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. These findings are suggestions only. If every intro followed these suggestions, it would sound boring. The point isn’t to “win” NPR One with your intro, but to incorporate the lessons of the data into your larger writing and production decisions on the radio.

A very important note: a crucial part of this process was listening to the intros. Listening will always be the most valuable way to evaluate our work. It’s how the audience – on the radio and NPR One – experiences our work. We used the data to identify the intros, but listening was what allowed us to make actionable conclusions. There will never be a substitute for listening.

Some basics about the experiment: A group of 33 “high-performing” NPR One intros were identified, using metrics and human editorial judgments. The 33 were culled from hundreds that ran in March 2015. Then, we analyzed those intros in order to understand why they might have performed better than other intros. This was done based on listening by experienced editors, and it yielded two overwhelming takeaways.

1. Be brief.

20 of the 33 high-performing intros were :22 or shorter. An additional 5 might be included to bring the total to 25 of 33, as they switched voices before :22, either split hosts or with tape.

2. Emphasize the grabby idea.

19 of 33 intros begin with a sharp, simple topical statement. 16 of the 19 had a time peg that they could have used as the first line, but did not (though the peg may have appeared elsewhere in the intro). Only 7 of 33 begin with a news peg.

Listen to a sampling:


Four examples of “high-performing” intros from March 2015 that lead with a topical statement (blue) instead of time peg (red)

1. Plastic bags are serious business and seriously divisive. Last year, California passed a law banning stores from giving out plastic bags for free. It was the first statewide ban of its kind in the country. It was set to take effect this July, but the plastic bag industry stopped that from happening. It financed a ballot measure to repeal the ban. Supporters of the ban say the bags contribute to street litter and ocean pollution. As NPR’s Richard Gonzales reports, the state is set for a major battle on next year’s ballot.

2. After nearly a decade of self-imposed silence, Monica Lewinsky is making herself heard. People are still parsing the details of her TED conference speech last week. It seems, in some ways, to be getting the response Lewinsky wanted: to have the aftermath of her affair with President Bill Clinton considered from her point of view and to position herself as an advocate against cyberbullying. Her talk was titled “The Price Of Shame.”
TAPE OF MONICA LEWINSKY: There is a very personal price to public humiliation. And the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.
HOST: Jessica Bennett spent time with Lewinsky while she prepared for her TED Talk and wrote about Monica Lewinsky’s return to the public eye in this Sunday’s New York Times. Jessica, welcome to the program…

3. The Transportation Security Administration is coming under fire for a method it uses to spot possible terrorists. TSA has spent nearly a billion dollars to train airport security officers in behavioral detection. Critics say there is no evidence this program actually works. And now the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit to get the TSA to turn over details of the program. NPR’s Brian Naylor reports.

4. And let’s turn now to an environmental debate in this country that dates back 25 years. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will take a look at federal rules limiting mercury and other hazardous emissions from coal and oil-fired utility plants. The regulations from the Obama administration are being challenged by mining firms and also by more than 20 states. Here’s NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

What about “low-scoring intros”?

As a check, we also looked at a lot of low-scoring intros. These are the intros in which listeners hit the “skip” button in NPR One most often. This analysis was not as detailed, but two techniques were over-represented in the low scoring group.

1. Self-referential

You’ll get the point quickly if you listen:

In these intros, the main sell to the listener is that NPR is doing something — traveling, investing in a topic, producing a series. We should consider that this may be compelling to us, but not to the listener!

2. The bait-and-switch

The intro starts being about one thing, but the last line (and the story) is about something else. Often, the bait-and-switch is there to incorporate a time peg. NPR’s Steve Henn gamely says, “I have become the poster child for the bait-and-switch.” His intro isn’t from March, but he is gracious to share it as an example of a highly-skipped intro.

(In this example, each new idea appears in a different color.)

In the first week of this year alone, Apple sold more than half a billion dollars in software apps, through its store. For most folks who own an iPhone, the App Store is the only place to buy software for their device. In other words, Apple has created a monopoly. It takes 30% of every dollar spent, and it can do this because Apple locks every iPhone when it sells them.  But it’s possible to break out of Apple’s jail. Steve Henn from NPR’s Planet Money team brings us the story of three groups of hackers in a high-stakes race to do just that.

Webinar: May 14, 2015

Here is the webinar we did for stations. It will give you a more nuanced understanding of what we’re trying to achieve with this exercise.

If you want to learn more about NPR One, check this out — and download the app from whatever app store you use.

Special thanks to NPR One Innovation Accountant Nick DePrey for his help in designing this exercise.

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.