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Reporter two-ways: Improvisation within a structure

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For many public radio reporters — even some of the most experienced ones — the prospect of a two-way can be daunting. You’ve been gathering facts and collecting tape, and now, you have to sit down in front of a hot mic and communicate what you’ve learned in conversation with a host. If you’re accustomed to scripted stories with tracks and acts and ambience, being interviewed by a host may feel like a partial loss of control over your material. The risk of making a mistake feels heightened. And of course, thousands (or millions!) of people are listening.

At the same time, two-ways allow hosts and reporters the opportunity to sound looser, more curious, more human, and often, more authoritative — all qualities listeners expect from NPR.

But that’s not always how two-ways end up sounding.

One Vermont listener captured that sentiment in a pointed 2015 email to All Things Considered. She wrote about what she called a “practice” on NPR’s air, in which questions and answers are “clearly scripted… As listeners we see right through that.” She pleaded with us: “Please, please, please… just have a normal conversation!”

The following guidance was developed to help us have more “normal” conversations on newsmagazines, while maintaining the integrity of our journalism. This should not be interpreted as a template; no one wants cookie-cutter approaches! It is a set of principles and recommendations aimed at avoiding that “scripted” sound that many listeners dislike and at least one NPR executive has called “radio death.” Most importantly, it’s aimed at giving our audience the best listening experience possible.


This is a LONG post. Here are some internal links for quick reference:


The qualities all good two-ways share

There is no one, ideal two-way. Some cover breaking news, some explain complicated topics, and others explore more whimsical phenomena. But on an NPR newsmagazine, the best two-ways all achieve the following:

  • They are conversational
  • They have a clear focus/goal
  • They have a logical structure
  • They provide memorable, visual examples
  • They strike a balance between preparation and spontaneity

NPR Senior Editor Bruce Auster says two-ways are like jazz: They involve “improvisation within a structure.” The fundamental challenge with each, regardless of its type, is to find the appropriate balance between conversation and information.


One size does not fit all: A few two-way examples

Let’s start by illustrating a few different scenarios in which NPR commonly provides coverage via two-ways.

Example #1 — BREAKING NEWS: On May 20, 2013, a deadly tornado hit the Oklahoma City area. Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma was on the scene and spoke with All Things Considered:

Why this works:

  • Joe sounds human. You can hear in his voice how struck he is by the scene of devastation. He stumbles a bit — and that’s OK. He sounds authentic and in the moment.
  • He plays the key role of a reporter in a scene like this — eyewitness — by describing what he’s seen.
  • His descriptions are evocative and specific — “A 360-degree panoramic destruction,” “It’s getting dark here. They’re moving in lighting rigs.”
  • He says, “I don’t know,” to one of Robert Siegel’s questions, but then offers up additional context. It is OK to not know the answer to a question, especially in a breaking news situation!

Joe described the experience in an email:

WertzSlide

 

Example #2 — DAILY NEWS EVENT: Due to logistical challenges — and the frequent lack of audio — we often do two-ways about court proceedings, instead of pieces.

Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio had to communicate complicated details about a court appearance by James Holmes, the man who committed a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

Why this works:

  • Megan breaks down a complex series of charges into understandable categories — by focusing on the most critical information and staying out of the weeds.
  • Her first answer is less than 30 seconds long, which helps to maintain the conversational quality of the two-way.
  • In the second answer, she offers her impression of James Holmes’ appearance — “To me, he seemed much more alert.” This is not pure opinion; it’s journalism. Megan has been covering the story for a while, so her impressions over time become a legitimate part of her reporting.

NPR Northeast bureau chief Andrea de Leon says that she dreads these kinds of two-ways, because “there’s no tape very often in these situations. There’s a lot to explain. There’s a lot of potential to get things wrong.” That’s why careful prep between Megan and her editor is critical. They need to identify ahead of time the potential trouble spots in the conversation and consider solutions that will work for the audience. (Scroll down for tips on how to prepare.)

Example #3 — CULTURAL CONVERSATIONLinda Holmes is NPR’s pop culture blogger and host of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. She often talks with hosts on the NPR newsmagazines, and these conversations are an example of the more freewheeling style a two-way can take.

