Intro from Jay Allison: For years, the incredibly versatile producer, Ari Daniel, has been visiting the Transom Story Workshop to tell students how to make a freelance living in public radio and related environs. He knows the Art of The Pitch, and in his Transom feature he now breaks it down for you. So many good tips in here, plus a bunch of sample pitches. Great stuff if you’re starting out. Good luck.
You’ve probably got a story kicking around that you want to report on the radio. Pitching is simply a matter of taking that story idea and translating it into a form that will make an editor or a program want to work with you to tell it.
Here are seven guidelines/tips for pitching your story.
1. What’s Your Story?
Pitching a story about a generic idea — a group of people losing money on their subprime mortgages, say — isn’t nearly as effective as finding one or two people experiencing that issue who can illustrate the broader idea.
So when pitching, make it clear that you’ve done enough research to gather the basic details of your story — who your character(s) will be, where the scene(s) might take place, what’s at stake. But don’t over-report or over-research until you get your pitch accepted. You want to do enough exploring to make sure there’s a real story there, but you don’t want to sink too much time into it in case the pitch gets turned down.
To that end, I do most of my preliminary research over email and the phone. I don’t start collecting tape until the pitch has been accepted. A good editor will help you shape the focus and treatment of your story, and that will inform your interviews and the tape that you gather in the field. So I hold off on recording anything until my pitch has been accepted and I’ve agreed upon the focus of the story with my editor.
2. What Can I Offer?
If you’re a freelancer, you can do things that, sometimes, staff reporters don’t have the time to do. Since you probably don’t need to worry about a same day turnaround, you can take the time you need to record scenes unfolding and characters opening up and changing.
Don’t worry about chasing press releases and embargoed about-to-be published studies. It’s likely that staff journalists will cover these. I like to look for stories that aren’t yet on the news radar. In fact, most of my story ideas emerge out of casual conversations. Sometimes, someone whom I’m interviewing suggests that I speak with a friend or colleague. Other times, I notice something curious and that leads me to a story. Several years ago, I was interviewing a geochemist in his lab and I saw a giant four-leaf clover taped to the side of one of his instruments. I asked him about it and he said he used to have a student who had an uncanny ability for finding four-leaf clovers in the world. I got in touch with her and ended up doing a story about her.
Head somewhere in your neighborhood that’s off the beaten path — a place about which you haven’t heard a lot of coverage — and inevitably you’ll start to uncover stories. Stories that you’ll then pitch.
Find a story in some far-flung land and apply for a reporting travel grant to cover the costs to get you over there. Better yet, before you apply, pitch that story to a show (see how below) and get a letter of support saying that they’ll edit and air your story provided you get the funding.
Speaking of funding...
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3. Identify the Right Show for Your Story
There are two ways to go about this. The first is to think about where you might expect to hear your story if you were tuning the radio dial or cueing up a podcast. That is likely the show where you want to pitch your story. (And you can look at the Association of Independents In Radio website for a list of how to pitch numerous public radio programs.) Write your pitch in the style of that show. If it’s a program that emphasizes narrative over news, be sure to pitch your story as just that — a story with characters, scenes, plot development. If, instead, it’s a program that prefers news to narrative, indicate in your pitch what makes your story newsworthy (more on that in #4 below).
But you can also do the reverse. Let’s say you really want to have a story air on Studio 360. As you’re scanning the world for stories, use what you know about the kinds of pieces that Studio 360 airs as a filter to identify ideas that you might pitch. As you’re doing your pre-reporting and research, you can even ask questions to determine whether something that’s piqued your interest has the art and creative bent necessary to air on Studio 360.
4. Punch and Peg
The title of your email to an editor should read: “Pitch: xxx” where “xxx” is the several word headline for your pitch. It should grab your editor’s attention. Something like “Caribou tears” or “Using shit to save an ecosystem.”
Your pitch can be a few paragraphs long. Keep it pithy and on point. Show that you’ve done your research by writing in some choice specifics. For instance, I wanted to do a story about the Joint Mathematics Meeting when it came to Boston a few years ago. I knew I needed an angle that would make it interesting for listeners. So I called up several mathematicians and the conference organizers beforehand, and learned about a mathematical theater troupe that was performing, a session on the probability of board games, and a workshop focused on the mathematics of dance. Those details helped form the basis of my pitch. You can listen to the final piece here.
In addition, explain what your story arc will be, who you’ll interview, what scenes you want to capture. Give the editor an idea about how you envision the story playing out.
If there’s any reason why the story needs to be aired soon, mention that. This is called a news peg. Maybe your story is tied to an event that’s taking place. Or get creative and find a related anniversary, birthday or holiday. I once pitched a story about the mating behavior of copepods (an aquatic crustacean) to Here and Now. I told them they could air it on Valentine’s Day as an alternative dating story. And they did!
5. Good and Bad
The more you pitch, the better you’ll get. And as you bump into stories, you’ll get a more refined sense of what will and won’t work on air.
Here’s a line from one of the first pitches that I ever wrote. I’m glad my editor said no:
This piece will focus on the art, skill and technique behind making flowers, spirals and other designs with milk on the top of coffee.
There’s no detail, no sense of story, no tension. And everyone has heard about this idea — there’s nothing to indicate why my story would do something unexpected or surprising.
Now check out this line from a pitch that Matt Leslie, a Ph.D. student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, sent to Atlantic Public Media:
The science I do wouldn’t be possible without a special morgue of 30,000 dolphins.
See how much more tantalizing that is! You can’t help but want to know more and hear Matt’s story (which, incidentally, you can do here).
I’ve pasted a few of my full pitches, along with links to the resulting stories, down below.
