from training.npr.org: https://training.npr.org/audio/the-journey-from-print-to-radio-storytelling-a-guide-for-navigating-a-new-landscape/
The journey from print to radio storytelling: A guide for navigating a new landscape
If you are transitioning from print to audio reporting, prepare to embark on a creative journey. Many of your skills will translate perfectly. But you’ll have to change some well-established habits and adapt to new storytelling paradigms. You’ll have to reconsider what you know and sometimes directly contradict it. Sound redefines the way we report and tell stories.
Watch the webinar
We talked with Morning Edition co-host David Greene about making the transition from print to radio. Watch the recording.
It’s sometimes assumed that you can do a radio version of a print story (or vice versa): Quotes become sound bites, anecdotes become scenes, and the rest is the same old, familiar shoe-leather reporting. So it’s directly transferable, right?
The purpose of this post is to lay out fundamental differences between print and audio. We want to make your journey easier, so the transition to audio feels less like a hike without a map and more like an adventure through an unfamiliar-yet-friendly wilderness.
Each part of this guide identifies a particular difference between print and radio storytelling and offers tips on navigating it:
Choose a section:
For more detailed guidance on different elements of audio storytelling, check out our Audio section.
A note on language: We use the terms “radio” and “audio” interchangeably in this guide. Of course, with podcasts and other digital audio, not all audio journalism is heard via the radio. Still, there is so much crossover that, for the purposes of this post, it’s not possible to separate the terms in a meaningful way.
Understand how your listeners listen
“You have to give out information at the pace and in a form that allows people to absorb it.”
— Jonathan Kern in Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production
Why numbers and statistics can mess up your radio piece:
– Numbers can require your listener to do math, which distracts from your story (i.e. “State A spends $135 million dollars, but State B only spends $70 million”).
– Listeners can’t see the numbers, so they are more easily missed, misheard or forgotten.
– There isn’t enough time in many radio stories to provide the necessary context for multiple statistics.
Think about how you read a newspaper or digital story. You move at your own pace, sometimes skimming quickly, sometimes slowing down to capture every word. You can back up to catch a name or statistic you missed. You often don’t read to the very end.
When listening, you have different expectations and capabilities. You can’t control the pace of the story. Radio is linear; it always moves forward. The words and sounds whiz past the ear, with no opportunity to slow down or rewind (unless you’re listening online or on mobile, and even then, rewinding isn’t easy). You forget names and titles. Too many numbers make your head spin.
At that relentless pace, many sentences that work in print make for bad radio. For example, here’s a lead from a Washington Post story, one in a collection of pieces that won David Fahrenthold a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2017.
“Almost four months after promising $1 million of his own money to veterans’ causes, Donald Trump moved to fulfill that pledge Monday evening — promising the entire sum to a single charity as he came under intense media scrutiny.”
There is a lot of information in this one sentence. Below, each fact is highlighted in a different color:
“Almost four months after promising $1 million of his own money to veterans’ causes, Donald Trump moved to fulfill that pledge Monday evening — promising the entire sum to a single charity as he came under intense media scrutiny.”
Try reading this paragraph out loud and see if you run out of breath. Better yet, read it out loud to a friend or colleague and ask, “Did you get all that?”
In radio writing, sentences need to be far shorter and information needs to unfurl more slowly. It’s often said that our ears can only handle one fact or idea per sentence.
So — on the radio — David’s story might begin like this:
Four months ago, Donald Trump promised to donate a million dollars of his own money to veterans’ groups.
But it wasn’t until last night that he began to fulfill that pledge.
Trump promised the entire sum to a single charity.
He did that — after facing pressure from the media.
Same information, but four short sentences rather than one long sentence. Read it out loud and see how it feels. Sentences that look short on the page can feel natural when spoken, because — guess what? — most of us speak in shorter sentences than we write.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: “Liebenberg currently holds the world record for the most time spent in totality. No one else is even close. And believe me — some people keep track of records like this. They’re called ‘shadow lovers’ or ‘umbraphiles.’ Glenn Schneider is an astronomer at the University of Arizona. He freely admits that he is an eclipse junkie.”
