Radio news writing tips

A lot of the best writers in the broadcast news business come out of radio, says CBS’s Harvey Nagler, “because you need to think on your feet and write concisely.” Want some examples? CNN’s Candy Crowley, ABC’s Robert Krulwich and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell all started in radio. What they learned was how to write for the ear, using simple language in a conversational style.

tamara keith studioTamara Keith of NPR says that’s harder than it sounds but she’s come up with some useful tips on how to do it well.

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…

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…

Create scenes by describing the setting, the person you’re interviewing, etc…Little details take stories from simply being a statement of fact to something deeper, more revealing, more engaging.

Write quickly, Keith advises, and don’t nitpick every word. Instead, spend time revising your work, paying particular attention to these pitfalls:

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. Two 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.

I second that list, and not just for radio!

Keith, by the way, now covers business and economics for NPR–a tough beat if there ever was one. She shares some of her suggestions for making those stories “relatable and interesting” in a post I wrote for RTDNA’s Money Matters.

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3 Comments

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  3. Deborah’s article is spot on.

    Writing and reporting for radio also teaches focus and efficiency — both in the writing and in the selection of the soundbites. I had to learn this quickly when I contributed many reports to CBS Radio News as a TV reporter in Miami. Yes, the radio helped sharpen my reporting skills. The whole “package” called a “wrap” couldn’t run more than 45 seconds, at least based on what the radio network producers demanded from me.

    I learned from some of the best as a go-for, officially called Desk Assistant, pulling wire copy for the newscasters. All during the summer at ABC Radio in New York between semesters. The radio newscasters — all quite new and young looking — included Charles Osgood, Ted Koppel, and a Canadian by the name of Peter Jennings.

    My takeaway: Complement your TV reporting with radio reporting. Ideally, as Deborah’s article suggests, cut your teeth in radio.

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