Volume 6/Issue 1
Better Writing Through Radio, Part I
At a dinner party hosted by the head of a large public radio station, I overheard the host say at one point, “Writing doesn’t matter much in radio stories, does it?” I thought: is this person drunk? Or do I need to get drunk because I’ve wasted the last several years trying to get better at something no one cares about? I mean, if the writing doesn’t matter, then what’s the difference between a good radio story and a mediocre one? Just the tape?
I would argue that a lot of flabby, barely-interesting radio results from expecting too much from the tape and not enough from the writing. Good writing can make imperfect tape good, and good tape better. It can create thoroughly satisfying radio scenes with no tape at all. It tells listeners why they should bother listening to the tape that’s being played.
Writing for radio is also great discipline. I’ve always been a bit literal-minded, and until I started writing radio stories, I don’t think I got what people meant by “voice” when they talked about writing. With radio, I had to stop writing the way I thought I should, and start writing closer to the way I think and speak; the words had to fit me, so that I could read them out loud.
I’d like to tackle, here, three aspects of radio writing: beginnings, writing into and out of tape, and writing a scene without tape. With those skills, a person can write a radio piece that lasts a minute or an hour. But first let me lay out a few things I find useful to do before I start to write and as I’m writing, because they make the writing process go more smoothly. In radio, I find that being organized and obsessive pays off.
- Over-report. Writing a radio story is much easier when you have more good tape than you can use. I always reach a point, in reporting a story, where I feel like I’m finished. I feel this finished-ness very strongly, and it makes me want to stop interviewing immediately and go home. I force myself to keep going beyond that point because I almost always end up remembering another couple of questions, or one more person it might be good to interview, and something interesting often comes out of sticking around. A corollary of this over-reporting rule: be sure to ask your interviewee all those impertinent, inappropriate questions that float through your head as they’re talking. If you think you might need to say in the story that you thought their ideas in a certain area were kind of crackpot, you will want to have tape from them responding to that.
- Save your emails. As you’re reporting a story, it’s a good idea to email friends or family (or, if you have this kind of relationship, your editor or producer) about what you’re getting. The emails will be a good, brief record of what you found most compelling during the reporting, and they’ll help you remember how things looked and felt when you first saw and did them. Also, writing the story of whatever you’re seeing, in an informal way, to one or two people who are close to you may give you good material for your script later on. Whether you email anyone or not, jot down at the end of the day the moments that stuck in your mind from the interviews you did.
- Save earlier drafts/make an OUTS page. As soon as I open a page to start a story, I open another page and label it “OUTS.” Anything I cut from the story, I paste into the outs page. Any time I start making major revisions in the script, I save it as a new version. It’s hard to resist having a sort of Enlightenment view of whatever you’re working on-it’s getting better and better all the time!-but sometimes the way you phrased some bit the first time was best. And sometimes not. With the earlier versions saved, you can compare and choose.
- Make lists. I always make lists of what I’ve got before I start writing, and the more material I have, the more lists I make. The headings are usually “Scenes,” “Stories,” (i.e. stories that an interviewee tells on tape), and “Ideas” (the big ideas and themes that are part of the story). I’ve also recently started putting a small list on the first page of my tape logs, noting what’s in the log. The lists help me stay focused while I’m writing, rather than getting lost in the material.
Here are the beginnings of three radio stories:
I was hired to interview men and women in the state of Utah who receive Medicaid support for treatment of mental illnesses generally diagnosed as schizophrenia. I had little understanding of schizophrenia before I began, and I have little more understanding now. I took the job because I had no other. I took the job because I’d just quit my steady job, my professional job, after realizing that what I wanted more than anything was to put my boss on the floor, put my foot on his throat, and watch him gag. Then my wife moved out, took the kids and everything. She said, “I’ve thought about it and I really think that this is the best thing for me at this time in my life.”
—Scott Carrier, “The Test.”
On a nondescript patch of desert in Utah live two neighbors who no longer talk to each other. Nuclear waste is the source of their disagreement. Leon Bear and Margene Bullcreek, with about a dozen others, live on the Goshute Native American reservation in Skull Valley. Leon Bear wants to rent out the reservation to store much of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. Bullcreek, who lives across the street from Bear, hates the idea.
—Dave Kestenbaum, “A Tribe Split By Nuclear Waste.”
