by Brianna Bodily
KSL News Radio
Writing Radio News
Radio news is perhaps the most accessible of the mediums. Available online, in the car and on smartphones, anyone with a signal can access news reports without interrupting their workflow to read or watch the information. This also makes radio one of the first places audiences turn to in the event of breaking news.
Because this medium only uses one sense, reporters often rely on description to paint a picture at the scene of the story. One of the most famous examples of this was in 1937 when Herbert Morrison reported on the crash of the Hindenburg:
“It’s practically standing still now they’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship…and they’ve been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again. It’s… the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from…It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie! Get this, Charlie! It’s fire! And it’s crashing! It’s crashing, terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [garbled] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t.” – Transcribed from Morrison’s report on May 6, 1937.
Pictures and video aren’t necessary when good description can bring images to the mind and a journalist’s voice can convey the urgency, passion, and importance of a story.
Writing for Radio’s Demographic
The first rule in writing for radio is to write conversationally.
Radio’s biggest market is consistently morning and afternoon “drive time”, typically between five and nine A.M. and three and seven P.M., when most of the city is headed to work and back again. These drivers don’t have the luxury of re-reading or rewinding when they miss a sentence. They have one chance to hear the story and understand it. That is why radio journalists keep their stories simple and succinct.
A common rule of thumb for writing in radio is to keep diction and phrasing at an eighth grade level. If a middle school or junior high student can’t follow the story the first time around, a typical drive time audience may have a difficult time following the story while they are distracted by the road and other passengers. Another trick reporters use is to read out loud as they write. If it doesn’t flow while they are writing, it won’t flow while they are reading it live on air.
The second rule in radio writing is to paint a picture.
A tense mood during a vote at the Capitol, crying family members at a court trial, glass littered across the street at a car accident- they are all important pieces in stories that can draw audiences into the scene itself. Imagination can fill in the gaps if writing will only give it a nudge. Because radio does not have any visual aids, like pictures or video, description is key in bringing a story to life. Good radio reporting gives the audience the information they need to know. Great radio reporting makes the audience feel like they are part of the story and connects them to that information.
The third rule in radio writing is to understand your audience.
Radio isn’t as intimate as a newspaper or web story. It often isn’t late at night when the kids are asleep. Radio is there when someone turns on the car. When an alarm goes off at six in the morning. It’s there when bus drivers take kids to school and when parents run errands. Sensitivity is important when delivering news that will often be heard by ears from nine months old to ninety. Radio reporters work to bring their audience to the scene without going into unnecessary and gruesome details. Every station and every news director has a different rule about where that line sits, based on the station’s demographic. For example, stations in New York City, New York may be more liberal with their descriptions than the local radio news station in Cedar City, Utah.
The fourth rule in radio writing is to write in active voice and present tense.
Print and web reporters finish their work and let their audience find it over several hours. Radio reporters bring their story to the audience live. At the time of delivery there is always a way to start your story with what is happening right now. Radio stories start with the freshest detail.
Example: Instead of starting a story about a car accident with “A passenger vehicle t-boned a semi on state street this afternoon, injuring one man,” start with “One man is in critical condition after police say he lost control on state street and slammed into a passing semi”. Active voice and present tense bring a story to life, even hours after it broke.
Commercial Radio vs. Public Radio
Radio news can vary greatly between state lines and market size, but the biggest differences are between commercial and public radio.
Commercial radio is faster-paced and shallower than public radio. Stories are short and producers will typically fit as many as they can into a newscast. This means that audiences that listen to commercial radio will get more news in less time. They are exposed to a wider variety of stories, from spot news to features, and the stories often range from local to national. It is also funded by paid ads. These ads will interrupt news programming on a scheduled basis, similar to what you see in television news. Newscasts are high energy and often marked by sounders, fast delivery, and precise producing. Commercial radio is often used for a general look at the news of today, but often lacks the depth of public radio. Large network examples include ABC, NBC, and CNN.
Public radio is slower paced and dives deeper than commercial radio. Fifteen minutes spent listening to a public radio station will bring a fraction of the news coverage, but each story will have more substance. Often public radio will skip spot news and sports news, instead focusing on features and political stories. Bed music and slow delivery are classic benchmark of public radio. Audiences that rely on public radio will have a narrower exposure to news, but a deeper understanding of the few stories they hear. Public stations rely on federal funding and private donations, and do not play typical ads. The US only has two major national networks: NPR and PRI.
