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A news director at a radio station in New England once complained to me that whenever he chats with folks at an area store or bank, he finds that these listeners often confuse his station's newscasts with those of his AM rival. Much of his audience cannot seem to tell one station's news from another. While there are plenty of cosmetic changes that will make a newscast distinct -- such as expensive sounders, employing announcers with unusual voices, or rearranging the clock to, say, stick traffic in the middle of the cast -- often the most neglected aspect of the cast is the easiest and least expensive to correct: the actual words spoken by the anchor.
The primary reason the newscasts of so many stations sound the same is that these casts are using identical scripts, scripts written by wire news services. This is the practice known as "rip 'n' read." The name comes from the days when wire-service stories came into the newsroom on a bulky, teletype machine that spat out the stories onto a large roll of paper. An anchor would rip the story off the roll and read it on the air.
"Rip 'n' read" was a necessary evil in those days due to the lack of time that often existed between when the story finished printing and when the anchor had to go on the air. Even then, however, it was expected that anchors would rewrite wire copy if time was available. The reasons for rewriting are manifold: to emphasize elements of the story that are particularly relevant to the station's audience; to create a newscast in which stories flow seamlessly one into another; to avoid repetition of the same wording in subsequent newscasts; and even to correct errors and faults of style in the wire copy itself. These reasons are just as important today, when many newsrooms have the wires fed directly into personal computers on which stories can be edited before being sent to a printer.
News directors should demand that wire copy be rewritten whenever time allows. This would, however, require leadership by example, and far too many news directors themselves partake of "rip 'n' read." I was reminded of this fact through a recent scan of the airwaves while I was in my car during morning drive, when many news directors have their anchor shifts.
I turned the dial to an AM news-talk station tohear the lead story, which concerned the decision of an area school district to require students at certain schools to wear uniforms. I knew the story quite well, for I had already heard the identical script read five minutes earlier during the news segment of an FM morning-zoo show. I heard the script again that morning on another AM station and another FM station.
The credibility of news operations in music-heavy formats is not particularly high to begin with, but credibility is fundamental to all-news and news-talk formats. Listeners quickly perceive when stories sound the same, not only between newscasts on one particular station, but also between the news reports on different stations as these listeners punch the buttons on their car radios. When listeners face the same words telling the same story over and over again, they come to believe that there's no news on the radio, and so there's no need to listen to news-based formats.
"Rip 'n' read" can be deadly to a radio news operation. Kill "rip 'n' read" at your station before "rip 'n' read" kills you.