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, six minutes or more — but this guidance is helpful if you’re crafting an even longer story.
There are a few things we expect of almost every piece, whatever its length.
Clear focus – The listener should never wonder what the piece is about
Good writing – The language should be the same you’d use in speech (on your best day, when you’ve had enough sleep and the right amount of caffeine)
Good tape – Ideally, great tape
Creative use of sound – Sound should help you tell your story, not just serve as ambience
Scene(s) – You want to “take us there”
How a long piece is different
Longer pieces are not just stretched-out short pieces. If you’re going to keep people listening to you, you’ve got to work harder! Here are some of the features of successful longer pieces — i.e., on an NPR newsmagazine, about six minutes or more. (Not every piece includes all of these things.)
The story structure keeps listeners tuned in. You build suspense throughout the piece by posing (explicitly or implicitly) one or more questions the listener wants answered: Did the student take the scholarship? Is Halliburton overcharging the government? Is the wounded soldier going to live a normal life? To get the answers, they have to keep listening. (To be clear, structure matters for short pieces, too!)
The piece is built around strong original reporting. One way to keep listeners riveted to your story is to tell them things they aren’t getting anywhere else.
The report is written in “chapters” and often has several scenes. Chapters may be set off by production, or verbal signposts, or by a moment’s pause, or they may not be obvious to the listener.
The reporter’s delivery is suited to each chapter. Long pieces demand really top-notch performances. The reporter has to be able to modulate his or her delivery to the different moods of the piece.
Scenes are evoked through telling details. Even in a longer piece, the best writing is concise and evocative; the trick is to “paint” the scene with just the right “strokes.”
The story features compelling character(s). One way to get listeners involved is to make them care about someone in your story.
The best long pieces are distinguished by novelty and creativity. Even if you’ve hooked listeners at the top, you’ve got to keep them listening – with creative writing, clever production, an unexpected actuality… something!
The characters and subject are frequently reintroduced. Not everyone starts listening with the intro. You want to make sure people don’t lose track of your characters, your location, or your subject
Examples of long stories that hold their time
By Alison MacAdam
David Greene‘s story (produced by Maggie Penman, edited by Jacob Conrad) from North Dakota about gay couples and faith is beautifully-shaped. Not one, but several, story arcs move through time and play out within the story. You could say this piece has “chapters” – or threads – that all connect by the end.
Daniel Zwerdling‘s award-winning NPR investigation (produced by Nicole Beemsterboer, edited by Robert Little) of nursing staff injuries at hospitals lasts more than 18 minutes. It merits that time not only because of its strong, original reporting, but because Danny signposts frequently and reintroduces characters. He never loses sight of his role in guiding the listener through the piece.
In 2013, All Things Considered host Kelly McEvers produced this gorgeous hour-long documentary about her decision to stop being a war correspondent. It’s worth listening through the whole thing, to hear how she organizes her ideas and signposts her transitions. (The doc was produced with Transom and independent producer Jay Allison.)