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Storytelling tips and best practices

Audio

Get great sound every time with this field recording checklist

You return from a long day reporting in the field — only to realize you didn’t record ambience. You’re in the middle of a reporting trip and you’ve forgotten extra batteries for your recorder. You’re not happy with the scene sounds you’re capturing. For audio producers, these frustrating problems are all too common. We want to Continue Reading >

Aerobics for your voice: 3 tips for sounding better on air

If you pant like a Labrador will your voice have more energy? Can you hum away “vocal fry?” And what does Bugs Bunny have to do with good radio? I coach reporters at NPR on vocal delivery — and these are some of the tricks we use. To really build a strong vocal presence for Continue Reading >

Audio production FAQ: Headphones, levels, mics and more

  Our readers have many questions about audio production and we want to help you find the answers. Consider this a living document — we’ll continue to update it with answers from NPR Training and other experts in the public media community. Have a question we haven’t answered? You can drop us a line via Continue Reading >

You asked: How can I get better at standups?

On-scene narration, often called a “standup,” can lend your stories a feeling of urgency, momentum and — when appropriate — drama. When we say audio stories “take you there,” standups are one of the best ways to achieve that. You — the reporter or producer — turn the microphone on yourself and give listeners in-the-moment observations or insights. Continue Reading >

A blueprint for planning storytelling projects

It’s important to begin any storytelling project with intention. Before you start making things, you should have a clear sense of who you’re trying to reach, what you’re trying to say and the scope of your project (on all platforms). This blueprint is designed to help. Read through the entire blueprint first. When you’re ready Continue Reading >

The ear training guide for audio producers

Ear training, the practice of learning how to recognize certain sounds, is a must for audio producers. We need to be able to spot problems and identify them to before they impact quality or snowball into larger technical problems. This post will help you identify problematic audio, prevent the most common problems and recognize when it’s time Continue Reading >

QUIZ: Do you have the ears of an audio producer?

The producers, reporters and engineers who create the audio stories we love make a lot of magic happen behind the scenes. In seamlessly stitching together discrete pieces of audio, they can craft rich scenes that transport listeners. Asking the experts NPR Training’s Rob Byers and two NPR audio engineers took audio production questions during a reddit AMA. Continue Reading >

What makes a good pitch? NPR editors weigh in

  Pitching is hard. Every one of us has gotten excited about an idea, prepped it, pitched it … and been shot down. It’s disappointing and, sometimes, demoralizing. Of course, no journalist has a 100 percent pitch acceptance rate. But there are ways you can approach pitching that will increase the likelihood of getting a Continue Reading >

Put your audio to the test: Know when to use it or lose it

This post is for audio producers and journalists who work with news or documentary-style storytelling. This guide will help you make judgment calls about the usability of audio. There are many ways audio can go wrong: a press conference recording with a buzz, hard-to-understand phone tape or lots of “p-pops” — this list goes on. Sometimes those technical problems Continue Reading >

Radio intros: 5 examples of success

Intros can make or break your story. They are hard to write well. It’s also hard to lay down laws about intros. Their success depends on the voice that delivers them and the nature of the story they serve. But we’ll try, based on a few examples below. (You should also check out Radio intros: 7 tips Continue Reading >

3 simple ways to find story ideas

Over the summer, Sally did a callout on social media asking where public media journalists get their story ideas. The responses were fantastic and spanned everything from standard journalistic practices to creative and humorous anecdotes. We asked her to some of those ideas in this post. It’s a great starting point for the next time you’re Continue Reading >

What NPR One can teach us about local story ideas

The first question I get from station reporters and editors about NPR One is almost always, “What type of local stories perform well?” It isn’t an easy question to answer. There are lots of factors to consider when we analyze what works well on NPR One. But a good place to start is by looking Continue Reading >

How audio stories begin

Once upon a time … … we sent radio stories out into the ether and judged their success by letters, emails, crude quarterly ratings and annual awards. Now, we can dissect listener behavior, minute by minute. With platforms such as NPR One, we can see the listener tuning in, becoming captivated or dropping out. It’s exciting … and terrifying. Visualizing Continue Reading >

Which mic do they use? (Mics part 2)

