Fundamentals of Radio Broadcasting: Writing for Radio

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Consider the amount of copy that is consumed by a radio station. Let's say a station is on the air 24 hours a day and has a 5 -minute newscast every hour for a total of 120 minutes of news. If there is an average of ten spot announcements per hour, you have another 240 minutes of talk, for a total of 360 minutes per day. The normal reading speed for most announcers is about 160 words per minute. Multiply that out and you get 57,600 words of copy that have to be read every broadcast day--as many words as there are in a good-size novel. Who writes all that copy? Well, much of it is repetitious; the same spot announcement is read many times over. Most of the news comes from the wire services and other agencies to which the station might subscribe. But a good deal of the copy is written by employees of the station itself. A large station may employ several writers just for the news department. There may be others who write commercial copy and public service announcements.

At smaller stations, the writing is done by combo operators and sales personnel. The ability to write is definitely an asset to any employee of a radio station. Writing means being able to type, as well as construct sentences and develop paragraphs. If you have this ability, be sure to put it down on your résumé when you are applying for a job. In this Section we shall take up the kind of writing you would do as an employee of a station. We shall also consider the writing you might want to do as a private citizen to gain access to the airwaves and to gain experience in preparing for a career in broadcasting.


For the commercial radio station, spot announcements are the primary source of revenue. The station can stay in business only as long as it can sell the products of its advertisers through commercial announcements.

Some of the copy for these announcements is received directly from advertising departments and agencies. But much of it is written by personnel of the radio station. Often the salesperson will write the copy for his or her own account. This is a logical procedure because the salesperson is the one in closest contact with the advertiser and has the best idea of what needs to be said in the copy. The conscientious salesperson will make regular calls on the account to see what new information should be included. To be effective in sales, you have to keep in continuous contact with the advertiser and make sure the copy is updated. This is called "servicing the account" and is a necessary responsibility of the salesperson.


The typical spot announcement is precisely one minute in length-about 160 words at the average speaking rate. The cost of a spot announcement is determined, in part, by its duration. If a sponsor is paying for a full minute of air time, the copywriter should be sure that the sponsor gets it.

But the station does not want to give time that is not paid for. So length is an important factor. The reading time of the spot should be specified at the top of the copy. The usual time units of less than one minute are 10, 15, 20, or 30 seconds.


Information for the copy will be obtained from the sponsor or by an agent of the sponsor. Be sure you get it accurately. After you have writ ten the spot, have it approved by the sponsor. Remember that both the advertiser and you are responsible for what is said on the air. If you get the price wrong on a sale item, the advertiser has to sell the product at that price. If there is a major discrepancy, the radio station could be sued for the difference. It would be a good idea for you to become acquainted with the laws covering truth in advertising.

Spot announcements should include some specific information. Slogans and platitudes do reinforce recognition of the sponsor's name, but do not motivate the consumer to purchase the product. Your job as a copywriter is to provide some reason to make the listener at least want to go into the store and look at the product. You have to make the product sound unique in some way, so that it is more desirable than other products of the same type. The difference could be the price, a feature of the product itself, the convenience of shopping, the attractiveness of the surroundings, the pleasure or excitement the product will bring, the friends or lovers that will be attracted by it, or the degree to which it will improve the purchaser's marriage, career, or golf score.

While the information should be specific, do not overload the listener with too much detail. Remember, the listener is probably not taking notes as you talk. If you give the address, do not give the telephone number; that would be too many numbers to keep in mind. The information you want the listener to retain should go at the end of the copy.

Form and Style

The copy should be typewritten and double-spaced. Words should be spelled correctly so that the reader will be able to make them out. Sentences should be fairly short, and punctuation should contribute to read ability. Remember that the punctuation can not be seen by the listener; it is there only for the sake of facilitating the interpretation the reader gives to the copy. Underline words or phrases that you want emphasized or stressed. The heading for the copy should contain three important pieces of information:

1. The reading time.

2. The name of the sponsor who is paying for the announcement. If it is a public service announcement, enter the name of the organization which is taking responsibility for the message.

3. The "kill" date. This is the date and time the announcement should no longer be aired. If there is no kill date, put the letters "TFN," which stand for "till further notice."

The name of the sponsor should be clearly stated so that the traffic director knows how to log the announcement, and so that the accounting department knows who gets the bill. It is also required by the Federal Communications Commission that each announcement contain the name of the sponsor. The public has a right to know who stands to gain as a result of their responding to the message. Taking all of these factors into account, here is what a typical 30 -second commercial spot announcement would look like.

