Almost 10 years ago, a political reporter at WNYC pitched a podcast to the station. She was going through a tough time in her life, and she pitched the show she wanted to hear — about “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.”
WNYC loved it, and Death, Sex & Money was born. In the decade since, Anna Sale and her team have consistently pulled off what is often a frustrating task: turning big ideas into stories with characters, narrative arcs, meaning and heart. In turn, they grew an enormous, devoted audience.
To be frank, this outcome would have been unlikely in less skilled and experienced hands.
As a veteran of public radio, the approach Sale took then is something I’m familiar with. It happens daily in newsrooms all over the country: Producers pitch an issue or a concept to their editors and then attempt to transform it into a story or series.
What makes this idea-to-story process such a chancy proposition, of course, is that the best stories require compelling characters, tension, a plot, and twists and turns.
On their own, ideas have none of those — which is what leads so many producers to founder on the road from the concept to the concrete.
But when producers like Anna Sale pull it off, the result can be spectacular — and often far more meaningful than stories that originate in more obvious ways, from a news event, for instance, or a cold case.
Recently, I became curious about the process by which the smartest creators turn big ideas into series and shows. My curiosity stemmed from a happy accident. Although I didn’t plan it, the first handful of guests on my latest Sound Judgment season are all “big idea” creators: Jonathan Menjivar explores class in America on his Pineapple Street Studios podcast Classy. Anna Sale and I dissected an episode of Death, Sex & Money about the post-pandemic cost of weddings and the ways in which we assign monetary value to tying the knot. Ronald Young Jr. unpacks the charged issue of weight, and fatness, in Radiotopia’s Weight for It. And Nikki Boyer investigates our last days in her Dying For Media/Lemonada Media podcast Near Death.
Among other things, I wanted to understand the steps they first took after they got their big ideas. Narrative series creators Menjivar, Young and Boyer may have known what the first story would be, but what about the rest? And how would they take a single concept and not simply mine it for one good story but for a propulsive series that keeps listeners hooked throughout?
It turns out that even for the best producers, the process is often tricky to articulate. It’s at least as intuitive as it is analytical, and hard to recall after the thing is finally made.
Like many of us, Menjivar was inspired to create Classy by something he couldn’t let go. “These issues around class have kicked around in my head and bothered me pretty much my entire life,” he says.
In the next breath, however, he sums up how daunting it can be to move from concept to series: “It’s hard to make a show about class, because so many of these things are internal stories,” he says. “Nothing happens on the outside. It’s not like there is action and plot and all the things you normally need to tell a story.”
So what do you do? Here are some lessons learned from these top storytellers to save you some of the strife they experienced along the way.
Make the abstract concrete; translate feelings into stories about characters encountering and reacting to conflict.
In his initial Classy pitch to Pineapple Street co-CEOs Jennifer Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky, Menjivar rendered the issue of class into something we can see and hear: behavior. “These feelings [about class] make people do strange things,” he told them.
But that was a rough beginning. “Jenna immediately was like, OK, so what are the strange things?” Menjivar says. He didn’t know. “And she’s like, OK, well, you better figure that out.” (Spoiler alert: he and the Classy team did, in a variety of moving and sometimes hilarious ways.)
Weiss-Berman’s blunt advice is one key to successfully transforming big ideas into a compelling documentary: Look for the ways our actions reveal our inner conflicts, for good and ill.
Ronald Young Jr. grew up in the Pentecostal faith — and a childhood sitting in church listening to preachers shaped the way he works today. “Everything that stuck with me was attached to a story,” he says. “If they got up there and just started reading scripture, that stuff would go right over my head.” But as soon as a pastor began telling a story, nesting a lesson within it, “I’m on the edge of my seat,” Young says. “All of a sudden, I’m attached to the scripture. I’m in there.”
