How Does a Story Get Selected for This American Life?

by Nitesh Arora


Ira glass did an IAmA on Reddit. I feel like this is the question that goes through the minds of many while listening to This American Life: How did you select this story?

Here's the answer.

In general, the story process is kind of messy. I suppose that's inevitable. At any given point, we have three or four shows we're actively preparing, and another two or three kind of burbling up slowly in the background. (There are nine of us on staff. It's a lot of people. For years, it was just four.)
If we find a story that we love that doesn't fit with any of those episodes, we invent a theme that could include it.
Then we go looking for other stories that could fill out the theme.
We do this by brainstorming what MIGHT work and then go looking for it. We do this by sending out emails to contributors and asking "have you got anything that goes with this?" We have a doc we send now and then to an email list of hundreds. Occasionally we crowdsource an idea on Facebook and our show's blog. It's messy.
What we're looking for: someone to relate to, a plot that's surprising that leads to some idea about the world that's also new or interesting or surprising. Those are the basic elements. Extra points for humor, charm or memorable details that you can't get out of your head. A great story is like a great melody: it announces its inevitable greatness and you recognize it the first time you hear it. Most stories aren't that. They do not announce their obvious greatness. 60% are in the limbo region where they might GET great or they might flop, and the only way to figure it out is to start making the story. So you launch in, hoping for that winning combination of great moments, charm, funny, and X factor.
As a result, we go through tons of stories on our way to the few that end up on the air. It's like harnessing luck as an industrial product. You want to get hit by lightning, so you have to wander around for a long time in the rain.
Here's the list of story ideas we looked into for the show we did Sept 28th. In addition to the stories that ended up on the air, we collected tape on another three stories I know of. Might be more. The knee defender story I recorded on a plane to MN. Hopefullly that'll show up in a future episode.
This is pasted in from our staff story list for that week. They are in decreasing order of likelihood of ending up on the air, which is how we always list them. Often the final lineup isn't determined till the day of the show. Often on the day we broadcast the show we have to decide: will we cut a few minutes from each story to fit in more stories, or will we kill a story?
Send a Message (Jonathan)
Dave Hill: homeless man throws pee on him 10
Great-grandmother predicts baby genders from beyond the grave Melissa Salpietra (Brian) 8-9
Sonari Glinton: Black Jesus (Jonathan) 10
Josh Bearman: Galileo sends coded messages to Kepler (Robyn) 7-10
Bill Lahey: dad’s phone calls to kids about divorce (Nancy) 12-15
Lisa: knee defender for planes
PJ Vogt: Craig Schergold gets greeting cards after tumor is removed
Brian: Thai chef punks restaurant w/ wrong name
Starlee & EG: talk to authors of coming out book (Robyn) 10-12
Andrea: getting harrassed by jealous uncle
AZ & HI emails about Obama’s birth certificate
Rob: $15 collect calls from Cook County jail
Jonathan: ABC/CBS Dancing on the Stars
Ruthie: Tourettes guy (Jonathan)
x-Matt: jr high boycotts lunch; gets salad
x-Sam: couple gets divorced to protest gay marriage laws (not until July)
x-Robyn: 13 y.o. writes essay comparing school to slavery
x- Nancy: Nazi reference in Librarian training manuals
x- Bruce: same speech for 19 years about genocide treaty (Lisa)
x- Ben: Iraq war vet flipping off Scott Walker*