Kelly's Hardware

30 seconds Kill: September 3rd This week Kelly's Hardware puts the accent on insulation. If your house has been uncomfortably hot this summer, it may be uncomfortably cold this winter-unless you do something about it. All this week a consultant will be available at Kelly's Hardware to advise you and answer your questions about home insulation. And of course, Kelly's Hardware handles all the materials and tools you will need to do the work yourself. So don't let the winter winds penetrate your home in the coming months. Visit Kelly's Hardware, 1604 Main Street, in Centerville.

This spot contains 92 words. That means you would have to read at a brisk pace to make it in 30 seconds. Try it and see if it is comfortable for you.


Some spots are not commercial but public service announcements. These will be heard on both commercial and noncommercial stations. A public service announcement is one for which no fee is charged and which publicizes the cause or activities of a noncommercial organization. The principles are applied in the same way as they are for the commercial announcement. The PSA is still important even though the station is not receiving revenue for it. The copywriter should give it just as much attention, and the announcer should read it with just as much enthusiasm.

The only difference is that you are selling an idea or a service rather than a product. Here is a typical 30-second public service spot announcement:

Employment Action Council

30 seconds Kill: TFN Last year, in Detroit, over a thousand people lined up outside an auto factory to be interviewed for a job on the assembly' line. The company had one job opening. Scenes like this, repeated daily throughout the nation, tell us that there are thousands of jobless Americans who want to work. This year the week starting on Labor Day has been designated Full Employment Week. If you want to make America work and participate in this year's efforts, please write to Abe Vigoda, Hollywood, California. You can help make AMERICA WORK.

This Announcement has been brought to you as a public service by the Full Employment Action Council.

This spot has 91 words. The line at the end makes it over a hundred, so you would really have to hustle to get it into 30 seconds. Notice that it is necessary to give the credit at the end because the copy does not mention the Full Employment Action Council by name.


Another type of announcement that is commonly heard on radio is the free -speech message. This differs from the public service announcement in that it is the expression of an opinion on a controversial issue. It can be given by an individual or by the spokesman for a group. The message may express ideas for change or improvement in areas of community' concern. It may be critical of a cause, an idea, or a concept, but it may not attack an individual's character or integrity. It must not be slanderous or obscene. The free -speech message is subject to the same restrictions that are placed upon any other broadcast communication. Stations are not required to carry free -speech messages, and some choose not to. Those that do usually say that they will accept the messages of responsible spokespersons. The station reserves to itself the right to determine what is to be considered responsible.

Preparing the Message

The free-speech message must first be submitted to the station in writing.

It should be typed (double-spaced) and approximately 125 words in length. The statement should be mailed to the public affairs director of a station that you know carries free -speech messages. Be sure to include your name, address, and telephone number. If your message is selected, you will be invited to come to the station to record it. The message should state the identity of the speaker. the name of the group the speaker represents, and the purpose of the message. After you have said that, present the factual background, the statement of your views, and the action you want people to take. Your message might read something like this:

My name is Tara O'Leary Hudson, and I'm asking everyone to stop buying products from countries that continue to kill whales. Hundreds of Russian and Japanese seamen are combing the Pacific Ocean right now to kill whales. Japan and Russia take about 40% of the annual catch and are the only countries engaged in deep-sea whaling. Other nations, such as Norway, Chile, and Portugal, conduct smaller -scale whaling operations from land stations.

The U.S. Congress, United Nations, and others support a ten-year moratorium on whaling in order to save the whale. The International Whaling Commission, a sixteen -nation regulatory agency which includes Russia and Japan, does not agree.

I feel the only way to make an impact on these countries is to stop buying their products. Write to your congressional representative and ask for limits to be placed on the imports of the countries that kill whales.

The broadcasting station will probably accept the announcement, unless there is some reason for them not to run it. If your attack is launched against a particular product that is advertised on the station, your message would probably not be aired. The FCC permits stations to decline to broadcast announcements that are contrary to their own best interests. The message that we have used as an example here might not be run by a station that advertises a considerable number of Japanese products. It is their privilege to make this choice. Free-speech messages in support of candidates running for office would also not be accepted, because airing such messages would impose the obligation to give equal time to all the other candidates.

Usually free-speech messages are concerned with local issues. They provide an excellent opportunity for the public to have access to the media.


Being a radio news reporter involves more than just having a good voice.

