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 listener behavior adds urgency to something we have always known: If your story or podcast episode doesn’t promise something interesting at the beginning, fewer people will listen. The same goes for a 3-minute story or an hour-long story. For listeners, there is simply too much audio to choose from, so we have to compete fiercely for ears. We have to grab the audience and make them want to stick around.
There are so many ways to start a story. Whatever you choose, it’s important to be deliberate. Be able to articulate why you’re starting in the style and place you are. Why does it serve the story — and the listener — to begin this way?
And no matter how you start, make sure you do the following:
- Tightly focus your idea
- Make that focus clear to listeners
- Tell your audience what to expect (You’ll learn XX or discover what happens to this character/place/policy/etc.)
- Create a sense of movement or momentum
Note: This is not a post about intros as a genre. You can find those here, here and here. If it is helpful to think about “beginnings” as something specific, let’s say it’s roughly the first 1-3 minutes of a radio story or podcast episode, intro included.
Before we lay out some ways to start your stories, let’s recall one of the most common ways we begin audio stories:
An intro provides a peg and a little context, and then we start with sound and a scene. Birds chirp. Cows moo. The reporter says, “It’s a sunny day on John Smith’s farm in Kenosha …”
This can be a fine way of beginning, especially when your story is rooted in a particular place or depends upon a specific image or event. But it’s overused.
Here are a few other ways to start an audio story:
1.) Ask a question
Many public radio stories begin by stating a circumstance. This hearing happened on Capitol Hill … This verdict was handed down … This policy has caused problems …
But what will we explore in this story? What is our mission? What should the audience listen for?
Take one of the examples above: Will we learn how the policy caused problems? Who those problems affected? Or what could be done to solve the problem?
All three of these questions could kick off valid stories. If we set out to answer one of them and tell listeners near the beginning of the story what our mission is, we bring them along on a journey. They don’t know the destination but they know we have one. (And yes, one clear question can lead to others, which you can use to carry your story forward or to report another story.)
Questions also communicate curiosity. Just any question might not be interesting. But if a question reflects something many people are wondering, people are more likely to tune in. (Hearken and WBEZ’s Curious City, along with other, related efforts to generate stories with listeners, are a great testament to the value of curiosity.)
You can regularly hear this approach in Planet Money stories (both podcast episodes and the newsmagazine pieces):
2.) Dive immediately into the narrative
Traditionally, radio news stories begin with exposition: an intro which offers some context and explains what the story is about. After that, the reporter begins with a scene.
Sometimes it’s better to jump right into the narrative, like this story does:
From the first line — “The other day, we stopped a car in front of a house” — Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is telling us a story. Right away you can hear the ambient sound of a Louisiana neighborhood — buzzing crickets, singing birds. Ten seconds in we hear action — Steve knocking on a screen door. Soon after, there’s a reaction — a woman answering the door.
With all of this, Steve builds a mini-narrative with sensory images, action and a little tension. Will she answer the door? Will she talk to him? In this case, the opening is more compelling than the generic alternative: an expository intro with facts about Hurricane Katrina, flooding, numbers of homes destroyed or even Steve’s past visits to this neighborhood.
We reach that exposition at 1:25 into the story — and we need it — but by that point we care more.
Jumping right into the story is risky though. The story needs to be really compelling; otherwise, listeners will start wondering where they’re headed and lose interest.
So when might a narrative opening NOT work?
- When news is breaking! If the audience’s primary need is to find out what is happening, narrative openings have the potential to bury the lead.
- When something complicated or unfamiliar needs to be explained before the listener will care about a place or character. If I don’t yet understand how Medicare Part D works, I may not care about John Doe’s personal struggles with it.
- When the narrative is not central to the story. In this case, narrative openings can confuse the listener.
- When the narrative just… isn’t that great.
A few tips:
- Scenes are not the same thing as narrative. When we say “narrative,” we mean something is happening. Many radio scenes lack narrative — we hear the sounds of a farm or a tractor or a farmer talking about her work, but nothing actually happens. And keep in mind: While we love ambient sound, you can have narrative without ambient scenes. (See: much of the back catalog of This American Life)
- If you begin with an ambient scene, let the sound lead. That means people and places are introduced via sound, and narration is minimal (only what’s needed to tell the listener what is happening).
