NPR Training
Storytelling tips and best practices

The haiku of radio journalism: how to write a newscast spot

(Halisia Hubbard/NPR)

Writing a spot may seem easy, because the script is short. “Just a spot” is how it’s sometimes described, as though it’s a throwaway bit of reporting.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A spot is the haiku of news reporting. It’s a format that purports to tell a complete story — no matter how complex or involved — in under a minute. In fact, reporters often struggle to write spots.

At NPR Newscasts, good writing in a spot is paramount because upward of 28 million people listen weekly on the radio, with an estimated two million more on smart devices. That’s more than any other NPR show.

Wrap or voicer?

If you pitch a spot to NPR Newscasts, you’ll be asked whether you are offering a wrap or a voicer.

A voicer is a straight reporter spot without any ambi or actualities. Wraps are voiced spots with at least one short bit of tape “wrapped,” or embedded, in the story.

At NPR, spots run about 40 seconds. They have to be short because newscasts are only five minutes at the top of the hour and three minutes at the bottom of the hour. Anchors fill the rest of the newscast with shorter stories they voice themselves. The reporter spots give the newscast texture and create a dynamic listening experience that would be missing if the anchor read all the stories.

The intro

Write the intro first, to help you focus your spot. The intro should contain the newest information and tell the listener what the story is going to be about, in one or two sentences. Include only the most essential details required to understand the story.

Here are two examples:

THE U-S IS CALLING ON RUSSIA TO STOP AIRSTRIKES THAT HAVE FORCED HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF SYRIANS TO FLEE.

U-N HUMANITARIAN OFFICIALS DESCRIBE THE SITUATION AS INTOLERABLE AS FIGHTING INTENSIFIES IN NORTHWEST SYRIA.

N-P-R’S MICHELE KELEMEN REPORTS.

and

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI ADDRESSED A LARGE CROWD IN TEHRAN TODAY ON THE FORTY FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF IRAN’S ISLAMIC REVOLUTION.

N-P-R’S PETER KENYON HAS MORE.

An alternative format is the “informational intro,” which foreshadows what the reporter is going to say.

Here are two examples of this type of intro:

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE IS PULLING THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S TOP AIDS OFFICIAL ABOARD TO JOIN HIS CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE TEAM.

AS N-P-R’S FRANCO ORDOÑEZ REPORTS, DEBORAH BIRX IS AN AMBASSADOR-AT-LARGE WHO WORKS ON GLOBAL HEALTH DIPLOMACY ISSUES.

and

A BRITISH COURT HAS RULED THAT PLANS TO BUILD A THIRD RUNWAY AT HEATHROW AIRPORT ARE ILLEGAL BECAUSE THEY DON’T ADDRESS THE U-K GOVERNMENT’S CLIMATE CHANGE COMMITMENTS.

N-P-R’S FRANK LANGFITT HAS MORE ON THE ENVIRONMENTAL RULING FROM LONDON.

Your intro should contain any numbers or details that may change as the story develops. This way, your spot will have the longest possible shelf life.

The body

After telling the listener what the news is, you can begin your spot by setting the scene, fleshing out the details or offering context.

In Peter’s spot, he does all three.

IRANIANS TURNED OUT IN CHILLY WINTER CONDITIONS TO HEAR ROUHANI URGE THEM NOT TO BE PASSIVE — BUT TO SHOW SUPPORT FOR THE GOVERNMENT AND THE NATION AT A TIME OF HIGH TENSIONS WITH WASHINGTON.

His voicer continues with background.

ROUHANI’S CALL FOR SUPPORT COMES JUST MONTHS AFTER SECURITY FORCES WERE CALLED OUT — TO VIOLENTLY QUELL PROTESTS OVER DEPRESSED ECONOMIC CONDITIONS AND RISING PRICES — AMID ONGOING AMERICAN SANCTIONS AND THE FALTERING 2015 NUCLEAR AGREEMENT.

This is a long sentence, but it efficiently gives the listener information that is crucial to understanding the story. It’s not a history lesson.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL SAID SOME 300 PEOPLE WERE KILLED IN THE CRACKDOWN — A FIGURE TEHRAN DISPUTED WITHOUT PROVIDING ITS OWN TOLL.

After a little more background, Peter returns to the present moment and closes by mentioning something else that happened at the rally.

THE ANNIVERSARY ALSO MARKED THE KILLING OF IRAN’S TOP GENERAL QASSEM SOLEIMANI — IN A U-S DRONE STRIKE.

PETER KENYON, NPR NEWS, ISTANBUL

This is just one of many ways of structuring a spot.

