This American Life Theme List

From the fabulous folks at TAL. Pitch away!


Dear This American Life friends and contributors,

We've got a new round of themes-in-progress and we're coming to you for story pitches, thoughts and suggestions for our upcoming shows.
How this process works: When you send in a story idea to me, I'll respond with a generic email letting you know that I received your pitch and that I've read it. I promise. I read every pitch. (I won't send you the auto response until I've read your pitch so expect a day or two delay sometimes to get that email.) If we think the pitch is right for us, or if we need more information from you, I'll send you another email asking for more info on the story or letting you know we'd like to commission the story. But if you don't hear back from us within two weeks, beyond the initial auto-reply email, it means the story just isn't right for us or for the needs of that particular show. The idea of doing it this way is just to get through pitches and get back to everyone a little more quickly.

Like always, these themes are shows we're actively pursuing right now but we're always on the lookout for new stories or ideas. So if you've got a story that you think would work especially well for us but doesn't fit a specific theme listed below, please send it along anyway.

Thanks so much for your pitches. All of us here are very appreciative.



NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: For this show we’re seeking stories about communities, large and small, where people are engaged in some sort of struggle to change or protect their way of life. We have one story that explores this theme on a very personal level: It’s about a woman who develops an elaborate plan for how her autistic son will live without her after she dies. First she buys the house across the street from her so he can practice living on his own. Then she lobbies her town – neighbors, cops, people on Craigslist, basically anyone who will listen — to build a network of people who will look after him. We’d love to find a story that’s actually about a neighborhood watch group – even if it’s just one person single-handedly trying to look out for the block. Funny stories about nosy neighbors or other neighborhood conflicts would be great too.

CRY BABIES: (note: we’ve sent out this theme before but the show is coming up soon-ish and we’re still looking for a few more stories.) We’d like to do a show about people who have out-of-proportion responses to perceived wrongs. There’s always one cry baby – one member of the family or one person in the office. And what’s so galling is that being the cry baby almost always works. For a short-term strategy, it’s kind of brilliant. It’s just in the long term that it gets really annoying. We have one story for this show about disability activists in California who constantly sue businesses for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They're suing for totally legit violations, but some activists do it so often that they actually make a living off it. And some of the suits are over tiny infractions that could potentially be resolved without lawyers and money. But the thing is, being a crybaby in this situation is actually giving the ADA some real teeth that the law lacks. Political and sports stories are potential goldmines for crybaby stories, but smaller personal/family stories would be also be great. We're also hoping for some real tears on this show. Really whiny ones. So any ideas for situations or stories where either kids or adults are being crybabies would be nice. Maybe a time when you played the crybaby card or were unfairly labeled as one?

INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY: INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY: We have a story about a woman who has had cancer for 22 years. And the interesting thing, besides long surpassing the life expectancy of someone with cancer, is that her story is kind of the history of cancer treatment in this country. When she was first diagnosed, doctors recommended that people undergoing chemo wear this icepack hairnet so their hair wouldn't fall out (it didn't work). Since then, she's been through a barrage of different treatments including a bone marrow transplant, hormone treatments, and gene therapy. And each of her treatments is kind of a mini-history lesson in the promises, results, failures, and even outright lies that have occurred during the "War on Cancer." So we'd like to do a whole show about people whose personal stories tell the history of some larger idea or industry or movement. Maybe a personal court battle that tells the story of changing laws? Maybe a politician who's views have evolved or completely shifted over time? Maybe an immigrant who rides the shifting waves of immigration policy? The cancer story will be science related, but other non-health science stories could work. And it'd be great if we could have a story where someone really regrets positions they took or ideas they held.

MID-TERM ELECTIONS: For this show, we're looking for stories that get at some of the unique characteristics of this cycle. Some of these things are so heavily-trafficked it almost hurts to say them–but the anti-incumbent backlash, the fracturing and energizing caused by the Tea Party crowd, the role of the war and the economy, the sad lot of the Democrats who are obviously coming off of a high in 2008. We're looking for people, groups, and potentially races that somehow embody the complexity of what's happening. To that effect, we could use stories about anyone with a rich personal narrative that shines a light on the moment part of what this election cycle represents. We’re especially looking for local races – state reps, school boards – that might be interesting.