If you scan that with your eyes, it might appear clunky and staccato. Read it out loud — and it works.
Listen to Nell’s delivery at 1:45 in the audio below:
More from NPR Training:
Write for your voice
“[Audio] reporters should tell a story the way a Metro columnist would — rather than the way a beat reporter would. That will yield simpler sentences and a more approachable voice.”
— Dave Rosenthal, managing editor of the Great Lakes reporting collaborative
Using our voices to tell stories places us in a vulnerable position. We can’t hide behind printed words. When people hear us, they can’t separate what we say from how we say it.
So becoming an “on-air” journalist requires us to learn not only how to write for the medium, but how to use our voices. The process of “finding your radio voice” can take a while. For most of us, it doesn’t come easily.
The first rule of writing for your voice is to speak it before you write it. That’s why you’ll see journalists in public media newsrooms talking to their computer screens. They’re not crazy — they’re speaking and then typing. This is the most organic way to write for your voice and avoid letting print tendencies complicate the writing.
There are lots of words we would never say out loud that creep into scripts: Would you say a policy is “long-disputed” or a country is “war-torn”? Do you use the verb “hasten” much? Do you call people “individuals” or “residents”?
Advice from someone who’s been there, done that
Morning Edition host David Greene used to be a newspaper reporter. He says audio is ‘an entirely different art form.’
The more non-conversational language you allow in radio stories, the harder a script is to deliver naturally and the more listeners hear you as a sterile News Reader.
Repeat this mantra constantly if you’re writing or editing: If you wouldn’t say it that way, don’t write it that way. And the “you” is important here: There is not one Public Radio Voice and one set of Public Radio Words. If it comes naturally to your voice, it’s generally OK.
The “if you wouldn’t say it” rule also applies to sentence construction. Many sentences that would be fine — even elegant — in a print story will make you sound like a news robot on the air.
For example, print writers often put the attribution after a quote. Here’s an example from the same Washington Post story mentioned above:
“’You have a lot of vetting to do,’ Trump said Tuesday in a telephone interview …”
People don’t speak this way; we never put attribution after a quote. If we were telling this story to another person, we’d be more likely to say:
“Trump said, ‘You have a lot of vetting to do.’
Many of us also use sentence fragments and colloquialisms when we speak. So, these can — and should — show up in radio scripts.
Here’s an excerpt from a story by NPR’s Sam Sanders about the site Upworthy:
SAM SANDERS: “You know the Upworthy headline. Here’s one:”
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: “‘The Things This 4-Year-Old Is Doing Are Cute. The Reason He’s Doing Them Is Heartbreaking.'”
SANDERS: “By 2013, Upworthy and those kind of headlines — it was all reaching about 90 million people per month. But this content, especially the headlines — people called it click-bait, low-quality stuff just meant to grab eyeballs for the ad revenue.”
While writing for the ear can require exercising new muscles, editors also have to master editing for the ear. During most edits, a reporter reads the script and plays the tape, and the editor judges with his/her ears. This can feel scary and wrong if you’re used to trusting your eyes in an edit.
The radio script is a different animal than the print piece: The script is a tool or representation of the story, but it’s not the story itself. The story is made up of sounds. If you only edit the script, you’ve edited the wrong thing.
This doesn’t mean an editor can never look at a script. You can do a lot of fact-checking and fine-tuning while looking at the text. But the ears are the most important judge, especially on that first listen when the story is fresh. Since we’re producing stories to be heard, not read, we have to know whether they work for the ear. We would never edit a video with our eyes closed. Same idea in radio.
More from NPR Training:
- How to edit with your ears
- How NPR’s Sam Sanders is finding his voice
- Aerobics for your voice: Three tips for sounding better on air
Beware dependent clauses
“We are writing haikus, not epic poems.”
— Suzanne Marmion, director of news and editorial strategy, KPBS
Good print writers are experts at tucking a lot of information elegantly into sentences. Dependent clauses, such as the one I’m writing into this sentence, come in handy in print. But they are toxic to radio writing.
