Phyllis Fletcher & Robert Smith
Creativity in a Minute
Nobody gets a Peabody award for a piece under a minute. Reporters don’t dream of writing 45 seconds of copy. NPR doesn’t even archive its news spots on its website. After they go out on the radio waves, they are gone forever.
But we’re here to argue that spots are an opportunity, not a curse. We like to think of them as the research and development arm of public radio. Spots are how you can dip into a new subject. Or update an ongoing story. For new reporters, it’s a chance to learn skills and get paid for the first time. For radio veterans, it’s a chance to try out new tricks with no risk. As you’ll hear in this manifesto, spots can be more wildly creative than feature stories that are ten times longer. We’ll show you how to pull it off.
But first, one more argument for the lowly spot. As NPR newscasters like to remind us, the top-of-the-hour newscasts are the most-listened-to “show” in public radio. 26 million people hear at least one NPR newscast a week. NPR’s former congressional correspondent Elizabeth Arnold would give reporters this advice: Spots will make you famous. (See Elizabeth Arnold’s Transom manifesto here.)
Shall I compare thee to a newscast spot?
A spot, at its shortest, is a Shakespearean sonnet. 14 lines: a mere 7 sentences.
At NPR, that means the report shouldn’t be longer than 45 seconds. At Marketplace, they can have a leisurely 90 seconds. The Public Radio News Directors association gives awards for spots that stretch up to two minutes. But regardless of the length, a great spot follows the old sonnet principles.
- Focus on one subject.
- Use vivid language and concrete examples.
- And if you can get away with it, make sure there’s a turn in the piece. (Poets call it the volta, a little shift in tone. A question is answered. A problem is solved. Perfect for news.)
So what can transform a run-of-the-mill, just-the-facts spot into journalistic poetry?
We have 7 tips for those 7 sentences.
Tip #1: Do less
The biggest mistake that reporters make with spots is to cram in too much information. They think that because the spot is so short, they need to fill it up with facts and speak faster. This will kill a spot.
You must narrow your focus.
There’s a saying at Marketplace that a spot should be constructed like a good cocktail: two clear ideas and a twist. If that sounds bland (and you long for more garnish and umbrellas in your cocktail) then listen to what Marketplace’s Stephen Beard did with this spot from a bank hearing in London.
(Audio from American Public Media’s Marketplace (c)(p) 2009 Used with permission. All rights reserved. To hear the full segment and intro, click here.)
Beard’s seven sentences work so well because he has focused and stripped down the story to the essentials. He has his two clear ideas: what happened (the grilling) and why (ritual humiliation). And here comes the volta, the intoxicating twist at the end (bankers in a bag with snakes).
Think of everything that Beard did not include. We don’t know the bankers’ names or what they said. He doesn’t include who ran the hearing or speculate about what will happen next or try to give us the history of the financial crisis. The point of the spot is to explain the theatrics of the hearing and every sentence works toward that goal. The tight focus makes this a good spot, but what makes it great is the writing.
Tip #2: Write Strong
Listen back to the banker spot and think about the script. Beard uses short sentences. There are few adjectives, but he makes the most of them (quivering, white-faced). The hard work is done by verbs. The bankers “squirmed.” The banks were “propped-up.” And Beard knows that people will always remember the last sentence, so he saves the best bit for last.
Spots are so short that you should use the most vigorous, active language you can get away with. Listen to the next spot. It’s not unusual for NPR news to talk about revolutions and attacks, but Susan Stamberg brings that violent imagery to a spot about art.
And don’t bogart all those good lines for yourself. Give the newscaster reading your intro something interesting to say. By the time you start talking, your spot is already a quarter of the way done.
In general, you don’t want to crowd a spot with too much flair. If there’s a gripping story or you have a lot of fantastic tape, then the writing can be spare. But if your words have to do the hard work, then go for it. NPR’s Mike Pesca did this great spot on a memorabilia auction of the original rules of basketball.
Now, it would be hard to listen to 4 minutes of that kind of flashy writing. But a spot is over before you can get tired of the trick. As we’ll hear below, you can get away with just about anything for 45 seconds.
Tip #3: Go Live
All of the reports we’ve heard so far are studio productions. But spots really start to pop when you get out in the world.
