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From the Archive: Pitches that Work

Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward some of the lost (or long-buried) profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. Part 1 of this Q&A about pitching, first posted in July 2006, was inspired by a posting from Tanya Ott on AIRdaily, the ListServe for AIR’s network of producers.

The Q&A came from Tanya Ott and NPR’s liaison with independent producers, Margo Melnicove.

Q: What comes first, the pitch or the final product?

Tanya:I never do a story, then pitch a show on it. The editors at the show want to have a sense of contributing to the process, being a part of the team. They want to help shape and mold the story and you best be willing to give them that, unless you’re a very well-established producer to whom they give carte blanche to do whatever you want. Note: There aren’t many of those.

My pitch will usually be short – two paragraphs, 30 words or so – and will include the basic premise of the story (tell them the conflict/tension or what’s new), who I’ll interview, and what scenes I’ll use to tell the story (i.e. opportunities for natural sound).

Be sure you make clear why someone in Alaska or Iowa or Utah should care about this story.

Q: How do you decide which show or producer to pitch?

Tanya: First, I do mostly short to mid-length (3- to 7-minute) features for the news magazine programs. When I come up with an idea, I try to imagine which show I’d most likely hear it on. Several shows would be appropriate. I may have to choose one and pitch it, then, if they turn me down, work my way down the list.

If I really want to make decent money on it, I’ll figure out a way to do a couple different versions of the story, then sell it to different shows.

For instance, I did a story last year on a program that trains black hairdressers to talk to their clients about breast cancer. They actually have a model breast and teach their clients how to find lumps. I sold the straight story to NPR, then re- versioned it (playing up the minority angle) for “Health Rhythms.”

I could have also re-packaged it for “The Health Show” or “51 Percent” (both out of WAMC). By doing this you can turn a $400 story into a $700 story.

Q: What are some common mistakes made when pitching?

Tanya:Here are two of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from editors about pitches they get:

• Pitches that are unfocused.

“I want to do a story on inner-city redevelopment”: That’s a topic, not a story. What are you going to say about inner-city redevelopment that hasn’t already been said?

• Pitches that are too long.

Editors are busy and don’t have time to hear you ramble on about your idea. You need to be able to explain in less than a minute what the story is, why it’s important, etc.

Q: What else can you can do to make sure your pitch is successful?

Margo:When looking for a home for your story, listen to the program(s) that you think might be interested, and check out their websites.

Make sure you have a good sense of their mission and audience, and of the kinds of stories they run (including story treatment/style and length), before you write your pitch. Go to their archives and search for the story that you’re working on. If it has already been covered, think about how you can advance the story.

As for the pitch itself, Tanya’s advice (keep it focused, keep it short, be clear about why listeners should care) is right on. In addition, be clear about why the story needs to be told now.

Here’s a pitching checklist, adapted from NPR training materials by NPR’s executive producer for training, Jonathan Kern.

Before you pitch a story to a news director, editor, or program producer:

Make sure you actually have a story in mind, and not just a vague idea.

If you suggest “some sort of business story on old people retrofitting their houses so they don’t need to go to nursing homes,” you may have a clear sense of what the story is, but you haven’t expressed it in a way that an editor or producer could evaluate it.

A better pitch would be:

“I think we should do a story on the industry that has grown up around helping old people retrofit their houses so they can avoid moving into nursing homes. I’ve found surveys that show senior citizens overwhelmingly want to stay in their own homes — and articles that say some of the companies that are helping them do that are reaping big profits. Those companies are holding a trade show in Chicago next month. We could use the expo as a way to show what sorts of devices and renovations they’re selling to senior citizens, talk to some seniors about how they made the decision to stay home, and look at how the home retrofitting boom is affecting the fortunes of the nursing home industry.”

• If a newspaper article prompted your story idea, make sure you can suggest how to advance the story.

After reading the story, do you still have questions you’d like answered? Who might be able to answer those questions? How might the subject be approached in a new way?

• Check the transcript file or archives to determine whether the outlet you’re pitching has done a similar story before.

If so, ask yourself whether there’s enough news to justify returning to the subject again. Think about how the new version would be different from the old one.

• Frame your pitch so there can be no doubt about the focus of your story.

You don’t need to put all the facts you have gathered into your pitch, but you do need to know where the tension in the story is, what is happening now that justifies the coverage, and why people in your locale (or other parts of the country if you’re pitching to a national outlet) are going to care.

• Figure out whether your story should be told by a reporter or through a host interview.

Some stories require a reporter to ascertain the facts, present both sides, characterize the way a scene looks, etc. Others rely mainly on the experiences or insights of a single person – and sometimes interviewing that person is the most efficient way to get the story on the air.