Another way is how Ofeibea Quist-Arcton structured this wrap, which she filed in 2019 on the yellow vest protests in Paris:

SIXTY THOUSAND POLICE OFFICERS HAVE BEEN DEPLOYED ACROSS FRANCE — AUTHORITIES GUARDING AGAINST VIOLENCE AMID TODAY’S YELLOW VEST PROTESTS.

N-P-R’S OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON IS IN PARIS.

SHE REPORTS THAT YELLOW VEST PROTESTORS SAY THEY TOO REGRET MONDAY’S FIRE AT NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL — BUT THAT THEY REMAIN ANGRY AT PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON’S GOVERNMENT.

Ofeibea introduces her speaker right out of the gate:

LEADING FRENCH POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CHRISTOPHE BARBIER, SAYS PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON’S MOMENT OF RESPITE — AFTER THE NOTRE DAME TRAGEDY AND FRANCE BRIEFLY UNITING AND FORGETTING POLITICAL DIVISIONS — IS OVER.

You’ll notice she is building toward the actuality by outlining the stakes:

HE SAYS THE FRENCH ARE DEMANDING SOLUTIONS TO PRESSING SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC WOES.

<<PEOPLE SAY, WHAT ABOUT US? OF COURSE, NOTRE DAME IS VERY IMPORTANT, WE HAVE TO REBUILD. BUT WHAT ABOUT US?  WHAT ABOUT THE END OF THE MONTH? WHAT ABOUT OUR DAILY PROBLEMS, NOT HISTORICAL PROBLEMS?>>

ANSWERS MACRON WILL HAVE TO DELIVER SOON.

That sentence fragment was Ofeibea writing out of the actuality by talking about the next step. She then considers what might come next:

INTERIOR MINISTER, CHRISTOPHE CASTANER, WARNS THAT THE ANARCHIST MOVEMENT BLAMED FOR VIOLENCE IN PAST DEMONSTRATIONS AND ACCUSED OF HIJACKING LEGITIMATE YELLOW VEST PROTESTS — IS AGAIN PLANNING UNREST.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, NPR NEWS, PARIS

Whatever the format, sentences in a spot should almost always be in active voice: subject-verb-object. And while longer sentences help vary the flow, don’t entangle the listener in subordinate clauses and parenthetical observations. Limit the verbiage and cut unnecessary adjectives. And don’t editorialize.

For example, instead of writing what you think people are feeling:

A MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE SHOOK PUERTO RICO TODAY LEAVING RESIDENTS REELING.

Be specific and direct:

AN EARTHQUAKE WITH A MAGNITUDE OF 6-POINT-4 STRUCK PUERTO RICO TODAY. SO FAR AUTHORITIES ARE REPORTING NO DEATHS OR INJURIES.

The listener can draw their own conclusions based on the facts given in the story.

The Q

NPR’s newscasts also have a shortened type of spot called a Q. They serve to further vary the texture of the newscast and are generally 20 to 30 seconds long with no out cue. NPR reporters are often asked to do a Q for each spot they write; the reporter can use the same intro from the spot on the same topic.

The best way to do a Q is to focus on the nut of the story or one basic fact.

Here’s an example that runs 21 seconds (not including the intro):

TWENTY PEOPLE ARE DEAD AND ABOUT 200 ARE WOUNDED IN INDIA’S CAPITAL, NEW DELHI, ON THE THIRD DAY OF RIOTS OVER A NEW CITIZENSHIP LAW.

CRITICS SAY THE LAW IS DISCRIMINATORY BECAUSE IT EXCLUDES MUSLIM REFUGEES FROM GETTING FAST-TRACK CITIZENSHIP.

SUSHMITA PATHAK REPORTS FROM MUMBAI.

———

UNTIL NOW, PROTESTS OVER THE CITIZENSHIP LAW HAD BEEN MOSTLY PEACEFUL.

RIOTS BEGAN OVER THE WEEKEND WHEN HINDU SUPPORTERS OF THE LAW FACED OFF WITH ITS OPPONENTS.

HINDU MOBS TOSSED MOLOTOV COCKTAILS ON MUSLIM HOMES. IN ONE VIDEO, A MAN CLIMBS A MOSQUE’S MINARET AND PUTS A HINDU FLAG ON TOP.

THIS IS THE WORST SECTARIAN VIOLENCE IN THE INDIAN CAPITAL IN DECADES.

Don’t forget the Five Ws!

Whether you’re writing a voicer, a wrap or a Q, make sure you’re thinking about the five Ws of journalism — who, what, where, when and why. And steer clear of absolutes — the biggest, the oldest, the first — because they are easy to get wrong.

And remember, writing a spot is about delivering the basic facts of a story in a clear, concise manner that leaves no doubt or confusion in the listener’s mind.


Kathy Rushlow is a senior producer at NPR Newscasts.