So when Young began trying to articulate his thoughts and questions about his weight, it was natural to frame them through the lens of story — or, as Menjivar says, “the strange things” our feelings make us do. “When we start with the first episode, we’re talking about undesirability,” Young says. “The only way that I can explain that is to talk about something that I did desire or a person that I thought was desirable.” In that kickoff episode, “The Perfect Moment,” Young follows a popular, attractive, plus-size influencer on Instagram. He’s enjoying not just how stunning she is but also the comforting messages she shares about not needing to be thin to be beautiful. Then he sees a photo of the woman and her boyfriend, who is slender with ripped abs. And he’s crestfallen.
Framing ideas through stories, however, does not solve all of our problems.
Give listeners a good reason to keep listening; reconsider the “disconnected stories” format.
One common approach public radio reporters take when formulating documentaries is to zoom in on the experiences of characters experiencing the same issue differently — without creating a throughline. Often, this is a great approach for radio news. But it can fail in broadcast series or as a podcast because it lacks propulsion. When it comes to acquiring series, the podcast market is increasingly interested only in those that take the listener on a journey from one episode to the next. Without a throughline, listeners stick with your documentary only if they’re already invested in the issue.
This was one of the initial problems Menjivar encountered. The solution: The reporter’s quest. In the case of Classy, Menjivar’s personal story, and his questions, became the throughline tying together a diverse set of characters, worlds and experiences. And in the absence of traditional plot-driven cliffhangers, Menjivar invents his own: He simply poses a new, high-stakes question arising from the current episode and promises he’ll uncover the answer in the next one.
Young also uses the reporter’s quest in Weight for It, taking us along on his journey to explore big questions about shame, acceptance, longing, and even what he calls his own villainy.
So does the reporter’s quest only work in series? Hardly. While most Death, Sex & Money episodes are standalone, Anna Sale serves as our informed guide, pulling us from question to question, story to story, within a single episode.
The same is true for Near Death. The relationship between host Nikki Boyer and her co-host, the chaplain Reverend Peggy, is the throughline between individual episodes connected only by the show’s end-of-life theme.
It’s just one reason why the presence of a curious, relatable host can mean the difference between a show’s success and its failure.
You don’t have to stumble over a dead body to have a plot.
The obvious difficulty creators encounter when starting with the big idea — especially in memoir — is that there’s no obvious plot. The onus is on us to make sure there’s intrigue, tension, surprises and forward motion. In memoir, we can create intrigue by including an unmet desire, a complication or a powerful unanswered question. One of Young’s big questions in Weight for It is whether to undergo weight-loss surgery, and why.
For help bringing his idea to life, he turned to story editor Sarah Dealy. “A big way to think about plot is to think about the changing of a mind,” Dealy says. “When did Ronald’s mind change? And how are we going to show that? Where is the narrator in time and space? Are they a present Ronald who’s already learned the lesson? Or is he learning it as he goes?” (In oral history terms, it’s the difference between a story’s external register — “What happened?” — and the internal register: “How did you feel, and how did you change?” For more on story registers, listen to “Cinematic Storytelling with Crime Show’s Emma Courtland.”)
Don’t stop reporting too soon.
How, then, to find the perfect stories with which to explore your big concept?
The first task is to ask good questions — questions that promise to surface tensions and conflicts, questions you’re sincerely curious about.
The second is to figure out how and from whom to source your stories. Anna Sale’s team turns to listeners. On Sound Judgment, we dissected the episode “Bells and Bills: The Price You Paid for Your Wedding.” Like Classy and Weight for It, that DS&M episode was sparked by a big question. Producer Zoe Azulay is “a student of the wedding industrial complex,” Sale says. Azulay was curious about how couples were responding to a new economic trend — a huge jump in wedding costs post-COVID — and whether that was changing their decisions about how to marry.
As they frequently do, the DS&M team turned to their audience to solve the story-finding problem. They asked listeners who had recently wed or were soon to marry to share how cost had influenced their wedding decisions. From the treasure trove of responses, the team chose characters whose experiences were nuanced and emotional, and that seemed ripe for a thought-provoking line of questioning.
(Whether Sale and her team will be able to continue producing this iconic show is in question. Sale announced Oct. 12 that she and WNYC are seeking a new home or production partner for Death, Sex & Money due to budget cuts at New York Public Radio.)
