Discover more from Starting Out
Stephanie Foo's secrets to pitching
Plus: how a pitch meeting is like Survivor
Welcome back to Starting Out, from me and Transom. It’s season four of the newsletter! And my first season of the newsletter on Substack.
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I’m so excited to start out this season of the newsletter with one of my all time favorite journalists, Stephanie Foo. I’ve been listening to her work since college, when I’d work the night shift at a coffee shop and listen to Snap Judgment to keep me company while closing up the shop alone.
I’m always telling aspiring producers to listen to the credits of their favorite shows, so they can start to learn who is behind the work that they love. I give that advice because I kept hearing Stephanie’s name and gravitating to her work. The stories are irresistible, engaging and thoughtful. I also love her memoir, What My Bones Know, which gives insight into what was going on in her life while she was making these incredible radio stories.
After the interview with Stephanie, there’s a guide to pitching stories. It’s not exhaustive (is that even possible?) but I hope it will help you feel more confident the next time you enter a pitch meeting.
Okay, let’s get into it.
Alice: Your experience at Snap Judgment sounds like a really formative early career experience. And I would love to hear what made it special.
Stephanie: I think what made it special was it was very much a startup culture. I was employee number six or something. It was the beginning of 2010, we were still firmly in the recession. Journalism was not looking good.
I had dreams of working at This American Life and all of a sudden in Oakland, California, there's a show that's like This American Life, except with better music. and with more people of color, which is like, “What? Are you serious?” And I went in on my first day with 20 pitches because I really wanted them to see that I was serious. I had ideas. I wanted to make stories. And they only took one of those pitches and it was a very bad story, in the end. But from the get go, I got to produce a lot of content. I was producing 40, 50 minutes out of an hour-long episode sometimes. Which is a lot of work!
Because it was so new, they also really allowed me to kind of develop my own voice and say what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it. And with the music that I liked.
I had a Gen X host and manager. The whole idea of the show is that it would get more young people to listen to public radio, and more people of color to listen to public radio. That's why they won the PRX Talent Quest. But it was to reach this audience, that wasn't stuffy, that we hadn't reached before. And as a 22-year-old young woman, they were just very much like, “You're the audience that we want to appeal to. So whatever sounds good to you, what you think is cool, go ahead.”
This was the era where you could score with anything you wanted. It was wild, using all my favorite music and getting obsessed with that, and going to Amoeba and listening in the experimental Japanese music section for an hour of finding all this great music. I mean, it was just really fun.
It was a little crazy because it was startup culture. It was very young. There was a lot of hacky sack happening in the office all the time. I was in for a hard wake up call when I had to join the real workforce, but definitely a fun way to spend my early twenties.
Alice: Does that spirit of giving early career people freedom to explore what they’re interested in still exist?
Here’s a pitch checklist that I use in my job. Keep in mind, I work on a show that typically tells one story over the course of an episode. For broadcast, your pitching process will be pretty different!
There’s a beginning, middle and an end to the story.
There is a clear conflict in the story.
Something about the story is surprising.
There are stakes — someone has something to lose or gain. Doesn’t have to be life or death, but people want to keep listening to find out how things turn out.
There’s a takeaway (a big idea!) for the listener.
I’m personally excited about the story.
Clarifying your pitch:
When I get excited about a pitch I tend to go a little off the rails, getting into tangents, diving back into history. It’s a lot. One of my first managers, Nick Fountain of Planet Money, used a phrase to get me back on track “Tell it to me like a movie.” That stuck with me and I still use it to help guide my excitable brain into a compelling pitch.
Let’s use the iconic Erin Brockovich as an example:
Version One: The Pacific Gas and Energy Company used a rust suppressor called Chromium 6 in their compressor station for natural gas pipelines. They dumped the wastewater into unlined ponds around Hinkley, CA. The chemicals in the water sickened the townspeople over the years until a legal clerk began to investigate and eventually a class action lawsuit was brought against PG&E.
Why it doesn’t work: First I should say that if this was a typical Alice overly excited pitch it would be like four paragraphs total. I won’t put y’all through all that. This pitch is factually correct, but it doesn’t have a main character for me to latch onto, the impacts of the contamination aren’t front and center. I’m not reading it and asking myself, “OMG, and then what happened?”
The Movie Version: Erin Brokovich, a single mother of three with no legal training, did something nobody else was able to do. She exposed PG&E, one of the country’s most powerful energy companies, for poisoning residents of Hinkley, a small town in California. In this story, we’ll tell how one small legal dispute led to the opportunity for Erin to change not only her life, but the lives of the Hinkley residents who paid the price for PG&E’s negligence.
