Broadcast Writing Tips

The radio reporter has three basic tasks to fulfill during each piece:

– To provide reported facts.
– To introduce the subjects speaking in the report.
– To add descriptive “color,” information that can transport the listener.

There are three audible elements to the basic radio piece:

– The bites are the segments of recorded interviews in your report. In the public radio tradition, they are also sometimes called “actualities,” or just “acts.”
– The narration includes the portion of audio spoken by the reporter; also called “continuities.”
– The “nat” or natural sound generally refers to distinctive sound bites, the sound effects captured while reporting and often used in transitions, or the ambient sound when picked up behind interview subjects, and sometimes around the narrator as well.

Writing for broadcast calls for some simple adjustments from print reporting:

– Write in the present tense whenever possible.
– Start your sentences with attributions instead of tagging them onto the end, as we see in print reporting.
For example:
Broadcast: Pentagon officials say an investigation will continue …
Print: … an investigation would continue, Pentagon officials said.

When producing your story, remember that you don’t need to craft it in the same chronological sequence that listeners will hear your story. Typically, they will hear:

– The anchor intro: Written by the reporter for the anchor to read, with the goal of making the listener curious enough to stop and take notice.
– The story lead: In most feature reports, this is an anecdotal reference, from something you have witnessed, or paraphrasing what one of your subjects has reported.
– Perhaps one bite from one subject.
– The “nut graf,” or the story in a nutshell
– The body of the story
– A conclusion.
– And, in our case, exit music.

Before you do anything else, write the nut. The nut graf briefly answers three key questions:

– What are we talking about? (It can be necessary to define the most obvious facts here, for example: US troops have been in Iraq since 2003.)
– Next: What is happening now? (American forces have declared the end of formal military operations in Iraq.)
– Finally: Why does this matter? (Iraqi security may be at greater risk, soldiers may still be killed, the US will bear continuing costs.)

Now that you know the elements, I suggest constructing your story in this order:

– Write the nut.
– Write the lead (maybe followed with an accompanying bite.)
– Write an interesting anchor intro, avoiding redundancy with what follows.
– Write your conclusion.
– Then, write the body of the story, everything that follows the nut and carries on to the conclusion.

About the anchor intro: Don’t give the listeners too much information. Try to keep the audience curious. Let them know that you are about to tell them something new. Strive to make it difficult for them to turn off their engines and get out of their cars.

About the nut graf: It must be as concise as possible. Your nut lays out a roadmap for the listener, and helps them to effortlessly contextualize the information that follows it. Strive for two sentences. You can also think of your nut as a pitch. How would you summarize your story for an editor in order to sell the assignment? Focusing on the nut during your interview will help you to get a grip on the story, and also to get better bites. There’s nothing wrong with asking those nut graf questions of your sources verbatim, as long as you critically consider their responses. What is this really about? What’s going on now? What should people care?

About the body: If not resolved in the nut graf, the body of your story should promptly answer these questions: Who are the stakeholders in this story, and what is at stake? Think about the essential check-ins, or the sources you need to contact to tell the story responsibly. Think about the narrative arc here, telling as story with a beginning, middle and end. What happened before, where are we now, and what happens next? How did we get here, where do we stand, and where are we going from here?

About the conclusion: You often have several alternative solutions with which you can conclude your story, but never with the sort of repetitive summary you might employ for an academic paper. Sometimes you can define a final score: How did it end? Alternatively, you can inform the reader on how to participate at the next level. “This is where you come in.” More commonly, we can point to what happens next. Where will this story go from here?

Finally, go back and rewrite. Look for questions you have raised but failed to answer. Eradicate redundancy, which often crops up between narration and bites. Cut off the loose ends. Catch the jargon. Check style, spelling and grammar, and try to be more efficient, to rewrite everything in fewer words. And make sure the story progresses, that it goes somewhere.

General advice

Write and speak as if you are talking with one person across a dining table, not as if addressing a large crowd from a podium.

Avoid using jargon, and strive to write with a conversational vocabulary. My favorite test is to add the word “mom” to the end of every sentence. If it doesn’t sound like the way you would talk to your mom, you need to reconsider the language. That’s not to say you can’t introduce complex topics to your mom, but think how you would speak if presuming that your listener has no prior familiarity with your topic. (This instruction primarily refers to our feature pieces. It is better to sound more authoritative during the newscast.)

Until a few years ago, broadcast copy was WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS, SPELLING OUT EVERYTHING PHONETICALLY, LIKE TWO-THOUSAND-AND-TEN, but not anymore. AP broadcast style still includes pronunciation guides, but is otherwise written in a readable format. For example: “Afghan President Hamid Karzai (karz-EYE’) stated today…”

Although we specialize in phone interviews at War News Radio – for obvious reasons – it is better to avoid using the phone whenever possible, specifically to get on location and gather nat sound. Eye contact is often conducive to better interviews as well — another reason to take to the field.

What does award-winning reporting look like? Most stories require multiple sources. Even a portrait of one person calls for multiple perspectives.

How does it happen? Multiple edits often can guide the process. For comparison, I worked in a public radio newsroom where all of the stories came in between 2:30 and 4 minutes. Typically, there were five or six sources. My personal high was 13 sources in four minutes. Three edits was the average.

Think about your relationship with the listener. Strive to make them see you as an expert. Sometimes, you might even want them to like you, but you always want them to be excited about the topic, and to feel lucky to be getting your information. Make them feel good about going away with more knowledge.

Above all, bring them along with you as you tell the story. Transport them. Take them there.