What it Takes to Get on NPR

Recently I heard a snippet of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air interview with Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert has a new book out and was on the show to talk about it.

A bit earlier in the same week, an author client had asked if I’d pitched her to NPR shows, including Fresh Air. My answer was, “Yes, of course.” It always is, because I always pitch the authors I represent to NPR — and to all the other dream-caliber, A-list outlets. But does that mean I expect interviews to pan out there for them?

Sadly, no. Not at all.

It’s an uncomfortable dilemma. Authors want to know their publicist is reaching out to A-list, dream outlets like Fresh Air, The New York Times, Oprah and The Today Show. Isn’t that one reason they’ve hired a publicist in the first place? And it wouldn’t make sense to simply leave those outlets off the list of places I reach out to even though the chances for the overwhelming majority of authors are virtually zero. For one thing, there’s the crucial dream factor for authors. As I’ve said before, I’m all for dreaming big! I also feel that as a matter of principle those outlets should continue hearing from all authors who’d like a fighting chance at recognition. They should be made aware again and again of these authors’ utterly staggering numbers, the variety of stories they’re writing about, their talent, their accomplishments.

But people like Terry Gross aren’t just looking for a good read to talk about: they’re looking for news. News, by definition, is something that’s not only new and timely, but is some combination of the following:

  • Important
  • Counter-intuitive
  • Disruptive
  • Relevant

Of course, many of these words are subjective, so each news outlet defines thembased on its audience’s demographics, preferences and tastes. What’s important or relevant to followers of Writer Unboxed or The Nervous Breakdown, for example, may not be to NPR’s 26 million listeners from all walks of life nationwide.

Elizabeth Gilbert is important in NPR’s eyes because she became an international household name with Eat, Pray, Love — both a book and a movie. Her fame gives her an automatic, open-ended invitation to speak on all the shows we mere mortals only dream of whenever she has something new to say.

Take a look, for example, at these books whose authors NPR has recently featured:

  • The Cooked Seed, by Anchee Min, whose best-selling memoir Red Azaleatold the story of her youth in China during the Cultural Revolution. The Cooked Seed picks up nearly 20 years later as she arrives in America with $500 in her pocket, no English and a plan to study art in Chicago.
  • The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by journalist Stephen Kinzer, who examines their rise to power and how their personal relationship influenced their professional partnership.
  • The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard. The book looks at how our stone age bodies struggle to stay healthy in modern times.
  • The Republic of Thieves, the latest in the Gentleman Bastard series by bestselling fantasy author Scott Lynch

Notice a few things about these authors and their books, aside from having been published by major houses and garnered all the right reviews: Anchee Min and Scott Lynch are already phenomenal bestsellers. Min’s books talk about the important, disruptive and highly relevant Chinese cultural revolution and its reverberations here in the U.S.; Lynch’s book is touted on NPR’s web site as “long-awaited” — meaning by…everyone. Stephen Kinzer writes about a topic of extreme historical relevance. He also happens to be a veteran New York Times reporter, making his expertise all the more venerable. Ditto Daniel Lieberman’s expertise due to his Harvard professorship; and his book is on a groundbreaking topic that fits right in to the ongoing conversation about health and concerns us all.

A-list outlets with a stronger focus on fiction use similar criteria in determining which books and which authors’ stories are “news.” In addition to the usual penchant for fame or big platforms, they look for signs that an author could potentially become big if he or she is not already: an MFA from a top school, high-level prize nominations for short and long fiction. They also tend to lean toward books they know publishers are giving a lot of marketing support to, because those are the books more people are bound to be reading and talking about over the next several months. In other words, those books will be news. How, you ask, do they know about books’ marketing budgets? Publishers meet with reviewers or producers at these outlets regularly, presenting their latest forthcoming titles and highlighting those they’re most “excited” about. (Read: “invested in.”)

So where does that leave authors who don’t have the A-list resume and backing? Luckily, there are many hundreds of other outlets out there. And above all, there are those big dreams that motivate us all to keep reaching for the stars, to work hard and keep striving for the day when we, too, might be on national radio or TV.

Spread the love

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *