I’ve never done anything for radio but I stumbled onto a story with radio potential, so I wandered over to This American Life to see how to pitch them a story. The section on their website for submitting work is practically a how-to on doing good journalism. Wonder what makes that show so special? Go here and click on the SUBMITTING WORK link on the left. Here’s part of it: What makes the show different from most other programs on public radio is that the stories we broadcast tend to have a very strong narrative. These are stories about a character or characters who are thrown into situations that shed light on something larger. The stories are constructed as a series of scenes or anecdotes (unlike most radio reporting). Often the characters change over the course of the story. Sometimes the entire story involves a writer or reporter (or character) going into situations to try to figure out the answer to some question.
An illustration of how This American Life is different from other radio shows:
During the 1996 Presidential elections, All Things Considered did many reports on the disagreements within the Republican party. These were standard news stories: we heard quotes from moderate and right wingers of various types. Experts weighed in.
This American Life broadcast Dan Savage’s first person account of how he–a life-long Democrat–decided that the best way to combat the extreme right wing of the Republican Party would be to join the Republican Party himself. His story detailed scene after scene of what happened at Party meetings in Seattle. The scenes were funny, surprising, and took us deep inside a world most of us know only in the most superficial way. Dan is gay, and a number of moderate Republicans pulled him aside to tell him that homophobia and intolerance are just gimmicks the Party uses to mobilize the rank and file, but that really, deep down, the Republican Party has nothing against homosexuals. So Dan started introducing gay rights resolutions. These were voted down by huge margins.
In contrast to the All Things Considered news accounts, Dan’s story was a drama, a narrative of one person who goes on a quest. There was a natural conflict: gay liberal among the conservatives. It shed light on much larger themes: the direction of the Republican Party, the way Party members see themselves and their political involvement.
The material we most often reject is writing that lacks a narrative. A lot of it is good, vivid writing, but without a real story to it. Often it’s recollections about some person the writer knew, or some time in their own lives. Often there are interesting anecdotes, but without any driving question, or real conflict. There’s nothing bigger at issue and nothing surprising revealed. In many of these stories, the characters are all the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. No one learns anything. No one changes.
The stories that fit most easily into This American Life are accounts of people who had some experience that changed them, or accounts of an incident that illustrated some broader idea. It’s best if these are surprising, if they run counter to what we might expect.
We also like found texts and tapes: found letters, old recordings from people’s attics or from thrift stores. We’ve done a number of shows with material like this. Again, these work best when the materials tell a story or illustrate some larger theme or idea.
Sometimes people send us “commentaries” like you hear on Morning Edition or All Things Considered. These tend to be brief essays, without real scenes or characters. We don’t usually run material like that.
What we are looking for:
Work that surprises.
Work that’s funny. Especially work that’s both funny and sad.
Writing that works like journalism–even if it’s fiction. That is, it describes and documents real things that happen to people.