6. See No as a Yes in Disguise
At first, your editor may regularly reply with a “no thank you.” That’s nothing to worry about. Make sure you know why they said no so you can improve your pitch the next time. You can try sending the same pitch to a different show to see if they’ll nibble. (It’s okay to send the same pitch to multiple shows sequentially — but never simultaneously.) However, my recommendation is to move on and try pitching that same editor and program something else. Eventually you’ll get a yes.
And with time, you’ll develop a professional relationship with your editor. They’ll become a human being who you can bounce less fully formed ideas off of, who you can write to ask if there are any gaps in their program that need filling, who may come seeking you to do an assignment.
7. Pitching as Part of a Larger Freelance Picture
Pitching is essential to freelancing. It’s how you get stories to appear on air. And I’ve found this know-how or skill comes in handy when pitching beyond public radio as well. You can use these same tips for pitching audio or multimedia pieces (or series) to non-profits, academic departments, etc.
The goal is the same — get the idea that you’re fired up about into a written form that gets someone else just as excited.
Three Successful Pitches
Pitch 1: For senior citizens, the work never ends
Don’t go to Needham, Massachusetts if you want to retire. The secretary of an ophthalmologist there is 96. A 78-year-old man named Paul mans the front desk at the Boston Sports Club. 89-year-old Greta works at the YMCA by day and at a senior center by night. The Vita Needle Company has 25 senior citizen employees in its factory (the oldest is 98).
And this phenomenon isn’t unique to just Needham. Increasingly in the US, elderly people are working both manual and non-manual labor jobs. According to Dr. Simon Weitzman, a Needham physician, “Work provides an umbrella. It provides a blanket It provides love. It provides warmth It provides everything that has nothing to do with money.” In short, it offers a sense of purpose.
Though perhaps it’s also a sign of our workaholic culture — that we’re addicted to work and our only way to find our purpose is through our work.
I’d like to address these ideas in a radio piece structured around a workday in Needham, starting the piece in the morning with Paul at the BSC who opens the doors at 5 a.m. and ending it with Greta who works the evening shift at the senior center. I’ll interview these seniors as well as Dr. Weitzman and Dr. Caitrin Lynch (an assistant prof at Olin College who’s writing a book on Vita Needle) about the reasons why very elderly Americans continue to work, and whether it says something about our society’s addiction to work.
Pitch 2: The fossils of Mistaken Point
On the craggy bluffs of Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, the wind and waves are gradually licking away the rocks to reveal some remarkable fossils. These Ediacaran fossils are the oldest remnants of multi-cellular life on our planet. They showcase the dawn of large animals on Earth over 500 million years ago.
But Mistaken Point isn’t a purely science story. It’s also a story about how science and local communities can help one another. Back in the 80s and 90s — before the fossils were a big deal — the neighborhoods surrounding Mistaken Point and Trepassey in Newfoundland fell into a deep economic slump. The cod fishery had collapsed, and there just weren’t any jobs. But Kit Park wasn’t going to let her community dissolve. She knew that Mistaken Point was covered with fossils. She’d met a couple of paleontologists that told her about their importance, and she worked with them to create an ecological reserve where the fossils are now strongly protected. Guy Narbonne, a paleontologist from Queens College in Ontario, gave a presentation about how a community should protect its fossil heritage. A few days later, a couple of guys from outside Newfoundland drove into the park and tried to remove an important specimen using diamond-bladed rock saws. Kit Park saw what was happening, and managed to stop them after they’d completed about 80% of the job.
Word has gotten out about the fossils at Mistaken Point. There’s a visitors center that offers guided tours. And tourists flock by the thousands each year. It’s rejuvenated this community economically, and the locals have even found a couple of incredibly important specimens for the scientists working here. It’s a partnership between science, government, and community.
Pitch 3: Talent is everywhere
Every year, science labs in the US throw away enormous amounts of expensive and often reusable equipment. Sometimes it costs more to repair a machine than to replace it. Other times a new model becomes available. And when a biotech company shuts down, all the materials get tossed. Test tubes, petri dishes, DNA sequencers, mass spectrometers, gas chromatographs, centrifuges, electron microscopes — they all end up in the trash.
Meanwhile, in countries like Ghana and Mali, scientists lack all but the most basic tools to tackle local problems like: identifying anti-bacterial and anti-protozoal compounds; researching malaria, leishmaniasis (related to African sleeping sickness), TB, diabetes and hypertension; and characterizing both the nutritional and pesticide content of local foods.
Enter Seeding Labs, a non-profit group in Cambridge, MA founded by Nina Dudnik. During her PhD, Dudnik spent a year doing research in a lab in the Ivory Coast. The technicians there taught her techniques in molecular genetics, but they were rinsing out the same few pieces of glassware over and over again to do their experiments. Back in the US, her fellow students and colleagues were amazed that there was actual science taking place in West Africa. Dudnik realized she had to do something to make people aware of not just the science, but of the needs of scientists in developing countries.
The central idea of Seeding Labs is that talent is everywhere. They connect the resources of labs in the west with the needs of labs in the developing world.
A group of scientists from Ghana and Mali will be in Boston for a few weeks this summer to work with Seedling Labs. I plan to interview some of them and learn about their projects back home, visit a local lab in Boston where equipment is being discarded, and speak with Nina Dudnik to learn about how the organization got started and has grown, what their motivation is, and how effective it’s become.
Ok, now it’s your turn. Step up to the mound and throw a couple of fastballs. Maybe try a curveball. And then, once your pitch gets accepted, it’s time to become the batter and knock it out of the park. Good luck!