“Let’s just open a Google doc.”
Anytime my production partner, Kathy Tu, and I start talking about a new project, someone inevitably utters this sentence. Since we live on different coasts — Kathy in Los Angeles, me in New York — it’s a necessity, but also a call to action. It means we’ve spent too much time kicking an idea around and wondering “What if?” and it’s time to actually do something.
So when WNYC put out a call for new podcast ideas, one of us (I forget who) said the fateful words that mean we’re about to take the plunge: “Let’s just open a Google doc.”
We’re both proud members of the community, and an LGBT-themed podcast was a project we had wanted to take on for a while. The initial paper application asked for standard information: what the show would sound like, an elevator pitch, what we thought the audience for our podcast would be, and which shows influence us.
Superstar radio producer Meg Cramer once told me that the key to pitching is making a producer’s life easier. If you can make it simple for them to say yes, they will.
For the podcast accelerator pitch, that meant being clear about our intentions for the show. Instead of just describing different segments, we submitted a sample rundown (with timings) of a complete episode. When listing influences, we cited specific elements of other shows that appealed to us. We spent a good amount of time imagining our ideal listener, making up a career and a certain environment. I think at one point, we even gave our listener a name. Even though only a fraction of it ended up making it into the application, the intent was there.
Something must have worked. A couple of weeks later, we received an email that we had been selected as finalists out of nearly 400 applicants. The next round involved a live pitch at the Online News Association conference, held this year in Los Angeles.
The Live Pitch
From the beginning, it was clear that the live pitch would have to be tightly produced — we would only have five minutes to describe the show, play sound excerpts, and sell the concept.
Kathy and I decided that our best bet was to make a sizzle reel — basically, a microcosm of an entire episode. We gathered hours of tape which boiled down to about a minute of the greatest hits: a clip from an interview here, me trying to be funny there.
If that sounds like an unfocused hodgepodge, it absolutely was.
Enter Suzie Lechtenberg
As part of the accelerator, each finalist was paired with a mentor from WNYC. Suzie Lechtenberg of Radiolab was ours.
What can I say about Suzie that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone? (Full disclosure: This line is stolen from an Amazon review for a banana slicer. Read it, I promise you won’t regret it.)
She is the kind of person who listens to you panic and struggle and sigh, and then quietly answers, “What if you tried it this way?” And of course you should do it that way.
Especially in those first drafts of the sizzle reel, she was instrumental in helping us organize all of our tape into the best representation of our show.
Five minutes is not a lot of time to sell a show, especially if you want to communicate range. In talking about how we would shape our pitch, Kathy thought we should try to have an emotional arc. Actually, what she said was, “I think it should go: laugh-cry-laugh.”
We would start with something funny, follow it with something that dove deeper, and end on a lighthearted note. The sizzle reel ended up having a lot of punch, so that served the first part of our laugh-cry-laugh pitch. (To hear it, scroll to 37:32 in the ONA recording.)
Kathy had a story she had been sitting on for a while that chronicled the process of coming out to her Taiwanese mother. It touched on a lot of themes: mother-daughter relationships, cultural misunderstandings, and differing attitudes between generations about sexuality.
Originally, we had excerpts from Kathy’s piece in the sizzle reel. But in the numerous early drafts, the change of pace from funny to serious was too abrupt. Instead of trying to fit it into a montage, we decided to play a standalone clip in the middle of our presentation to give her story some breathing room. (You can find it at 39:44.)
It’s beautiful, vulnerable tape and, I think, communicated the depth of where we hope to go with the podcast.
And of course, we wanted to end with a concept that we had liked from the beginning: The Coming-Out Inbox. So much of the LGBT experience is telling someone “This is who I am.” There are a lot of rich stories in this territory, and Kathy and I wanted to make sure we had space for them.
In the weeks leading up to the live pitch, we set up a Google voicemail and asked our friends in the LGBT community to share their coming-out stories. Using tape from their messages, we wove together a montage of different voices sharing their experience — we had probably about 10 people who called in, three or four of whom ended up in the presentation. (Scroll to 40:52.)
Many had funny stories; others were touching. In the future, we’d like to broaden this element of the show into a looser definition of “coming out,” so as to capture some of the nuances in the LGBT experience.
But for our live pitch, having these warm, lighthearted bits of tape was perfect.
It should be noted that for our five minute presentation, we gathered about seven or eight hours of raw tape, and wrote at least four drafts of scripts for what we would say on stage. With the samples and clips, the goal was to sound polished. With the script, the struggle was more about sounding like ourselves.
It’s hard for me to articulate what gels about our working relationship, mostly because we haven’t stopped to talk about it much.
My theory is that we work well together because Kathy and I take turns being the leader. We have an unspoken understanding that with anything we’re working on, each of us is responsible for certain aspects, with the other serving a supporting role. Rather than trying to both be in charge all the time, we have a rhythm for when it’s time to be assertive, and when it’s time to respect the other person’s creative point of view.
I want to take a moment to give kudos to our co-winner, Robin Amer. Her pitch for The City was cinematic, focused, and passionate. I listened to her talk and thought, “I would listen the sh*t out of this podcast.”
I’m excited to hear what she makes next, and I’m really glad we’re sharing this opportunity.
What happens next?
I think Kathy and I are very good at focusing on the task at hand. Our attitude has always been to deal with the current obstacle, and not get too hung up on what comes next. As a result, each step of this process has been a surprise. That we even made it past the application round is a wonder to us.
Now comes the hard part: actually making the show. It’s daunting and exciting, kind of like wearing something you knit out in public, and hoping that no one points at you and says, “That’s the ugliest sweater I’ve ever seen.”
Worth noting: Pretty much none of the tape we gathered for the pitch is going into the pilot. So, we’re starting from scratch.
We’re excited to get working. We’re excited to make another thing together. We’re also excited to get some sleep.
And yes, we’ve opened a Google doc.
• Tobin Low is a radio and digital producer based in New York. Before joining Marketplace, he worked at Q2 Music at WQXR, nerding out on contemporary-classical music. As a reporter, he has appeared on Marketplace, Studio 360, and the forthcoming Codebreaker podcast from Marketplace Tech, to name a few. He is a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop, and a 2014 AIR New Voices Scholar.
Kathy Tu, his production partner, is a Los Angeles-based radio producer whose work has appeared on KCRW, HowSound, Deutschlandradio, CBC, and others. She is a recipient of the Åke Blomström Memorial Prize, and a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop.