Color Notes

photo of colored pencils
Listen to “Color Notes”

A school bell. A siren. Traffic. An airplane. Crickets. An opening door . . . These sounds are known as “signature sounds.” You know what they are as soon as you hear them.

To be honest, I don’t know what the opposite of a “signature sound” is except that it’s a sound that doesn’t stand on its own; it requires some explanation. A lobster trap hauler. Wind in the sails of a sail boat. A splashing dolphin. A wheat thresher. Assembling a toddler’s playpen.

Signature sounds and, I guess, non-signature sounds are included in a radio story to put a listener on location sonically and foster a visual in a listener’s mind. As NPR reporter John Burnett says, sounds are “what you do to bring radio alive.”

But then there are images radio producers can’t produce with sound. The look on a face. Clothing. A landscape. Architecture. A painting . . . Those images require narration to be visual, what some producers call “color notes.” And, since a radio producer can’t capture how these things look with a microphone, they typically require a reporter take notes on paper or into a recorder.

John has reported for NPR since the 1980s. His beat is the southwest and immigration. He’s known as a reporter who likes to include color notes in his writing. In fact, it’s part of what makes his stories stand out from others on the network.

Recently, John reported an immigration story set in a federal court house — no mics allowed. All the quotes and descriptions in his story — the color notes — were captured by pen and paper. John relates the backstory on reporting Inside The Trial Of 3 Guatemalan Mothers Separated From Their Children on this episode of HowSound.


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  • Andrew Cavette



    You asked about the hotel-as-studio sound quality. It was fine. Had you not mentioned it, I would not have heard it.

    Why leave in so much of John’s breathing. Was that important? I’m asking. Really asking. I know cutting out all the breaths leads to that “Missing breath” effect, but in my ears it was a lot. (Thank you).

  • Rob Rosenthal



    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for listening and for your note.

    Glad the recording sounded good. I put up a bunch of blankets in a closet area. Put blankets and pillows on the floor. Moved a table into the closet and put a blanket over that. And then just used a field mic. And, yeah, it sounded better than I thought.

    As for the breaths…. I cut a bunch out. I left some/many in to make sure John sounds like himself. I don’t want to make so many cuts that a person doesn’t resemble themselves. At the same time, people typically need to be cleaned up — myself included. So, finding that line is the challenge.

    All the best,

  • Bridget



    Rob: You raised an important question when you asked if color commentary could lead to bias.

    Frankly, as a former radio broadcaster and reporter, I have to ask how can it not? Words convey many levels of information. Even the most seemingly basic words. Ask Hemingway.

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