If you are at a place where news is happening, then even the shortest description of the scene can be a memorable spot. At NPR, newscasters will often just call reporters in the field and ask them to describe what they see. No script. No fuss. Here’s David Greene from outside the royal wedding in London. He literally just looks around and starts talking for 22 seconds.
The newscasters can fill in the details. Your job as a reporter is to make the listener feel like they are there with you. Listen to a master do it. NPR’s West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton recorded this at a protest in Dakar.
If you listen closely, you can tell that this wasn’t recorded all in one shot. At the beginning, you can hear the fear in her voice; she has long pauses and incomplete sentences. She’s just doing the most basic description into her recorder in case she needs it. “Our eyes are still smarting and watering from the tear gas.” Then you can hear her compose herself and explain the backstory of what happened and why. In her voice and words, you can hear the dramatic arc of the protest. The important thing is that it sounds live and exciting. Scripting would have killed the drama.
Even if you don’t find yourself in a riot or at royal wedding, you can still use this trick. Going live from the scene makes just about any report stand out. Here’s NPR’s Martin Kaste on skis after a snowstorm in Seattle.
If you want to try a live spot, remember:
- Don’t script it. The live feel is what you want.
- Do it multiple times, at different lengths, so your newscaster has options.
- Use your senses. What do you see, hear, smell?
- Don’t include numbers you can’t check or things that might change. Leave that for the intro.
- Most importantly, say where you are standing for the outcue!
Tip #4: Find Characters
The best spots come when you can bring real people into the mix; or just a single person, really. If you can find one compelling story, you don’t need anything else. NPR’s Tamara Keith has to cover all sorts of boring economic reports, so instead of doing another spot on jobs numbers, she got someone who lived the news.
And here’s a little secret. All those experts and professors and politicians that fill up the newscasts? They are real people, too. And if you ask the right questions and use the right tape, you can turn a talking head into a real character. When you get someone into a storytelling mode, they’ll tell you a story.
Here’s a very simple trick from NPR’s Zoe Chace. Her expert sounds human from the first cut.
Chace also does a great job of writing in and out of her tape. If you want more than just one cut of a person in your spot, you’ll have to use sentence fragments. Have them finish your sentence, and you finish theirs. A character has much more presence in a spot that way.
Tip #5: Get Real
As a reporter, you will get sent to cover canned events: news conferences, speeches, announcements. Look for the real life moments: a great pause, a sigh, a laugh, or someone choking up. These can make a spot. Scan the audience for someone who is invested in the outcome; use them instead of the speaker. Or grab people after the event. Have them tell you a detail from their life, or show you something.
When I (Phyllis here) heard that the city of Seattle was discussing pedestrian rage, I took the debate out to the real world. At KUOW, where I work, spots can be as long as two minutes, and so I used the time to create a journey.
“The Seattle mayor’s office sent a press advisory that it would hold a news conference on the city’s pedestrian safety enforcement efforts. This immediately started an argument in the newsroom, right down party lines: pedestrians vs. drivers. That argument happens every day on city streets, so the news conference was just an excuse to go out, get the argument, and put it on the air. And break at least one law while doing so.”
Just spend a minute and think: where will this news be felt the most. Marketplace’s Gregory Warner had to do a spot on shrimp prices after the gulf oil spill. So on his lunch hour he went hunting for consumers. In fact, in this spot he hits the shrimp trifecta: a shrimp eater, a shrimp fisher, and a shrimp economist.
(Audio from American Public Media’s Marketplace (c)(p) 2010 Used with permission. All rights reserved. To hear the full segment and intro, click here.)
Warner does something nice here. He includes himself asking a question, and what a fantastic question: “What’s your shrimp alternative?” Her answer is priceless. Reporter questions are a great way to create a little back and forth drama in a very short timeframe.
NPR’s Steve Henn uses the questions nicely for a spot from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Also note that Henn records his reaction to their answers.
This spot is awesome because it combines real people with a live, you-are-there feel.
Tip #6: Tell Stories
So you have your tight focus. And your vigorous writing. You are in the field and you’ve found real people. It’s time to craft a true story.
This is so hard to do in under a minute that you really have to be thinking about the narrative while you are recording in the field. Ask yourself: what is the story I’m in right now? How does it start? How does it end? And to make your life easier, start looking for the shortest little cuts of tape you can use to tell that story.
