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 to keep listeners from turning off the radio and What NPR One can teach us about radio intros).

Please note: The intro’s natural habitat is sound, not text. So listen to the beginning of these files, and then use the text of the intro as a secondary reference!

News of the day

Just because a story is the day’s top news doesn’t mean its intro can’t be creative or narrative-driven.

“Around the country, Chrysler dealers were waiting today for just one guy to walk onto the lot — the UPS man. UPS delivered special letters from Chrysler headquarters this morning, telling dealers whether or not they would survive. One quarter of them got bad news. Chrysler plans to shut those franchises as part of its restructuring and bankruptcy court. NPR’s Martin Kaste has details.”

Why it works:

  • It begins with a visual image: “One guy” walking onto the car lot with “special letters.” Character, setting, action. A more typical (and less good) intro would have felt obligated to communicate the day’s headline first — that Chrysler dealerships are getting closure notices. Reporter Martin Kaste still conveys that, but in a scenic way.
  • It is structured like a mini-narrative, including suspense. Dealers are waiting. One guy walks onto the lot. He’s holding a letter. It’s bad news. And so on … Now I want to know what happened!
  • It doesn’t try to do too much: We don’t learn why Chrysler has gone bankrupt, why certain dealerships are targeted, or how much of a financial drag dealerships are on the company. Martin just gets us started, and the intro is an implicit promise that we’ll get to the bigger picture — through the eyes of dealers themselves.

Explainers and laying foundations

If I say to you, “Let’s talk about congressional redistricting!” your eyes may glaze over. So every time a reporter or host has to take on this topic — or other complicated, wonky subjects — they face the challenge of reminding us what the heck it is and why it matters. Nina Totenberg, along with editor Ron Elving, succeeded in this Morning Edition set-up for the day’s Supreme Court arguments.

“Take a look at a congressional district map and it sort of looks like a madman’s jigsaw puzzle. The reason is in part that district lines are drawn by state legislators who try to help their own parties. That’s why some states — California, Arizona and others — have tried setting up independent commissions to draw those maps. It was 15 years ago that Arizona voters created a redistricting commission. Its map was immediately challenged, and now the Republican-dominated legislature has taken a challenge to the commission’s very existence all the way to the Supreme Court. NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.”

Why it works:

  • It offers a visual analogy. The phrase “madman’s jigsaw puzzle” grabs the ear. It’s imaginative and visual. Not to mention the fact that it perfectly captures what many congressional districts look like (check it out; crazy, right?).
  • It lays out the history you need to understand the story. We hear not only the what but the why, without getting into the weeds.
  • It doesn’t presume we already understand. To politicos, it’s old hat that “district lines are drawn by state legislators who to help their own parties.” For the rest of us, it’s helpful to have a basic explainer. And we have to communicate to everyone, not just those in the know.

There’s the story … and then there’s the ‘big idea’

Our job is not only to communicate news and information, but also to explain to people why they should care. Sometimes, that means starting your intro with a big idea, rather than the story itself.

“Some childhood mysteries, we try to hold onto with all our might — but others, well, offered a peak behind the curtain, we snatch it. Case in point — last year the South Dakota Historical Society published the annotated autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books. Her memoir, titled Pioneer Girl, sold like hot johnny cakes fried up in bacon drippings. The initial print run of 15,000 was snapped up in just a few weeks. Last week, another 15,000 copies were sent to hungry readers and now the Historical Society is waiting on a third run of 45,000 copies. Nancy Koupal joins me now. She’s director of the South Dakota Historical Society Press …”

Why it works:

  • It begins with a universal theme. Listeners who don’t care about Laura Ingalls Wilder might have tuned out if her name led the story. Instead, All Things Considered host Melissa Block and producer Matt Ozug began with the idea of childhood mysteries. They’re telling the audience this story is about more than one book or author.
  • The writing is playful. OK, one woman’s humor is another’s bad joke … Still, whatever you think of the phrase “sold like hot johnny cakes fried up in bacon drippings,” it sure jumps out the radio.

Remember: You’re putting on a show

Intros aren’t just informative bits of “copy.” They are opening acts in a show, whether it’s Morning Edition or All Things Considered or your local newsmagazine. That means your host doesn’t just “read intro copy.” Your host is effectively performing. And sometimes, you can have fun with that. Like this All Things Considered intro, with Audie Cornish and Ari Shapiro:

ARI SHAPIRO: “With all the financial turmoil this week, here’s a simple sentence that it might be useful to repeat. Audie?”
AUDIE CORNISH: “The stock market is not the economy.”
SHAPIRO: “Let’s try that together.”
CORNISH/SHAPIRO: “The stock market is not the economy.”
SHAPIRO: “NPR’s Sonari Glinton explains why.”

Why it works:

  • It is surprising. This intro’s format is so different from the usual intro, it makes you lean in and want to hear what comes next.
  • The performance is good. Not all hosts are game for this sort of thing but Audie and Ari were — and they delivered.
  • It’s simple. This intro has to set up a story by Sonari Glinton about a complicated economic idea. With this playful but straightforward approach, the intro makes the topic more inviting than it might be otherwise.
  • It takes advantage of the program’s assets. For a show like All Things Considered, there are two hosts in the studio introducing stories. Why not let them actually sound like they’re in the studio together?

Don’t give away the punch line!

When important news is happening, intros should indicate something about what happened and why it’s important. Anything else would be irresponsible journalism. But sometimes, intros should not reveal what happened. In fact, most radio features should point towards an event, a journey or a revelation … without giving it away. Here’s a whimsical example from Ofeibea Quist-Arcton:

“We’re ten days from Inauguration day here in Washington. Ghana already had a presidential inauguration last weekend. And it had a surprising resemblance to past inaugurations in the U.S. You really have to listen for yourself to NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.”

Why it works:

  • It promises a surprise (and the piece delivers). In this case, it’s OK to “bury the lede” (the Ghanaian president plagiarized) because it’s not significant news for the majority of our listeners.
  • It explicitly asks you to listen. After promising a surprise, it makes a direct appeal to the listener: If you listen closely, the surprise will be revealed. Naturally, every intro intends to inspire listening but this is a good case when the explicit appeal is merited.
  • It’s short! This a punchy intro that simply sets the table and makes you want the meal, without wasting any time.

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.