The five people sitting onstage at an elegantly decorated table each tell a completely different story to the audience before them: Hunting elk. Going on a bad date. Eating Christmas dinner on a deadly journey to California. Trying a new dietary regimen. Exposing a human trafficking ring. The way the authors tell their stories varies too. Don Reed, for example, jolts and shifts as he switches from role to role: Don himself, his father, and the young man who somehow persuaded him to eat only fruit for two weeks. “Fruit is the only thing that nature sends down to the earth,” he declares, taking on the character’s round, relaxed accent. Later, JP Frary recounts a blind date that his office crush set him up on with her twin sister. He delves into every detail about the quail breast he orders at the restaurant. His voice becomes urgent as the date gets more serious and they head out for drinks. Then, in utter panic, he describes her leaving, suddenly, without explanation. The next day at work, he’s eager to ask his office crush why her sister jumped ship. All he finds is a note: “I’m so sorry I did this to you; I do not have a twin sister.”
Several of these stories had never before been published or performed. Others were words on a page, in Bon Appétit magazine or via the Associated Press. But for one night only, at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco, they came alive to music, images, and soundscapes. The audience not only heard each piece directly from its author but also learned how it came to be told—the story behind the story. Producing the show was Back Pocket Media, a storytelling company co-founded by McArdle Hankin, MA ’21, and Ellison Libiran that transforms journalistic and other creative works into multisensory live performances. “We want it to feel like a party,” Hankin says. “People talking to you in a conversational tone, even though the content of that conversation is something that they’ve worked on for weeks or months.”
In an age in which trust in mass media is nearing an all-time low—just 34 percent of Americans reported having a “fair amount” or a “great deal” of trust in the media, according to a 2022 Gallup poll—Hankin says he and his team are trying to connect storytellers, especially journalists, with their audiences face-to-face. To do so, their shows are designed to be social: Audience members mingle with the storytellers and one another before and after the show, as well as during intermission. “The goal is really to build trust in journalism with people who ordinarily wouldn’t engage with the news,” Hankin says. “Our hope is that by showing the people behind the news, there’s an opportunity for trust-building and seeing that that’s exactly what they are: people.”
Hankin and Libiran started Back Pocket in 2016 as a radio show that blended storytelling and soul music. But when Hankin, then an undergrad at San Francisco State, saw how much his friends connected and socialized over stories, he realized that the pieces on his show had a place beyond the airwaves. “We wondered if we could do [live shows] for a younger audience, for people who didn’t feel like a part of the current storytelling landscape,” he says.
Later that year, he staged his first storytelling event. The show was a success, first as a hub for his friends. Soon he noticed that the journalists, in particular, intrigued the audience. “People who didn’t care about news [were] coming to these shows,” he told the Poynter Institute in 2021. “[They] were staying late after the show to buy beers for the journalists, to ask them questions about the reporting, and to go deeper on the stories that they had just heard onstage.” Hankin witnessed how effective the social environment was at making reported pieces accessible, and he started to focus on incorporating more “live journalism” into his shows.
By the time Hankin came to Stanford to earn his master’s degree in communication, he and Libiran had been putting on the shows as a passion project for four years. That changed in 2020, when Back Pocket received a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Stanford and Columbia. Today, Hankin is a full-time member of the four-person team that operates the company, which puts on quarterly shows in San Francisco and one-off events wherever there is interest, including Philadelphia and New York City. “Most people haven’t read most published stories,” he says. “There’s a huge untapped audience of interest in curious people that would love to experience that story in some way. And those who have encountered it already will not have encountered it in the way that we’re going to present it.”
‘What events journalism does is it takes something that’s of interest to you as a voter and makes it of interest to you as an audience member.’
At the August show at Presidio Theatre, Pulitzer Prize–winning AP journalist Martha Mendoza described her team’s investigation into seafood caught by enslaved men from Myanmar, much of which ended up for sale in U.S. grocery stores. She started close to home: Several Indonesian men had made a harrowing escape from a boat docked at Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco and sought the help of an Indonesian pastor in San Jose known for helping victims of human trafficking. Prompted by such stories, Mendoza and her team set out for Southeast Asia. In a voice rich with emotion, Mendoza recalled the personalities of her fellow reporters and the people she encountered while discreetly investigating the living conditions of the fishermen. Behind her, photographs of those conditions showed on a screen. The audience saw men living in cage-like rooms. They saw the relief on the faces of the men as they celebrated on the day that authorities freed them.
“What events journalism does is it takes something that’s of interest to you as a voter and makes it of interest to you as an audience member,” says Jay Hamilton, a Stanford professor of communication and a mentor to Hankin. “Knowledge doesn’t substitute for the experience.” Hamilton also points to the value in familiarizing people with the journalistic process and connecting journalists with the community. “Audience members are also producers,” he says. “They’re sharing comments, they’re giving their reactions. It creates a connection that’s more engaging. There’s a feeling of solidarity.”
Miranda Li, ’22, MS ’24, says she regularly attends Back Pocket shows and often finds the most exciting element to be the conversations she has after the curtain closes. “The way you can discuss these Back Pocket stories is like the way that you would talk about a family member who’s just revealed something dramatic,” she says. “It’s almost like gossiping.”
She also likes how it gets her out of her newsfeed’s echo chamber. “Here you are arriving at this show, you know literally nothing about who’s going to perform and what they’re going to tell you about.” The stories, she says, “are unexpected, and that’s really powerful.”
Joseph Sarmenta, ’25, is a former editorial intern at Stanford. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.