My name is Joe Roberts. I work for the state. I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville, Barracks Number Eight. I always done an honest job, as honest as I could. I’ve got a brother named Frankie, and Frankie ain’t no good.
—Bruce Springsteen, “Highway Patrolman”
These are three very different kinds of stories: an essay, a news story, and a song. But in each one, right away, you have characters, conflict, place, stakes, and a story where you want to know what happens next. Each includes details – neighbors who no longer speak, a man who dreams of making his boss choke, a sergeant who tries to be honest—that stick in your mind and heighten your understanding of the characters. Other details that might be interesting but aren’t necessary are omitted. How old are any of these people? How many kids does Scott have? Is Frankie the younger brother or the older one? We don’t know. Maybe we find out later, maybe we don’t. It depends on what the story needs.
Writing, in a radio story, has to be tighter and simpler than print: the beginning should hook listeners fast and hard, the way a song does. A succession of straightforward, declarative sentences (like those in the beginnings above) might feel a bit too clipped in a print story, but it’s just right for radio. A reader can always go back and re-read part of a print story, or stop for a minute to think about a difficult section, and then resume reading. Radio has to be clear the first time around. Also, a radio story has to be a little sluttier with its charms: it can’t be coy and get to the most interesting stuff a couple of minutes in. It has to frontload the drama, and not be too subtle about it. Bullcreek, in Dave’s story, “hates” the nuclear waste proposition. Hate is a nice, strong word. Joe Roberts, in the Springsteen song, does not beat around the bush: his brother, Frankie, is no good. We, as listeners, know right away that this story will end in tragedy, but that doesn’t spoil the ending for us, just primes us for it. In fact, giving away the ending at the start of a radio story can be a great strategy, especially if the story itself is a slow build. In one beginning I wrote, I laid out the whole story before playing any tape:
This story is like one of those Russian dolls, where there’s always a smaller one inside. The smallest doll, the core of the drama, is the fact that Mubarak, a childhood sissy, grew up to be a different kind of sissy from his father. His father is nerdy and bookish; Mubarak’s gay. Everything around that core gets bigger and bigger until you can’t believe the biggest and the smallest have anything to do with each other, the one is so bloated and the other so tiny. At the beginning of this story, Mubarak’s parents are married and in love, and both prepared to live far from everything they know to be with each other. At the end of the story, they may still be in love, but they’re divorced, and an ocean apart, and not speaking. And Mubarak is caring for his mother the way a husband might.
Now, in terms of the outcome, there’s no reason to listen to the rest of the piece. But with a lot of stories, the interesting part is not what happened, but how and why it happened, and what role each character played in their own fate.
If you get stuck writing a beginning, go back to a story you like and dissect the way it starts. What did the writer do and how did he do it? The beginning of Scott’s “The Test,” for instance, is a little masterpiece. It’s dense and gripping: in six lines, a man quits his job, loses his family and takes a job as a traveling interviewer of schizophrenics. It’s not generic. Scott doesn’t write: “I hate my boss’ guts.” He writes about a specific fantasy he had about torturing his boss. He doesn’t just say that his wife left, he includes her parting line, so she becomes a bit of a character too. In fact, both of those moments — the line about the boss and the two lines about his wife leaving — are tiny, powerful scenes. He uses repetition to drive home an idea in a poetic way: “I took the job because I had no other. I took the job because I’d just quit my steady job, my professional job…” Every two sentences, he adds a layer, and some new aspect of the drama is revealed. He lays out the central question of the story that will follow-what is the difference between a healthy mind and a sick one? — in a very sly way, almost in passing: “I had little understanding of schizophrenia before I began, and I have little more understanding now.” Think of the beginning of your story as the start of a first date: you want to put your most fascinating, original, honestly seductive self forward.
One last dorky tip for writing beginnings: try writing a host intro before starting to write the opening of the story. That will help you sort out what should go in the story’s set-up, versus how the story itself should start.
Better Writing Through Radio, Part II: Writing to Tape
Ok, writing to tape. Notice that an impulse often comes over you as you start to write into a piece of tape. You begin to summarize what’s in the tape. Rather than setting it up, you start giving away what we’re about to hear, upstaging it. This impulse feels natural, and therefore good, but it’s a storykiller. It drains all the excitement and momentum out of the story. So, the first rule of writing to tape:
Don’t repeat the tape.
