Writing for Radio, some new thoughts

Part of an occasional series of posts on bsideradio.org about the art of making radio.
By Tamara Keith

I recently spent some time with the Swarthmore College students who produce War News Radio.  I was there, I guess, to preach the gospel of great radio reporting.  We talked about what makes a story a story.  We talked about voicing (something I still struggle with) and what it’s like to work at NPR.  We spent most of our time talking about writing for radio.  I prepared a little handout that I think would be useful to just about anyone looking to improve their writing.  These are techniques I’ve learned in training sessions with some amazing coaches and in years of trial and error.  Now, I will admit, I don’t always follow my own advice but these tips are good reminder of how it can be done. Here goes…

Every aspect of creating radio is connected.  Great writing requires great interviewing and reporting.  And great voicing requires great writing.

It seems obvious, but you must write for the ear.  Write like you speak.  That’s harder than it sounds, but basically you don’t want to write something that you wouldn’t say.  Even with the most complicated stories, imagine retelling it to a friend…more or less that’s how you should write it.  Unlike with print where people can re-read a sentence, with radio your words are constantly flying out into the ether.  Listeners can’t go back, so you don’t want to write something that’s so confusing that they stop listening to think about what you were trying to say.  To that end, try to have just one thought/idea per sentence.  You may have lots of short sentences, and it may look weird, but it sounds better.

Getting Technical: How to sit down and put words on the page

So, you’ve gone out and done all these wonderful interviews.  You have hours of tape.  Well, now you need to listen to it again.  As I am interviewing someone, I take mental notes about which “sound bytes” I might want to use later.  That way, I don’t necessarily have to listen to the whole interview again because I know what I’m looking for.

Then I isolate the clips I plan to use in my audio editing software. In radio-speak “sound bytes” are also called “ACTS” or “actualities” or “cuts” or “clips” or just “tape”.  They should generally be 25 seconds or less.  Generally you want your tape to say something, elicit emotion, advance the story.  Save the numbers and factoids for your voice tracks or leave them out altogether.  On my computer, I line up the cuts in the order I think I might use in the story.  You’ll probably have a few extras in there, but that’s OK. These ACTS are the roadmap for your story.  At it’s most basic, your writing simply strings together your tape.

So, start at the beginning (always start at the beginning) and write your intro or “lede.” This is the intro the anchor will read before the story airs.  It should be relatively short (25 seconds or less), snappy and written to make listeners want to keep listening.  Here’s an example:

HOST: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made no secret of its opposition to climate change legislation working its way through Congress. So, when the Chamber held a news conference this morning announcing a complete reversal, it was big news – but only for about 20 minutes, until it became clear that the whole thing was a hoax. NPR’s Tamara Keith tells us what happened.

What is a radio story?

Most stories are about someone doing something for a reason. Even if it’s a boring policy story, try to tease out why the official is doing what they’re doing.  If it’s a profile, get to the WHY and not just the WHAT.  Whenever possible frame your stories so they are about someone doing something for a reason, or several people doing something for a reason.  It will help you keep your focus and make your writing and reporting more interesting.

Now, start writing the body of the story.  I write a list of all the facts and ideas I need to work into the story.  That way I have them in front of me and won’t forget anything.

You want your very first sentence to be really good, to draw listeners in. Give your listeners something to care about, then start writing to your first sound-byte. Here’s an example:

TRX: The Chamber of Commerce got punked and so did Reuters, which went to its newswire with urgent bulletins announcing the Chamber’s apparent shift. There was a press release, an official-looking Web site and a news conference at the National Press Club with this guy behind the podium.

ACT: I am Hingo Sembra, official spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
KEITH: Okay, so what’s your real name?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BICHLBAUM: Okay. I’m Andy Bichlbaum, and I’m with The Yes Men.

(to hear this story, click here)

Create scenes by describing the setting, the person you’re interviewing, etc.  When I am out in the field I either take notes in a notebook, or just record a “note to self” on my recorder.  Note to self: “Wade’s truck has hunny on the license plate, it’s dry out here, he’s wearing a plaid shirt and has tough hands.”  (This was from a story about beehives being stolen and Wade was a honey farmer) Then when you’re writing, try to include those details. Little details take stories from simply being a statement of fact to something deeper, more revealing, more engaging. If you have ambient sound, make sure to use it, and describe it as you’re setting the scene.

