Sound and Stories
Radio has proven to be quite a survivor as a news medium. After all, radio listening was a big fad of the 1920s (as was the Charleston), and historians of broadcasting will tell you that radio’s “Golden Age” ended more than fifty years ago. Television could have put radio out of business in the 1950s and ’60s, but it didn’t, and the proliferation of cable news channels in the 1980s and ’90s could have made radio news irrelevant—but that didn’t happen either. In the last decade or so, the Internet has emerged as a popular source of news, especially for younger people, accelerating the decline in newspaper subscriptions. But even as newspapers lost readers to the Internet, public radio’s audience actually grew—from 14.6 million weekly listeners in 2000 to 23 million in 2006. These days, “radio” has less to do with a specific kind of receiver or a means of sending signals from a transmitter than with a way of communicating news and information through words and sound. A “radio show” may be broadcast, or streamed on a Web site, or downloaded in a podcast; soon it could be delivered to a mobile phone, or to another sort of handheld device that gets its data from a nearby wireless access point. But even as the technology is changing, the process of reporting and producing audio news and information today is much the same as it was when NPR began in the early 1970s; and “radio” continues to be a convenient way to describe all forms of mass communication relying primarily on the spoken word. So it’s worth considering what it is about this aging medium that continues to be so attractive to people, especially when there are so many alternative ways to find out what is happening.
RADIO IS PORTABLE.
People have been listening to the radio in their cars since the 1930s, and pocket-sized transistor radios have been around
for half a century. Today you can buy headphones with built-in radios and MP3 players that also contain FM tuners. Water-resistant sets work in the shower, and satellite receivers make it possible to hear the same strong radio signal as you travel from one state to another. People can and do listen to the radio while they jog, cook, drive, work, or bathe—something that can’t be claimed by either print or TV.
RADIO IS INTIMATE. No matter how big the audience, a good radio host thinks of himself as talking to a single person—the one who’s tuning in—rather than to listeners as a group. (For that reason, if you’re on the air and asking people, say, to call in to your program with their recollections of Martin Luther King, it’s always better to ask, “What do you remember about Martin Luther King?”—as opposed to “We’d like to invite listeners to tell us what they remember . . .”) Program directors and other executives sometimes underestimate how tight the bond is between the person who talks on the radio and the ones who are listening. The departure of a longtime host of a news magazine can prompt thousands of angry letters, phone calls, and even petitions. People feel that they’ve lost a friend.
RADIO IS NIMBLE. Most of the time, a radio reporter can carry all of his equipment—a recorder, microphone, and a computer—in one bag. You don’t need a camera crew or a satellite truck, as TV reporters do; and it certainly doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or whether you’ve had time to comb your hair. As a radio reporter, if you can get to the scene of a news event, you can report on it, even if your gear consists of little more than a cell phone. (In fact, on many breaking stories, TV becomes radio—networks just display a still photo of their correspondent or a map of the area where the event is taking place, and have their reporter phone in the story.)
FEW THINGS AFFECT US MORE THAN THE HUMAN VOICE.
Certainly there are photographs that touch us, and TV often can tell a story with vividness and immediacy, and newspaper stories often have great quotes. But people convey what they feel both through their words and through the sound of their voices. During a radio interview, we often can hear for ourselves that a politician is dismissive, or that a protester is angry, or that a Nobel Prize winner is thrilled and exhausted; we don’t need a reporter to characterize them for us. And public radio especially allows people to speak at some length; an interview in a news magazine might run as long as eight minutes. We don’t force ourselves to reduce a person’s insights and emotions to a single ten-second sound bite. Even in transcription, this exchange exposes the tremendous sadness and loss of a farmer in
Wales as she describes how the Ministry of Agriculture shot all of her 228 dairy cows after some of them contracted foot-and-mouth disease:
HOST: Did you watch?
JONES: Oh, my God, no! Oh, no! I heard it. That was enough. I heard it.
Watched? No, no. I said goodbye to them all. But they just shot them where they stood. Oh, no.
Watched? No way. I watched them burn afterwards. Of course, I needed to be there for them. I had to watch that, and now I’m living with the horror of it all. I think it’s the most harrowing experience I could ever, ever, ever imagine going through.
I say, my ten-year-old daughter knew every one of those cows by name. She didn’t have to look at their numbers. She knew who they were by their faces. I could have gone in blindfolded and touched everybody’s udder and I could have told you exactly which cow it was.