Roles Within Radio
General Manager: The head honcho in each news station. The general manager is in charge of all staff at the station and responsible for keeping track of the success of the station.
News director: This person is in charge of the news department and the entire news staff. The news director has final say on story assignments and keeps track of the success of the overall news product. Often the news director is only trumped by the General Manager, or in a small-market station a programming manager may have authority over them.
Producer: Producers assign reporter stories, determine the direction of each show, and organize the show for smooth delivery by the host. They often write significant portions of each show, and copy check stories filed by reporters. Producers also help coordinate on-scene story delivery from reporters in the field. Assistant producers will help write readers and actualities to beef up the story content. They also help coordinate with reporters in the field.
Host: The host is the equivalent of an anchor in television news. They are the figureheads of the station and front long newscasts like the drive time news shows. Hosts are often asked to work on special projects for the station, come up with segment ideas for each show, and make appearances at charity events to promote the station. With the rise of social media Twitter handles and Facebook pages are becoming a requirement for hosts across the nation.
Anchor: An anchor hosts smaller newscasts. Anchors often take over delivering the news in less popular time slots: evenings, midday and weekends. Anchors often play the role of host and reporter as well.
Reporter: Reporters gather and produce news stories. They spend more time out in the field than any other position in radio news. In commercial radio, reporters are expected to turn several stories during their shift and often are required to turn more than one version of each story (see Terminology). Reporters are expected to gather and implement natural sound from the scene, and use hardware to go live from the scene during breaking news. In public radio reporters may turn fewer stories, but are expected to turn out highly produced stories full of natural sound. Reporters are also often required to keep a strong presence on social media, and are often asked to write a web version of their story for the station’s website and app.
Board Operator: Board operators are similar to technical directors, but on a simpler scale. They are responsible for bringing up the right pots to turn a mic live, fire off sounders, and start advertisements or public service announcements for the newscast. Board operators are expected to keep a strict eye on the VU meter to make sure that everything stays around -9 decibels. These are the people that push the buttons to keep each show on air.
Radio news crews often have less staff than TV stations in the same market. Reporters are expected to juggle more stories and turn more content. A national network station will have several reporters on staff in the local city and state, but they will also employ reporters to cover news in high traffic states and countries. For example, ABC news keeps a reporter in Rome near the Vatican to cover Catholic news and one in Israel to cover Middle Eastern updates. They also employ reporters to cover white house news full-time, and travel with the President of the United States to countries all over the world. Large-market stations will often employ several reporters, producers and board operators. Small-market stations require employees to wear multiple hats. A news director may also be the entire reporting staff and the only newscast host for the entire station.
Reporter News “Beats”
Television shows and movies often portray journalists with a beat. That means the journalist specializes in one topic: anything from healthcare to politics. Beat reporters are common in print, but broadcast can vary. KSL Newsradio in Salt Lake City is considered a large market, but doesn’t have the reporter staffing to assign beats. Instead each reporter is expected to know enough about current events they can jump on a new story and deliver it expertly. Smaller stations are often the same. National networks, like ABC, will assign reporters beats but they are very broad. ABC might have a reporter cover all of California news, while another is assigned to cover only major weather disasters across the nation.
Live hit: This is when a reporter or host has a live on-air report.
Natural sound: Background sound gathered from the scene of a story. This can include active audio like a car door slamming, or passive audio like the sound of a crowd murmuring. This does not include audio from an interview. Natural sound is gathered at each story to help paint the scene and draw the audience into the story.
Sound bite: A sound bite is a short segment of sound taken from an interview. In commercial news sound bites often only last seven to ten seconds. In public radio they can last as long as thirty or forty-five seconds if the audio is compelling.
Outcue: The way a reporter ends their story. A standard outcue (SOC) ends with the reporter’s name and the stations name. An example of this would be: Marc Giaque, KSL Newsradio. It both identifies the reporter and signals the host that the story is over.
Lead: A sentence or two the host uses to introduce a new story.
Tag: A sentence or two the host uses to wrap up the story before moving on to a new one.
Wrap: Similar to a television reporter’s package. This is a fully produced story from a reporter. It starts with a lead for the host to read and then goes to a recorded story voiced by the reporter. This story will include sound bites and natural sound from the scene and end with an outcue. In commercial radio Wraps are often short- somewhere between thirty-five seconds for national networks and forty-five seconds with large stations. In public radio they can be several minutes long, depending on the station. Because of the short time frame, reporters will often use several sound bites that are closer to two or three seconds long, instead of one sound bite that is seven or eight seconds long.
