Grace Murray is a journalism student in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. She specialises in arts and culture reporting and has a passion for music and entertainment.
In an age where journalists continue to shift from job to job and take on different roles, it is not uncommon to find a print journalist making their way into audio. While both industries require a basis of journalistic knowledge, they happen to be worlds apart. The transition from written to audio storytelling can be confusing and at times unbelievably complicated but when broken down it is easier to understand.
Learn to write concisely
In written prose there is bountiful room for fancy words and intricate phrases that spill across the page beautifully, like in this sentence, but that does not work in audio. The translation of word count to audio minutes is not in a writer’s favour. A four-minute audio story is about 500 to 600 words. Every audio story requires some sort of script whether that be in podcasting, radio, a news bulletin or a documentary. These scripts must be quick and easy to read and without any unnecessary words.
Not everything that looks good on paper sounds good in audio
Some of the fancy words that writers love do not translate well for the ears. Writing for the ear is an art rather than science. In the case of audio storytelling, less is more. Complex sentences are hard to read for the storyteller and often result in jumbling of words and lots of frustration. Listeners also have a tendency to get lost in the words when there are complex sentences and they miss out on information. While writing an audio script, read it out loud a few times to catch awkward phrasing and any tricky words.
Changing your interview style
In written journalism, the interview serves to gather information and get a few quotes to sprinkle into the story. In audio, the interview is the entire final product in most cases. In podcasts or news bulletins, which are edited before being published, the interviewer can improvise dialogue that simplifies the interview if anything is unclear.
When interviewing live, however, everything must be clear right away. The interviewer has to be prepared for anything and the interviewee needs to understand what is expected of them. The best way to be entirely prepared for any audio story is to do a pre-interview which is a casual conversation where the interviewer can ask basic questions about the topic, get to know the interviewee better and brief them on what they should expect in the interview. One good tip is to always ask an interviewee to repeat the question in their answer which allows for easier editing so the interviewer does not have to interject and clarify anything in their responses.
Pitching audio stories
Audio stories have a fairly similar pitching process as written stories. The most significant difference is that they require a little bit more planning. Audio story pitches must have a clear storyline and a list of potential interviewees but you also need to think of added background sounds and sound effects to give the story depth.
Some stories are not meant for audio storytelling because they lack interesting sounds to bring the story to life. For example, a story about a desk job might have the sounds of paperwork shuffling, clacking keyboard keys and the humming of office chatter whereas a story about a Disneyland railroad conductor will have train noises, Disney music, ride effects and people talking joyfully. Planning how to gather extra sounds is an important part of the pitch.
Learn the lingo
Put nut grafs, ledes and deks to the side and be prepared to adopt a new vocabulary. Fortunately, in audio there are a few terms that carry over such as pitches and hooks but there are still quite a few that are unique to the industry.
When transitioning into audio it helps to know what the professionals are talking about when they say certain things. Actualities are gathered quotes from subjects, ambience is natural background sound, natural sound is sound recorded in the field, tracks are the reporter's narration and host intros and outros are scripted bits that open and close a story. These are just a few of the many new terms that are used heavily in the audio industry and there are quite a few more. Check out some glossaries, such as in Poynter’s Writing for the Ear course and the New York Film Academy’s website.
It takes time to learn a new skill so do not stress over audio concepts and try to get every detail right. Just practice, learn from mistakes and move on. Audio storytelling is not easy and you will not learn it overnight, but you will hone the skill with time, patience and confidence.
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