By Holland Cooke
BLOCK ISLAND, RI — If you’re among radio’s remaining local news people, you can improve your chances of remaining even longer by story-telling as impactfully as possible.
Your work – relevant, plainspoken newscasts – can make the station more habit-forming. Promos that assure “WE’VE GOTCHA COVERED” only talk-the-talk. Walk-the-walk by reckoning what matters to your target listener, and sounding-newer every time they hear you. If you do, you’ll prompt what the lab coat crowd at Arbitron calls “additional occasions of listening,” the quickest way to grow Share.
• Home Run: Someone who hears your copy emits an audible “Hmmm.”
• Grand Slam: He or she quotes you to a friend or family member.
• So make it a goal not to repeat any story same-day AM Drive to PM Drive or today’s PM Drive to tomorrow’s AM Drive without something new in the first sentence.
• Consider “YESTERDAY” a 4-letter word. Your job is to deliver survival information that helps-listeners-along the road ahead. Tell ‘em how whatever-happened-yesterday will matter to ‘em today.
• Advance stories as much as possible. Put the very latest aspect, or some interesting wrinkle, right up top; rather than telling the story chronologically. Wire services are controlled by newspapers. Copy tends to be past tense, not teasing the next aspect that you want listeners to stay tuned for.
Apply the “who cares?” test to every story. Just because it’s on the wire, or in the paper, doesn’t mean a story has to play on your air.
• Indeed, be wary of playing something from the paper if you can’t add some wrinkle that sounds newer. The morning paper is yesterday’s news. So watch the wire or work the phones for some aspect that qualifies, as David Brinkley used to say on Sunday morning, as “WHAT HAPPENED SINCE THE NEWSPAPERS.”
• Admittedly, many stories might not have moved lately, but would be conspicuous if missing. In such cases, you can at least sound newer, by writing-around, as ABC News Radio anchor Cheri Preston did a-daypart-later: “A SHOOTING IN SEATTLE HAS THE CITY ON-EDGE.”
Write short sentences, and short one- or two-line stories, as Paul Harvey did. Some important stories are only worth one sentence. Examples, from WCBS/Wall Street Journal business reporter Joe Connolly:
AMERICAN EXPRESS CUSTOMERS ARE CHARGING 16 PERCENT LESS THAN A YEAR AGO.
WAL-MART WILL START SELLING LAPTOPS FOR $298.
NOW THAT PRICES HAVE COME DOWN — 20 OR 30 PERCENT — HOME SALES ARE STARTING TO RISE AGAIN.
XEROX SAYS COMPANIES ARE PRINTING MORE COLOR PAGES – BUT FEWER BASIC BLACK AND WHITE PAGES BECAUSE ROUTINE BUSINESS ACTIVITY IS DOWN.
But avoid missing verbs. The following — which is NOT a sentence — is confusing to the ear: “GOVERNOR DOUGLAS TAKING HEAT FROM THE STATE SENATE OVER HIS NEW BUDGET.”
Use second person singular (“YOU” and “YOUR”) wherever possible. It talks to the listener as an individual. “IF YOU’RE TRYING TO STEAL CABLE WITH A BLACK BOX, YOU BETTER WATCH OUT!”
Sound like you’re on-top-of what’s-about-to-happen and you’ll extend your Time Spent Listening:
“HOLLYWOOD’S JUST ABOUT TO ANNOUNCE THIS YEAR’S COVETED OSCAR NOMINATIONS…
“TRADERS ON WALL STREET ARE BRACING FOR ANOTHER EXCITING MORNING AFTER YESTERDAY’S BIG SELL-OFF.”
Other Style tips:
Obituary leads should be four words. You’ll have to re-write the wire, which is notorious for reporting deaths of famous people with run-on sentences that postpone what’s-being-reported:
DON CORNELIUS, 74, CREATOR OF THE LONG-RUNNING AMERICAN TELEVISION SHOW “SOUL TRAIN,” THAT INTRODUCED MAINSTREAM AUDIENCES TO BLACK MUSIC AND CULTURE, WAS FOUND DEAD IN LOS ANGELES, APPARENTLY FROM A SELF-INFLICTED GUNSHOT WOUND.
Anyone famous enough for radio to report his or her death is a headline. So write-for-the-ear:
DON CORNELIUS IS DEAD. HE CREATED AND HOSTED “SOUL TRAIN,” THE LONG-RUNNING TV SHOW THAT MAINSTREAMED BLACK MUSIC AND CULTURE. HE WAS FOUND DEAD IN LOS ANGELES, APPARENTLY FROM A SELF-INFLICTED GUNSHOT WOUND. DON CORNELIUS WAS 74.
And try to avoid “wire words” that don’t sound conversational. Who says “MOTORISTS? ” If you do, your copy sounds clinical, at-arm’s-length-from heavy in-car users. Re-write to instead say “YOU”/“YOUR.”
And “LEGISLATION” is a red flag. Does what’s-being-reported impact listeners yet? If not, why are you doing the story?
• “STATE SENATOR LARRY JAMIESON HAS PROPOSED LEGISLATION TO PROHIBIT…” blends-into the blah blah blah, and screams press release. It describes a process, what-guys-in-suits-are-arguing-about-under-a-dome.
• Is Larry asking constituents to weigh-in? Say so, by elevating the consequence that what’s-being-proposed would have on the listener’s life: “SHOULD IT BE AGAINST-THE-LAW TO [whatever]? STATE SENATOR LARRY JAMIESON THINKS SO…” [tape].
Recommended reading, if you don’t already have this book: Writing Broadcast News: Shorter, Sharper, Stronger by Mervin Block. This is the best book of its kind, and his advice can make your work sound instantly better.
See/hear/read more from consultant Holland Cooke at www.HollandCooke.com; and follow HC on Twitter @HollandCooke.