Tuesday Edition: Veteran Radio Reporter Shares Secrets to Writing Short

For the next three days, Poynter Online will bring you a special series focused on radio writing. I hope it will help the huge number of you struggling to bring life to your online multimedia pieces. All journalists are under pressure to write tightly, find vivid details and use sound effectively.

  • Today, Al’s Morning Meeting is about writing short, based on an interview I did with CBS Radio’s Peter King. Read his tips and listen to audio from the “king” of tight copy.
  • Thursday, in another Poynter Online centerpiece, I will show you how smart radio newsrooms are no longer content to just create a radio story. They are writing stories online and then producing a third version for online multimedia. How is each version different, and what skills are required for each?

More training is on the way. You’ve told Poynter how important multimedia storytelling is to your newsrooms. So in January, we’ll offer a seminar called “Online Storytelling with Audio and Photos.”

CBS Radio’s Peter King is one of my favorite visiting faculty members at Poynter. He is a master at telling short — and I mean short — stories. He covers breaking news in the southeastern United States, including hurricanes, the Elian Gonzales custody battle and the Florida vote recount in 2000.

Even when the news is complex, most of his pieces run no more than 26 seconds. Often, they are shorter than that. And yet his stories include sound, character, plot, resolution and — oh yes — news.

Whether you work in broadcast, print or online, the pressure is on to write shorter pieces. So I asked Peter how he drills right to the core of a story:

You often cover complex stories, like the ones you report from NASA. How do you tell stories in less than 30 seconds and still have them mean something?

You have to be able to pick out the most important information and not get caught up in the minutiae. When you’re writing for radio, there’s very little time to get down to minute details, unless it’s an absolutely vital component to the story. And you have to keep it simple. It’s a big mistake to try to cram too much information into too little time, which is why you have to prioritize and do it quickly.

When you get your hands on a big document, as you often encounter covering NASA, how do you chunk the story into tiny parts? What are you looking for?

The clues to the most important details may be in the headings and sub headings. But you have to remember to keep broad concepts in mind when forming the framework of your story.

With major reports, medical stories, that kind of thing, always look at summaries and conclusions first, because that will give you the biggest clue to the most important information.

And keep in mind: You have to keep asking what the listener will and won’t be able to digest.

Space reporters got lucky with The “Columbia Accident Report,” which was nearly 250 pages long. Those of us who followed the investigation closely had a good idea of what to expect, and we were not disappointed.

I can summarize the report in the following sentences:

“Investigators say the root cause of the accident was a piece of foam that fell off of the fuel tank and punched a hole in the shuttle’s left wing after launch. That hole allowed hot plasma gas to seep into the wing during re-entry, and destroy the orbiter. The report says management problems were a contributing cause.”

That paragraph is all of 15 seconds long, yet, it says it all.

That said, once you get the basic framework or skeleton of the story in your head, you can add other details for later pieces, if they’re not too full of jargon or “inside baseball” information.

Your stories often contain soundbites that are no longer than a few seconds. What makes a great microsoundbite?

Great question. The best microbites, for me, often finish a sentence or a thought. A couple of examples from a recent story on the Florida drought.

KING: SOME parts of Lake Okeechobee are so dry–
ACTUALITY: There is not a drop of water anywhere.
KING: Kim Day was looking at what used to be a boaters’ canal that surrounded the J&S Fish Camp.
ACTUALITY: There’s just nothing there but grass now.

Each of those cuts were not even two seconds long, but helped establish that the “thought” is not mine but that of the interviewee. The first bit also helps me establish the interviewee. The cuts paint a picture of just how bad the situation has become in stark simplicity. It’s a case of when less becomes more.

Notice that I set up the cuts as simply as possible. You know how the phrase “Here’s a man who needs no introduction at all” is inevitably followed by an intro? Well, you don’t need to lead into a cut with the obvious, and sometimes, you don’t need to do much to set it up, either.

There are always exceptions! But after doing this for a while, you get a gut feeling for what works, what flows, what fits without sounding contrived and manufactured.

How long are most of your copy sentences?

About five to six seconds. My rule of thumb is, “If it seems awkward and long when you say it aloud, it probably sounds that way to the listener.” Long sentences can be exhausting to read — and hear. I try to keep each sentence focused on a single thought, and keep it simple.

Anchor leads on commercial radio, especially CBS Radio, are short. What are your best tips for writing anchor leads?

It’s like writing a tease (without saying, “Film at 11!”). You want it to be as good as the lead line of the story; you want it to be interesting and short without blowing the payoff.

Sometimes, I will suggest an anchor lead that might have been my own line in an earlier draft. Sometimes, I’ll chop off my lead line at the last minute, having decided it would be a better — possibly, a perfect — anchor lead, even though it might have been clever and catchy and the kind of lead I’d like coming out of my mouth! Sometimes, you just have to “take one for the team.” But if it makes for a better newscast, so be it.

Walk us through the writing process. How many times do you revise an entire piece while on deadline?

I was having this discussion the other day with a project manager at NASA, asking him how they design a new spacecraft and keep within weight constraints. Turns out they do it the same way I write a news story; they start heavy and trim like crazy to get to their weight limits.

For me, a 30-second story can start out at 45 or 50 seconds. I usually start by deciding what sound I want to use and write around those cuts. I time it out, and if it runs long, I may say a few (unprintable!) words and then cut a line or two. Sometimes, it means cutting great copy, sometimes it means cutting great sound.

But most importantly, it’s the process of realizing that you cannot do it all in 35 seconds, so you have to do what you can. And in the end, the story often turns out to be exactly what I hoped it would be or better, because I found a better and shorter way to tell it.

Often you file many versions of the same story. What’s the trick for finding new angles on stories that everyone is covering?

Look beyond the obvious, and look for little things. Even one detail can make a difference.

For example, in covering the recent Missouri floods, I interviewed two women looking at their house — surrounded by water — from a distance in Levacy, Mo. After the interview, I looked up to notice that we were all standing on Pacific Avenue! And then it hit….they were “watching the ocean surrounding their home..on Pacific Avenue!” I believe you’d call that one a gold coin. But even silver can be a winner, too. Especially if it’s something that nobody else may have noticed.

On breaking stories, there are always some details you can substitute for others to add new information and keep the story fresh. And if there aren’t, it’s an opportunity for you to do the story in a shorter amount of time!

For packages with nonbreaking news, it’s fairly easy. I interviewed the Expedition 15 Space Station crew last week for 10 minutes … during which we talked about several subjects. I didn’t know what I was going to get going into the interview, but I came out with three distinct stories. The first was about the personal items the crew received with the recent arrival of an unmanned cargo ship. The second was on preparations for a coming space walk (“It’s Memorial weekend for millions of Americans, but there’s no holiday in space, as the space station crew prepares for this week’s space walk.”). And the third was about Astronaut Suni Williams and her dog, Gorby, whom she misses and talks about often. Three distinctively different stories, all interesting in their own way.

Often, it boils down to the homework you do before the interview and how much you think ahead. You need to ask yourself, “How can I get the most mileage out of this interview? If I’m writing pieces for this afternoon, is there anything that will still hold up for the morning?” And chances are, there will be if you’ve thought about it.

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