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 “germ” of a story: I want to do a story about senior citizens trying to stay in their houses instead of moving to nursing homes. That’s an idea. To turn this into a radio story, you need to do more work. Make some phone calls, talk with people, do research. Eventually you might discover, for example, a program that takes at-risk Latino kids and teaches them to help old people fix up their houses.

Your next step is to write a short paragraph, known as a story pitch.

An editor will then vet that pitch. That means that you will be asked a number of questions: Are you sure that this is a unique program? How do you know that? How is this program financed? How do you imagine telling this story? Who are the characters? Where are they?   

Your pitch is approved! Now, start turning your ideas into a real story. 

At this stage, do additional research in order to focus your questions. Locate the right people to interview and make arrangements to talk with them. You should also be thinking about ways to use sound to bring your story to life. For example, interview people while they are doing their work or meet them in a location that’s logical for the story. Here are some tips on finding and recording active sound and shaping scenes.

Before you leave to do your interviews and gather your sound, make sure you are prepared.

Each interview situation is different. You might be in an office with an air conditioning blowing and an interview subject sitting at a desk. You might be walking through a house where teens are hammering or painting and elderly person is blasting a TV. Some situations can make it difficult or impossible for you to get an “airworthy” interview. Try to imagine some of the situations you may encounter and talk with a producer, engineer, or editor about how to handle them.  

Once you’ve recorded all of your audio, ask yourself if your story has evolved from the one you pitched. 

Remember, the real story is what you find out from your reporting! Your pitch was a hypothesis, and now you’re working with the real thing. Don’t be afraid to re-focus your story. And if some of the interviews contradict one another, maybe you need to do an additional interview more research to nail down the facts.  

Once you are sure you have everything you need, it is time to start constructing your story.

First, go back to your original pitch and ask yourself what this story is about – what its focus is.   If necessary, revise your focus statement based on your reporting.  As you select facts and tape for your story, check that they relate to your stated focus.  For example, don’t include details about the elderly woman’s illness and how her daughter lives far away and she misses her – if it has nothing to do with the story about the kids helping out the elderly folks.  

Choose your actualities, and write your script.

Listen to your “tape” (or audio) and decide which are your best actualities, what is most interesting, powerful, or takes the listener somewhere. In radio, the sound should drive your story.

Cut your interviews and put the audio clips in order.

It’s good to listen to your sound as you write, so that you reflect the tone and pacing of your audio. When you are finished, you should have a script with an introduction, and then your tracks (narration), ax (actualities or tape cuts) and ambi or ambient sound – all in the final order.

Now, your script has to be edited.

That means you read your copy and play your tape for an editor. An editor may suggest re-ordering or shortening your story; he or she may ask if you have other tape or information, or want you to check certain statements to make sure they’re accurate.   After your edit, you will need to make the changes and then have a second edit.  If you are lucky, at this point your story gets approved; but chances are you may have more edits until the story is in its final shape.

The next step is to record your tracks.

Having a producer coach your read can benefit both beginning and advanced reporters Even the pros often make mistakes while recording, or they record more than one take, hoping for a better read.  Once you’ve completed this step, you need to edit your tracks so only the best takes remain.

Finally, you or another producer, can “lay up” your piece, and mix!

If someone else is doing this work, don’t forget to provide guidance in the script about how you’d like the producer to mix your sound. Telling them to “post,” “sneak ambi under,” or “clean up” an actuality can help make your piece sound much more polished.

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.