(Adapted from the News Department, CJAM Radio, University of Windsor, 1981).
Radio journalism is similar to storytelling. It is conversational in style. The choice of words must be similar to the listening audience’s vocabulary. The sentences should be short and uncomplicated. Use very few adjectives and stay away from quotes (people can’t hear quotation marks).
Avoid the negative. For example, instead of saying “There will be no post tomorrow”, say “You may be waiting a while for your letters as London’s postmen are on strike” Try to find a positive verb e.g avoid saying “there will be no school this week because of the snow”, say “Schools will be closed this week…”
Each sentence should flow into the next so the listener is not lost. Subtle repetition is just as necessary to keep the listener following the story. For example, if you use David Cameron in the first sentence, say “the prime minister” in the next instead of “he”.
There are big differences between radio news copy and news written for other media. Since we can’t go back to read it over like newspaper and we don’t have the visual images of TV, the radio journalist has to write so that listeners can understand the story the first time it is read.
The longest story in the entire newscast will be only 45 seconds long. Therefore, most stories are very brief and condensed. It is a challenge to be able do this whilst retaining a great amount of information.
Rules for Writing Copy
You may be writing news copy for yourself to present or it may be that you are doing it for someone else to read. Either way, print off your copy and try and ensure that you –
- double space all copy for easy reading
- print on one side of the page only
- use one inch margins (for the presenter to make notes)
- type in capitals
- exaggerate where the paragraph begins by spacing
- round all numbers
- do not use abbreviations
- include the phonetic pronunciation of difficult words in brackets
- put titles before names
- do not over-punctuate
Marking copy is important to ensure easy reading. If you want a word emphasized, underline it. This signals that the announcer should pronounce these words with greater emphasis. Also, put slash marks after the sentences where pauses are required.
Positioning of the Stories
Where a news story is placed in the newscast is an important decision the editor (or the presenter or the journalist) has to make. The first story is called the “lead” and is the most important news item. The lead story should make listeners pay attention so it has to be a real ear-opener. The audience will listen to the rest of the broadcast if the first story is important and interesting.
The radio journalist, together with the producer or editorial team, must also decide which stories will be used and which will be thrown in the bin. This is called “gatekeeping” and it simply means certain things are allowed to pass through a gate by you and others are not. Newsworthiness is the starting point for this decision.
Repetition of Stories
Stories can be read up to 24 hours after they are first released. People who are regular listeners will tune you out if your stories are exactly the same every hour. Try to change the wording a bit so the story still sounds fresh. This is called rewriting. The number of times a story is read on air is based on news value. Not all stories have the same news value, for example, the story of an attempted assassination of the Pope will carry a lot more newsworthiness and be aired more often than a story of a murder in Hackney
Headlines are used in most radio stations. They are only a few seconds long and are placed at the top of a newscast. A good headline will grab the listener’s attention and hold it. A “teaser” is one or two sentences that grab the audience but it differs from a headline in that it can be read at any time of the day, telling the listener that the story will be read at such and such a time.
Radio news needs some support, which will offer proof of the stories. These are known as actualities and are given a high emphasis in radio. Actualities are usually short reports from the scene of an event by a journalist with an interview with someone there. Actualities vary in length but are not usually longer than 30 seconds. The number of actualities used in a newscast varies as well, from one to four per newscast.
The Newscast Final
For a typical newscast, this would be a typical schedule on a typical day:
- one to two hours before the newscast, come in and write the news, check all earlier newscasts for the stories used
- 15 minutes before the broadcast, check to make sure the mic is set up and also inform the person on the deck about the actualities you will be using in the newscast
- 5 minutes before air-time, find a quiet place, sit and relax. Read over your copy one last time.