There’s an astonishing world behind a simple T-shirt. To explore that world, we designed and sold shirts to our listeners, and then followed the shirts around the world to report on how they were made.
To figure out how many shirts to make, and to raise money to pay for them, we launched a Kickstarter project and asked our listeners and readers for support. Our goal was to sell 2,000 shirts; we sold 25,000.
We followed the shirts across four continents and an archipelago, letting our audience track our reporting on Tumblr and Instagram. We flew a drone over a Mississippi cotton field. We got mugged in Chittagong, Bangladesh. And, in the end, we used video, photos, graphics, audio, text and social media tools to tell stories about the actual people who made our shirts, and about the global economic forces that shape their lives.
The series was the most ambitious online project in NPR’s history. We built an interactive documentary to take our audience on the same journey our T-shirts went on. We used the strengths of different media to tell different parts of the story: video shows the lives of real people and the workings of impressive machines; text unpacks economic concepts; graphics show quantitative information. We also told the story of our T-shirt’s travels in audio over the course of six podcasts. One episode brought us deep inside the lives of two sisters in Bangladesh, who made the Planet Money T-shirts. In another, we learned how the yarn in our T-shirts is a high-tech, closely guarded trade secret, like the formula for Coke.
The T-shirt project received immediate and near universal acclaim. Financial journalist Kevin Roose called it “[an] amazing idea, executed perfectly.” And Sam Grobart, a reporter at Bloomberg Businessweek, called the T-shirt project “rage-inducingly great.” He wrote:
“It did the one thing I want most from any media I encounter: It made me smarter in the fastest, most enjoyable way possible. We must kill Planet Money and consume their bodies so as to absorb their power.”
When we published the project online, we invited listeners to submit photos of themselves wearing their shirts — after all they helped make this project happen. Thousands of people shared and discussed the stories on Facebook and Twitter. Teachers have used our project to teach students about economics, social studies and international affairs. And we’ve received countless emails from listeners. One wrote:
“The podcasts in and of themselves were incredible but then I went to the website, the video was gorgeous and comprehensive, the explanations so straightforward and clear. I told my husband as I read, watched and viewed every picture, every sentence and every video of the T-shirt website, ‘this is proof that a multi-media platform has a purpose.’”