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The Network Style

other topics under STYLES: The In-Depth Style, The Network Style

Two popular radio formats are political talk and the FM Zoo. In political talk, the talker spends time generally warning listeners that Armageddon is upon us. Many political talkers are syndicated, but there are plenty of local versions as well.

The FM Zoo is a morning drive format on FM stations that during other dayparts play various shades of popular music (contemporary hit radio, adult contemporary, hot country, oldies, and so forth). In morning drive there is some music played, but much of the time is spent in sophomoric banter (often of a sexual nature) among the hosts, a traffic reporter, a sports reporter and a news anchor. You may recognize that the so-called "shock jocks" are merely the Zoo without music.

Tedium is fatal to these formats, and news anchors must employ a vivid writing style to keep listeners engaged.

Choosing stories

Story selection differs wildly between political talk and the FM Zoo. Violent crime, natural disasters and, of course, politics are the mainstay of the political talk newscast. The FM Zoo prefers stories about celebrities (which often include politicians) and about the humorous or unusual. Generally the news in the FM Zoo format should give listeners an excuse to be happy. The news in political talk gives listeners an excuse to be unhappy. In both formats, however, the same vivid style of newswriting applies.

Content, sentence structure, word choice

Vivid writing brings out unusual elements in everyday stories. For example, contract negotiations between the city and its workers have made little progress. A strike is possible, though the current contract still has a few weeks to run and no strike vote has been taken. The mayor has repeatedly said that any pay increase would lead to layoffs. The unions say the pay raise can be met by cutting fat in the city administration.

At the biweekly city council meeting, union leaders make a presentation. One councilmember tells the leaders in a matter-of-fact style, "I think it's a shame the way you've been treated. I want you to know that I support your efforts to improve your standard to living, and I support your right to strike. I hope it doesn't come to this, but shut down the city if you must. It's the mayor who's the only city worker who ought to be losing her job."

A standard reader on the story, lasting 18 seconds, might run like this:

Listen to this script!

The vivid writer notices that a city councilmember has told the unions, albeit conditionally, to "shut down the city." This becomes the lead of a more vivid reader lasting 21 seconds:

Listen to this script!

Content isn't the only difference between these two readers. The vivid reader is more conversational in sentence structure, beginning with a quotation that is back-referenced and ending with a conditional ("if...then") clause. The standard reader is prosaic, with simple sentence followed by simple sentence. There are also differences in word choice. The standard reader contains the bland adjective "sympathetic," in contrast to the vigorous "simmering" of the vivid reader. Notice also that "better pay" has a stronger sound than "pay increase."

Short and spare

Don't confuse vividness with verbosity. The vivid style is generally spare, with few adjectives ever used. Readers should run about 20 seconds. Wraps should last about 30 seconds. Far too often reporters fall in love with their own cleverness and give newscasts that sound like second-rate Victorian novels. The fault is especially evident in reporting violent crime, when we hear of "city sidewalks drenched with crimson stains from tepid pools of blood," or of "the languid evening interrupted by the sudden patter of semi-automatic weapons."

Violent crime is usually dramatic enough as it is. A simple telling of the event will be far more powerful than any re-creation compiled with the assistance of Roget's Thesaurus.

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