SOUND TELLS A STORY. The art of public radio journalism entails most of the skills practiced by television or newspaper reporters—finding sources, conducting interviews, digging through documents, getting to the scene of the action, observing carefully—plus one that is unique to our medium: listening, or “reporting with your ears.” The right sound—the whine of an air raid siren in wartime, the echoes in a building abandoned because of a chemical spill, the roar of a trading pit in Chicago—can substitute for dozens or hundreds of words, and can be as descriptive and evocative as a photograph.
Today, NPR distributes news reports in many different ways—through its member stations, via satellite, over the Internet, in podcasts, even to cell phones—and it often provides written versions of them on the Web. But radio’s greatest strengths remain the power of sound to tell a story, the expressiveness of the human voice, and the intimacy of the medium.
There are also some big challenges to reporting news on the radio.
Just as newspapers and Web sites are laid out graphically—in space—radio programs are laid out in time; radio producers argue over when
a story will be heard, not which page it will be on, and we measure story lengths in minutes and seconds, not in column inches or words. On the
radio, you need to find ways to communicate information that a newspaper can easily convey with a headline, or a photo, or a graph. Think about how much you can learn just by scanning the front page of a daily paper. A banner headline—especially in a paper that rarely runs them—tells you there’s momentous news. If there are two or three items related to the lead story on A1, you know that the big story of the day has eclipsed most other events—at least in the minds of the newspaper’s editors. On the other hand, a more diverse selection of front page stories suggests an average news load. And a big picture of a pumpkin patch, or of children keeping cool in the water from a fire hydrant, or of couples lounging in the park on a spring day, sends the message there hasn’t been much news at all. There may also be a front page index to tell you about developments in business, sports, and entertainment—and where to find more details about them in the paper.
In addition, a newspaper’s space is flexible; the length of a radio program isn’t. Although papers do budget the amount of space they devote for news, they can add pages—or even whole sections—when events demand it. When the news is thin, they can also fill up the paper with photographs or with stories from wire services, or just run fewer pages. With some exceptions for the biggest national and international events, radio programs are the same length on busy news days and on dull ones. Morning Edition is two hours long, Day to Day an hour, Talk of the Nation two hours, and so on, both when there is a lot of news to cover and when there isn’t.
As a radio journalist, in other words, you are working both in sound—and in time. You have listeners, not readers. So here are a few things to keep in mind.
THERE ARE NO HEADLINES.
That means that we don’t have a way to catch a potential listener’s ear the way a big headline at a newsstand catches the eye; to get our
news, people have to make the effort to turn on the radio and tune to a specific station. At NPR, we do write “billboards” or “opens” to tell people what’s coming up each hour. But each billboard is always fifty-eight seconds long—whether the hour it previews is loaded with hard news or mostly softer features. As a rule, we can’t stretch a billboard when we have more we want to say or shorten it when we have less.
IMPORTANT STORIES COME FIRST AND GET MORE AIRTIME. A billboard may list four or five stories on a typical day. But when there’s big news—after a presidential election, a devastating storm, or some other important event—we may devote most or all of the billboard to a single story. Similarly, when there’s a major story of the day, a twelve-minute segment that usually comprises three or four pieces or interviews may focus instead on several different aspects of the same story.
THERE IS NO “FRONT PAGE”; THE BEGINNING OF ANY PROGRAM IS THE MOMENT SOMEONE TUNES IN. While we generally will put the most important stories of the day at the top of an hour, we know that people listen to the radio when it’s convenient for them. So even though we mention at 8:10 a.m. that there’s been a plane crash in Kentucky, we may give an update on that story ten minutes later—and again twenty-five minutes after that—for people who have joined the program in progress.
A RADIO NEWS MAGAZINE MAY NOT HAVE READILY IDENTIFIABLE “SECTIONS.“ Some programs try to offer listeners certain types of news at predictable days or times—sports on Fridays, or business at the end of a particular hour. But the latest developments in sports or business or any other subject can show up almost anywhere in a show. As a result, it is often harder to know “where you are” when you listen to a radio program than when you read a newspaper. If you want to read commentaries in the newspaper, you turn to the op ed page. A commentary in a radio news magazine may come up in any program segment—which makes it especially important to identify it clearly as a commentary, so listeners don’t mistake it for a news report.
