Here are my pitching tips, as learned from nervously preparing and eventually participating in AIR’s Pitch Panel at the Third Coast International Audio Festival. I pitched to Julie Snyder, a senior producer from This American Life.
AIR’s Panel is among one of the more terrifying experiences of my life. Not only are you exposing your creative ideas to an editor for possible rejection, but a significant number of radio producers and editors you admire and hope to work with for decades to come will be in the room. So stakes are high. If it’s awesome, then a lot of people think you’re awesome. If it’s not, people will probably forget but you will think they’ll remember it and hold it against you for years. Here are a couple of tips I learned from hearing the other pitches and delivering one myself:
Finding the story.
To me, the most challenging part of the process was finding a story. Stories that would work for This American Life seem like a rarity in the world, and This American Life is notorious for accepting only a precious few of the hundreds of pitches it receives. I asked one of the show’s editors how many pitches they receive and he said about 30 per week on average, but many more when they periodically send out a list serve announcing future themes. I found the story I pitched two years ago when I invited my friend Martina to speak at the Moth-UP Middlebury, a local storytelling event. She told the story of pretending to be deaf at summer camp when she was 11 and delivered it wonderfully. It struck me because it sounded so much like something I would hear on This American Life. I sent the story to The Moth, but the recording quality was poor and her voice was stifled by the sound of the crowd. I still kept the story in mind, and when AIR’s call for pitches came out I submitted it along with a few other ideas.
Preparing for the panel.
As a radio person, my instinct is to send my work in from my bed at least 100 miles away. To help me prepare, AIR connected me with veteran producer Emily Botein. Emily and I discussed the main difficulty of the story, which was trying to figure out why other people should care about this story. With Emily’s encouragement, I called Martina to ask her some more questions and ask permission to pitch her story. The story itself was already strong, so I just had to make sure I told it in a straightforward and entertaining way.
I wrote out my outline of story points I had to hit, and made sure it included strong characters, set the stakes, contained moments of surprise, and ended with a moment of reflection. From listening to years of This American Life, and reading Ira Glass’ book Radio as well as online tutorials, I knew that these were the factors necessary for a successful This American Life story.
Once I had my outline I practiced the pitch out loud to myself as many times as possible. Putting in the time to make your pitch great will be well worth it. I practiced my pitch over and over, talking to myself outside while pretending I was on the phone (which would have been a very bizarre phone call anyway). I also called a friend so that I could have the experience of telling it to another person and getting some feedback. One radio producer who had been on the pitch panel at the previous Third Coast gave me a great piece of advice: Once you’ve practiced your pitch, don’t change it. Stick with what you’ve practiced so you can deliver it confidently when the time comes.
One producer admitted at the beginning of her pitch that she was really nervous, and I found that to be endearing. I think that in the right circumstances it can be OK to tell editors that this is one of your first times pitching, and that any tips to make it better would be appreciated. I’ve found that editors are excited to have new people pitching stories and are very supportive.
You can be supportive too.
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Know the show you’re pitching to.
Not only do you need to find the show that fits your story, but also be aware that producers on different shows are looking for different types of pitches altogether. For example, John Haas, the Marketplace editor, said that you should be able to summarize your pitch in about three sentences. On the other hand Julie Snyder, the editor at This American Life, said she actually liked long pitches because the details are often crucial to conveying the type of long-form narrative they’re looking for.
Some of the stories that were pitched to the panel were great stories that were simply being pitched to the wrong show. For example, one producer pitching to Marketplace had a wonderful story that captured the experience of living on a cargo ship, but the economic beat wasn’t defined enough for that show.
In the case of This American Life, it can be hard to know what to pitch since they produce such a variety of content. However, at its core all This American Life stories adhere to the same basic standards. Similar to what I had read in Radio, Julie Snyder’s criticisms of the pitch given before mine were that the characters weren’t clear, there wasn’t enough at stake, and that when it came down to it, the story wasn’t fun. I think by fun she didn’t mean it has to be all birthday parties and puppies. Even a serious story can be fun in that it’s entertaining, and it pulls you along in a way that’s exciting to listen to.
This American Life’s style is a series of “and then this happened” statements followed by a reflection, with just enough detail so you know your characters. There don’t need to be any complicated ideas you need to explain, the pitch can be very simple. Here’s a breakdown of my pitch as I outlined it in my notes:
- My friend Martina was an extremely shy, nervous child
- So to force her to be more social, her Mom decided to send her to a three week sleep-away summer camp when she was 11
- Martina fought with her about going for weeks, but eventually her Mom said she had to go
- She sat alone on the four-hour bus ride to camp and didn’t talk to anyone
- When she got to camp, the first thing that happened was they took attendance
- Martina was one of the first people called because her last name is Bonolis
- They called her name once: Martina Bonolis
- And there was no response
- They called her name again: Martina Bonolis
- And Martina was freaking out, because she was too shy to respond and it was SO embarrassing
- They called her name again: Martina Bonolis
- So that’s when Martina pretended she couldn’t hear them, and how she ended up pretending to be deaf (NOTE: This is where the pitch took off for me. A major plot point was revealed, and the stakes were high. She was pretending to be deaf and could be caught in an act incredibly wrong, deceitful and offensive at any time.)
- And even though she was only 11, this was a very extensive operation
- She made up signs
- She looked at people’s lips while they were talking as though she were reading them
- She was careful not to turn around or respond when her name was called
- And most politically incorrect of all, she took on an affect when she did speak
- And she got away with it, for two weeks, and even heard counselors complaining behind her back because they weren’t given any preparation or notice that they would have to take care of a deaf child, and that they wanted to go to the camp director and file a complaint
- Martina wanted to tell them not to go, but couldn’t because she was pretending not to hear them
- They eventually went to the director, who called Martina’s Mom, who informed him that Martina was indeed a hearing child
- She was kicked out of camp, which was supposed to be punishment but Martina was thrilled about it
- Martina’s mom came to pick her up, pretending to be mad but burst out laughing
- Martina majored in theater in college and has pursued some acting
- Even though what she did was really extreme, she says she was just re-inventing herself to fit in more. And that didn’t seem so strange, since she saw other people re-inventing themselves to fit in all the time (NOTE: this is the “big picture” reflection moment.)
So as you can see, this is a LONG pitch. I took the time to emphasize her loneliness by describing how much she dreaded going to camp and her experience sitting alone on the bus. I gave great details on how she pulled this off, and created a scene of her overhearing her counselors complain. And then, because this was a This American Life pitch, I included an idea of what the story meant in the “big picture.”
In fact, my story was maybe a little too much like stories I had heard before on This American Life because Julie pointed out that they had produced similar stories in the past. Luckily, it had been a few years since any of those stories had aired. In the end, This American Life bought the story from me for $500 and Ira did the interview with Martina for the top of the episode “Getting Away With It.” It didn’t end up being used for the show, but could potentially be used later if it fits another theme.
Now, the question I ask myself is whether my pitch would have been bought if I had just emailed it in. I don’t know for sure, but an editor at This American Life, Brian Reed assured me that every email pitch they receive is read (even if there is no reply). Of course, having five minutes of face-to-face time followed by feedback is invaluable. Pitching on the AIR panel is also wonderful because it’s a starting point for meeting people who want to give you more thoughts and feedback afterwards.
Submit the story that’s been in the back of your mind for years, face the stage fright because the experience and feedback will be worth it in the end. And before you pitch: prepare, prepare, prepare!