You also have to be able to write news copy. Almost all news broadcasters you hear have had some basic journalism training. Your preparation for radio work should certainly include experience with print journalism as well as a consciousness of current events. You have to know the fundamentals before you can even begin to think about being a broad cast journalist. The station you work for may or may not put a heavy emphasis upon news. If they do not, they may simply require their disk jockeys to tear off a few items from the teletype and read them as a newscast every hour or so. This practice is referred to pejoratively as "rip -and -read." A much better practice is for the copy to be rewritten in the individual style of the station or of the announcer who is reporting the news. A professional newscaster will also want to include local stories that may not have been covered by the national news syndicates. In addition, there are local angles to national stories which the news reporter should investigate and develop. The information that forms the con tent of the story will be obtained either by firsthand experience or by talking with the people who have had some contact with the event. Once the information is gathered, it must be written up in a style that is clear, direct, and to the point.

Witting the Lead The "lead" is the first part of a news story that gives the essential information. It tells who did what, when, and where. Here is an example of a lead sentence:

President Carter held a news conference in Washington today.

In that one sentence the listener has the information needed to under stand what the story is about. Later you can add the information how and why. Do not make the mistake of trying to pack too many words into the lead sentence. In broadcast you can not use the same journalistic style as that employed by the print media. The following lead might be appropriate for a newspaper story, but not for a radio broadcast:

President Carter, in a nationally televised news conference, asked Congress on Saturday to junk the welfare system and replace it with a 34-billion-dollar plan to move able-bodied recipients into jobs and provide cash for those who can't work, but he could not say when the new system would achieve its ultimate goal of actually reducing the total amount of money the American people pay for welfare.

That lead would be understandable to a person reading it in print, but it is difficult to follow when it is being read out loud. To convert the story into a style appropriate for broadcast, a copywriter could develop the paragraph in the following way:

President Carter outlined a new welfare program today. In a nationally televised news conference he asked Congress to junk the present welfare system and replace it with a plan to move able-bodied recipients into jobs and provide cash for those who can't work. The new plan would cost about 34 billion dollars. He could not say when the new system would achieve its goal of actually reducing the total amount of money the American people pay for welfare.

Notice how much easier it is to read out loud when it is written in four sentences rather than one. There are about the same number of words, but the second writing gives you a chance to take a breath. It is not hard to get the who, when, and where into one sentence, but sometimes the what gets complicated. State it as simply as you can (" . . . outlined a new welfare program . . . "), and then add the details in later sentences.

Try not to use more than two clauses in one sentence.

Fire broke out last night at a West Side hotel in downtown Centerville. It was the fourth in three weeks in that area and Fire Chief Alan Jones says they all appear to be the work of an arsonist.

In this lead, the what, when, and where appear in the first sentence: the who, with more details, is in the second sentence. You could write the lead in other ways, depending upon what you want to emphasize:

Fire Chief Alan Jones is looking for an arsonist today who may have set four fires in downtown Centerville. The latest broke out last night at a West Side hotel.

In this lead who and what are in the first sentence: when and where in the second. Later in the story you might also include how:

Chief Jones explained that in each of the four cases a gasoline can was found in the vicinity of the fire's origin. He said that the arsonist made little effort to conceal the fact that the fire was deliberately set.

And still later, why:

While there is no evidence to link the fires to a particular group, Chief Jones expressed the belief there was political motivation behind the acts. He said he thought it was more than just a coincidence that the fires began right after the county's extensive layoff of employees.

The Development

At this point you may wish to insert the voice of the fire chief giving further elaboration on his theory. But the lead would have to come first.

Tell your audience the main idea before you load them up with details. If you do not have the actual voice of the fire chief, you may want to include more details in your own words.

Quantitative Information

Numbers and amounts are often important in a report. Remember they have to be read out loud, not perceived from the printed word. In the copy, numbers should appear the way you want them said:

$1,247 should be written "one thousand 247 dollars." As a general rule, write the words thousand, million, and billion; also single numbers one through nine; use Arabic numerals for 10 through 999. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Years should be written in numerals:

A new 1980 automobile.

Round off numbers whenever you can-particularly large sums of money. If the amount is four million 537 thousand, call it A little over four and a half million If a number is a fraction, use the word rather than the figure.

The cost of living went up six -tenths of one percent.

When giving dates, write them out the conventional way April 3, 1976, not 4/3/76 Add the suffix when the year is not given.

April 3rd Keep in mind that too many numbers will get confusing, so use them sparingly. Remember that the listener is not looking over your shoulder and cannot see the copy as you can.

Quotations and Attributive Phrases

People make news. You might say that events make news, but events are important only insofar as they affect people. As mentioned in the previous Section, most of your stories will come from people who are or were directly involved in the event.

