How to sell the story

A big problem that a lot of radio beginners have is the problem I had with my pitch to This American Life: confusing a story setting or premise with an actual story. Community Garden is not a story. It’s a setting, or maybe a topic to investigate, but to do a story on the radio about it, you need some specifics. And by that I mean, a character to talk to, and a situation to talk to them about.

- Alex Blumberg

This used to be my problem with writing stories, and probably why I am no longer involved in journalism. I was too interested in the setting at the expense of the story. Or, I thought my setting was just as important as a story. And stories need conflict and some sort of change. 

I spent much of my journalism time in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And that’s a pretty nifty setting. There’s just so much going on, whether it’s the blocks of furniture makers, all  sawing, soldering and pounding their work into form. Or the streets full of bikes, donkey carts, mopeds, cars, trucks, all trying to get places. Or, the people trying to earn money in one of the poorest cities on the planet. Ouagadougou may be poor statistically, but it earned so much in style, in spunk and just plain pizazz. 

Just thinking about the places where I hung out looking for stories gets me nostalgic. I would trot out to the big corner at the head of our neighborhood and talk to my friends, these four boys —about 16 or so at the time — selling newspapers and tissue, phone card minutes, even cell phones. We would talk the news of the day, and I would slowly get to know them. 

I tried to fashion their lives into narratives that I could do something with. Most of these guys were village kids who went to school until reaching age 14  and were told by their parents that the family could no longer afford to send them to class. It was time to move out to Ouagadougou and try to earn a living. 

And so the great West African urbanization began in human form. I had living examples of this phenomenon. Who wouldn’t want to hear a story like that?  

But the problem was I never got close enough. For all the time I spent with them, I didn’t know that much about them. I mean, I knew them but not enough, it seemed, to write about them. I didn’t know how to get deeper and get more involved with their thinking, their psyche and their hopes and dreams. Perhaps it was language, perhaps it was cultural. Perhaps I was asking the wrong questions. 

What I ended up with was the the 30,000 feet story—urbanization and its effects with these four kids. But there wasn’t enough development or personal drama to drive the story. I was too enthralled with the setting: the street corner, the little kiosks they worked out of, the traffic, the customers. I grabbed the wrong theme.