The writing that goes around a piece of tape—right before and after it—should work with the tape, as one unit, like a good comedy team: neither one stepping on the other’s lines, and both trying to maximize the audience’s pleasure (or horror, or whatever emotion you’re trying to provoke). Here’s an example of how the script-to-tape relationship sounds when it’s working. This is Ira Glass’ opening to a This American Life episode called “Kindness of Strangers.”
Ira: Brett was standing on a subway platform. Afternoon rush hour, it was crowded. And he noticed this guy… didn’t seem homeless, decent clothes. Stopping in front of each person, looking into his or her eyes, saying something, and moving on to the next person. Turns out the guy was telling people:
TAPE: They could stay or they had to go. They were in or they were out. LITERALLY WHAT WOULD HE SAY. Literally it would be: You? You’re out. You’re gone. You’re gone. You’re OK. You can stay. AND THEN DO PEOPLE LEAVE? No! Not at all. And no one argued with him.
The very last line before the tape, combined with the first line of tape, is sort of a call-and-response package. Listeners get the feeling that Ira and Brett are telling the story together, which they are—but only because Ira is deliberately writing to the tape in a way that creates that feeling. He also wrote the whole opening in a way that emphasized, and drew out, the tension of the scene—what is this guy saying to people?—and then he allowed the tape to come in as the punch line.
A quick word about how to choose tape, since it’s easier to write to good tape than to bad. Use tape where a person is being expressive, or saying something surprising, or being funny, or maybe where you have some interaction with the person you’re interviewing (like in the segment above). Whenever possible, avoid using “explaining tape,”where a person is droning on about statistics, or background information, or giving some long backstory. Unless the person you’re interviewing is great at explaining, YOU should do any explaining in the script, and let the tape be dynamic and emotional. When you take on the drudgery of explaining, you can control it: cut out all the draggy parts and write it as interestingly as possible. Then go to tape. Here’s an excerpt from a story Alix Spiegel did about EMS workers dealing with suicide attempts in one part of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This excerpt starts in the middle of the story, with Alix laying out the statistical evidence suggesting an increase in suicide attempts.
Alix: Jefferson Parrish EMS records show that the number of suicides in October this year was the same as in years past, even though the population was significantly diminished. But anecdotally, supervisor Mike Yoyad, second-in-command, estimated that the service was seeing as many suicides in a day as they usually get in a week. Another EMS worker reported that on his shift, the rate had doubled. And many, like Matthews, say they’re struggling to keep afloat themselves.
TAPE: Honestly, I try not to think about it cause otherwise I’ll end up in the same state as everyone else.
Alix: But some on the force find it more difficult to push emotions away, like crew chief Paul Corello. Corello is a 20-year EMS veteran, with no history of mental disorder, who says he finds himself in an unprecedented position.
TAPE: I cry every day. Every day. I’m at the lowest point in my life that I think I could ever be. Like I said before, my worst enemy is me. Cause when I have idle time, that’s when I… I start to feel real bad. Sometimes I find myself out in the street, knowing I got some errands to go run. And sometimes I can’t even figure out why am I here? Why did I end up in this area here? Why did I come here? What did I need to do here? And I can’t remember.
So, Alix covered the nuts and bolts in her script, and then got to a great piece of tape. The second rule of writing to tape:
Let the tape have the money shot.
Something else to keep in mind, as you’re writing to a piece of tape, is: what exactly do you want to tell listeners about the person they’re going to be hearing from in the tape? Remember that you know a lot more about this person than any of your listeners, and you need to give them the information they need to find the tape you’ve chosen as compelling as you do. For instance, right before Alix plays the second piece of tape above, she tells us that the guy we’re about to hear has been doing his job for 20 years, without ever getting dragged down by it. Then when she plays the tape, and the first thing we hear is this guy saying “I cry every day,” and his voice starts to catch, we know that this is a big deal; this is not a man who has been crying every day for his whole life. Third rule:
Tell listeners what they need to know to get the most out of the tape.
Here’s an odd truth about radio stories: a lot of tape is not that gripping, taken strictly on its own merits. If you heard it without any set-up, it wouldn’t be that interesting. Of course you should always try like mad to get gripping tape, and you want to use that tape whenever you can. But not everyone you interview is going to sob or be hilarious or tell you the most fascinating story you’ve ever heard. With careful writing, though, you can tell a memorable story with tape that is only decent. Here’s a scene from a show I did about American private contractors working in Iraq. The guy in this scene went to Iraq to help rebuild its electrical grid.
