The Art of the Pitch

Photo Courtesy of Katie Jensen
Photo Courtesy of Katie Jensen

Got a show concept you think would be a great fit for a bigger media organization? Seasoned podcast producer Katie Jensen has a few tips for you.

Every podcast begins as an idea, and for some upstart podcasters, that’s all they need to get their passion project off the ground. But if you have designs on reaching more than just a niche audience—and, perhaps, earn some sort of revenue for your efforts—you may want to pitch that idea to a larger media organization or sponsor. And that requires a lot more than just firing off a friendly email query and hoping for the best.

To shed some light on the intricacies of podcast pitching, we reached out to Katie Jensen, a seasoned freelance audio producer based in Toronto. Over her career, Jensen has gone from hosting her own indie-music podcast to producing audio content for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Vice’s Motherboard site, and the Cosmopolitan/Tinder-branded series single, swipe, repeat, among many other clients. She also shares her expertise through pay-what-you-can podcast workshops that cater to women, people of color, and other marginalized communities.

This October, the production house Jensen co-founded, Vocal Fry Studios, will host Podcast Night School, an intensive week-long training program that culminates in a Shark Tank-style pitching session where attendees will present their show concept to a panel of podcast industry professionals. But for those who can’t make it to Toronto for the event, Jensen offers these pointers on how to take an idea from your head to our earbuds.

Make contact

As with any freelance media endeavor, you need to know the right person to pitch. But given that podcasting is still a nascent operation at many organizations (one that’s often undertaken by in-house staff in their spare time), the person who oversees podcast content may not have an obvious title like “Chief Podcast Officer” listed on the masthead. In these sorts of situations, Jensen suggests starting with “anybody in the video department or digital-media department who's actually making something. Or if you have a good working relationship with a print editor or online editor, start with that person—wherever is the easiest point of contact for you. It also depends on the nature of your project. If a writer or editor has published a story that's very similar to the idea that you have in mind, maybe that's a good inroad to say, ‘Hey, I loved your piece—I have a similar idea, I think it would be great if you and I chatted about it.’”

Mind the gaps

As much as it’s important to familiarize yourself with the editorial voice of whatever outlet you’re pitching, it’s equally advantageous to identify gaps in their coverage that your podcast could potentially fill. One of Jensen’s early breaks came in 2015 when, upon seeking an internship for a broadcasting course requirement, she reached out to Jesse Brown, creator of the Canadian media podcast CANADALAND. “I emailed him and basically said, ‘Here are all my ideas for episodes.’ Up until that point, I was bingeing the show just to ensure I knew what the tone was. I became familiar with the language of the show and the stories it likes to tell and the way that it likes to tell them. And I looked for gaps in what they currently offered by going through the back catalog and asking, 'OK, who is the audience that's not being reached here?’”

Jensen’s experiment in cold-calling resulted in CANADALAND offering her a two-month internship; she ended up working as producer there for the next two years, during which some of the original ideas she pitched in that first email were developed into episodes. After leaving CANADALAND to go freelance, she approached the Canadian arm of Vice’s tech outpost, Motherboard, on a whim—and ended up producing the debut episode of the site’s pluspluspodcast.

“I had no connection to Vice,” Jensen recounts. “But I have a degree in biology and have a huge interest in science. So I reached out to Motherboard's editor and said, ‘Hey, there's a huge effort by Vice to make podcasting happen in the U.S.—what are you guys doing in Canada?’ And it turns out they were doing nothing. So I had a sit-down with the editor, and she was like, ‘[reporter] Jordan Pearson is working on this story right now—do you think this could be a good podcast episode?’ It was this incredible, true-crime piece about a hacker that had all the makings of a good audio story. I had already invested in field gear, so we could get away with using my gear in one of their quieter rooms rather than using a studio—and lo and behold, it all came together.”

Present the perfect package

As is the case with applying to any job, experience matters when proposing a podcast. Pitching, Jensen says, “is a little more challenging until you get work on podcasts that have name recognition. If you’ve worked on a marquee show for NPR or Slate, you’re more likely to be taken seriously.”

Still, aspiring podcasters can make an impression by putting together a proper pitch package. When seeking a permanent home for The Secret Life of Canada—initially a limited-run podcast that was first developed by hosts Leah Simone-Bowen and Falen Johnson in one of Jensen’s workshops—the trio put together a colorful media kit that included episode synopses, contributor biographies, listenership stats, and positive tweets from respected journalists. Through that effort, the show landed at CBC, where it’s in the midst of its second season.

“If you're going to pitch an organization, the person reading it needs to see the product come to life,” Jensen says. “It's like when people are looking for investment in Silicon Valley—they'll say, ‘This app is like the X for Y.’ So you’ll want to say something like, ‘This podcast is like 30 for 30 but for women’s-only sports.’ Or you should say, ‘These are the three podcasts I'm taking inspiration from: It'll have the sound design of this one, the scripting of that one...”

And of course, this being an audio format, the best way to sell your concept is by providing a teaser clip of what the podcast would sound like. In an age of compressed attention spans, Jensen suggests a clip no longer than a minute—just long enough to give your recipient a sense about the feel and flow of the show. But your audio preview shouldn’t just be a stand-alone piece—like a movie trailer, it should provide a glimpse of a complete episode plan that you’ve already mapped out.

“You should have a very strong idea of your format,” Jensen says. “Have you storyboarded the episode to say: ‘The first two minutes are going to be a monologue, then we're going to dive right into an interview…’ Have you figured out your music? Is it licensed to you already? You should already know all of these things when you're pitching someone. If you're not sure what format your podcast is going to take, you're not ready to pitch yet.”

—Stuart Berman