Here is a script Marc Giaque wrote for KSL News Radio (102.7 FM/1160 AM) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Notice his present tense lead, how short and simple the writing is, and how he introduces all of his sound bites to help the story flow:
Lead: SALT LAKE POLICE ARE LOOKING FOR SUSPECTS AND ANSWERS BEHIND A SERIES OF VIOLENT ATTACKS OVERNIGHT. KSL NEWS RADIO’S MARC GIAUQUE HAS MORE.
Wrap: IT ALL HAPPENED LAST NIGHT WITHIN AN HOUR… TWO ROBBERIES… AND A SHOOTING.. ALL IN SALT LAKE CITY, ALL INVOLVING A SHOTGUN. DETECTIVE ROBERT UNGRITCH SAYS IT STARTED WITH THE ROBBERY OF A CONVENIENCE STORE ON THE EAST SIDE. (SOUND BITE: THEN A SHORT TIME LATER, A PERSON WALKED INTO ANOTHER CONVENIENCE STORE ON REDWOOD ROAD, WITH SHOTGUN PELLET WOUNDS TO THE ARM). WHEN A PERSON AT A NEARBY RESTAURANT HEARD THAT SHOT, HE WALKED OUT AND WAS WOUNDED BY MORE PELLETS. A SHORT TIME LATER, AN ATTEMPTED ROBBERY AT ANOTHER STORE. (SOUND BITE: OUT OF CONTROL) POLICE SAY THERE’S BEEN AN UPTICK IN ROBBERIES LATELY. THEY’RE NOT SURE HOW IF THEY’RE RELATED. THEY’RE HOPING TO GET MORE CLUES FROM WITNESSES AND VICTIMS TODAY. SOC.
Debrief: This similar to a television station’s VO-SOT-VO, but with a reporter as the SOT. A Debrief will start with an anchor lead that is about five seconds long. The anchor will toss to a reporter who will give a short account of the story and will not give an outcue. The reporter does not use any sound bites in a debrief. The anchor then ends the story with a tag. A debrief is typically about thirty seconds or less in commercial radio.
For comparison, here’s a debrief from Giaque on the same crime story as shown above. Notice how he keeps the story short, simple and easy to understand.
Lead: SALT LAKE CITY POLICE ARE WORKING TO LEARN IF A PAIR OF ROBBERIES OVERNIGHT… ARE RELATED TO SHOOTINGS THAT LEFT TWO PEOPLE WITH MINOR INJURIES. KSL NEWS RADIO’S MARC GIAUQUE HAS MORE.
Reporter: IT STARTED WITH A ROBBERY AT A CONVENIENCE STORE NEAR 5TH EAST AND 17TH SOUTH, THE SUSPECTS WERE SAID TO HAVE HAD A SHOTGUN. A SHORT TIME LATER, AND ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN, SOMEONE WALKED INTO ANOTHER CONVENIENCE STORE WITH SHOTGUN PELLET WOUNDS TO THE ARM WHILE AT ABOUT THE SAME TIME, A WORKER AT THE RESTAURANT NEXT DOOR WHO HEARD A GUNSHOT, WALKED OUTSIDE AND WAS HIT ALSO HIT BY PELLETS. LATER AND TO THE SOUTH, AN ATTEMPTED ROBBERY AT ANOTHER STORE, INVOLVING TWO PEOPLE, A HANDGUN AND AGAIN A SHOT-GUN.
Tag: POLICE ARE WORKING TO LEARN IF THE CRIMES ARE CONNECTED.
Voicer: This very similar to a debrief but the reporter will tag out of their own story with a standard outcue. Once again the reporter will not use any sound bites in the story. Voicers are often thirty-five seconds or less in commercial radio.
Actuality: This is exactly like a television station’s VO-SOT-VO. It starts with a host lead, moves to a sound bite, then ends with a tag from the host. Actualities, or ACTS, are often about 25 seconds long in national networks and up to 30 seconds long in large networks. Here is an example from Marc Giaque, on the same crime story as above. Notice what details he chose to emit to fit the time requirement. This is often a struggle for all broadcast reporters. There is often more to the story than time will allow.