A classic version of this is the journalistic mystery. Something weird happens and you as the hero reporter figure it out. Bob Moon from Marketplace went out to cover Russian President Vladimir Putin in New York City and he came back with this funny and satisfying spot.
(Audio from American Public Media’s Marketplace (c)(p) 2003 Used with permission. All rights reserved.)
The event was a staged photo op. Moon doesn’t have any sound of Putin. And the news value is questionable. So Moon does something shrewd. He holds the tiny bit of news until the end and starts with the action. Putin shows up at the gas station. Moon posits the mystery, “What was he doing there?” Then it’s just fun until the answer is revealed.
Another form of mini-narrative is finding the conflict. I (Robert, here) went to cover New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade for NPR. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was taking heat for making a bad joke about the Irish, and so I went hunting for the conflict.
“There is a funny back story to this particular spot. I was going for the NPR record for the amount of natural sound in a spot. So I crafted it to maximize the amount of short sound bites. In the end, I fit 13 actualities, 3 ambience beds and 2 sound posts into 45 seconds. But I still managed to make it a recognizable story.”
Making a scene like this is easier if you have the action in front of you. Just tell the listeners what happened first, what happened next, and how it all turned out. But even without dramatic action, a great reporter can craft a narrative… even out of silence. NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt did just that from Port of Seattle during the recession.
So Joffe-Walt turned a simple fact (it’s quiet) into a story (it used to sound like this, then this happened, now it’s like this). Joffe-Walt told us that she had planned to get a tour of the port, but her guide didn’t show up and she was stuck outside the gates with the PR woman. This spot is genius out of necessity.
Tip #7: Have Fun
Despite our pleas for more creative spots, it’s inevitable that newscasts will mostly be filled with short, just-the-facts reporting. That’s okay. It’s what newscasts were designed for. And the truth is, the demands of the news are so immediate, so overwhelming, that reporters often have to file with only a few minutes preparation. NPR’s fantastic White House Correspondent Scott Horsley will do a half dozen spots in a single day. He told us his personal motto for spots: If you can’t make it beautiful, at least make it clear. And if you can’t make it clear, at least make it short.
But when you have the time, when the news is slow or the editors are in a good mood, we encourage you to try something different. Have a little fun.
John Stempin is the overnight editor at NPR’s newscast unit. And after that last big lottery jackpot, he layered beds of sound to capture the frenzy over the tickets.
We’ve heard great spots packed with music, or sound effects, or TV clips.
NPR’s Planet Money team is playing around with chatty two-person spots. Here’s an explainer on orders for durable goods:
There’s a little bit of explanatory journalism in there, but mostly it’s just refreshing to hear two people joke around in a fairly natural way. The newscast unit loved that spot, but they rejected a similar Planet Money one explaining housing starts.
The newscasters felt the tone of the spot was wrong. It ended up airing on Morning Edition instead.
The trick is to figure out if your gimmick matches the subject matter. It’s easier to get music into an arts spot than an economics spot. TV and movie clips work better with cultural reporting than disasters. The gimmick should be surprising, and yet feel like a natural fit. When Zoe Chace did a spot on a lawsuit involving rapper T-Pain, you can’t believe what you are hearing, but you can’t imagine it any other way.
The important thing to take from all of these examples, from this whole manifesto, is that it doesn’t take much to break the mold of spot reporting. It’s like a little experiment in radio. Change this variable, swap out that one. Play with the voicing, the tone, the soundtrack, the actualities, the writing, or the focus and see what happens.If it works, you shout eureka and get hailed as a genius.If it doesn’t work… well, the embarrassment will be over in 45 seconds and you can start hatching a plan for the next great spot.
Thanks to all the reporters who donated spots and advice for this manifesto. As well as the examples you heard, we got help from Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman and Stacey Vanek Smith. We also got great ideas from NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Dina Temple-Raston, Debbie Elliott, Craig Windham, Russell Lewis and Neda Ulaby. Our spiritual and menu advisor is Cathy Duchamp. Special thanks to NPR’s National Desk editor Steve Drummond, who has started a brand new award for outstanding achievements in short reporting, the Eric Hill Spot Award.