Why this works:

  • Linda and Audie sound like they’re talking, not reading. Completely conversational.
  • They laugh. They are actually having fun (as opposed to faking it).
  • The two-way tackles a clear question we can all think about: “Is there too much scripted TV out there, and is that good or bad?”
  • The ideas are organized. (Even though it sounds conversational, Linda and Audie and colleagues clearly did some front-end planning.)
  • Linda responds in personal terms. She’s a critic; this is all about her (informed) sensibilities.
  • Linda and Audie likely talked to each other before the conversation; they thought through this together.

Preparing for a two-way

NellNEW

 

Finding a focus: We often try to achieve too much with two-ways. We pack the air with more facts than a listener’s brain can take in. So the first step is deciding, realistically, what your two-way can achieve. As with any story, can you identify the specific goal of the segment? Is there a central question you will attempt to answer? Can you lay out several key points you need to get across to your listeners — and why they are important? Can you establish a logical arc, so the questions make sense in the order they appear?

Creating a roadmap: Since a two-way is an on-air conversation, the best way to prepare is to have a conversation. NPR Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin says that, as the reporter, “You are basically telling your editor what you learned.”

Ideally, this conversation happens with an editor. It can also involve the host, since s/he will carry half the conversation but, of course, hosts are busy. In the absence of an editor or host, you can also talk with a peer. Whoever you talk to, they should try to play the role of the listener or host — someone who knows less than the reporter does about the topic. This person should ask questions as they occur, based on his/her curiosity and desire to understand the topic.

That conversation should try to achieve the following:

  • Help the reporter lay out the information logically
  • Identify key questions the host (and listeners) would have about the topic
  • Establish the arc — or order that information should unfold
  • Catch potential problems with wording or clarity
  • Test pacing and timing

Of course, every reporter is different, and editors learn to adjust their style with each reporter. Still, as NPR’s Bruce Auster says, “I’ve found that this [conversational approach] is a pretty nice model for a lot of people.”

DeRose


To script or not to script (or something in-between)?

There is not one perfect answer to this question. But the end goal is clear: If the reporter and host sound like they’re reading, we have a problem. Some reporters seem to be able to magically read their way through a fully-scripted two-way and “perform” it naturally, but this is rare. For most of us, a word-for-word script becomes a crutch.

Here’s how Jonathan Kern described the problem in his book Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production:

“[W]hen the reporter and host are both reading from a script, the result is stilted and artificial. Because reporters aren’t used to writing dialog, they frequently come up with sentences whose syntax works better on the page than on the radio–sentences that don’t sound like anything a person would utter in normal discourse… So–because most of us are neither actors nor playwrights — we’re left with a mediocre performance of an amateur radio play.”

The solution, however, does not require that reporters and hosts go entirely “off-script” (though we recommend trying it when possible!). Especially when the subject is complex and potentially controversial, we can sketch out two-ways with brief bullet points. The bullets might include key facts the reporter must get right — or critical ideas the reporter wants to emphasize.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 11.42.09 PM

Here is a partial checklist for a reporter preparing a two-way:

    • Have I identified the key points I need to make?
    • Have I organized my thoughts in a logical way that listeners can follow?
    • Do I have descriptive examples that will help explain my topic and/or plant pictures in listeners’ minds?
    • Do I have a script, bullet points, or notes that will help me sound conversational, but not limit me? (Or — is the best approach to do this without a script?)
    • Have I given the host a role, beyond asking “Who what why where…?”
    • Can I tell this story well in the time allotted?

The benefits of bullet points over scripted answers: An example

Here’s a two-way featuring NPR Correspondent Frank Langfitt and Morning Edition host David Greene. It could have been, well, “radio death.” The topic is heavy and complex. It involves China, security issues and unfamiliar islands in the Pacific. But it manages to sound conversational, while conveying information clearly.

As you listen, read along in the script excerpt below. You’ll see that Frank wrote himself only key points, not entire answers. And neither he nor David read exactly what’s written. They put questions and answers in their own voices.

Excerpt from Frank’s script:

LangfittScript

Notice how Frank pivots in his first answer. David asks the question in a slightly different way than is written, and Frank — on-the-fly — rearranges the information in his answer.

Frank is a former print journalist. He says that learning to do two-ways required him to leave behind the comfort zone of written words. It took effort and time.

Now, since Frank works in a far-away time zone, he doesn’t usually have the opportunity to construct his two-ways via conversation with an editor. So he describes his process this way: “Write out what you’d like to say, but then cut most of it. Anything you could get wrong — numbers, dates — write them down.” Frank says he has also structured two-ways by talking into his recording device, transcribing what he said and then cleaning it up.