- Even hosts/anchors sitting in sterile studios can dive right into a narrative. Here’s a nice example:
3.) Introduce a mystery
What makes listeners stick around?
One obvious answer: They expect to learn something by the end of the story that they didn’t know at the beginning. We may assume this is the goal of all our stories — short or long. But it helps to be explicit.
Presenting a mystery is a great way to do that. Channel your best Agatha Christie and tell listeners at the beginning that you’re trying to solve an intriguing problem — and don’t give away the answer! (Again, this is not an ideal approach with breaking stories, since you may bury the lead.)
Mysteries are similar to the ask-a-question approach described above, with added benefits: A mystery is a familiar genre to listeners with built-in narrative appeal. Mysteries have central characters (or a reporter) playing detective, clues along the way and a reveal near the end. So when you introduce a story this way, the listener knows what to expect. It’s a bit like regularly watching a TV show; when you watch a new episode you don’t know what will happen, but you know what kind of story it will be. And, given that you’re a loyal viewer, you expect it will be good.
Science stories present a natural opportunity for mystery storytelling. This one by NPR’s Chris Joyce takes the approach literally:
And even wonky pieces can begin with mysteries. In this next story, NPR’s Ailsa Chang — with help from a smart intro edited by Weekend Edition — makes trade policy far more interesting than it might be otherwise:
Another category closely related to the mystery is the journey. It can be a journey from ignorance to knowledge, from one place to another, from morning to night and so on.
Whether journey or mystery, the beginning of the story must promise the audience a clearly-defined mission; an effort to learn or reveal something new or unexpected.
Pro tip: If your story has a host-read intro, make sure the reporter’s first track picks up directly from the last line of the intro. Maintain the flow of the narrative. Ailsa’s story does this nicely:
HOST INTRO: Deep in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, there’s a soundproof room. And inside that room is a draft of a massive trade agreement currently under negotiation by the U.S. and 11 other countries. The White House has taken heat over what some call over-the-top secrecy around the negotiations. The Senate will soon vote on a bill that would give the president greater authority to enter into the trade agreement. But if senators want to read a draft of that deal, they’ll have to go down to the Capitol basement. NPR’s Ailsa Chang went to find it.
AILSA CHANG: It turns out the secret room is in a secret hallway that you can get to in a totally non-secret way …
Note that Ailsa’s first line could not exist without the intro. It picks up the baton from an already-intriguing beginning (The intro had me at “Deep in the basement of the U.S. Capitol…”!) and carries the mystery forward.
4.) Establish the concept first
This approach is the opposite of diving right into the narrative. Some stories need background, context or a thematic foundation before we dive in. And so — soon after the piece begins — the reporter pauses and steps back. We signal these moments with common signposts like “Before we go on” or “In order to understand X, we have to first explain Y.”
This can be tough to do well since it may involve delaying the action or pausing the momentum. You have to grab the listener first and then step back — for a good reason.
The first-ever episode of Serial presents a fascinating example of this approach. Host Sarah Koenig introduces the show and the case of Adnan Syed (see above: “introduce a mystery”), and she could easily barrel forward with her detective work. But only 20 seconds in, she pauses and tells us:
“Before I get into why I’ve been doing this, I just want to point out something I’d never really thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it’s really hard to account for your time. In a detailed way, I mean. How’d you get to work last Wednesday, for instance?”
Koenig goes on to ask random people that same question. None of them can remember their whereabouts.
This move is really, really smart. It asks listeners to think like the sleuthing host, to engage in the detective work more personally than they might otherwise. It also provides a reality check, along with a promise: that Serial‘s true-crime journalism will not be oversimplified or sensationalized. Answers won’t come easily.
I asked Serial‘s Executive Producer Julie Snyder about the thinking here, and she wrote in an email that “we were hoping to broaden the ideas in the show and in the first episode in particular.” They wanted Serial to be about more than the facts of one case. “The title of the first episode is ‘The Alibi’ and we wanted the opening to be larger than just a recitation of the case … because all of that feels a little dull, and rote and, well, small … So we were hoping to draw attention to something larger — the nature of an alibi.”
