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Perfect Pitching: How She Got to “Yes”

From AIR's Archive logoEditor’s note: AIR has laid down tracks in public radio over the last decade with its “pitch sessions” at various industry conferences where producers gather.

This year, the session was held in September at the PRPD conference in Baltimore. “Getting to Yes” was moderated by Deborah George, who chose nine producers to bravely — and publicly — pitch their story ideas to three of the best editors in public radio: Laura Bertran, supervising editor at NPR’s Arts Unit, David Krasnow, senior editor at Studio 360, and Celeste Wesson, senior editor at Marketplace.

A rapt audience got a chance to eavesdrop on what is typically a private conversation between editor and reporter on the merits of a story idea. We asked Celeste Wesson to distill some of the essence of that conversation and give some tips on what a producer can do to get a story assignment from an editor. This article was the centerpiece of the November 2011 AIRblast.


 

By Celeste Wesson

Picture an editor, hunched over a desk, reading a bunch of story pitches, thought bubbles overhead: “Wasn’t that just in the New York Times?” “Not another story about wine!” “I don’t even understand what this story’s about.”

And then: “Huh, the mango is the new banana? Tell me more!”

How can you get that response from a busy and jaded editor? Here are a few thoughts about how to create a pitch that sells your story and YOU as the storyteller.

 “This reporter is a pro, and cares enough to learn about my show.”

Start by following the guidelines. Most national shows have written guidelines about how to craft a pitch. They include information on how long your story should be, what it should include, and where to send it.

Marketplace Pitch Guidelines (PDF)
NPR Submission Guidelines (PDF)
Studio 360 “how to pitch” (PDF)

Listen to the program(s) you’re pitching. How long are the stories? Can you work in their style? Is your story a good editorial fit? For example, most features on Marketplace, where I work, are fairly short; our style is conversational and sometimes irreverent; and all stories make a clear connection to the economy, business, or money. We’re a news program, so most stories are timely; we have a national audience, so if you’re expanding a local story, you’d need to “nationalize” it by including elements that connect with listeners across the country.

Knowing what’s going on with a show — such as a special series — can help you too. At the AIR pitch panel this fall at the PRPD in Baltimore, Studio 360 editor David Krasnow took an interest in a pitch about the “Rocky” statue and the “Rocky” steps in Philadelphia, which he thought might work for the show’s series “American Icons.”

Remember to check online, before pitching, to find out if your story has already been covered on the show.

“This reporter knows what a story is, and how to find an angle.”

At the same pitch panel, David warned that it’s often said that you need to do 50 percent of your reporting before you can write a pitch. Well, maybe not that much — but you do need to research your story and talk to sources to help you find a fresh angle. What are you adding to what we already know? Is there an unexplored perspective that makes the story deeper? A recent development? Do you have a great example that illuminates a trend?

It can be tempting to just float a question or an issue by editors — but that’s not enough.

Some examples from Marketplace stories:

We’ve heard that companies know a lot about us by tracking our behavior online. What do they know? It’s an interesting question, but a pitch needs to tell us more details about how data are collected and used. The data-mining stories from Marketplace’s Stacey Vanek-Smith were pitched after she did enough reporting to know she could build her story around her own online profile. Listen.

Here’s another example: An important question today is how to balance energy supply and environmental risk. Fracking, a controversial method of extracting oil and gas, epitomizes many of the problems involved in energy exploration. But not every story about fracking needs to focus on the overall debate. Here are a couple of Marketplace pieces from station reporters that took other possible angles.

Ann Murray’s story followed a man who ran seminars to educate landowners on how to negotiate better deals with energy companies.

Molly Messick reported on Wyoming homeowners who didn’t realize that energy companies owned the oil beneath their land.

Focus your pitch on one angle. Too many possible angles are confusing.

“This reporter can write, report, and produce”

Your pitch is a sample of your writing. Is it clear, concise, and vivid? At the pitch panel at the PRPD, reporter Michelle Faust pitched a story about a Mexican border town that survives by selling cheap drugs to American retiree tourists. Her written pitch was clear and precise. But in her verbal pitch the day of the panel, she sketched the scene of a line of pharmacies along a street, with a pitchman outside each one, hawking their drugs like carnival barkers. The great visual detail helped me imagine hearing that story on the radio.

The people you plan to interview and what scenes you will record reflect your skills as a journalist in structuring a story, using voices and sound. Are you talking with all the key players in the story? Can you create a broader context for the examples you use?

“It would be fun to work with this reporter — and worth the time.”

If this is your first story for a particular program, it’s going to take time. Is it worth it to you? Your editor has the same question. Is there a kernel of creativity that convinces me this story is really going to work? Is this reporter going to be a good collaborator? Is this reporter going to be flexible if I need to refocus the story?

A year ago at the AIR pitch panel at the Third Coast Festival, Lisa Matuska pitched me, and Marketplace, a story about mangoes. It was more of a cultural story about how they’d been bred as an easy-to-ship and uniform product to market to the United States, to the detriment of local and more delicious varieties. I hadn’t thought about why my local supermarket now carries mangoes, so I challenged her to reframe her pitch as a business story. Who wants to market uniform mangoes? Why? How are they doing? Maybe we’d learn something surprising.

Lisa worked through a couple of drafts (with another Marketplace editor), did several extra interviews (did you know there was a National Mango Board?) and reported that the company that made the banana a commodity was behind the push for the mango. As Lisa asked: Is the mango the new banana? It was a lot of work, but I think you’ll agree that it was worth it.

Listen to Lisa telling the story of her own experience of what happened after she got to “yes” and delved into the deeper process of working to craft the story.

Now, the finished product: Listen to Lisa’s story.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas here that will help you develop the kind of pitches that get editors to say “yes.” But even if you get a “no” instead, make sure you get feedback from the editor, so that you can learn more about how to perfect your pitch. And try again.

Celeste Wesson has worked at Marketplace since 2002, and is now senior editor for a new project covering Wealth and Poverty. She has also worked as a reporter and a producer for NPR, several stations, and as a freelancer. She still remembers how hard it can be to nail the pitch. You can contact Celeste at cwesson@marketplace.org.

AIR welcomes inquiries about republishing this feature article in its entirety or in part. Please contact us at airblast@airmedia.org.