Here are two reasons for this: First of all, we don’t talk that way. If you listen closely to people chatting with each other, you will rarely hear a dependent clause. I don’t tell people, “My dad, who spent 40 years teaching physics, is a smart guy.” I’m more likely to say, “My dad taught physics for 40 years. He’s a smart guy.”
Second, dependent clauses can introduce unnecessary confusion. Here’s an example from a New York Times obituary that is particularly befuddling to the ear (read it out loud):
“Jimmy Piersall, the often outrageous outfielder and broadcaster whose emotional breakdown while a rookie with the Boston Red Sox was portrayed in the 1957 movie Fear Strikes Out, a rare glimpse, for its time, at an athlete’s mental illness, died on Saturday in Wheaton, Ill.”
Measure the distance between the subject (“Jimmy Piersall”) and the verb (“died”). They are separated by 37 words. Those words would take a reporter or host about 15 seconds to say. That’s 15 seconds in which the listener is wondering, “What happened to Jimmy Piersall?” That’s a long time on the radio. (Frankly, many print editors wouldn’t consider this lead good writing, either.)
In general, when writing for radio, it’s best to keep subjects cozy with their verbs: “Jimmy Piersall has died.” It’s clear and efficient writing that carries the listener along with you.
Abandon the inverted pyramid
OK, to be fair, the inverted pyramid is already a bit long in the tooth. It lives on mostly in short, deadline-driven stories. But if you learned this basic style of news writing in which the most important facts come first and subsequent paragraphs lay out details in decreasing order of importance, get ready to upend your thinking.
The inverted pyramid is the death of a radio story.
Putting who, what, when, where and why into an opening sentence or two is simply not good composition for the ear. It’s too much information, too quickly. If the most important information is always placed at the top of each story, why stick around for the rest? (One possible exception is the news “spot,” a short story under a minute long. Spots can — but are not required to — unfold in a more inverted pyramid-esque way.)
If listeners have tuned into our program or podcast, we ought to work as hard as possible to make all parts informative and listenable.
So is there a typical radio story structure? Well, there are structural clichés (“Meanwhile, back at the farm … ” cue sound of chickens clucking, cows mooing), but in the ideal, “typical” is not a friend to radio. Templates become boring pretty quickly, so we try to mix things up in our work.
But here’s one thing you can always keep in mind: The best radio stories — hard news or light features — have a narrative arc. They raise a question in listeners’ minds at the beginning and promise an answer by the end. Even a story about a daily news event such as a Congressional hearing can be told chronologically with a beginning, middle and end, driven by a question as simple as, “What happened today?”
NPR’s Christopher Joyce puts it more dramatically, comparing radio journalism to telling “campfire stories.” He writes, “They seduce and tease the listener at the beginning, hinting at some great or horrible revelation, but revealing the details bit by bit to hold the listener’s attention until the very end.”
(Want to hear that “seduction?” Christopher performs it well with this story about a mystery of physics in California’s Death Valley.)
While many print stories also have narrative arcs, it’s not a perfect one-to-one translation to radio. Consider the visual clues a newspaper or website gives readers, adjacent to story text: headlines, subheads, datelines, images. You get none of that in radio; you have to convey all your information in a linear fashion through your voice and other sounds.
So, for example, an anecdotal lead in radio can fail if it doesn’t launch you quickly and clearly into that story arc, and a digression can confuse listeners if the reporter doesn’t make clear why it’s needed.
Here’s an example of a Morning Edition story that uses its introduction to raise a question in listeners’ minds:
HOST: “We are 10 days from Inauguration Day here in Washington. Ghana already had a presidential inauguration last weekend, and it had a surprising resemblance to past inaugurations here in the United States. You really have to listen for yourself to NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.”
It beckons us to tune in and then lets the truth unfold through the creative use of sound.
