online radio journalism tutorial
home basics styles judgment newsroom glossary links comments

Improving On-Air Delivery

other topics under NEWSROOM: R.I.P. "Rip 'N' Read", School and Weather Stories, Technical Difficulties

Although the Newswriting for Radio website is devoted, as the name suggests, to improving the writing of radio news, many visitors have requested tips on speaking and vocalization. This page will address two of the most common faults in newsreading: monotonous delivery and slow reading.

Follow the pattern

The reading of news on the radio is expected to conform to a pattern of musical pitches or notes. If you were to speak to your friends using this exaggerated pitch pattern, your conversation would seem a bit too much like "sing-song." The pitch pattern -- which is present in all speech -- does not need to be as noticeable in direct conversation because the listener can pick up visual cues (such as facial expressions or hand gestures) that aid in interpreting the words spoken.

Radio -- unlike television -- must rely solely on vocal quality to convey this additional information, information that may include the length of a story, the story's seriousness and the credibility of sources. The pitch pattern is especially helpful in informing listeners when stories begin and when they end.

Pitch should be considered in relative terms as "high" or "low" based on the range used in normal conversation. Listeners hear the modulation between "high" and "low" pitch and interpret those changes, even though most listeners are unaware of the pattern. They become aware only when the pattern is not properly followed, at which point they become confused or bored by the story.

Change pitches

Stories begin on a "high" pitch and end on a "low" pitch. In between the pitch modulates from one clause or sentence to the next. Within a clause or sentence, the pitch falls slightly from beginning to end, except in questions, where the pitch rises at the end.

For example, in a standard, four-sentence script, the pitch begins "high," falling slightly at the end of the first sentence. The second sentence begins at a lower pitch than the end of the first sentence. The third sentence begins at a higher pitch than the beginning of the second sentence. The final sentence, like the second sentence, begins at a "low" pitch and gently falls towards the end of the script.

When news directors, program directors or general managers complain about monotonous delivery, they are referring to readers who remain on the same pitch throughout the script. The easiest way to gain an understanding of pitch is to listen to the pitch patterns of other anchors and reporters, and to practice, practice, practice. With time, the pattern will become automatic when you're on the air.

Speed it up

The other common fault in newsreading concerns speed. Most beginning radio journalists read and speak too slowly. Perhaps we remember all too well when, in speech and debate class in junior high school, the teacher chastised us for being nervous and speaking too quickly. Radio, however, cannot provide the additional, visual information that exists when speaking in public or on television. With only one mode of information-retrieval available, the radio listener prefers to process speech at a faster rate. Normal conversational speed is generally too slow for reading radio news.

Some reporters and anchors -- notably those on public radio -- seem to want to make an art form out of speaking VERY SLOWLY. Colleagues in public radio claim that their listeners prefer the news to be read slowly. I suspect this preference has more to do with aesthetics than with cognition, but in any case, choosing to read slowly because of the wishes of a public-radio news director may limit a reporter's subsequent career.

Many young journalists find their first jobs with public radio stations. Higher pay and greater opportunities may be found at commercial stations, but commercial-radio news directors often balk at hiring a reporter whose demo tape reveals slow reading. Even if your news director demands slow reading, use examples from the commercial network hourlies (e.g., ABC, AP, CBS, CNN) to set the speed for reading the news on your demo tape.

Monotonous delivery and slow reading are very common among beginning radio journalists. Understanding the causes of these faults can lead to their correction.

The contents of the Newswriting for Radio website are under copyright and may not be printed or reproduced in any form without permission.