But sourcing from your community of listeners is a luxury that the majority of reporters don’t have. That’s one reason why showrunner and story editor Karen Given counsels a wiser path: Start not with a big idea, but with the story, and explore the broader ideas within it. “Finding the story that can compellingly tell your big idea is hard,” she says. “Often, reporters who start with the idea end up with a story that only kind of works. [For instance,] you end up with stories that don’t have as many twists and turns as you would like.”
Given spent 30 years working at WBUR’s Only a Game. Today, she writes the newsletter Narrative Beat and trains journalists, along with working on narrative series like Dear Media’s Believable: The Coco Berthmann Story.
That podcast, about a woman who raised money for a fake cancer diagnosis, could have been a formulaic true-crime series. But in the hands of Given and reporter/host Sara Ganim, Believable is far richer: It explores the multiple societal failures that gave rise to Berthmann’s troubling actions. That’s purposeful.
“If you start with a series of events and characters, you still need to discover what that big idea is,” Given says. “There are stories out there that have a great sequence of events, a heart-stopping, I-wonder-what’s-going-to-happen-next sequence of events. But at the end of the story, you say, what was the point of that?
“It’s all teasing out the story’s importance.”
It’s also about context, such as news events; long-standing issues, such as the effects of class and body image on our lives; and trends, like the cost of weddings or the rise of QAnon (which plays a role in Believable).
Longtime journalists naturally view events through the lens of context — which is how Ganim and Given easily spotted the larger themes in the Coco Berthmann tale. While investigating a continuously surprising story, they also explored the failure of mental-health systems, why members of certain cultures are more apt to believe lies than others, how trauma affects victims of human trafficking, and even failures of journalism.
No matter which direction we start from — event or idea first — we’re striving for the marriage of story and meaning.
Given, who’s teaching a workshop Nov. 4 on constructing serialized narratives, says she sees journalists making both mistakes: creating issue-based documentaries lacking storytelling, and producing plot-driven stories that are ultimately pointless.
Among her students, the first mistake is more common.
If you’re determined to create a documentary from your big idea, you’ll need to cultivate patience and persistence. “You have to talk to lots of people, read lots of articles, go down all of the rabbit holes until you find the story that fits,” Given says.
The outcome for those who land on the answer too soon? She’s seen it too often: Reporters don’t spend enough time searching for the right story. Instead, they settle on one that can be shoehorned to fit the concept — if the journalist also tweaks the original idea. “You end up with a jumbled, muddled mess,” Given says.
It took Young and Dealy almost two years to take Weight for It from concept to finished series.
Sara Ganim spoke to about 50 sources before finding the right one — for a single episode of Coco.
But don’t get disheartened.
Jonathan Menjivar and his associate producer, Marina Henke, interviewed 30 military recruits before they cast one character in a single Classy episode.
They did it in a single morning. (To find out how, you’ll have to listen.)
In the end, our quest is to make work that’s memorable.
The stories that stay with us are those that offer us new perspectives — that have us nodding in understanding, saying, “Oh, yeah, I’ve done that strange thing too, because of money, or class, or sex, or death. I just didn’t see it that way. Until now.”
Elaine Appleton Grant is EP and host of Sound Judgment and CEO of Podcast Allies, a production and consulting firm serving public media, nonprofits and higher education leaders. Sound Judgment investigates what it takes to become a beloved audio storyteller.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Classy Producer Kristen Torres helped Jonathan Menjivar interview military recruits for an episode. Associate Producer Marina Henke helped with the interviews. The article also incorrectly said that Believable: The Coco Berthmann Story was produced by Wonder Media. It was produced by Dear Media.
Main image generated by DALL·E 2. Prompt: “A silhouette of a radio producer with headphones, a microphone, and abstract representations of concepts like ‘class’, ‘weight’, and ‘weddings’. The collage is interconnected with wavy lines signifying the journey from idea to story, with occasional roadblocks and lightbulbs symbolizing challenges and insights.”