Liz Jones (@KUOWLiz), a reporter with KUOW, contacted us with an idea after the Which Mic Should I Use? post published. She recommended we get the input of various reporters in the field to hear about what mics they are using and why. Good idea! Here’s what a few public radio reporters told us they Continue Reading >

Be prepared: How a production workflow can help you avert disaster

Producers are busy people. We juggle multiple projects: we’re in the middle of Project A when Project B ends and Project C gets started. We often don’t take the time to fully prepare new projects before we start them, especially when it comes to creating the production workflow! We then discover, sometimes well into the Continue Reading >

Score! Best practices for using music in audio storytelling

Music can help make our stories more engaging and immersive. And listeners are used to hearing music propel audio storytelling, especially on podcasts. Still, it remains controversial to score radio features, especially on NPR’s newsmagazines. The main reason people object to musical scoring is that it’s manipulative. I’d argue that’s exactly the reason to use Continue Reading >

Which mic should I use? (Mics part 1)

Most audio producers and reporters heading into the field will have the basics: a handheld recorder of some kind, a pair of headphones, and one or two microphones. But which mic should you use? This is one of the most common questions about field recording and the decision can be confusing. We usually make the Continue Reading >

The audio editor’s resource: Tips for shaping great stories

As an editor you vet, you push, you critique, you support; you also teach. As you improve stories, you grow the people who tell them. The story’s moment passes — but the journalist keeps working; hopefully, telling better stories each time. All this to say, editing is a complicated craft — just as writing, reporting, Continue Reading >

Front-end editing: The ‘secret ingredient’ of great audio storytelling

I’m biased, but I think the editorial process is the secret ingredient in NPR’s great storytelling. In fact, I’m going to go back and emphasize that word: process. That’s because editing is a collaboration between the reporter and the editor that begins even before the story is assigned. Over time, this collaboration makes for better reporters and better editors. Continue Reading >

Reporter two-ways: Improvisation within a structure

Watch the webinar 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 Continue Reading >

Understanding story structure in 4 drawings

1. The flatline story This is the structure of a lot of stories we hear on the radio. It’s a series of quotes from people (the vertical lines) commenting on one topic (horizontal line). He said. She said. Critics disagree. It has a beginning and an end, but gives us little reason to keep listening. Continue Reading >

Six ways to run a listening session

If you work in audio journalism and storytelling, you know that “listening is our gold standard,” to quote NPR’s Sara Sarasohn. We all have opinions about what we hear and need perspective on what we create. We all aspire to do great work, but we can’t do it alone. A listening session is one of the Continue Reading >

Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own

A reporter-in-training once told me she wanted to give up on reporting. On one assignment in an unfamiliar community, people didn’t want to talk to her.  She felt out of place — and presumed people wouldn’t talk to her because she wasn’t like them. She thought it was different for me, a person of color. Continue Reading >

How Joe Richman makes ‘Radio Diaries’

Joe Richman created Radio Diaries in 1996. He began giving tape recorders to “ordinary” people and working with them to tell stories about their own lives. Joe also produces audio histories. A distinguishing feature of his work is the lack of an authoritative, reportorial voice; Joe is a master of the non-narrated audio story. His work has Continue Reading >

A checklist to organize your story process

With so many different ways to tell stories, I created this checklist of questions to keep things organized. The list is a work in progress — often more aspirational than actual. Pitch time Is this a radio story, web story or both? (Consider content and turnaround time) What visuals would make this an exciting story Continue Reading >

Webinar with WWNO: ‘How a small station made a big podcast’

In June of 2015, WWNO in New Orleans launched a podcast called Katrina: The Debris. They called it a “pop-up podcast.” It was time-bound; ultimately, a thirteen-episode experiment. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As national news outlets flooded into New Orleans months before the anniversary, WWNO wanted to own the big story Continue Reading >

How to inject ‘documentary flair’ into your story

If you’ve ever covered something like a school board meeting and thought, “There’s no way I can make this interesting,” let Linda Lutton prove you wrong. This post is based on a Third Coast Festival presentation she gave at the 2015 PRPD conference about how to infuse documentary-style radio into everyday reporting (even when you think you don’t have Continue Reading >

