Radio Scripting

Developed by: Elvira Truglia for AMARC

Writing for radio – an introduction

Radio can be a lot of things: it can be a news report, a commentary, a conversation, an audio postcard, a documentary… 

Your story can be a combination of all these and more. Regardless of the format, radio journalism is like storytelling - it is conversational in style. Radio scripting is a tool that will help you tell your story.

Live radio is stressful enough without the added burden of having to decide what to say next. It is much better to write your announcements beforehand. You can then focus entirely on your delivery. Reading material well on-air is not easy. However, with rehearsal and confidence things will gradually fall into place. When you become proficient, you can replace complete scripts with dot-points for ad-libbing. But if in doubt, script it. It is far better to say something worthwhile, albeit a little stiffly, than “uumming” and “ahhhing” throughout your program. Writing scripts will take you longer to prepare for your show but developing loyal listeners makes it worth it!

Think of your script as a way of writing on paper what you hear and see in your imagination. It can be used as a guide for live and pre-produced programming.  Your script will be a guide for the host or narrator of an audio piece and/or for the on-air technician or technical producer who will be mixing your script to tape.

In this unit, you will learn the basic principles of writing for radio to help you script your material. You will also learn about writing cues and ensuring continuity in your scripts as well as how to develop your own style. 

Basic principles

Language, grammar and punctuation

There is a big difference between radio and print or television stories. Since we can't go back to read the story over like a newspaper, and we don't have the visual images of TV, the radio journalist has to write so that listeners can understand the story the first time it is read. Below are some basic principles on writing for radio concerning language, grammar/punctuation and script layout.

Write as you speak, in simple sentences. Formal grammar and syntax are inappropriate for the conversational style of radio announcing.

Avoid highly specialised terms, unless they are explained. 

No: "The allochthonous population of Brussels is gradually outnumbering the autochthonous inhabitants."

Yes: "There are more and more people from different ethnic backgrounds in Brussels."

Test your script as you write. Don't just run your eyes over it, or murmur under your breath. Read it out loud. If you trip over a word or phrase, it needs changing before show time. This will make it much easier on you and your audience.

Use precise, clear language. The text should unfold in a logical manner and be easy to follow by ear. If you are not sure about a sentence or paragraph, read it out to somebody and see whether they understand. 

No: The other day, the police confirmed the suspicion of the family of racial motives in the well-known case of the murder of the old woman."

Write for one listener.  Write and deliver your words as though you are speaking to one person, not a crowd. Treat your listener as an individual and you'll build a loyal audience.

No: "As you all surely know, March 21 is the International Day Against Racial Discrimination. So if any of you people are interested, you can attend free training courses at our radio on that day."

Yes: “March 21 is the International Day Against Racial Discrimination. If you are interested in attending a free training course, come to the radio station on that day.”

Write news thoughtfully. News or documentary material should be delivered slowly, and in small chunks. News is information-heavy, and more difficult to digest. Give your listeners time to chew it over.

Think for the listener rather than yourself! Assess your script from the position of a listener. 

Avoid abstractions. Show, don't tell. Be concrete and talk in pictures and images. It may sound funny, but radio can be a very visual medium. You have to give listeners something to "look" at... with their imagination instead of their eyes.

Don’t overload your text with too much information.

No: "Between February and June 2000, there was a 21.53% increase in the deportation rate. From July until September, this escalated to 34.6%, states the recently published report by…".

Yes: "The recently published report by...reveals out a drastic increase of over 30% in the deportation rate in the year 2000".

Simplify or round numbers. Say “nearly 16 million” instead of the actual figure of “15 870 222”. Using comparisons can be helpful. For instance, a local city of comparable size when mentioning the size of a foreign city.

Avoid repetitions, overused words and tongue twisters.

Expand and elaborate on a point that may not immediately have been conveyed. For instance, don't assume that everyone knows who Fidel Castro is. 