Nancy: Mike, from Texas, starts out on a small tear. He’s 30 years old, with dark blue eyes and a blond moustache growing down the sides of his mouth. He instigates the brothel conversation, then orders a bottle of Captain Morgan rum. For himself. But the evening, surprisingly, gets less rowdy as it goes on. It turns out Mike is a geek, though a kind I’ve never encountered before: a power-plant geek. He’s really, really into what he does: the job, the tools.
TAPE: Absolutely. I wanna see the kind of equipment they got. Not only plant equipment and power-producing equipment. I want to see what kind of cranes and logistical equipment we’ve got on site and that sort of thing.
Nancy: He wants to see the cranes. The conversation gets more and more inside: shimstock, couplings, pipe guys versus mechanical guys.
TAPE: And then you got civil guys that want you to set the pipe and set the machinery to the grade of the concrete. And it’s like, no, it don’t work like that. (laugh)
Nancy:There are guys who come to Iraq who know guns and do guns. And then there are guys who come to Iraq who are technicians or specialists in some area: geeks. Sewage geeks, water geeks, refinery geeks, electricity geeks.
Now, neither of these pieces of tape is that great. But if they’re framed right, they give a strong sense of this person, Mike. So even though this scene is short, it was hard to put together, and I had to rewrite it several times, with help from Ira and from Sarah Koenig (who produced the Iraq show), because we wanted to pull off a kind of trick: turn the tape’s weakness into its strength.
Here’s what we did. We realized that the first cut of tape is only interesting because it’s surprising that he finds what he’s talking about so interesting. So, instead of not using that piece of tape because all the equipment he talks about sounds kind of boring, I used the script beforehand to set up the idea that this man loves his job so much that he loves even what we would find unlovable about it. The second piece of tape is even less promising than the first, on the face of it: it’s an inside joke, and we, as listeners, are not on the inside. But in the writing leading into the tape, I tried to set it up so that the tape’s incomprehensibility itself becomes the joke.
You know who’s really good at writing to tape in a way that always makes it interesting? Alex Chadwick, the host of Day to Day. Here’s a snippet from a recent show—a promo that’s less than a minute long.
Alex: Later this week, those space scientists who sent the rover robots to Mars two years ago finally get out of the lab and go to the movies… where they see an IMAX documentary with enormous images from the wide, red plains of a distant planet. And the scientists—the calm, quiet, serious scientists—go wild.
TAPE: It shows me Mars the way I’ve always known it looks. You know? I mean I saw those scenes and it’s: Yeah, that’s what it looks like!
The only thing that would be different if you were there you’d be wearing a space suit. But that’s exactly what it’d be like to be there and experiencing what are rovers have been experiencing, and continue to experience, every single day, even now.
Alex: Exploring Mars by rover. The scientists and the filmmaker, later this week.
Alex’s script seems so breezy and offhand, but it’s actually quite pointed, and it makes this tape so much more compelling than it would be if he just led into it by saying something straightforward, like: “Later this week… scientists who sent those robots to Mars a couple of years ago… talk about the documentary made from the robots’ footage.” Wouldn’t that make your mind start to wander? Instead, he really sells the story, in a simple, direct way he helps us, as listeners, understand how exciting this film must be for the guys who sent the robots up to Mars—and then we get caught up in their excitement. How does he do this? He tells us that these guys almost never leave their lab, and now they have a chance to finally SEE MARS, a place they think about all the time but have never before seen close up. And then he very slyly adds the part about the “calm, quiet, serious scientists” right before he says that they “go wild,” because the thing is, the tape is not wild, it’s pretty subdued. But Alex is saying, look, this is what “wild” from these guys sounds like. Fourth rule:
You are in control of your story: you make the tape work, even if it’s so-so.