Why it works: Erin as a character is front and center. We immediately root for her. It also makes me ask myself, “How the hell did this woman win this legal battle?” The note about a small legal dispute already tells me that there’s going to be a scene at the top that will create a cascade of events that no one could have foreseen. I want to know more.
Writing your pitch:
Some shows ask for formal written pitches, others have people deliver them verbally in the pitch meeting. I’m of the opinion that regardless of the format of your show it’s a good idea to write something, since it will help you refine your idea.
If you’re on staff at a show, ask your manager for examples of successful written pitches and try to use that format for your pitch. Generally it’s a good idea to use the “Tell it like a movie” strategy and put the story front and center. Then you can give some nitty gritty details. Here’s an outline of a pitch.
Grabby lede sentence that makes you want to keep reading.
Key narrative details, including character, conflict, and stakes. Basically you want to show that you’ve checked all those boxes that I listed at the top.
Details about where you are in your reporting. Have you actually spoken to the main “character” of the piece? Are they enthusiastic about participating? Have you spoken to experts? Will there be field reporting?
If you want to read about successful pitches, Transom has some great resources, with examples!
Excellent Transom resources on pitching:
Notes from a Pitching Novice, Bianca Giaever
“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.”
Pitching Story Ideas, Ari Daniel
“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.
Preparing to for the pitch meeting:
I’m a big fan of the show Survivor (yes, it’s still on) and think that there’s a parallel to be drawn between pitch meetings and tribal council.
On Survivor the tribe that loses a challenge has to vote off a member, and votes are cast after a group discussion. But the decision of who is going home is very rarely made while contestants are sitting around the fire. It’s made in a series of conversations hours before — people pulling others aside, discussing their options and pledging to vote together.
I was recently talking with a newcomer to the industry who noted that they were surprised by how many conversations are had about a story idea before a pitch meeting even takes place. That’s when it clicked for me.
The scramble that contestants engage in before tribal council is a bit like what happens before a pitch meeting. I like to talk over pitches with coworkers, usually one-on-one, and get their feedback early.
You don’t want to be surprised by someone’s critique of your pitch. It’s better to hear those concerns early on and address them in your pitch. That way, when you’re in the room you have the strongest possible pitch that’s easy to say “yes” to.
A savvy Survivor player walks into tribal council reasonably confident that their alliances are strong and they know they’re not going home. Ideally, they have such a strong alliance that even if something unexpected happens they’re still safe.
Obviously nobody is getting sent home in a pitch meeting, but they are nerve wracking, and if you’re an anxious person like me, this strategy is helpful.
One last note: a great ally in the game of Survivor will be honest with you if they don’t think an idea is good. So if your pitch doesn’t go through, you should link up with the people you trust to get some honest (but constructive) feedback on how to come back stronger next time.
Summer Intern, Audacy (No pay information included)
New York Market Intern, Audacy ($15-$20/hr)
Intern, Kansas Stations, Audacy (No pay information included)
Arts Editorial Intern, KQED ($18.07/hr)
Podcast Operations Intern, KQED ($18.07/hr)
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Creative Intern, KQED ($18.07/hr)
Culture Reporting Intern, KQED ($18.07/hr)
Recording and Archive Intern, Storycorps ($15/hr)
Education Intern, KERA ($16/hr)
Audio Production Internship, The Spark, WITF ($12/hr)
Journalism Intern, Rocky Mountain Public Media, Inc., ($17.29/hr)
Broadcast Engineering Fellow, Audacy (no pay information included)
Arts Access Digital Engagement Fellow, KERA ($45,000-$55,000/yr)
Eric Von Fellowship, ($41,000/yr)
Newsroom Fellowship, WVIK, Augustana College (No pay information shared)
Gwen Ifill/PBS NewsHour Journalism Fellow, WETA ($15/hr)
Assistant Producer, Part Time, WBBM-AM, Audacy (No pay information included)
Production Assistant, News, WETA (No pay information included)
Associate Producer, Talk Shows, WJCT (No pay information included)
Associate Producer, What a Day, Crooked Media ($65,000 -$68,000/yr)
Associate Producer, Digital Products, WBUR ($67,858/yr minimum)
Assistant Producer, The Economist (no pay information shared)
Radio Production Assistant, Premier (£24,000/yr)
Junior Video & Audio Content Producer Apprentice, Which? (£21,749/yr)
Video & Audio Journalist, Mediahuis in Belfast (£21,000-€25,000/yr)
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Next month: Priska Neely on how to make moves after being laid off.
Starting Out will always be a free resource. If you want to support this work you can donate to Transom. The newsletter is edited by Jennifer Jerrett and Sydney Lewis. Interviews are transcribed with help from Elizabeth Kauma.
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