Back Pocket Media premiered Philly Story Fest in the Bok auditorium in Philadellphia to a sold-out crowd on October 5th, 2023. The theme for the inaugural Story Fest was “A Love Letter to Philly.” The stories were windows that allowed attendees to catch a glimpse of the city in all its complexity - through art, performance, journalism and music.

We spoke to Tay Glass, executive producer at Back Pocket Media about the trials and triumphs of putting together a multi-day live journalism event in collaboration with eight local newsrooms.

Photo credit: Calibri Workshop

What is the project about?

Philly Story Fest was about bringing the community together to celebrate its stories - stories that embrace the city’s virtues while still acknowledging its vices. It was a multi-day festival featuring a mainstage storytelling event, a documentary film screening, a local art showcase and more.

The festival was a collaboration between Back Pocket Media and eight local newsrooms, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Billy Penn and Philly Mag. We worked with their journalists to reimagine their work for the stage, adding elements that you wouldn’t be able to find on the printed page, things like text messages, photos, animations and even a live band. More than anything though, Story Fest was about showing the real people behind the news alongside community voices.

We premiered Story Fest at the Bok building in South Philly, an abandoned vocational high school that has been turned into a hub for local art and business. October 5th was when everything culminated in our mainstage show. We were blown away by the support we received from the community - we sold out to a crowd of 600+ with another 300 on the waitlist.

Photo credit: Calibri Workshop

How did the idea originate?

Story Fest evolved pretty naturally from our last journalism-centric project, Local Live(s). With that series, we partnered with individual newsrooms to adapt some of their best stories to the stage in a way that felt artful and fun. And while the project was successful in a lot of ways, we were stretched really thin. We produced ~20 events with 25 different newsrooms all over the country. As soon as we wrapped on one event, we immediately had to hustle and figure out the next one. And by moving on so quickly, we weren’t really making good on the trust that we were earning in all these different communities.

So we took a step back and thought about all that we had learned. What if instead of breadth, we focused on depth? Could we bring a bunch of newsrooms from across a local news market together on one stage? What if instead of 120 people at a brewery, we brought together hundreds of people into a proper auditorium? Long story short, we wanted to have more impact and create something that would grow year over year - something that people will look forward to. That’s the dream.

Photo credit: Calibri Workshop

Tell me more about how the collaboration happened or was facilitated?

The first big challenge was selling all these different newsrooms on the idea. Luckily, we established a relationship early on with Resolve Philly a local journalism org “that challenges [the] industry to be more equitable, collaborative, and based in community voices and solutions.” They became our community anchor and introduced us to a number of our partner newsrooms.

We had also learned from our past events that newsroom partners are invariably strapped for time and cash. So from the outset, we knew that we had to be the drivers of this event - we owned editorial, design, logistics, etc. We asked the newsrooms to simply lend us their talent and to help us promote the event.

How was it funded?

We couldn’t have done this without the Knight Foundation, who saw something in our idea and gave us the support we needed. We also received sponsorship from the Lenfest Institute and the Wyncote Foundation. And then on top of all that, we partnered with a bunch of great local orgs - restaurants, design firms, art institutions - who provided in-kind support. Those orgs include Mural Arts, Myth, First Person Arts, Martha, Braid Mill and U Arts.

Photo credit: Calibri Workshop

How long did it take to produce?

From start to finish, it took the better part of a year to get from ideation to the actual event on October 5th. Now that we’ve done it once and built some meaningful relationships along the way, we are optimistic that the next Philly Story Fest will be an easier, quicker lift.

What were some of the challenges?

A question we got a lot throughout the development of Story Fest was “Why is Back Pocket Media, a group of outsiders, doing a show about Philadelphia?” It’s a fair question. Part of the answer has to do with our experience producing shows like this all over the country. And another part of the answer is that the Knight Foundation stipulated we had to produce the first Story Fest in a Knight community city. Philly quickly rose to the top of our list because of its robust media ecosystem, its celebration of the arts, and its grittiness. In the end, aligning ourselves with community partners and local newsrooms insulated our reputation and we earned trust over time, through our relationships, consistency and the final show.

Photo credit: Calibri Workshop

What was the most gratifying result?

I think any event producer will tell you that everything’s worth it when you see all the pieces come together on the night of the show. And it really was magical. The audience was incredibly warm and receptive. And the storytellers that we had been working with for months absolutely nailed it. Each one delivered their best performance.

After the event, we surveyed the audience to get a sense of what they thought. And a shocking 100% of respondents said they’d recommend Story Fest. One person on the survey said, “I am never more proud to be from Philadelphia as I am today.” That comment still makes me well up. It shows that people want more of this - the kind of art and experiences that deepen their connections to their own community.

What is one lesson from this project that you would like to pass on?

Look for fun. It’s really easy for live journalism to fall into the trap of its big sister, the old newsroom adage that “If it Bleeds, it Reads.” Look, news fatigue is real. The headlines have been a lot these days. People are tired. And that’s not to say those types of stories can’t have a place. In fact, we made sure to capture the three dimensionality of the city in a number of instances, including a story about being unhoused in Philly and a story about the hoops inmates have to go through to get “compassionate release.” But be selective. And intentionally seek out stories that provide a bit of joy and humor. We started the show with a light-hearted story about a guy who ate a whole rotisserie chicken for 40 days straight and ended the night with a story from the perspective of the person who finished dead last in the Philly marathon. Bookending with levity made the heavier stories more impactful.