Audio truth killers: an approach to collecting better sound

What is an Audio Truth Killer?  Is the sound in your piece supporting (or subduing) the message your piece is conveying to your listeners? Kevin Wait, former Production Specialist on the NPR Training team, hosted NPR’s “Audio Truth Killers” webinar and explores how the technical production of sound influences the editorial message in a piece. View the webinar below and/or scroll Continue Reading >

How to edit with your ears

This post is directed at audio editors, especially those who are new to public radio or transitioning from print. Learning to edit by ear can be one of the more challenging parts of the transition. And we often exhort editors to do it, without explaining how. So, here goes… The first edit of an audio story should Continue Reading >

6 NPR stories that breathe life into neighborhood scenes

This post was first published on the website Storybench. For scenes to succeed in any medium, they have to engage your senses. You smell the diesel fumes, feel the breeze on your cheeks, hear the anger in the collective voice of a crowd of protesters. These appeals to the senses are important, but often secondary Continue Reading >

NPR’s Howard Berkes: The fundamentals of field reporting

Correspondent Howard Berkes joined the NPR staff in 1981. He has covered space shuttle disasters, mine safety violations, the Unabomber and neo-Nazi groups, the rural American West, and many Olympics, just to name a few of his many subjects. His reporting has taken him all over the world. STEP ONE: Prepare Tap local knowledge. Consult local public media Continue Reading >

Rock and roll mixing tricks for journalists

The techniques music engineers use to quality-check and deliver final mixes are not limited to music production. Journalists can use them, too. Here are tips to heighten your listening awareness and improve the technical quality of your audio stories.     Variety is the spice of life Studio engineers need their mixes to sound great on all playback devices so they Continue Reading >

Don’t let a ‘media error’ ruin your day

Loss of your best-interview-ever recording due to a “media error” message from your recorder can be devastating.  Compact Flash cards, SDHC cards, and Memory Sticks rarely fail; however, your treatment of these media cards can have a dramatic effect on your sound-gathering success. Most audio loss due to media error can be avoided by practicing these habits. Continue Reading >

poh-TAY-toh, poh-TAH-toh: Guidance on sourcing pronunciation

Ever want to know how to pronounce an unfamiliar word? A person’s name, a place name or even a regular noun?  Ideally, we want our reporting to reflect keen research and familiarity in all aspects of the story, including pronunciation. Mispronouncing a key word in the script can make the speaker sound uninformed, even if Continue Reading >

Before the first question: How to prepare for an audio interview

You have characters. Check. You have a sense of what you want to record for ambient sound and active tape (the close-up sound of people doing things). Check. You’ve researched the topic and the people in the story. And, you’ve got a rough outline of how you think the story might be told. Check. Check. Continue Reading >

Russell Lewis’s guide to fact checking

Note: This post is adapted from a presentation Russell has created on fact checking. What is a fact? Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean it’s true. You also can’t trust that other sources, reporters and/or news outlets (even the New York Times) have gotten it right before you. Trust, but verify People don’t Continue Reading >

Where to find archival audio

As radio storytellers, we know the power recorded sound has to transport listeners to a specific time and place. The popularity of YouTube has made it easy to locate a vast amount of historic audio-visual content from speeches and interviews, to musical performances and television commercials. But not everything is on YouTube or easily surfaced Continue Reading >

A guide for gathering vox for NPR – and doing it quickly

This is printable and shareable guide to vox-gathering for NPR. You can use it as your own tip sheet or send it out to a producer who has been assigned to get vox. What do I ask? One uniform question – or series of questions. The vox question should be made clear in your assignment. Continue Reading >

Active sound: How to find it, record it and use it

This guidance comes from an NPR seminar by Robert Smith and Jeff Rogers in March 2002. It is just as relevant today. Many of the ideas and advice were provided by Terry Fitzpatrick, Howard Berkes, Jonathan Kern, Sora Newman, and the APRN Focus News Workshop. Active sound makes a report sparkle. It is sound that isn’t Continue Reading >

