TAL Theme List

The latest call for pitches from This American Life, courtesy of the Association of Independents in Radio. 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 bit of a delay getting 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

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


SEE NO EVIL: We have one story for this show about the aftermath of a
murder in a family. Actually within the family. Two brothers are
struggling with the death of their mother and the additional difficult
layer that it’s their other brother who killed her. He’s in prison now
and the brothers and their families are trying to figure out what
place he’s going to have in their family once he’s out. Everyone
acknowledges that the murder was an unspeakable act, but their mother
was abusive to all of them, particularly to the brother that killed
her. They’re not trying to justify it, they’re just not sure how they
look past this act of evil that’s at the center of all their lives
now. Or whether they should. In another story, an employee at the
Kennedy Center gift shop tries to figure out why the register is
coming up short every month … they’re actually losing money. It
takes the employee a really long time to see the obvious culprit
that’s staring him in the face. The See No Evil show is coming up
soon, but we’re still looking for some smallish things to fill out the
show. We sent this out before, but we’re still on the lookout for
parents and children who have basically the same political views as
their parent (liberal or conservative) but as their parent ages – and
has the time to watch more and more cable TV news – the parent's views
have become more extreme. And, to the kid, more annoying. In order
for this to work, we’d need you to have very specific anecdotes. What
are the sound bites you’ve heard from your parents? What was the last
issue you talked about where you thought your parents were just
parroting a talk show host? We’re also considering a small segment
that would feature people talking about something annoying that
happens in their lives that they try desperately to ignore. Like say
the person on the bus next to you who doesn’t seem to mind that their
leg is brushing up against yours. Forcefully. Or the parent on your
kid’s soccer team who won’t stop talking about the incredible teeth
whitening product they’ve just discovered. If you have suggestions for
any kind of moment where you have to put your head in the sand and
pretend like everything is ok, we’d love to hear from you.

KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM: Stories about trying to figure out when it’s
time to give it up. Or get over it. We have one story about a
tragedy that spurs an entire family – aunts, uncles, cousins and all –
into nearly full-time political activism. But now, several years on,
the family has to take stock and look at what has been gained and what
has been lost. And they have to ask themselves whether or not it’s
been worth it. In another story, a guy spends years itching for a
fight with his dad but finally realizes, when it’s almost too late,
that he should just give it up. So we’re looking for more stories
about people who fail to assess when it’s time to give up and move on.
 Funny stories would be great for this show and, of course, stories
about relationships. Maybe someone who is just willfully blind to how
incompatible they are with their partner? Or maybe a story about
someone who consistently gives up too soon? Poker stories (people who
stubbornly hold on to ridiculous hands?) would, of course, be perfect
for this show.

GOSSIP: We'd like to do a show about the strange and surprising ways
that gossip works. We've got one possible story about American
researchers in Malawi, who track the way local communities think about
AIDS. For more than a decade, they've been giving notebooks to certain
women in Malawi, who are tasked with writing down whatever gossip they
hear about AIDS in their villages – who's got it, how they got it, why
they got it, whether they're getting treated, etc. In this way,
they've figured out how people's ideas, and misconceptions, about the
disease have changed – and how to better fight it. We'd love to have
more pitches about the good side of gossip, the utility of gossip. Or
perhaps well-meaning gossip that went very wrong. Or stories about how
gossip spreads in unexpected ways — maybe you told the guy sitting
next to you in an airplane a top-secret story, and then heard it
repeated back to you at a party three years later. That kind of thing.
Stories about how gossip has changed history would be great, too. We'd
probably like to avoid stories of straight-up mean gossip that had
awful consequences – just because we're all familiar with those
stories. That said, if there's a really great one, we'd certainly
consider it.

WOULD YOU RATHER: There is a growing movement in addiction programs
called “wet houses.” A wet house is essentially a homeless shelter
for alcoholics where they can go and drink, often until they die. Most
of the residents are lifetime alcoholics with multiple DWIs, arrests,
injuries, hospital stays, and failed trips to rehab. The idea is that
they will cost the state less money drinking with a roof over their
heads and being looked after by an in-house nurse than they would if
they were out on the street. It’s a program that fills many people
with a mixture of empathy and outrage but also raises the question of,
really, what is the ultimate priority here? Asking the question
“Would you rather x or y” is often an incredibly precise way to
prioritize preferences and we’re looking for more stories where – when
faced with a choice – the right answer becomes clear. It’s also a
really fun game that I play a lot with my family. Like, to my
brother: “Would you rather live in a housing project in Manhattan or
in our hometown in Western Illinois? The project might be a little
scary but you’d get real estate in Manhattan” vs. the sort of hometown
drawbacks that my brother understands but I don’t need to list here.
Or to my husband: “If you HAD to be married to one of my friends, ‘x’
or ‘y’, who would it be?” Then I know exactly who my husband wants to
leave me for. See? Endless fun! Stories that will work for this
show are stories where there are two (maybe three) clear choices and
each has its benefits and drawbacks. A political, economic, or
budgetary story would be great for this show (what is gained and what
is lost). Or a story about being stuck between a lofty ideal and a
pragmatic solution. Maybe stories about choosing a career or a
relationship or a school?