Please try to avoid “It’s a bright sunny day and…”  The weather description at the open of a story has become so cliché it’s painful.

Your story doesn’t have to follow the TRX/ACT/TRX/ACT format. You can throw in some fun devises to break up the format. Bring up ambient sound at the end of a sound-byte instead of coming right out of it with another voice track.  Use a “butt cut” meaning putting 2 sound-bytes from different people right next to each other.  The second byte should be fairly short and then you need to come in and introduce who you’re hearing.  Here’s an example:

TRX:  For Anderson, the loss was 30-thousand dollars.  He has hives spread out on farmland all over the valley, and can’t watch them all the time, so the thief, likely a fellow beekeeper, was able take his hives under the cover of night, with little fear of getting caught.

ACT/Anderson:  You can pick up several beehives and move them as little as 2 or 3 miles away and it would be pretty hard to find them.
ACT/Devins: Bees do not make very good witnesses.

TRX:  Sgt. Francis Devins heads the agricultural crime unit for the Fresno County Sheriff’s department.  She says bee thieves are illusive.  She hasn’t arrested a single person on bee-related charges, because it’s hard to prove that they’re in possession of stolen property.

(to hear this story, click here)

You always want your listeners to know who is talking, so feel free to re-introduce people.  I’ve found that it tends to be best to keep all the sound bytes from one person together in the story. So, you’d hear from Wade first and we’d hear a couple of bytes from him, then we go to Sgt. Devins and we hear a couple of clips from her, then we go to someone else…and then we may come back to Wade at the very end.

One nice writing device it to link your TRX to your tape by responding to something said in the sound byte.

TRX: Bichlbaum wore a borrowed black suit. He delivered formal remarks about the Chamber’s momentous decision, then opened it up to questions. There were about a dozen reporters there.

ACT(Mr. BICHLBAUM) The questions seem to all be very banal, like, well, this carbon tax you’re talking about, it’s not necessarily going to happen. How do you feel about that? You know, what are the next steps? It just seemed perfectly ordinary to everybody.

TRX: Perfectly ordinary until a real Chamber spokesman showed up.

ACT: Mr. ERIC WOHLSCHLEGEL (U.S. Chamber of Commerce): I’m Eric Wohlschlegel. I’m with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This is not an official U.S. Chamber of Commerce event.

Endings tend to be the hardest part
Some people disagree with me, but I think it’s a pretty big sin to end on a sound byte.  I think it’s important for the reporter to wrap up at the end, say a sentence or 2 that advances or sums up the story.  Don’t let your sources have the last word!

There are a few typical ways to end a story…

– what’s next? “The city council will decide this issue next week, and it’s certain to be a well attended meeting”

– only time will tell. I try to avoid this ending.  Saying “for now” in the last track of a story has become cliché.

– Say something profound, or provide a little analysis. “Experts say that no matter how the election turns out, Governor Schwarzenegger is going to have to start proving himself once again as a bipartisan.” Or “And what I figured out is that it’s OK not to know the meaning of life.”

– The pithy short statement.  “And that’s why our nation’s health care bill is so high.”  It can almost be a joke, a quick response to the sound byte you’re coming out of.

Now that you’ve got it all on paper…

It’s good to get it all out there.  Write fast, don’t nitpick every word.  Then go back and edit yourself. Print out your script and look through it for the writing pitfalls listed below.

1. Clichés – frequently they are saying something that’s completely contrary to the point you’re trying to make.  And just generally, they’re bad bad bad.
2. The verb “to be.” It was, they were… What do you mean by that? Show it don’t say it. Show the picture. Give a sense of what it’s like. Make people think about it. Not a litany of facts.
3. Participles – -ing words
4. And or but in the middle of a sentence
5. 2 people of one gender in the same sentence, it makes the pronouns confusing
6. a long phrase at the beginning of the sentence. For example: With the sun shining in her face and insects attacking her legs, the survivor contestant started crying.

Make sure to read your script out loud, both while you’re writing and as you’re doing this self-edit.  If there’s a sentence or word that hangs you up, there’s probably something wrong with it.  You shouldn’t get tongue tied just to make a point.  Untangle the words, shorten the sentence.

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