So an opening that steps back from the action can be a good way to elevate a story beyond its basic facts, to give it depth and conceptual heft.
Don’t have time to produce a blockbuster podcast? Here’s a simpler example from a short newsmagazine story:
After the host intro, NPR’s Cory Turner steps back for a brief history lesson. It provides context from the past — the birth of the GED — to help us understand what’s happening now.
Here are some reasons to step back at the beginning of your story:
- The story requires, or at least benefits from, context or history at the beginning. (“In order to understand X, we need to explain Y …”)
- The story is an update or follow-up from previous reporting. (“When we last reported on this …”)
- The story must ask listeners to pay attention to something specific or to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. (“Before we go on, let’s point out …”)
- The story needs to draw a clear contrast between itself and other related stories. (“We’ve often heard X, but this is different … and here’s how …”)
5.) Get personal
When is it OK to begin a story with “I?”
Of course, some audio stories are pure memoir — so let’s set those aside. Let’s talk about stories that are not about you; they’re about current events, societal issues or pop culture, just to name a few topics. Deciding to begin a story on a personal note — when executed well — can add narrative, humanity, urgency and transparency to a story. It’s also a technique you should use sparingly.
Here are several reasons to consider starting with the personal:
- You have a unique perspective or experience.
- The topic is nearly universal and you are as good a subject as any.
- The story stems from your own curiosity (and wouldn’t exist otherwise).
- You need to illustrate how something works (a technology, a machine, an experience).
Here’s an example of a story that begins by explaining a producer’s curiosity:
This beginning works because NPR’s Uri Berliner and Cara Tallo are honestly reflecting the origins of the story: Cara was curious about something personal (and something so common, we usually ignore it). She shared her curiosity with Uri — and a story was born.
This approach shouldn’t be used too often. Recording sound in your newsroom — rather than leaving the building to report — can seem lazy, especially if you do it over and over again.
Here’s an example of the personal that illustrates how something works. Jasmine Garsd begins this feature about an app for single people by trying it herself:
The personal approach works here for several reasons. First, Jasmine’s delivery sets the right tone in a story about something silly (InvisibleBoyfriend.com) which represents something more serious — the pain and loneliness of being single. Second, by using the app herself she illustrates how it works — which is something we must understand to follow the story.
Obviously Jasmine’s whimsical approach could be problematic if her topic were more serious. Here are some other reasons to be cautious about starting on a personal note:
- You risk offending listeners by positioning yourself as “normal” and others as abnormal.
- You risk mistakenly assuming you’re a stand-in for others’ experiences or feelings.
- You risk alienating listeners by navel-gazing.
- You risk undermining your journalism by replacing facts with personal anecdotes.
Getting personal in journalism has always been controversial. Some reporters, editors and producers are comfortable with it. Others will never be. If you consider this approach, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What does putting myself in the story add that I can’t find through other means?
- Why will this approach make the story more listenable?
- Why will the audience care about me or my experience?
Also, keep in mind that the first-person may not work at the beginning of the story but could be useful later.
WNYC’s Matt Katz reported this story about how Trump supporters targeting Jewish activists and reporters with anti-Semitic slurs. He begins with the experience of an activist. More than halfway through the story he mentions his own experience: “For me, it took just a few days of reporting on Trump before I was called a [expletive], then my name was posted inside triple parentheses which is neo-Nazi code for flagging Jews.”
Matt’s experience is (sadly) not unique. And it’s not universal either. He’s reporting a news story about a scary trend affecting many people. So if Matt had begun with his own experience, he might appear self-absorbed. But given the topic, what happened to him is still relevant and worth describing later in the story.
I have described five different approaches to beginning audio stories, but they can be hard to disentangle from each other. A mystery should begin by asking a clear question. You can dive into a narrative on a personal note. And so on. However you choose to begin, make your purpose clear, deliver a promise and follow through.
If you want to read more about story beginnings and how they relate to story structure, check these out:
This post was written as a companion to a session at the 2016 Audio Storytelling Workshop in Washington, D.C.