A caveat to that rule—in fact, an outright contradiction of it—is that sometimes a piece of tape isn’t working because it really is the wrong piece of tape and you should use a different one. Or maybe it’s cut wrong. I tried about 10 different ways to write into the following piece of tape, about a Palestinian man who grew up in London, then moved to Gaza a few years ago:
TAPE:I’ve put on over 20 kilograms of weight since I’ve come into Gaza… you’d go to the biggest gym, called Rosy, and they’ve got two treadmills. The last gym I joined in London was about… you’d be standing on one treadmill in a line of 50… you’d have remote control on your neck connected to your speakers… you’d be watching MTV or CNN while you’re jogging. Here you’ve got the local stereo put on the side and one guy wants Arabic music while the other guy wants dance music (laugh)…
I was making myself crazy, trying to find a way to explain the kilograms-to-pounds conversion (one kilo = 2.2 pounds, so the guy put on more than 40 pounds) without giving away what he was about to say. I had it in my mind that the line about putting on 20 kilos absolutely had to come at the start of the tape—I liked the idea of getting the dramatic weight gain in first, before you hear about the lameness of the gym. But look how much easier it was to write around, once I moved that line to the end of the cut.
Nancy: Four years ago, Hadi Abushahla left London, and a successful career as an export manager… To move to Gaza City and start a computer store. When he arrived, he wore cufflinks every day. His Arabic was marginal, and had the wrong accent: he’d copied his mother’s West Bank style, not his father’s Gazan one. He was 27 years old and he’d been visiting Gaza since he was 18.
Nancy: Living here, he found out, is not like visiting.
TAPE: You’d go to the biggest gym, called Rosy, and they’ve got two treadmills. The last gym I joined in London was about… you’d be standing on one treadmill in a line of 50… you’d have remote control on your neck connected to your speakers… you’d be watching MTV or CNN while you’re jogging. Here you’ve got the local stereo put on the side and one guy wants Arabic music while the other guy wants dance music (laugh)… I’ve put on over 20 kilograms of weight since I’ve come into Gaza.
Nancy: That’s 44 pounds.
By moving the weight-gain tape to the end of the cut, I not only had easier tape to write into but also had a clear line out of the tape—I could make the kilo-to-pounds conversion there, and give the drama of the weight gain even more emphasis. So, another rule:
Consider re-cutting a piece of tape if the writing isn’t working.
Now I’d like to contradict myself again and say that there are times when it’s good to repeat what’s in the tape—you can do it before or after. If you want to lean on a point in the tape, for instance. I did that in the Iraq scene above, repeating what Mike said about wanting to see the cranes. Another reason to do it would be if the person you’re interviewing says something great but is off-mic. Jack Hitt did this in a This American Life story called “Dawn,”about going home to Charleston, South Carolina to find out what happened to a male-to-female transsexual who lived there in the 1960s, named Gordon. Here, Jack is interviewing his mother.
Jack: She’s lived in Charleston all her life. We poured some iced tea one afternoon, and sat at her dining room table.
TAPE: When Gordon was still a guy, um… can you say that?
Jack: That’s my mom, whispering. You can’t really hear her. What she’s saying is…can you say that on the radio? Here, listen again:
TAPE: When Gordon was still a guy, um… can you say that? Yeah (laugh) I can say that. Ha ha Ok. Um, when Gordon was still a guy…
Jack: You see, good Charlestonians do not discuss private matters openly. If at all, we discuss them sotto voce. Sometimes literally in a whisper.
Jack’s writing turns this piece of tape from a murky moment into a revealing one. It’s important, during taping, to try to get everything on mic, and you wouldn’t want to play off-mic tape too often in any given story, but the script can sometimes rescue tape that would otherwise be unusable. Another rule:
Don’t necessarily reject good tape that happens off-mic.
A couple more basics. If the place where the tape was recorded is audible, you need to tell us, before we hear the tape, what that place is, and maybe describe it, and if necessary tell us why the place is important in the story. You might also want to identify any strange background noises we’d hear in the tape, so that we won’t be distracted by wondering what they are, as we’re listening.
Finally, I’m sure you know this, but there are exceptions to every rule and suggestion I’ve laid out here. Radio can work in a lot of different ways. The main thing to remember, as you’re writing, that it’s your job to keep listeners interested in the story, all the time, and that the script can be one of your best tools for doing that.
About Nancy Updike
Nancy Updike is an award-winning journalist whose stories have appeared on the public radio programs This American Life, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air, among others. She’s written for The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, Salon and the LA Weekly. Her hour-long radio documentary on American civilians working in Iraq won a 2004 Scripps-Howard National Journalism Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for news documentary. She won a Peabody in 1996 for her work as a producer on This American Life, for which she’s a contributing editor.