NPR’s Korva Coleman: Newscasts without panic

Korva Coleman has been an NPR newscast anchor for 25 years. She originally compiled these recommendations for PRNDI’s 2015 conference in Salt Lake City. They are intended for any public radio newscaster, in big markets and small.  1. Prepare yourself before you get to work What news do you listen to? What websites and newspapers do Continue Reading >

Pitching to NPR? Our bureau chiefs share their process

On NPR’s National Desk, four bureau chiefs edit news stories from around the country. They are Andrea DeLeon (Northeast), Russell Lewis (South), Ken Barcus (Midwest), and Jason DeRose (West). This is their outline of the process for pitching a story for a news magazine such as All Things Considered or Morning Edition – and getting the Continue Reading >

Writing through sound: A toolbox for getting into and out of your tape

Note: If you’d like to watch the webinar version of this material, scroll to the bottom of the page.   We make dozens of small decisions while writing an audio story. Many of them pertain to how the reporter/narrator gets into and out of tape. The most common way we write into tape goes something like Continue Reading >

15 principles of show booking

1. You are the keeper of the guest list. NPR founding mother Susan Stamberg once compared a good radio show to a good dinner party. In both scenarios the host’s role is to lead his or her guests in an engaging conversation. As a booker, you manage the invite list to that party. It’s your Continue Reading >

‘Butt cut what?’ A glossary of production terms

Let’s say you are producing an audio story, and you’re asked to dip the ambi under the track, butt cut the next two acts, and then sweep up and maintain the ambi. If that sentence is confusing, this glossary is for you. Terms for producing and mixing audio go back to the days of cutting real tape with Continue Reading >

What NPR One can teach us about radio intros

This information was gathered and written up by Sara Sarasohn, Managing Director for NPR One, in the spring of 2015. At the bottom of this page, you can watch our webinar for member stations. We are just at the beginning of understanding how to use the metrics in NPR One to learn about effective radio techniques. Continue Reading >

Vocabulary for an audio editor: 15 things to say… over and over…

These editing tips come from Sara Sarasohn, a longtime NPR editor and producer who has worked at All Things Considered, the Arts Desk, and NPR One, where she leads the app’s editorial efforts. As you read this, imagine you are speaking to your reporter. Each of these recommendations is a question or line to use during Continue Reading >

Write how you talk #3: NPR’s Carrie Johnson

Correspondent Carrie Johnson came to NPR in 2010, after a long career in print. She tackled the challenge of transitioning to radio, in part, by developing an unusual approach to writing out her tracks (the reporter’s narration). If you’d like to hear the story she’s annotating, it’s at the bottom of this post. Full transcript is here. Carrie explains Continue Reading >

On deadline? Follow these tips to get on the air fast

Say it’s 9:00am and you just got an assignment. It has to be on All Things Considered by 4:00pm. You may have to throw your dreams of perfection out the window, but you can still produce a satisfying story, if you use strategies like the ones described below. These tips are adapted from former NPR Continue Reading >

An accuracy checklist to take with you

The checklist that follows is a reminder of things we all know we should do. It’s meant to be particularly useful to correspondents and producers. They collect the information we put on the air and online and they are expected to do all they can to make sure that what we report is accurate. Think Continue Reading >

How to use sound to make a news spot pop

Robert Garcia is Executive Producer of NPR’s Newscast Unit. Here, he shares examples of stand-out news spots, and why they work.   Deceptively simple  A very simple Memorial Day remembrance story. Seemingly. Craig Windham masterfully weaves in the music and atmospherics from the Arlington Cemetery ceremony with clips from the President’s speech and beautiful, crisp Continue Reading >

Understanding story structure with the "Three Little Pigs"

This is an excerpt of a piece written by former NPR editor Jonathan Kern. It has been lightly edited. One of the under-appreciated challenges in putting a radio report together is ensuring that the story has a logical structure.  All too often, reporters assemble their pieces by collecting their best tape, and then writing copy that Continue Reading >

Writing for radio: A manifesto from NPR’s Chris Joyce

The two elements of a story are tape and copy. There should be a nearly equal balance between the two, at least in terms of their importance to the story. One can think of tape as the photographs, although that’s not a perfect analogy. Perhaps the analogy of two dancers executing a complicated tango; both Continue Reading >

Exercise: Imagining your story

The following is an excerpt of a post from Transom.org. It was written by Rob Rosenthal, lead teacher for the Transom Story Workshop. He also hosts the podcast How Sound. What he’s describing is a great exercise. It can free you of the inevitable limitations of journalism (you can’t make people say exactly what you want!) but Continue Reading >

Dissecting a good radio story

This piece by NPR’s Ailsa Chang took a completely wonky Congressional concept… and made it interesting. Check out the marginalia to see some of Ailsa’s tricks. The script is 2 pages long.    