Another key point about story structure: You need deliberate transitions. Print and digital stories can use section headings, line breaks and other elements of visual design to indicate transitions. In audio, all we have is sound. So transitions can be explicitly narrated (i.e. “In order to learn more about the policy, I stopped by the office of an economist … ”) or demarcated with sound (i.e. one sound fades out, another fades in).
Bottom line: If your listener can’t follow along they are more likely to stop listening.
More from NPR Training:
- Understanding story structure in 4 drawings
- Story structure and the “Three Little Pigs”
- How do you tell a story in three acts?
- Radio intros: 7 tips to keep listeners from turning off the radio
De-graf the nut graf
Ask a radio journalist about nut grafs, and some will tell you that the convention is just as necessary in radio as it is in print. Others will look at you quizzically and ask, “Nut what?” It’s a print convention, so applying it to broadcast can land us in an apples and oranges conundrum.
This is not because of opposition to the “nut”; audio stories must also express what they’re about and why they matter. The difference is the “graf.” There are a variety of reasons why all the information of a nut graf can’t live together in one paragraph in an audio story.
One reason relates to how public radio stories are introduced. On broadcast news programs, the first voice you hear is a host or anchor, who then passes the baton to another voice, the reporter. Both of them carry authority, but they represent different perspectives on the story. The host is the omniscient narrator. The reporter takes you into a place or a topic in a more intimate way.
They each need to convey the importance of the story without one repeating the other. This means that the ideas in a nut graf may be split between the two voices and dispersed throughout the piece as they serve the story’s narrative needs.
Here’s an illustration of that, from a story by NPR’s Allison Aubrey:
The host introduction is brief; it lays some contextual groundwork and then poses the central question the story is answering:
HOST: “Lots of people take prescription medications such as Xanax or Zoloft for anxiety and depression, but is it OK to take them while pregnant? NPR’s Allison Aubrey reports on new findings that offer some answers.”
The next time we hear information that would be part of a typical nut graf, we’re halfway through the story:
ALLISON AUBREY: “Chodos, who is trained as a nurse, knew there were some concerns about this class of medication. Scientists haven’t ruled out the risk of adverse effects for pregnant women.”
The story is nearly over by the time Allison reveals the findings of the latest research, showing that — in most cases — it is OK to take Xanax and Zoloft during pregnancy.
Another element of radio journalism that complicates the use of the nut graf is sound. Most audio stories try to introduce sound — interviewees talking and/or “ambience” — as early as possible. That may mean the ideas in a nut graf are conveyed through a scene or articulated by an interviewee, not spoken by the reporter.
This happens near the beginning of the story below: NPR reporter Adrian Florido uses a scene to convey the core idea — the “nut” — that immigrants are not seeking help after Hurricane Harvey because they are afraid of getting deported.
Then, nearly halfway through the piece at 1:44, Adrian adds nut graf material:
ADRIAN FLORIDO: “Advocates say this fear of being deported is keeping a lot of undocumented Texas families from seeking help. They were already uneasy because of a strict immigration enforcement bill that was set to take effect in Texas until a federal judge temporarily blocked it last week.”
More from NPR Training:
Narrow your story’s focus
“Print folks are surprised by how little information they can include in a radio story … Radio demands that we’re hyper-vigilant curators.”
— Julianne Welby, senior editor, WNYC News
If you approach the typical public radio news story — about four minutes long — with the idea that it has the same scope as an average 700-word print story, you’ll have a struggle on your hands.
A four-minute radio story usually contains 500-600 words (though we don’t measure our stories with word count), and about half of those words are delivered in the voices of interviewees, not the reporter. Scene sound takes up additional time. Combine all of this with the fact that the audience can’t follow densely packed scripts, and you’re left with a challenging reality about radio storytelling: You have to make tough choices about what to include and what to leave out.
The need for laser-like focus extends to longer audio stories, too. Because the listening experience is linear, the audience can easily get lost. So you’ll spend more of your “real estate” providing guidance to the listener about what the story is and where it’s going. (We call this “signposting.”) Radio audiences usually require more hand-holding than print audiences. It’s our job not only to convey information but to serve as the listeners’ tour guide.