Frank says the other keys for him are confidence (if you know your stuff, if you’ve reported it out, you can talk about it!) and a willingness to go with the flow.


Common pitfalls

Lack of clarity about the focus of your story: Two-ways suffer if the reporter (and editor) has not figured out what the key points are, where the conversation starts, and where it should end. Rachel Martin suggests, “If you can’t sit down and write your intro, you probably don’t know where your two-way is going to go… [The intro] helps you focus your thoughts.” It also helps, both for focus and for the recording process, to know where you need to end. What is the final point you want to leave listeners with?

Sounding over-scripted or “canned”: This is the quickest way to doom a two-way, in part because it confounds the expectations of the audience. Your listeners have been introduced to this segment as a conversation between host and reporter. They might even be picturing a reporter sitting in an imaginary radio studio with a host. So when they instead hear a more stilted, non-conversational tone, they can get confused.

Trying to sound NPR-ish: Everyone has the sound of certain NPR voices in their head — and that can give us something to aspire to. But it can also hold us back. The goal in a two-way should be to sound like yourself — or as NPR reporter Sam Sanders says, “Just do you, people!” Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Rachel Martin, who was a station reporter and freelancer before she came to NPR, says, “I had in my mind before I was on staff at NPR what an NPR reporter was supposed to sound like. And it wasn’t me… I was pretending to be this other person…. You just gotta throw all that out the window. There may have been a time when there was a sound and certain vocabulary words that you used and a certain kind of authoritative tone, and I just don’t think that is the case anymore…. I think we live in a time now where we just want reporters and hosts… to feel confident but to feel comfortable.”

Fear of failure: Especially when you’re going on-air live, fear of failure can make us clam up. We put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect. The best thing to remember in these moments is (1) You are human, and your listeners understand if you stumble and have to correct yourself, and (2) You know your topic. Trust yourself!

“You’re a natural storyteller… You just have to keep that. It’s not like you have to invent it. You just gotta keep it.”

— Andrea de Leon

Getting into the weeds: Avoiding the weeds can be especially challenging for the most knowledgeable reporters. You know your topic extremely well. It can also be tough to translate a local or state issue to national air; your local audience may care about details that would confuse the national audience. The best ways to avoid the weeds are (1) To lay out ahead of time the key points you need to make for the audience at hand, and (2) Prepare for your two-way with an editor or a peer who is less immersed in the topic. This person can warn you when you’re straying into weedy territory.

Squeezing too much into the first answer: When the first answer lasts too long, the two-way loses its identity as a conversation. You can avoid this by talking ahead of time with an editor, host or peer. S/he can listen for the natural moment to break up a long answer with a question.

Host and/or reporter aren’t listening to each other: No matter how much scripting you’ve done ahead of time, the best conversations may diverge from the script. Both reporter and host need to be prepared to have that conversation in the moment. Sometimes, that means the host will ask an unexpected question or follow-up, or the reporter will veer from the script. This causes problems if they are relying only on the script. But if they are primarily listening to each other — they can navigate through it. (Note: If there are topics a reporter must avoid, you can always communicate that to host, producers, and/or editors ahead of time. These kinds of two-ways are collaborations; no host intends to ask a gotcha! question.)

Losing track of time: If you are appearing on an NPR newsmagazine, you should have been told how long your segment is. If not, ask. Then, stick to that time! That goes for live two-ways and taped. For some people, running a stopwatch does the trick. Others get accustomed to a producer warning them in their ear — “30 seconds left!” — during the taping.


What is the role of the host?

“After you come out of a highly-scripted reporter two-way… you feel just a little bit like a prostitute.”

— Former All Things Considered host Noah Adams, as quoted in “Sound Reporting” by Jonathan Kern

First of all, it’s important to remember that the host is as equally important as the reporter. If all the host does is ask “What?” and “Why?” they might as well not be a part of the two-way. So hosts must play a more substantial role in the conversation.

Hosts want to both channel the curiosity of listeners and make the reporter sound great, or as Rachel Martin says, “to bring out your best reporter self.” She adds, “Our job is to actually hear what you’re saying and then react like a normal human… would react.” And sometimes, that leads hosts to go off-script: They are listening closely and hear a natural question that’s not on the script, or they sense that a follow-up is needed. That is their job, even if it means going “rogue”: to help listeners understand information and to help the reporter convey it.

