toni Carlson, manager of training at PRX.
NEPM President Matt Abramowitz said that the station joined the project with hopes of spreading the stories to a broader audience and establishing the organization as one that is truly by, for and about the people of Western Massachusetts. He also emphasized PRX’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion as a contributing factor to NEPM’s participation.
“I think that’s such an important piece as we rethink how public media in general can welcome more storytellers to our platforms,” Abramowitz said. “We want to be stewards of those stories, not gatekeepers.” He added that PRX has focused heavily on making its storytelling inclusive through its work and training with the participants.
Creating the Storytelling Project began in August with a call for proposals, and the cohort kicked off in Springfield in September with the four selected participants.
“What I like about these four is they’re each unique and, at the same time, reflect the intersectional quality of who we’re funding right now,” Boyles said. “I think that in selecting them, we did want to make sure that there was diverse voices within that, that there were people who were coming to the table with stories to tell.” He added that participants had already done much of the initial work, allowing the team to focus more on production.
According to Carlson, the team conducts weekly one-on-one meetings with the creators to develop templates and prototypes for narration scripts based on the material they have recorded. The team has brought in industry professionals to provide feedback and has conducted sensitivity panels to ensure that the creators are engaging in responsible storytelling and “to make sure that we’re thinking intersectionally about what voices we’re hearing and what voices we’re not,” Carlson said.
Pilot episodes of the audio projects will be from two to 10 minutes in length and are set to come out next year. While no concrete decisions surrounding distribution have been made, Abramowitz said that NEPM is looking forward to sharing the projects on its daily radio show The Fabulous 413. It will also promote them across its television and digital platforms.
Looking to the future, Boyles said that Mass Humanities is heavily invested in the Storytelling Project and sees this initial cohort as the first step in a more expansive program.
“We’re committed to this. We feel that this is an amazing pilot and that, importantly, when we work with the grantee or even with an applicant, there’s so much of the project that they’re doing that they’re trying to work through,” Boyles said. “So for us, this is a great first step, and we’re talking this week about what 2024 is going to look like, so I’m excited.”