Q: If you’ve worked hard on a project, is it OK to resell the pieces or pitch them to other places? Is it even ethical?

Tanya:I did an hourlong documentary for WCPN in Cleveland on “Philanthropy in the 21st Century.” Got paid for that project and spun out 5-minute features for:

1) NPR (foundations’ funding influencing journalism and public policy agenda setting – got killed during the culture desk turmoil, but got a full kill fee)

2) “Marketplace” (venture philanthropists using for-profit models in the non-profit world … also spun out several spot stories over a span of a couple months, based on daily news)

3) “The Health Show” (something on health philanthropists and how they drive medical research funding)

Margo:Tanya’s advice is good. I would just like to add that whether or not it’s permissible to resell the same version of a piece depends on your agreement with the first acquirer.

Some outlets require contracts, others don’t. Contracts vary in terms of rights to the material. So questions about ethics need to be answered on a case-by-case basis. But in general, if you are pitching a story that has already been broadcast, I think the ethical thing to do is to disclose the previous use of the material, and then take it from there.

Q: What are some examples of pitches that have worked?

Tanya:The first is the pitch I originally sent to “Marketplace.” The second is the refined pitch I sent NPR after being turned down by “Marketplace,” which said the original pitch was too “dense.” Remember – short and sweet! Pitches must be focused and catchy (save the newsy reporting for the story itself).

Pitch 1 – to “Marketplace”
I’d like to do a piece on the following pegged to the New Year and resolutions about losing weight: The food industry is looking to heat up dormant sales by tapping into the country’s changing demographics and consumer attitudes.

Among the major trends analysts say we’ll see in 2003:

1) More convenience. Fast food is a $111 billion a year business and traditional food marketers are trying to tap the demand for on-the-go eating by offering such yummy new products as scrambled eggs and Mac & Cheese in push-up tubes. The production of handheld foods has grown at a rate of 8 percent a year since 1995 and is expected to reach $2.3 billion by 2004. Another big focus is re- packaging foods so they can be eaten with one hand, leaving the other free to surf the web. These new packages promise no drips, spills, or sticky fingers.

2) Healthier focus. Push-up tubes with Mac & Cheese may be the anti-thesis of health foods – still, analysts say demand for healthy choices will drive many manufacturers. Studies show aging baby boomers are increasingly recognizing the link between diet and health and since boomers spend $2,600 on food away from home (more than any other group), the restaurant industry will increasingly offering menus with detailed nutritional information. Also, as DNA research becomes more advanced many food industry analysts predict we’ll see restaurant menus tailored to genetic “type” health profiles.

3) Specialized foods. Analysts say in an effort to spur sales growth, packaged food companies will increasingly customize products to reach smaller and smaller niche audiences.

General Mills has tried a website where consumers are invited to develop cereals to meet their specific tastes.

There are also foods now catered to specific types of jobs or hobbies, i.e. the “Caddy Bar,” a nutrition bar that claims to “increase the dopamine and acetylcholine levels within the brain, increasing mental alertness and quick thinking” for golfers.

So – this piece would include (live) interviews with food industry analysts, researchers, manufacturers and providers (i.e. restaurant owner/managers), as well as consumers – lots of consumers – reacting to the predicted “trends,” etc.

The piece could include natural sound from restaurants, grocery stores, television ads, music about food/eating. This could be shaped as a regular feature for MMR or PM – or for the Health Desk, because obviously some of these trends have health implications (albeit somewhat contradictory ones).

Let me know what you think. I’m now at the station full-time and have plenty of time and resources to turn this around quickly for air in early January.

Pitch 2 – refined, to NPR
Hoping to beef up sagging sales, food manufacturers are pushing more “one- handed” foods, including such tasty treats as scrambled eggs and mac and cheese in push-up tubes.

The new marketing campaigns are a response to research that shows one-fifth of all meals are eaten in the car, and half of all 10- to 13-year-olds eat while surfing the ’net. Industry analysts say this trend will really heat up in 2003, even though fast food stores like MacDonald’s, etc., are having trouble making money.

This 4:00 business story would examine the trend toward handheld foods and how it contradicts a simultaneous emphasis on healthy foods among boomers. The piece would include interviews with food industry analysts, manufacturers, and consumers (child and adult). You can find the story online here.)

Next week in From the Archives: More examples of pitches that worked.

• To hear more about pitching, check out our 2014 webinar “The Art of the Pitch” with independent producers Ann Heppermann and Yowei Shaw, and John Haas of “Marketplace.”  Ready to go? Visit our index of programs’ pitch guidelines on the AIR Pitch Page.