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July 18, 2009 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I want to get a story on This American Life. I would like some help.

You may remember that about a year ago, I asked how to get a job at NPR. I recently had the idea for a story that I thought would be a good fir on This American Life. Without bothering to contact them, I started compiling the necessary interviews, and the subjects for the story responded positively. I am already ankle deep in producing the story on my own, and I have the audio equipment and technical know how to finish it myself, but I have a couple of questions for the hive mind.

1.) Should I just finish and submit the completed story to This American Life, or should I use the form on their website to pitch the story to them to see if they're interested?
2.) I don't have much experience with writing pitches, so if you think I should write a pitch, can you point me in the direction of good sample pitches?

Thanks, everyone
posted by orville sash to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Sound of Young America had an interview with TAL producer Julie Snyder where she talked about the production process, including how they pick stories, how closely they look at the various types of pitch, etc. There was also an Ira Glass interview where they might have covered some of the same type of stuff, but it's hard to remember.
posted by abcde at 3:34 PM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's a MeChatter (though non-mefite, at least to the best of my knowledge*) that had a story appear on TAL. I don't know how publicly they want to be linked to it, but I'll send you a me-mail with some links that may be helpful.

*no NPR-related pun intended there....honest.
posted by Ufez Jones at 4:21 PM on July 18, 2009

Did you visit the This American Life website where they tell you how to submit you pitch and your story? They tell you what to do and how to do it.

posted by Piscean at 5:08 PM on July 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Me again.

The piece you produce on your own will, now way, no how, be accepted whole cloth. When we get pre-produced pieces, it has to really sparkle for us to even think about it, and when we decide to pick up the piece, it's reworked so much that it often barely resembles the original submitted piece. Even when working with veterans who've been getting work on air for decades, it's still reworked. We take 20 pitches for every pre-produced piece we take and rework.

That being said, working with the piece on your own will give you a much better sense of what you actually have and what you still need to tell the story well. So there's value in working on it.

Pre-producing work does work for regional programs, and having a piece on regionally doesn't harm your chances of getting it on a national show. (In fact, it usually helps.) Getting it on another national show might be an issue, so if you're able to get to that point, weigh your options carefully. (and congrats for getting that far.)

So getting back to your previous post, if you want to become a public radio producer (as opposed to a one-off thing for TAL), go ahead and produce it and try to get it on somewhere.

I know this is getting a little off-topic, but don't be too precious about this idea. If this is your one good idea, you can't be a producer. It's the producer's job to always be coming up with new, great ideas. Produce this piece, get it on air, come up with the next idea, rinse and repeat. It may take 10, 20, 30 produced pieces to final get something on a national program. Sure, it's a lot of work, but doesn't that sound like a fun way to be spending your time and energy? (If not, it's not the job for you.)

Good luck.
posted by ochenk at 6:12 PM on July 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the suggestions.

Ochenk - This is great advice. Super helpful. Right now I'm just conducting interviews; the narrative itself hasn't really taken shape. So I'm wondering if I should be pitching to TAL to see if they would even be interested with the story, or if I should just start trying to shape it on my own and then send it to them once I've put it together to my liking. Believe me, I have other ideas pieces - both longform and shortform - and I'm nurturing all of them right now. I am just wondering about this piece in particular. Putting together 10-30 pieces does sound fun to me, so that's encouraging. I'm learning all the time from every step and misstep. I don't actually anticipate this getting produced, and I'm not going to be devastated if it doesn't, but every little bit of advice helps.

Piscean - I read that. It doesn't really address either of the questions I asked in the original question. Rather, it tries to give an idea of what kind of story can find a home at TAL, and I think this one fits the bill.

Ufez - Thank you very much! It's super helpful to have first hand experiences.

ABCDE - I haven't had a chance to listen to this yet, but I'm eager to do so. Thanks for the valuable link.
posted by orville sash at 9:56 PM on July 18, 2009

Howdy! I'm the MeCha member (now a MeFite, thanks to the awesome party last night) who got onto TAL on her very first pitch, and after thinking about it for a long time, I honestly think that it was pure, blind luck that made my pitch stand out.

The show I appeared in was called "This I Used to Believe", which was put together to commemorate the ending of a long-running NPR series—and that says to me that it was time-specific. Because I wrote to them shortly after asking the MeCha bunnies what I should do the second time the Coach contacted me, I can only imagine that when my email hit their Inbox they decided to take me up on the pitch because they knew it would most definitely fit in with the theme of the show as opposed to having to shoehorn something else into its place.

As for the pitch itself, I basically re-structured the MeCha post, included the original ESPN story link, added details such as the fact that the Coach replied to my email on Christmas Day, etc., and concluded the email with asking them what I should do about the whole situation. I don't think that's a pitch-style that can and will work for everyone and honestly, it was such an unusual situation that I think a pitch like that can only work once.

Hope this helps somehow!
posted by TrishaLynn at 9:08 AM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

1.) Should I just finish and submit the completed story to This American Life, or should I use the form on their website to pitch the story to them to see if they're interested?

I was a public radio producer for many years: you should definitely pitch the story before going any further.

There are two reasons for that -- one is practical and one psychological. Practically, TAL has a distinctive, unusual storytelling style. If they were interested in your pitch, there would be questions they'd want you to ask, and advice they'd want to give you about how to ask those questions. They would want to participate with you in shaping the story and figuring out how to tell it well. They might take it in an unexpected direction. All that would make it a better story -- so it makes sense to bring them in early, and let them help you. Also, psychologically: if you pitch them the story now, they'll be able to imagine its potential. If you take them a finished product, it can be no better than the product itself. You want them to imagine its possibilities: that's what will engage their interest.

This is all particularly true if you don't have a track record with them. Frankly, I think it's pretty unlikely you'll be able to sell them the story: This American Life is an unusually terrific radio program, with really high standards. But your chances are better if you pitch them now, rather than sending them finished tape. Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 11:33 PM on July 19, 2009

In any case, the world needs more audio documents of compelling real life stories, so even if TAL doesn't take it, I strongly urge you to complete the work anyway and make it available as a podcast. Maybe this can be the start of your own show that eventually makes its way on to NPR!
posted by softlord at 11:58 AM on July 28, 2009

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