Make sure that you get the full name of the person, his or her title, and his or her relationship to the event. Is this the person who made the decision? An eyewitness? An authority on the subject? The confidence the listeners have in the source will determine whether or not they will accept the validity of the story. If the person is expressing an opinion, make sure the listener understands that. Do not let such opinions sound like your own. You can say that Chief Jones believes the fire to be the work of arsonists, without expressing that belief yourself. You are reporting the facts (what the chief said) rather than giving testimony of your own.

The attributive phrase is one which tells the source of the information. It could refer to an individual or an organization. Never use the pronoun "they" without telling who "they" are.

Poor: . .. In Washington they say that more trouble is brewing in Angola.

Better: In Washington the Defense Department indicates more trouble is brewing in Angola.

Try to avoid using the passive voice which tends to bypass responsibility.

Poor: . .. Development of the B -I bomber has been considered an essential part of our national security.

Better: . ..The Pentagon has considered the development of the B-1 bomber essential to our national security.

In newspaper journalism the attributive phrase is generally put at the end of the quotation. This style is perfectly acceptable in print, but not in broadcast. Put the attributive phrase at the beginning of the quote; if possible make it an indirect rather than a direct quote.

Newspaper style: .. :Three more schools will be closed in the Middletown District this fall as a result of declining enrollment caused by a decrease in the population," said School Superintendent Roger Albright in his message today to the Parent-Teachers Association.

Broadcast style: . .. School Superintendent Roger Albright said today that three more schools would be closed this fall in the Middle town District. He explained that it was the result of declining enrollment caused by a decrease in the population.

In this example the indirect quote conveys the meaning just as effectively as a direct quote and it reads much more smoothly. If the words spoken are unique and contrast in style with the language of the reporter, then the word "quote" should be written into the copy:

He went on to say that to do otherwise would be, and we quote, "Fiscal irresponsibility bordering on criminal negligence." Furthermore he said that . . .

Note that it is not necessary to say "Unquote." It is clear where the quotation has ended. As alternatives to the word "quote" you can use such phrases as "In his words . . ." or "As he said . . ." which mean the same thing. Remember that the listener can not hear the quotation marks that are written on the page.

Specific Details

The amount of detail you include in a news story will depend upon the policy of the station. You may not want to include as many details as you would in television or newspaper writing. Television may have newscasts running an hour or more in length. This is possible because there are film clips and visuals to hold the interest of the audience. Newspapers can print many details because people can simply stop reading when they want. But in a radio report it may be difficult to sustain interest for an extended period of time with nothing more than the auditory stimulus. This is not to say that radio stations should not attempt it. Some do successfully. But the chances of holding the attention of a large audience for more than a half hour on a single topic are slim. It may be accomplished with a variety of voices, actualities,' and sound effects, but it requires considerable creativity and excel lent timing. An all -news station is quite expensive to operate. You must have a much larger and more highly paid staff than is required by a music station; yet you must still command a sizable audience in order to produce the necessary revenue. Most all -news stations do not expect to hold the same audience for an extended period. While they appear to be giving news in depth, they are actually repeating the highlights of important stories every hour or so. Seldom is more than one or two minutes given to a single item-usually the length is 20 to 40 seconds.

Style and Form

Writing news for radio requires a certain amount of discipline. It is not the same as free-form or creative writing. There is a procedure that must be followed for very practical reasons. It is of paramount importance that the copy be clearly understood-not just by you, but by any announcer who may be called upon to read it. When you begin doing newscasts on the air you will see the reason for the rules. They were not invented arbitrarily; they are commonsense principles that you would probably be able to figure out yourself.

Type and Double-Space

The first prerequisite for any journalist is to know how to type. Writing in longhand will just not do. Double- (or triple-) space to make the copy easy to read or correct if necessary. You may find writing in capital letters makes reading easier still.

The term actuality refers to the actual voice of the newsmaker.

Include a Heading In the upper right-hand corner of the page write a headline, date, time, and your name. The headline can be brief, just enough to identify the story.

City Council Meeting

6/14/78 11 PM news

Shirley Edwards

It is important to give the date and time so that the reader will be properly oriented. The copy may have been written for the 11 P.M. news and repeated the following morning. Obviously the morning reporter would not want to say, "The action was taken at tonight's meeting."

End Each Page with a Period

Do not carry a sentence over to another page. The reader will find it awkward to turn the page in the middle of a sentence. Better still, try to end each page with a completed paragraph.

Make Corrections Clearly

Do not use the proofreader's correction symbols commonly employed by newspaper editors. If a word is to be deleted, block it out completely so the reader will not attempt to pronounce it. Write the correct word directly above.

city Poor ... The entire eeuaty would be affected by the ordinance.

city Better . . The entire As misp would be affected by the ordinance.

