Feature Article from the October 2012 AIRblast

A Pitch to You

By Katie Davis, Senior Producer of APM's The Story

When I first came across The Story two years ago, I couldn't believe there was a daily, national radio program with such an elegant mission. I remember thinking, we all have stories, but here's a show that actually asks to hear them. We tell our stories differently from city to city, from block to block, and across generations. The Story invites us to listen to these voices.

I asked the show if they accepted pieces from independent producers. At that time, they didn't. However, they had an opening — senior producer — and I was hired.
I've spent half my career as an independent producer — filing pieces for NPR from New York City and later documenting my Washington, D.C., neighborhood. When I was on staff at NPR's Weekend All Things Considered, I often commissioned independents to bring us the huge array of stories going untold by network reporters.
People working outside of the networks and stations hear the world differently. They break rules and formats, and I want that element of surprise on The Story. I am writing to ask you, the independent community, to pitch to me.
The Story was created six years ago as a host-driven program with Dick Gordon at North Carolina Public Radio. At first, the show was weekly with one full-hour interview. When I arrived, the show was five days a week with two long interviews and an occasional short piece. There is a staff of six, including a Web producer (we are creating a new website) and a director.
I began to streamline the way Dick Gordon conducts interviews in order to reveal more cleanly the story arc. We weeded out unnecessary copy breaks and let the voices tell their stories. We shifted from having two interviews per show to three to five, and I began to include non-narrative stories and other types of radio pieces.
When I arrived, there was no acquisitions budget. "Easy," I thought, "we'll just rearrange the money." It turns out that budgets are not easily redistributed. So, I lobbied for funds and our acquisitions budget grew to $10,000. I lobbied for more and got our acquisitions money up to $40,000. This is still not enough for the volume of independent pieces I'd like to have on our show, but it's a strong start. I acquire work in various ways: a producer pitches an original piece to me and I buy it, they offer me a documentary that came out of a grant project, or I buy it on PRX.
I am on PRX almost daily to listen to what people are producing and how pieces might fit on The Story. Regular contributors include Sean Cole; Roman Mars of 99% Invisible; Scott Carrier; Long Haul Radio; and the archives of Radio Rookies and Radio Diaries.
Here's how I put together a recent show: Our summer guest host, Sean Cole, interviewed two composers about new music they created to honor John Cage's centenary. I remembered a piece I've always loved by Jay Allison about the collaboration between John Cage and Merce Cunningham. It originally aired on NPR in 1985, but it still sounds as mesmerizing as I remember. A piece like that should air more than once. I wrote to Jay, and we created space in the show for the seven-minute piece. To me, a perfect show is an evocative mix of a strong host interview and a sound-rich independent piece.
Sometimes, an independent piece becomes the anchor around which we build a show, or even series of shows. Last winter, I bought a 22-minute piece by Zak Rosen about creating jobs in Detroit. The piece inspired us to fashion two full shows about Detroit. We scheduled an interview for Dick with a laid-off fire fighter who talked about how he was making money. Our producer, Phoebe Judge, found an independent in Detroit who was conducting oral history interviews with people who were living on welfare, and she produced a non-narrative piece. We also interviewed a real estate agent who's often the last person at a residence before it forecloses. These shows ran back to back and balanced both the extreme difficulties of life in Detroit with people who are reinventing their lives and ideas of work.
I've also collaborated with independents in support of their grant requests, as I did with Jesse Dukes and Shea Shackelford. They created a rollicking story about moonshine and breaking out of poverty in southern Virginia. It was a 17-minute piece with original music. I aired that particular piece as it arrived, but many pieces I do edit closely. And at this time, I do all the editing.
In all of my years of working as an independent producer, I've dreamed of a show with a flexible format and an inventive, collaborative spirit.
Now, as senior producer, I'm working to mold The Story into that show. Our last segment is 18 minutes, uninterrupted. Staffers call this the "short segment," which makes me laugh, knowing how hard it is to get 18 minutes on other national shows.
I'd like our show to feature your ear, your voice, and your stories.
Join us. Make stories for us. Listen and give me feedback.
Katie Davis can be reached at: KDAVIS<at>
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