Lead: SALT LAKE CITY POLICE ARE WORKING TO DETERMINE IF TWO ROBBERIES ARE RELATED TO A BIZARRE SHOOTING OVERNIGHT. TWO PEOPLE WERE HIT WITH SHOTGUN PELLETS NEAR A CONVENIENCE STORE ON REDWOOD ROAD. IT HAPPENED AFTER A ROBBERY AT ANOTHER STORE… AND BEFORE ANOTHER *ATTEMPTED* ROBBERY IN A DIFFERENT PART OF TOWN.
Sound Bite: WE’RE STILL TRYING TO DETERMINE WHETHER OR NOT THE INCIDENTS HAVE ANY CONNECTION TO EACH OTHER OR ARE CORRELATED.
Tag: DETECTIVE ROBERT UNGRICHT SAYS POLICE HAVE NOTICED AN UP-TICK IN THE NUMBER OF ROBBERIES IN THE AREA LATELY.
Reader: This is the shortest of all the radio stories. It is a script read by the host- no sound from the reporter. Typically a reader (RDR) will last between ten and twenty seconds at the most in a commercial radio station. They are used when sound isn’t available, a story isn’t big enough to justify the time spent collecting the sound, or when a producer needs to mix up a newscast that is too heavy with one type of story.
In depth: This is a radio reporter’s chance to produce an excellent story. Typically reporters, at both commercial and public radio stations, are allotted more time in the newscast for in depth stories. In commercial radio that typically amounts to a couple of minutes. In public radio that could mean fifteen minutes or more. In-depths often have several sources, are rich in natural sound, and delve deep into a public interest story, investigative story, or feature story. Similar to a wrap, these start with a host lead in and end with the reporter delivering a standard outcue (SOC). Here is an example from Brianna Bodily at KSL News Radio in SLC, Utah. Notice how the natural sound is weaved into the story and supports both the script and the soundbites.
Lead: (HOST ONE)
A HIGHER NUMBER OF BLACK BEARS ARE ROAMING THE UTAH MOUNTAINS AND THAT HAS WILDLIFE WORKERS BUSY.
UTAH’S WARM SPRING CHASED BEARS OUT OF THEIR DENS EARLIER THAN USUAL…LEADING TO MORE WORK FOR BIOLOGISTS THIS SUMMER, BUT THEY’RE GETTING SOME HELP FROM TECHNOLOGY. K-S-L NEWSRADIO’S BRIANNA BODILY TOOK SEVERAL HIKES OVER FIVE MONTHS TO TRACK OUR STATE’S LARGEST PREDATORS.
Indepth: DEEP INTO THE MOUNTAINS IN SPANISH FORK CANYON (NATURAL SOUND OF SNOW CRUNCHING) WE TRUDGED THROUGH SNOW, SLICK MUD, (NAT SOUND POP- WATCH OUT FOR THAT BRANCH) AND THICK BRUSH.
SEVERAL IN THE GROUP WERE OUT OF BREATH…GRASPING BRANCHES FOR SUPPORT AS WE CLIMBED HILL AFTER HILL. AND ALL THE WHILE…WE WERE LED BY THIS BEEPING.
(NATURAL SOUND OF THE BEEPING)
IT’S COMING FROM AN ANTENNAE THAT HELPS BIOLOGISTS ZERO IN A COLLAR ALREADY ATTACHED TO A BEAR’S NECK.
(Sound bite: A LOT OF TRYING TO NARROW IN AND DETERMINE WHERE THE LOUDEST SOUND IS COMING FROM)
RILEY PECK…THE REGIONAL WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER WITH THE DIVISION OF WILDLIFE RESOURCES HAS BEEN ON SO MANY BEAR DENNINGS…HE’S LOST COUNT. HE SAYS THIS KIND OF TRUDGING IS NOT UNUSUAL WHEN YOU ARE TRYING TO FIND A WINTER DEN.
(Sound Bite: THEY DON’T DEN IN EASY LOCATIONS.)
FOUR MILES LATER…PECK FINALLY CALLED OUR MARCH TO A HALT. THE BEAR WAS OUT OF THE DEN AND MOVING…
(Sound Bite: IT’S FRUSTRATING…WE HIKED ALL DAY AND DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING.)
BUT IT’S NOT NECESSARILY UNUSUAL. BIOLOGISTS…ESPECIALLY ALONG THE WASATCH FRONT…HAVE TO BALANCE ACCESS TO THE DEN…WITH HOW WARM IT’S GETTING. TOO MUCH SNOW-YOU CAN’T GET TO THE BEAR…BUT TOO WARM…AND SHE’LL WAKE UP AND LEAVE BEFORE YOU CAN FIND HER. ON A SECOND OUTING WITH BIOLOGISTS…THIS TIME UP ROCK CANYON IN PROVO…WE HAD A SIMILAR PROBLEM. HIKING UP AND DOWN THE CANYON WALLS…TRYING TO ZERO IN THE RADIO COLLAR.