In order to avoid dense scripts, consider the one or two key points you want your story to convey to listeners. Try to resolve one question, not many. Reporter Elizabeth Harball, a former newspaper reporter now making radio at Alaska’s Energy Desk, puts it this way: “No more ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ articles … If you answer one driving question in your piece, you’ve succeeded.”
This doesn’t mean less reporting. You will likely make the same phone calls and do the same research you would for a print story. It will all inform your reporting, but a lot of it may not appear on tape or be described in the story. Once you’re finished reporting, you have to pivot to extremely disciplined storytelling.
Achieving this requires a robust pre-reporting process in which you and an editor hypothesize the story’s angle, plot out the information you need, and discern which elements are critical to telling the story with sound. Then you need to constantly return to this blueprint during the reporting process — or alter the plan as needed — to stay focused.
Some print reporters find these limitations frustrating. They feel that their radio stories are less thorough; they know how much they had to leave out. But in the end, a radio story may convey just as much information and create something more memorable than a print story because of the things it can communicate through sound.
More from NPR Training:
- How audio stories begin
- ‘Once upon a time’ and other devices for starting your stories
- Front-end editing: The secret ingredient of great audio storytelling
Adjust your interview style
“The whole ‘explain this to me like you would your grandma’ thing becomes 500 percent more important in interviews.”
— Elizabeth Harball, reporter, Alaska’s Energy Desk
If you’ve been a print reporter, you have experience asking probing questions and getting to the heart of things. Those skills will serve you well in audio interviews, too. But there are some new considerations when you’re holding a microphone and trying to get “good tape.”
The sounds you make will be recorded
Wailin Wong, co-host and co-producer of the Rework podcast, told us this: “I’m a very verbal interviewer and it took me a while to train myself not to say ‘uh-huh’ or ‘I see’ or laugh sympathetically over the interviewee.”
Even if you’re not mic’ing yourself directly, microphones are sensitive and will pick up your verbal reactions. Sometimes, that’s OK — even necessary — and a reaction from the reporter or host makes sense on tape. At other times, it can draw listeners’ ears away from the content you want them to hear. So try to get into the habit of silent cues during interviews — head nods, smiles, hand gestures, etc. And don’t interrupt unless you have to.
That said … Record yourself asking questions and interacting
Sometimes the questions you ask are as important as the answers you receive. Your questions have journalistic value. They can also make a story more interesting by turning a series of soundbites into a more three-dimensional interaction. When you hear people talking to each other, you can start to picture them in a scene.
But recording yourself can be particularly uncomfortable for reporters who learned never to make themselves a part of the story. NPR reporter Sarah McCammon says, “I struggled with that … at first. But over time I’ve realized that it’s sometimes important to hear the exchange as it happened, and hear how the question was asked, to fully understand the moment. It’s about context and accuracy.”
Some questions have to be asked on tape for journalistic reasons. In 2014, NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Bill Cosby when the comedian loaned art to the Smithsonian. But Scott also asked Cosby about rape and sexual assault charges:
SCOTT SIMON: “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days. You’re shaking your head no. I’m in the news business. I have to ask the question — do you have any response to those charges? Shaking your head no. There are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance.”
Listen to the moment at the end of the interview. It’s intense, uncomfortable. There is power in hearing Scott’s words and the silences between them, power that would not be conveyed by the standard line, “Mr. Cosby refused to respond to allegations.”
Here’s another case, in which reporter Caitlin Dickerson’s questions serve a storytelling purpose; they add stakes and character to a story (skip to 3:20 to hear the scene):
Finally, recording yourself may require you to change the way you ask questions. If you sound unsure, pose a paragraph-long question or stumble through it, that’s how listeners will hear you. This shouldn’t require you to change your approach to every question, but if you think you might need to use the audio of a question in your story, try to ask it clearly.
Some of the best questions you can ask on tape are the simplest. For example: “Are you saying … ?”, “How did that feel?”, “Why did that happen?”, or ‘What do you mean?”