No abbreviations should be used if you can avoid them, unless you know that they are very well known. If you can’t help avoid them, mention the name in full in the beginning and keep reminding the listener. You cannot re-wind a radio programme and listen to a detail missed out. 

Yes: "The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, better known by the French acronym AMARC, that’s l’Association mondiale des radiodiffuseurs communautaires..."
Use brackets and quotation marks as little as possible because they are not audible. 
No: "The mention of ‘colour’ is unnecessary in most crime stories, but this is (nearly always) ignored by even the most ‘progressive’ newspapers."
Adjectives and personal values should be avoided in news writing. If you want to give your opinion, do it through a personality you quote. 
No: “The mayor’s remarks on the new legislation are a setback to local efforts.”

Yes: "The Citizens’ Collective of Lyon condemned the mayor’s remarks on the new legislation, describing them as a setback to local efforts."

Avoid using pronouns such as he, her, they etc. The writer knows who they are referring to, but this may not be so clear for the listener. It is better to repeat than assume.

Avoid lists. You may end up losing the listener's interest.

Write short sentences using the "active" voice. 

No: " The world’s fastest growing criminal business is considered to be people trafficking.”

Yes: " People trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal business.”

Use the present tense where possible.

Punctuate to suit your own reading style.

Yes: "Children learn to build musical instruments using scrap material like toilet paper rolls or popcorn seeds.”

Yes: "Children learn to build musical instruments using scrap material, like toilet paper rolls or popcorn seeds.”

Titles go before names.
Yes: "Minister of Labour, Maurizio Sacconi.”; “Musician, Youssou N’Dour.”

Script layout

Prepare your material so that the path between your eyes, brain and mouth remains clear. For instance:

o Write hard-to-pronounce words phonetically 
o Write names or figures in full
o Use an easy-to-read font in a large size
o Double space all copy for easy reading
o Type on one side of the page only
o Use one inch margins
o Exaggerate where the paragraph begins by spacing
o Mark your copy to guide your delivery. Marking copy is important to ensure easy reading
o If you want a word emphasized, underline it. Also, put slash marks after the sentences where pauses are required

Writing cues

The more complex your radio format, the more complex the audio mix – or melded segments, background sound and music – will be. To make it easier, you will need to write cues in your script to indicate transitions in an audio story, or when to bring “in” or fade “out” each sound element:

o Actuality: an edited comment or expression meant to serve as a quote; usually recorded at the scene of an event.
o Clip: Segment of audio, any length, played as a unit; usually the same as actuality; may be a phrase or sentence that becomes part of an actuality.
o Segment: an edited interview or narrated story with actualities; it could also refer to a clip or actuality. 
o Ambience: a background sound usually recorded at the scene of an event. Ambience helps place your listener at the event as a participant or observer.
o Narration: the story told by a host, announcer or presenter.

The final script of your piece can also be the transcript of your show, or a detailed rendition in writing of a recording.

Style and continuity

“Script writing is just as much a craft as interviewing, tape editing and mixing. Write for your own voice. Follow the same rules that would apply for print journalism. Aiming one's style in the direction of magazine writing is suggested. 

The length of each narration segment is generally determined by how much information and context is necessary to make sense of taped segments. One should also consider the level of artistic or stylistic writing in which the wish to engage. Commentary runs long. News runs short. Read out loud a lot to gauge its acceptability and flavor. This is really a question of more or less salt. 

Pay close attention to the beginning and end of each actuality. Your script should flow in and out them in a seamless fashion. 

A simple method is to paraphrase your speaker's comments. The sentence or question just before the edited cut may provide some clues. Go back to your transcripts. But don't limit yourself. There are many script writing methods. 

Whatever you write should provide continuity and smooth transitions between cuts and topic shifts. Also, be sure the script clarifies any references to people, places, institutions, laws or any other detail or concept that may not be swiftly identified by the common listener. 
You can solve many dilemmas or time constraints that you may encounter with good script writing.” 

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