This American Life theme list

The latest call for pitches from TAL. Good luck!


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.


SLOW TO REACT: Stories about delayed reactions to pretty huge events.  We have one story about a 12 year old boy who sees the benefits of his father’s death – missing school, sugar cereals flow, he gets to watch R rated movies – but seems to entirely miss the actual consequences of the death, until years later.  We’d like to find more stories about people or organizations who either don’t realize or purposely ignore seminal moments, only to have to deal with those happenings sometime later.  Maybe a great “one who got away” story?  Or a story about not realizing a crisis is happening when it’s happening?  Or just a story about extreme lethargy or laziness, just not wanting to deal with something until it’s too late?

BREAKTHROUGH: This is a show about the search for a cure for cancer.  We’re not planning anything comprehensive – no “Giant Pool of Cancer” or anything – just a collection of stories about people working to find a cure.  We’ve got two pretty long stories already so we’re almost set for this show but we’d love another one or two shorter stories.  Maybe interesting or unexpected anecdotes about cancer research over the years?  Or a story that illustrates the often nonsensical ways that cancer research is funded?  A story about navigating the maze of FDA approval?

WILL THEY KNOW ME BACK HOME?: We may change the title of this show but essentially we’re looking for stories about people going through experiences that make they feel they’re a part of something larger.  And maybe struggling with that decision or change.  We did a show about the war in Iraq a few months ago and had one story left over that we still really love.  It’s about an Iraqi woman who, before the war, considered herself just a very normal housewife.  Her world was entirely domestic – raising kids, cooking, being a wife.  But after the invasion and her husband losing his job, she reluctantly becomes an interpreter for the American military and slowly becomes overwhelmed – excited – by her role at the center of everything.  Her family suffers for her job, obviously her safety suffers, but she essentially becomes a new woman and it’s exhilarating.  We’re hoping to find more stories about these experiences or moments where a person or a group or a company gets sort of sucked into something so much larger.  And maybe that’s not a good thing?  The “larger” can be totally relative here, too.  Maybe a story of moving from extreme isolation into the world?  Or maybe a story about trying to move back to the smaller world?

RELATED CRIMES: We’re looking for stories about committing crimes against one’s own family.  We’re working on one story about a son who murders his abusive mother and then his brothers turn him into the police.  So you can’t get much darker than that.  At least, we hope you can’t.  What would be great for this show (besides something a little lighter) would be something along the lines of “crimes” committed against family members.  Maybe a really great story about a family member framing someone else for a crime?  Or a sibling stealing another sibling’s identity?  Maybe a family tries to recover from a crime committed in the past?  Suggestions for short fiction would also be great for this show.

SEE NO EVIL:  One night, a 23 year old woman fails to show up at work and immediately her family knows something is wrong.  Something has happened.  The police, of course, think the family is being hysterical.  The next day, the police discover the woman’s car, but no woman.  Still, though, they think the family is overreacting and everything is fine.  Even when the family finds the woman’s driver’s license and blood in the car, the police refuse to entertain the thought that a crime has been committed.  For the next three days, the family is thwarted at every turn in their search for help – the police believe the woman has run away, the media won’t get the word out because the police won’t comment and even friends and neighbors think the family is crazy.  No one will acknowledge anything bad has happened.  We’re looking for other stories where everyone pretends like things are fine, even when they clearly aren’t.  Maybe a story about refusing to acknowledge something has failed or that a person has bad intentions.  Maybe a story about inventing an elaborate scenario to justify obviously bad actions?  A classic head-in-the-sand story?

OH, YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE:  Stories about gratitude and gifts.  We’re working on one story about a woman who has an Amazon “stalker.”  Mysteriously, over the past year, somebody has been methodically buying and shipping the woman items from her “wish list” on Amazon.  So far, she’s had to build an entirely new book shelf to hold all of the books her stalker has sent her.  She’s not quite sure what has prompted this gift-giving, but she suspects it’s a ‘thank you’ for a small kindness in junior high school.  We’d love more stories about gestures of kindness or thanks.  Maybe a story about an inappropriate or over-the-top gift?  An unwanted or undeserved gift or award or promotion?  Maybe a story about trying to express gratitude but just not finding the right way to do it?

HOW DO YOU CREATE A JOB?:   During the election season there were a lot of promises to focus on “job creation.”  But what does that even mean?  How do you create a job?  Is it even possible?  For this show, we hope to check in on some workers who lost their jobs a few years ago and find out who ended up where and where the jobs did and didn’t go.  If you know of someone who worked in large company or factory that closed five or ten years ago, will you let us know?  Or maybe a worker who dropped out of high school thinking their life would be okay but now it’s not?  We’d also like to spend time with someone who actually is charged with “creating” jobs – an interesting Economic Development Officer or a local legislator.  Even better: maybe a person at a factory who makes the decision to add a third shift? We’re still in the pretty early planning stages for this show so any suggestions or guidance for this show is greatly appreciated.

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.

2 thoughts on “This American Life theme list”

  1. Hi Matt. Welcome to the wonderful world of radio reporting! I get the TAL theme lists through membership in the Association of Independents in Radio – They are a FANTASTIC organization for radio producers of all skill levels. There is a yearly fee (I think it’s $125/year, cheaper if you’re a student) but it’s well worth it if you’re really planning on pursuing radio. If you do sign up, tell them I sent you. (I don’t work for them, but I’m a big fan 🙂

    As far as getting on the TAL list directly, I’m not sure. I think you’ve already done the right thing by emailing Julie. They get swamped with requests so yours may have just gotten lost in the shuffle. But I will continue to post the calls for pitches on FC (in fact I’m about to send one out today), and I’m sure once you produce your first piece for them, you’ll be automatically included on all their communications.
    Hope that’s helpful, and best of luck!

  2. Hi there,

    My name is Matt and I’m a Canadian journalist based in Toronto. I was interested in trying my hand as a first-time radio reporter.

    I saw your helpful blog posting here:

    Just wondering how you managed to get on the emailing list for the ‘This American Life’ Themes List? Is it just a matter of emailing Julie Snyder and asking? (I’ve done so before, during a pitch, and although she gave me some helpful feedback, I didn’t hear back about being added to the Themes mailing list.)

    Any suggestions/guidance would be appreciated!

    Thanks a lot.


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