PETTY TYRANTS: We'd like stories about people who consolidate power in an unusual way, or get put in a position of power and then find themselves abusing it – either on purpose or because they can't help themselves. Or maybe a story of a well-meaning person who's in charge, but then makes a decision that spins out of control. For this show, we're interested in exploring: 1. How does a person start out like you and me, but then turn into a tyrant? What's the process? And 2. How do tyrants stay in power? We've got one story about a school janitor who somehow takes control of the entire school district's facilities, ingratiates himself with key higher-ups, becomes head of his union, and then proceeds to terrorize anyone who crosses him or even irritates him in any way. He keys their cars, throws paint on their houses, plants small bombs on their truck windshields. So what might be nice are more personal, or funny stories about someone who bullies other people – maybe not even a person but a company that controls everything, or a group; or even an unusual story about a real-life political tyrant somewhere – not a Stalin or a Kim Jong Il — but someone lesser known, like a small-town mayor or something, who quietly screwed his or her people. Maybe a story of someone who tried to stop a tyrant?

CLIMATE CHANGE: We have some great potential material for this show, but we still have room. Very generally, as you might expect, we need stories that don't feel like we've heard them before–which is hard when the topic is climate change. There's interesting work being done with ice melting, snow surveying, policy maneuvering… but in the current climate of ambient apathy, we're keenly aware that people have a hair trigger for tuning this subject out. In light of that, we're looking for people trying to solve problems in new ways or doing research in emerging areas. We're looking for stories that revolve around a single person/group with an interesting role in climate change. That might be a person who regulates something surprising, someone fighting an interesting court battle, or someone living with the effects of climate change in an interesting way. Going back to apathy, we are looking for a way to get at the malaise that seems to be hanging over country that goes something like "I know it's important, but I have other stuff to worry about, and even if I was going to do something I wouldn't know what to do. Thanks a bunch for reminding me the world sucks." We want to understand that.

KID JURY: In the late 80s H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, showed up one day at the newly-opened Nixon Presidential Library and, weirdly, made his case to a bunch of junior high kids. Basically, he pleaded with them to see things from his perspective – that he was a scapegoat, that Watergate wasn’t really that bad, and that, besides, everything he did was because of love and loyalty to the President. The kids were confused not only because they didn’t really understand who in the hell H.R. Haldeman was but, also, they didn’t know what he wanted them to do about his plea – how was any of this their business? For this show, we’re looking for stories where kids are put in powerful positions and asked to make decisions, or take sides, or take action. Maybe stories where a group of kids have acted as judge and jury against an adult or a teacher or a parent. Or kids who all decide that one parent is the bad guy when the evidence clearly points to the other parent? Maybe a story about a kid who is uncomfortable with a big decision that is being left up to him or her? Interesting school councils or disciplinary committees could work well for this show, too. Also, we’re thinking of maybe assembling a jury of kids to weigh in on the big issues that are often debated in their name (“think of the kids!”) like climate change or deficit spending or gay marriage. If you’ve got any early teens you think might be game, please let us know.

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3 thoughts on “This American Life Theme List”

  1. Search “This American Life” and go with the most recent post. If there are no recent posts it means I haven’t heard from the show in awhile. You’d have to contact them directly for more details. I just post the calls as I get them, but I don’t have time to go back and delete the old ones. Sorry! Labor of love 🙂

  2. How does one find out what the CURRENT upcoming themes list is? I wish old ones could be deleted, seems it might help. Anyway…how do I find the LATEST themes set?

  3. I love these theme list postings, and love This American Life. But the info should be changed a bit. Neither I, nor two of my friends who’ve submitted, have received any response after submission. The posting suggests that an automated reply is sent when the producer has read the submission, and I don’t believe that is their policy anymore. So, better not to expect anything in return after a story pitch is mailed off.

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