(Sound bite: EVERY TIME YOU GO INTO A CANYON THE SIGNAL WILL BOUNCE.)
THIS IS ONE OF THE REASONS THEY WANT TO SWAP COLLARS ON AS MANY BEARS AS POSSIBLE. BIOLOGIST DALE LIECHTY SAYS RADIO COLLARS ARE LIMITED…AND RELY ON THAT BOUNCING SIGNAL.
(Sound bite: THIS IS AN ART.)
ON THE OTHER HAND, GPS COLLARS CAN ALMOST PINPOINT THE BEAR’S LOCATION.
(Sound bite: SO WE’LL KNOW EXACTLY WHERE SHE IS NEXT YEAR.)
THIS BEAR WAS ALSO MOVING. SO A FEW MONTHS LATER, LIECHTY SET A TRAP… AND WE RETURNED TO ROCK CANYON. THIS TIME…WITH A BEAR WAITING FOR US.
(Sound bite- WOW, SHE IS BEAUTIFUL (NATURAL SOUND OF HER BREATHING AND GROWLING))
SOME DISTRACTED THE BEAR (Sound bite: LOOK HERE. LOOK HERE) WHILE ONE MAN INJECTED A CONCOCTION OF KNOCKOUT DRUGS WITH A LONG JAB STICK. (NATURAL SOUND- GOT HER)
WITHIN MINUTES SHE WAS ASLEEP…AND THE DWR HAD THE BEAR OUT OF THE TRAP TO REPLACE HER COLLAR. (NATURAL SOUND POP FROM COLLAR REPLACEMENT) IT’S SOUNDS LIKE A COMPLICATED…AND FICKLE PROCESS…BUT PECK TELLS ME THE INFO THEY COLLECT…LIKE WEIGHT, DNA, AND LOCATION…IS INVALUABLE..AND EITHER IMPOSSIBLE OR TOO EXPENSIVE TO COLLECT ANY OTHER WAY.
(Sound bite: THEY ARE SECRETIVE. THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE THEM. DO A GOOD JOB OF HIDING.)
ONE OF THE BIGGEST USES OF THAT DATA…IS POPULATION. IN FACT LAST YEAR’S COUNT PUT UTAH’S BEARS AT ABOUT 6 PERCENT HIGHER THAN THE YEAR BEFORE.
AFTER THEY’RE DONE TAKING MEASUREMENTS, THE REVERSAL DRUG GETS THE BEAR UP AND MOVING AGAIN IN A MATTER OF MINUTES.
(NAT SOUND- THERE SHE GOES)
Sounder: This a produced sound bite that plays underneath a news segment. Commercial radio will often use them during their newscasts to make specific segments stand out. For example, when the host moves to a weather segment they will play the sounder first so that listeners unconsciously make the realization they should tune in because weather cast is about to start. The same method is used for political news, national news, traffic news, breaking news and other segments.
Bed Music: Long segments of sound to play under segments that need more energy. These are often repetitive melodies that are fairly bland so they won’t distract from the story or segment. Often used in talk shows and on public radio.
The Changing Face of Radio
“Radio you can see” is an idea quickly spreading in the radio world. Stations are installing cameras in their studios so audiences can connect with news and talk show hosts while they perform. Skype and Facetime make it possible for radio reporters to deliver news on the scene while on camera. Social media apps like Facebook and Twitter have made live video available so reporters can connect with audiences on scene even when they aren’t on air. Live tweeting brings audiences right into the courtroom, even when video and live broadcasts aren’t allowed.
While the basics of radio new reporting remain the same, it is slowly changing from an audio-only format to a medium for multimedia journalists.
(KSL News Radio’s live streaming web camera. This gives the audience a chance to watch radio crews deliver the content and connect with them visually)
The digital world is bringing reporters closer to their audiences than ever. It’s a sometimes overwhelming challenge for both groups. Reporters and hosts are constantly required to learn and master the latest trends in social media, while audiences struggle to find to the balance of too much information vs. not enough. Radio has proven over the last hundred years that it is a medium that can and will adapt as the world changes. This will likely mean the role of its operators and talent changes as well.