GOOD OL’ BOYS: A few years ago, at a hospital in a small town in West
Texas, two nurses filed complaints against a doctor who, they charged,
was acting unethically. They said the doctor would sometimes advise
patients to stop taking their prescribed medications and switch,
instead, to homeopathic remedies. And it just so happened the doctor
himself SOLD these remedies on the side! They said the doctor would do
unsanctioned operations in non-sterile rooms, perform unnecessary GYN
exams and other questionable things. Within a few months of filing the
complaints, though, the nurses themselves were brought up on charges
of somehow violating patient confidentiality by reporting the doctor’s
actions to the state Medical Board. The charges against the nurses
were pretty dubious and the nurses were quickly acquitted but what was
remarkable was simply the fact the nurses were charged at all. It
would suggest pretty outrageous actions on the part of the doctor, the
hospital, the sheriff and, even, the District Attorney. The nurses
say their story may seem crazy but it wasn’t all that surprising to
them – they say they knew what would happen if they went up against
the Good Ol’ Boys. “Good Ol’ Boy network” is a term that’s used a lot
in small towns – particularly in the South – but it exists in various
incarnations all over the place. We’re now looking for more stories
about powerful cliques that seem impenetrable and often-times above
the law. Wall Street seems like ripe ground for a GOB kind of story.
Or schools or clubs. Just because this Texas doctor story is sort of
large and sprawling, smaller and more personal stories would be great
for this show. Maybe a group of girls that make all the decisions?
Or a seemingly innocuous group that actually has huge influence?
Unexpected gatekeepers? It’d be great to hear from a person who
suspects that s/he is actually part of a “good ol’ boys” network.

THE MISSING PIECE: On the second day of her first job as a social
worker, a woman meets a 12 year old boy who, she thinks, everyone else
has given up on. He’s been in and out of juvie, never had a stable
home, been pushed around the state system. So she makes the kid her
first project: she helps his mother find a job, relocates the family
to a better neighborhood with better schools, gives the boy
self-confidence and a sense of responsibility by having him baby-sit
her kids. The boy thrives, gets better grades and stops getting into
trouble. Until one day, five years later, the boy shoots and kills a
college cheerleader and leaves her boyfriend for dead. For the last
15 years, the social worker has been wracked with the feeling that
this shouldn’t have happened – there must have been something she
could’ve done that would have saved the boy. The social worker now
has three kids of her own and has adopted her four nephews after they
were removed from her sister’s home, and she is worried that whatever
mistake she made with the boy, she’ll now make raising her own kids –
what’s to keep them from going off the rails, too? What could make
the difference? For this show, we’d like to find more stories about
people searching for a piece that could solve a puzzle. Or searching
for the answer to something or a missing ingredient. Science stories
would be great for this show, or business stories. Or maybe just a
story about losing something? We also have a hilarious story about a
guy getting his appendix removed so even just talking about the thing
that is missing could work for this show, too.

MY CHURCHILL MOMENT: We keep seeing the phrase “Churchill moment”: in
British politics, American politics (Obama has had at least two
already), Israeli politics….someone is always declaring or wondering
if some speech or some crisis is so-and-so’s “Churchill moment.” When
we started poking around on the web, even individual people talk about
Churchill moments. But there seems to be some confusion about what IS
a Churchill moment. Does it refer to moments where someone looks the
nation straight in the eye and delivers bad news, like when Churchill
told the British at the start of WW2 “I have nothing to offer but
blood, toil, tears and sweat?” Or does it refer to moments where
someone who has been in the political wilderness for years (as
Churchill was) suddenly gets their day in power? Or does it describe
moments where someone has an especially witty comeback, like Churchill
always seemed to? Does it encompass all these? So the idea for the
theme would be “My Churchill Moment.” Possible Churchill moment
stories: small-scale, personal Churchill moments where the story has a
speech in it that rallies everyone in spite of being full of bad news
(“The second half of this game is going to suck even worse than the
first half, but bear down and let’s beat these bastards!”); or maybe a
missed opportunity to make such a speech; a union story could work—a
leader or member trying to tell other members something they don’t
want to hear; maybe a story about the fallout from making a witty but
mean comment, i.e. what happens after a Churchill moment. Failed
Churchill moments would also work: the rousing speech that did not
rouse people; etc.

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