What does a radio script look like?

Truth be told, not every broadcast radio script looks the same! But there are elements every script should share in order to make sure nothing goes wrong in the editing or mixing process. This post should give you a sense of the basic components of a public radio script. The real-life example is a story by NPR Congressional Continue Reading >

Radio 101: The life of a story from concept to air

If you are new to radio, this post should help demystify the process. This guidance comes from Jonathan Kern, author of “Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production.” It has been lightly edited.  First, you need a story. That may seem obvious, but often people begin by proposing an idea – the Continue Reading >

How a long audio story is different from a short one

Jonathan Kern was a longtime NPR editor (among other things) and author of “Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production.” What he describes as “long” are long pieces for news magazines — roughly, 6 minutes or more — but this guidance is helpful if you’re crafting an even longer story. The basics Continue Reading >

Radio intros: 7 tips to keep listeners from turning off the radio

There is no perfect template for a radio intro. In fact, that’s the point: Intros should surprise you. They should grab your ear and demand you listen, in part, because they don’t all sound the same. And of course, in a news program, they should tell you — clearly — what a story is about. How to do Continue Reading >

A day in the life of All Things Considered

Back in 2012, over the course of one day, All Things Considered host Melissa Block and producer Melissa Gray made this story about their own show. While the cast of characters has changed a bit and the ATC meeting now happens at 9:30am (10:00am was always pushing it, for a 4:00pm show!), this is the best Continue Reading >

How NPR’s Sam Sanders is finding his voice

I think the goal is for all of us doing radio to make is sound effortless. To keep our essence in our reads and make the listener think we’re “just talking,” while knowing that the journey to that “just talking” place takes a lot. A lot of thought. A lot of practice. And a lot of time.

Write how you talk #1: The basics

As Robert Siegel is quoted in the book Sound Reporting, “This is one of the most commonly offered pieces of advice… and it’s one of the most commonly ignored.” Why is it so hard to write how we talk? One reason: It’s not how we’re taught. We learn to write with book reports, term papers, Continue Reading >

Guiding reporters: Questions an audio editor should ask

A lot is asked of editors. They have to help shape a concept into a story. They have to ensure the facts are correct and the reporting is fair. They must have an ear for pacing and rhythm, good tape and bad tape. If they can tap dance while doing it, all the better! Here is a checklist Continue Reading >

Steve Inskeep: Three songs that will change how you write for radio

When it comes to writing for radio, where does Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep find inspiration? In great lyrics. The structure of a great song parallels a beautifully written radio story. That was the subject of a talk Steve gave to the staff of Morning Edition. He played examples of songs that get right to the Continue Reading >

‘Once upon a time’ … and other devices for starting your story

It doesn’t matter how many phone calls you make, how much reporting you do, how much awesome tape you record. If the beginning of your story doesn’t grab listeners, they’re gone. And by “beginning,” we mean the first minute or so, intro included. The following ideas are prompts for getting started, but also structural frames Continue Reading >

Colorado Public Radio: How to find the perfect audio moment

Cindy Carpien, a former NPR producer, is now an independent radio trainer. She works throughout the public radio system. Radio journalists love sound to create a sense of place in a scene – squeaky doors opening and closing, cash registers, train whistles, car honking, bird chirping. But if you really want to describe something in a Continue Reading >

Read this before you record ambience in the field

Cindy Carpien, a former NPR producer, is now an independent radio trainer. She works throughout the public radio system. Ambience: the sonic environment in which an event takes place. Also referred to as ambi. When it comes time to record ambience in the field, it’s important to capture different perspectives. It helps to think about these Continue Reading >