RADIO LISTENERS, UNLIKE READERS, CAN’T SKIP A STORY OR SEGMENT OF A PROGRAM. If you’re not interested in sports or business, you probably don’t read those sections of the newspaper; and if you listen to NPR or other radio news media on the Web or through podcasts, you can pick and choose the items you want. But when you get your news from the radio, you have to listen to—or at least sit through—arts or economics or foreign stories to get to the subjects you might care about more. If listeners get bored with an item, they’ll mentally tune it out, or select a different station, or turn off the radio altogether. For that reason, we try to write and produce our stories to keep the attention of people who are not already interested in the topics we’re reporting on.
IN RADIO, EDITORIAL DECISIONS ARE OFTEN INTERTWINED WITH PRODUCTION DECISIONS.
A correspondent may be given only four minutes for her report, even if it is the top story of the day—so if she wants to
add more detail or include another voice, she will have to cut something else from her story. And if she is somehow able to wangle an extra thirty seconds, some other piece or interview will need to be trimmed by the same amount. Producing a radio program is a zero-sum game.
PEOPLE CAN’T RELISTEN TO A STORY, THE WAY THEY CAN REREAD A NEWSPAPER ARTICLE. When you’re reading a newspaper, you may be interrupted, or let your mind wander, or just get confused. You may need to reread a couple of paragraphs just to grasp the crux of the story, or to make sure you understand the latest development. You don’t get that opportunity on the radio. Time marches on—and with it, any opportunity a listener has to understand why a story is important or new, or to identify speakers or places or sounds. On the radio you get one chance to tell the listeners your story, and then there’s no going back. (This is less true when people’s “radio” is actually a computer, and they are listening via the Internet.)
LISTENERS CAN’T “SEE” (OR HEAR) WHAT’S AHEAD. When you read a story in a newspaper, your peripheral vision gives you an idea of the stories that surround it. You may be halfway through an account of a train crash, but you know there’s a story about the discovery of a new dinosaur elsewhere on the same page. On the radio, someone needs to tell you explicitly what’s coming up.
A “HARD” DEADLINE ON THE RADIO IS VERY HARD. If you’re ten minutes late filing a story at a newspaper, no one is likely to notice. But if your story is slated to be on the air at six minutes past noon and you don’t get it done until six and a half minutes past, you’ve failed abominably. Talk of the Nation always starts at 2 o’clock Eastern Time—not fifteen seconds earlier or later. Two seconds can be a long time on the radio.
To be sure, there are occasions when we can pry open the time window, even on the radio. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the crash of the space shuttle in 2003, the outbreak of war with Iraq that same year, and other big and continuing stories have all justified NPR’s doing away with the usual broadcast clocks, at least for a few days. On those occasions, the highly produced billboards were scrapped or made longer or shorter than fifty-eight seconds—which is possible only when the shows don’t incorporate the hourly newscasts—and the programs observed few of the usual breaks between segments. For a while, the shows even lost
their individual identities and blended into one another, as NPR provided special round-the-clock programming to its stations.
But these occasions are indeed rare in the radio news business. On most days, whether we are reporters, editors, producers, directors, or hosts, our working lives are ruled by the clock.
For most journalists, no charge stings worse than an allegation of bias. Yet NPR and most other news organizations are the subjects of such accusations daily (and, in this age of email and the Internet, almost hourly).
If you could look through the email sent to any NPR news program on a given day, you’d find listeners writing angrily that the network is showing its bias for or against a host of individuals, groups, or issues. They accuse public radio of being a spokesman for the administration (regardless of the party in power), a tool of the Pentagon, a proxy for the Democratic party, an arm of the Republican party, soft on the pharmaceutical industry, out to get the oil companies—the list goes on and on, no matter how the news of the day varies. Whether the issue is abortion, the death penalty, the Middle East, tax cuts, or politics, listeners are sure to cite what they see as clear evidence that reporters and hosts are trying to stack the deck for one side or the other.
It’s easy—and often wrong—to brush off the charges. News organizations know that people at the far ends of the political spectrum will be most inclined to write, and that the letter (or email) writers don’t represent the audience as a whole. Bias, they say, is often in the eye of the beholder. Also, editors and managers console themselves with the fact that people on both the right and the left are complaining, often about the exact same stories; if both sides don’t like the way we did our jobs, they reason, we probably did okay. But that’s not a principle to live by. The only measure of a story’s worth is whether you got it right—not how many people were for or against it.
Broadcast news is driven by deadlines, and under time pressure, you are sure t...