Get the best, clearest explanations you can, even if means asking interviewees to try again
Print reporters have more latitude than radio reporters to use their own words to explain topics, using quotes only when needed. Radio stories include a larger proportion of quotes to narration (the reporter’s words). And it is important that those quotes communicate a story’s core ideas.
Sometimes, you have to work to get the clearest answers out of your interviewees, especially if they use jargon or know their subject too well. This work can take many forms, but there is a point at which it can cross a line into unethical intervention.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts:
Do say to an interviewee …
“Can you clarify that point you just made? I’m not sure listeners will understand it.”
“Explain it to me as if I knew absolutely nothing about this topic.”
“Can you say that in a complete sentence?”
Don’t say to an interviewee …
“Can you say it this way instead?”
“This is too complicated for radio. We can’t use it.”
“Start your answer this way …” [Reporter then puts words in interviewee’s mouth]
Tone matters — both yours and your interviewee’s
Our job in audio journalism is to inform people and compel them to listen, so it’s OK — within reason — to give interviewees the best chance to tell good stories and provide understandable answers.
This goes for reporters and for hosts who conduct on-air interviews. On the radio, you can hear if an interviewee is uncomfortable or an interaction tense. Sometimes that’s inevitable or even good, but in general, we work to make interviewees feel comfortable. If they are frequently interrupted or treated curtly, they may respond by clamming up or reflecting back that curt tone.
To paraphrase NPR’s Evie Stone, you want to make the experience feel human rather than transactional. Evie says, “You get better, more intimate, more … revealing tape for your story when people feel comfortable talking to you, and that’s what makes a piece memorable.”
Find new ways to ‘take notes’
When you’re holding a microphone, it is near-impossible to take written notes.
But there are different ways to capture details you would otherwise scribble into your notebook:
- Ask interviewees to describe things — the scene, an object, an event, etc. (Remind them that listeners can’t see what they are seeing.)
- Talk into your microphone when you have a free moment, describing what you see or feel.
- After an interview, record yourself talking about what just happened and describe details that may be meaningful. It will be useful as notes, and it also may come in handy as narration to use in your story.
- Take a few minutes immediately following an interview to write down moments in the interview that you remember. This can help you quickly identify quotes you want to use, within long chunks of tape.
Rethink your use of quotes
Radio reporters gather and use quotes (we call them “actualities,” “clips” or simply “tape”) in many of the same ways print reporters do. But there are a bunch of differences. Paying close attention to the nuances will allow you to tell more interesting, creative stories.
Radio stories include more quotes
Some experienced radio reporters will tell you a story should consist of about 50 percent copy (the reporter’s words) and 50 percent tape (quotes and other sounds). In print stories, it’s safe to say quotes make up a smaller proportion. And that’s good practice — in print.
Writing coach and author Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute offers this guidance to print journalists about using quotes:
“Begin with the idea that you are the writer, that you can write it better than the source can say it. When that is not the case, use the quote.”
The logic for audio storytelling is different: You want your sources, as much as possible, to articulate the core ideas of the story. Then fill in the gaps with your words.
That said — you often have to limit the number of voices heard in a radio story. Too many voices can lead to confusion and make the story feel like a jumble of sound bites, while fewer can allow multi-dimensional characters, context and feelings to emerge.
Quotes often introduce new ideas
In print news stories, quotes are frequently used to reinforce, expand upon or lend credence to a point the reporter has made. On the radio, that approach can slow down a story or sound repetitive. So radio stories often introduce ideas in quotes first, before the reporter has described it.
NATHAN ROTT: “But if there’s no way to move [the bear] or it comes back, there’s really only one other option. Stiver says they usually have to do it one or two times a year.”
STIVER: “I don’t take any pleasure in euthanizing a bear. I feel like we fail if we either have to move a bear or we have to euthanize it. Somewhere in that process we’ve failed. And I don’t mean we as just me. I mean, we as people.”
The more your quotes can introduce the core ideas in the story, the better. This doesn’t mean you give up your authority as a reporter. It means you gather and use tape strategically, in a way that draws your listeners in to the ideas. And then, you “write through” the sound.