Here are some key responsibilities of a host during a two-way:

  • To listen closely to the reporter
  • To serve as a proxy for listeners: What do they want/need to know? What might they not understand?
  • To sound (and be) informed, but not so well-informed that listeners feel alienated or confused
  • To guide reporters through a loose structure that leaves room for spontaneity

A note on writing questions for hosts:

Reporters and editors spend a lot of well-intentioned time trying to script questions in the host’s voice. That is a noble task if you have the time. But our message here is: Don’t sweat it too much. Hosts are hired and paid for their ability to ask questions. If you give them clear, logical questions — the raw material they need — you should be able to count on them to ask the question in their own voice. (As always, there are exceptions — especially when a topic requires very careful wording.)

In the end, nothing beats direct communication. Two-ways are better when everyone involved — host, reporter, producers, editors — have the same goals and a shared plan.

In breaking news situations, let the questions stay simple:

When news is breaking, there is even less value in spending time scripting questions. Everyone is busy enough already, and this is a rare case where following a reliable template is OK. Most breaking news two-ways go something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 11.24.02 PM


Are live two-ways different than recorded two-ways?

They should not be. At least, not among audio professionals.

Yes, it’s true that — when we tape two-ways — we can go back and redo answers. But as a general principle, aim for “live-to-tape.” This allows the reporter and host to step up and perform, because they won’t view the initial taping as a rough draft. Also, it’s practical; everyone has limited time, especially on daily newsmagazines. As professionals, one of our goals is to make each other’s jobs easier. So approach a taped two-way as if the curtain has opened and you’re on stage — now!

Are there rules about whether you can use tape in two-ways?

No. At NPR, there are not rules about using tape. (Though how you use it is important! More on that below.)

If it serves the story well and doesn’t interrupt the flow of conversation, the tape may be worth using. But adding too much tape can be problematic, especially on deadline, since it presents additional production challenges. So, as a general principle, use tape when it’s great — and when it makes your two-way even better than it would be otherwise.

Here’s an example of elegant and whimsical use of tape in a two-way — from NPR Science Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel:

Something to think about: How will tape be introduced in your two-way? 

There are a lot of ways you can use tape, but whatever you do — remember, this is a conversation. When you’re having a natural chat in the midst of regular life, other people’s voices don’t unexpectedly pop up. So if you’re using tape in the middle of the two-way (as opposed to in an intro), understand that you’re introducing an unexpected element. It’s best to cue tape in an explicit way: “Let’s take a listen…” or “Listen to how she explains this…” or “I talked earlier today with Professor So-and-So. Here’s a little of what he had to say…”

The alternative — a more scripted ‘in cue’ to tape such as “Professor So-and-so says the new law will create problems…” — doesn’t go far enough. That’s because it doesn’t explicitly tell the listener they’ll be hearing another voice. It can be confusing and distracting, as the listener recalibrates his/her expectations.

In the two-way above, Geoff uses two cuts of tape in the course of the conversation.

In the first, he is really explicit with the set-up, since it’s all about the sound. He says to the host, Kelly McEvers, “I can play you the actual sound of the discovery if you want to hear it.” Very conversational!

His second cut is a scientist talking. And once again, Geoff is clear in his set-up:

MCEVERS: I mean, if [the gravitational wave] was so small, how could they be sure that what they were saying was real?

BRUMFIEL: You know, I asked them that myself. And I was surprised to hear that many of the physicists involved were skeptical when they first saw the signal. Here’s Rainer Weiss who’s been working on this since the 1960s.

KEN WEISS: I felt disbelief. A lot of us felt that way until we really did all the checks. And then little by little, all of us began to believe.

Going off-script… and beyond

When the topic is less serious than Chinese missiles, two-ways can be opportunities for the kind of playfulness that can’t be captured on a script. Here, Morning Edition host David Greene has no script at all (other than an intro).  In fact, he has no idea what NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey is coming into the studio to talk about. The audience gets to discover along with him:

Of course, there is a time and a place… but two-ways like this one can be fun for the audience and great practice for reporters and hosts.

And there are less radical moments when you can go script-less. The more we mix up our approaches, the more engaging our coverage will be.


Thanks to everyone at NPR and member stations who contributed thoughts for this post. And a special thanks to Bruce Auster, Andrea de Leon, and Rachel Martin.