If words must be transposed, rewrite the entire phrase.

Poor ... The envelope did/contain tiagthe correct address.

did not contain Better ... The envelope/1 the correct address.

If too many mistakes are made in the copy, type it over. Reading the news is difficult enough under the best of circumstances; try not to impose additional hardships.

Spell Out Words Completely

Under most circumstances, do not abbreviate. Names of states, for example, may not be easily perceived if they are abbreviated. Write Pennsylvania, not Pa.; Maine, not Me. Especially, do not abbreviate common words, such as "approx." for "approximately" and "assoc." for "association." There are some exceptions, how ever. You may abbreviate "Mr." and "Dr." because they are easily recognizable. But do not abbreviate less common titles:

President Carter . . . (not "'res.) Captain Anderson . . . (not Capt.) Lieutenant Richards . . . (not Lt.) Use Words, Not Initials If you feel that there may be doubt about the identity of an organization, refer to it by name, not by initials. You may know that NAB stands for National Association of Broadcasters, but the public may not. Spell out the words the first time you refer to the organization; after that you may use initials. Use a hyphen between the letters to separate them.

U -A -W (United Auto Workers) F -A -A (Federal Aviation Administration) Some organizations can be referred to by initials, but only when they are easily recognized.

F -B -I Y -M -C -A If the initials form an acronym, leave out the hyphen between letters so that it will be pronounced as a word.


Spell out the words United States except when it is used as an adjective.

. . . He attempted to explain U -S foreign policy The United States will receive shipments... .

Identify Unfamiliar People and Places

It is especially important that you not start a story by using a name not well known. Instead, refer to the title or position that is familiar.

Poor: Richard Anderson was one of five people seriously injured in a freeway collision last night. He is the newest member of the County Board of Supervisors.

Better: The newest member of the County Board of Supervisors, Richard Anderson, was one of five people seriously injured in a freeway collision last night.

In the same way, make sure the listener is oriented when you refer to a place that is not generally known.

Always remember that you are in the business of communication and that communication does not take place unless other people under stand what you mean. After you have finished writing a piece of copy, read it over as though you were completely unfamiliar with the story.

Ask yourself if you have said it as clearly and as directly as it could be said.


A great deal of copy must be written by radio station personnel every day. The person who is able to type and compose copy will be a valuable employee to the station. Most of the commercial copy is produced by advertising departments and agencies, but much of it is written by the station personnel. The student of broadcasting can obtain valuable experience in writing for radio by composing public service announcements and free-speech messages. If these are prepared in proper form they may be accepted by the radio station and put on the air. Many opportunities are available in broadcasting for the person who can write. Stations that emphasize news will often employ a large department of news writers.

Most newswriters for radio have had some journalistic background and have an interest in current events. The writer should be aware of what is going on nationally and also be able to develop the local interest angle.

Local news is generally not covered by the major wire services, so virtually all of that copy needs to be generated by the station's newswriting staff. The form and style of the news story written for radio is different from that of the print media. The professional broadcast newswriter must he able to prepare copy designed to be heard rather than seen.


Attributive phrase Lead Copy PSA Direct quote Rip -and -read Free -speech message Spot Indirect quote TFN Kill date


1. Practice reading the spot announcements in this Section in the time designated. Rewrite one of the announcements to make it a 1 -minute spot. Rewrite the other one to make it a 10 -second spot.

2. Visit some merchants who advertise on the radio. Find out how successful radio advertising has been for them. Ask who writes the copy and how often it is changed. See if they will give you some copy that you can bring to class.

3. Contact a nonprofit organization in your community. Get the necessary in formation, and write a public service announcement for them.

4. Select a story from the newspaper, and rewrite it in broadcast style. Read it out loud into a tape recorder. Give the copy to a friend or fellow student in your broadcast class, and see if it can be read easily by another person.

Repeat the exercise until you can rewrite a news story quickly, easily, and clearly. Save the copy that you write, and put it together in the form of a complete newscast.

5. Write a firsthand news story. Select an event that you can cover personally.

Attend a news conference, lecture, courtroom hearing, or legislative session.

Take notes as you listen; be sure to get the full names of the people to whom you will want to refer. Sift through your notes and select the most important information. Write your news story; then record it and see how it sounds.

6. If you are working for a college or community station, phone in a news story and have it recorded through a phone patch. You can either read from copy you have written or ad lib it. Your voice can then be used as an actuality in a newscast.

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