Quotes you would choose for a print story might not work on the radio
Let’s say you transcribe an interview and then scan it for the most useful quotes. In print writing, when you find what you need, you’re good to go. But in radio, some quotes that look good on paper sound terrible. The speaker is boring or hard to hear, the words lack passion, or the perfect phrase is interrupted by extraneous noise. These are forehead-slapping moments in radio, and they happen a lot. As a rule, never pick quotes before re-listening to them.
Some of the best “tape” from interviewees is not your standard quote
Print journalists know this well, too: Some quotes are explanatory, some are humanizing and some reinforce a point. The same is true with audio journalism.
There are many different kinds of tape, and distinguishing between them can help you tell better stories.
Non-verbal tape: It can be as simple as an interviewee sighing in frustration or laughing uproariously. The tape provides aural information to the listener and connects on a more human level. At 1:10 in this story by NPR’s Danny Hajek, you can hear an example of a chuckle used to its full effect. And at 3:40 in this piece by Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front, there’s a telling sigh.
“Real people” vs. experts: Ideally, we want all our interviewees to sound like the human beings they are — natural, dynamic, maybe a little rough around the edges. Experts don’t always exhibit those qualities on tape. Audio editors and producers will often encourage dropping the expert’s quote in favor of a “real person” who gives the story more humanity. And here’s an alternate idea: Humanize the experts! Treat them as you would treat any “character.”
Scene-setting tape: Interviewees can describe a scene for us or explain what they are doing. They can open and close doors, turn on machines and walk on crunchy fall leaves in the forest. Since listeners can’t see them, having someone provide a visual description can bring even the most boring setting to life and inject character and texture into a story.
Emotional tape: It’s no secret that people consider radio an intimate medium. That’s partly due to how we connect as humans to other voices. If a person sounds angry, sad or happy — even if their specific words are not profound or revealing — information is conveyed to a listener.
Interaction tape (as described above): Hearing a reporter question an interviewee can provide compelling tape and help to build a sense of scene. As a reporter, you should make a habit of turning the microphone towards yourself when you ask questions, so that your questions — especially those that are probing or clarifying — can be used in the story.
More from NPR Training:
- Writing through sound: A toolbox for getting in and out of your tape
- Put your audio to the test: Know when to use it or lose it
- How can I get better at stand-ups?
Prepare for the extra work of sound gathering
“Think like the photographers [you] have worked with … [N]ow that [you] have recording equipment … it isn’t enough to hang back and passively observe a scene. [You] have to get closer and engage with [your] subjects in ways a print reporter doesn’t necessarily have to do. That’s a big lift.”
— Grant Blankenship, multimedia reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting
Learning how to use sound — and doing it well — is a challenge for anyone in audio storytelling. Sound gathering takes time, on top of all the reporting you’re already accustomed to doing.
If you’re new to radio, there are a few useful distinctions to start with. All the sounds you hear in stories are not created equal. Sometimes it helps to apply the terminology of camera angles to describe it:
Close-up: This is what we call “active sound.” Something is happening in this audio that conveys information to the listener and moves a story along. It could be as simple as a car starting or a door closing. Or it could be more complex: A chef frying up a meal, a judge announcing a verdict. Just remember the phrase “get close, stay close” when recording active sound. The more distant the sound, the less meaningful the experience for listeners.
Medium shot: These are sounds that pop up in a scene, like a dog barking, a voice nearby, or a siren going by. These sounds attract the ear and convey information, but they do not represent the primary action or event in the story.
Wide shot: These are the background sounds that accompany us throughout a regular day — the most basic “ambience.” Cars droning in the distance, birds chirping, air conditioners humming. These sounds do not attract the listener’s primary attention, but they establish an environment or feeling. Radio producers and reporters record many minutes of this stuff. A few seconds of it will never do.
Gathering all these types of sound requires time. New audio reporters sometimes find recording particularly burdensome, because they have to work more slowly than they did in the past. But the work pays off! This field recording checklist can help you collect sound more thoroughly and efficiently.
Here are a few of the sound-recording requirements that may feel most unfamiliar to print reporters:
Plan ahead and think through the sounds you’ll need
Working in print, you can usually call back an interviewee. But if you’re reporting a radio story, that interview is often grounded in the time and place where it happened. If you recorded an interview with a farmer in her barn, you usually need all your tape to be in that barn. Otherwise, you have to explain to the listener why Farmer Jane is now on a phone or in a room that sounds different. That can disrupt the narrative logic of the scene and distract the listener.
So it’s essential to plan ahead. Ask yourself: Where should I interview this person? What sounds can I gather to bring a scene to life — and how will I gather them? What is the “tape” that will bring home the core idea of the story?
Of course, you can’t plan for everything, and the best sound often arrives serendipitously. But insufficient planning makes the writing and production process exponentially harder.
Always be rolling
This rule is a public radio chestnut. Start recording early, and don’t turn your recorder off until you’ve left the scene. It enables us to catch the classic (clichéd) sounds of cars starting or people knocking on doors.
This can feel awkward; that farmer may wonder why you’re approaching her with a microphone aimed in her direction. But the tape you gather following this rule is often precisely what you need to make transitions and humanize characters.
There are exceptions: For example, if an interviewee is especially reluctant or could get in trouble by talking to you, it might be best to talk first without rolling. There is also, of course, the case of off-the-record interviews, where the “always roll” guidance does not apply. And no matter who we’re talking to, we must always tell our subjects when we are recording.
There is ‘ambience’ everywhere — record lots of it
When you hear ambience in a radio story, you might only hear a few seconds “in the clear” (meaning, it’s totally audible and not layered under any other sound). But for the purposes of producing and mixing stories, you need to gather far more than that, whether you’re in a quiet office or a loud restaurant kitchen. The rule of thumb is to record at least 90 seconds of ambience.
Why? Take a look at the screenshot from an audio editor below. On the top (“track one”) is the audio of a person talking. Below (“track two”) is the “ambience bed” — the sound that cushions the voice. It serves several purposes: it leads the listener into the scene and allows us to smooth transitions.
Recording ambience can feel awkward. You need to tell an interviewee, “Let’s just sit quietly while I record the sounds of the room.” Explain that it will make the radio story better. Usually, people are intrigued by seeing how the radio sausage gets made. Be uncompromising about this. A radio story without the cushion of ambience makes for jarring listening and, in most cases, would not be considered air-able.
More from NPR Training:
- Active sound: How to find it record it and use it
- Field recording checklist
- Fundamentals of field recording
- The ear training guide for audio producers (includes best practices for managing microphones)
If you’re new to audio storytelling and this material feels overwhelming, it might help you to imagine a frustrated, lifelong radio journalist attempting to craft a nut graf or struggling to write a good headline. Have a good chuckle thinking about that.
Radio is fun. It’s not easy, but neither is print journalism. As long as you take to heart the idea that there is no straightforward, one-to-one translation and embrace audio as a new creative challenge, you’ll be fine. Use your ears, learn from your colleagues, keep subjects close to their verbs and, by all means, remember: If you wouldn’t say it that way, don’t write it that way!
Thanks to Jonathan Kern, whose 2008 book, Sound Reporting, continues to be a source of inspiration and guidance.
And thanks to the many people who read an early draft and contributed valuable feedback and suggestions which have been incorporated: Bruce Auster, Alisa Barba, Madelyn Beck, Michelle Beth, Grant Blankenship, Kenneth Cooper, Austin Cope, Eric Deggans, Hugh Dellios, Kerry Donahue, Byard Duncan, Marc Filippino, David Greene, Elizabeth Harball, C.J. Janovy, Amy Jeffries, Carrie Johnson, Elizabeth Lepro, Suzanne Marmion, Sarah McCammon, Charlie Meyerson, John Pemble, Kelsey Proud, Adam Ragusea, Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Dave Rosenthal, Melissa Sevigny , Mary Shedden, Evie Stone, Cory Turner, Julianne Welby and Wailin Wong
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.