Broadcast Sentence-Structure

Journalism instructors often state that broadcast newswriting is supposed to sound just like everyday speech. In essence, however, writing broadcast news is more akin to writing song lyrics. Both tasks involve constructing language in a visual form (writing) for communication in an oral form (speaking or singing). Like song lyrics, broadcast newswriting adheres to patterns of language use (such as appropriate vocabulary and formulaic sentence-structure) that the audience expects to hear and will use in interpreting the communication.

Even though commercial broadcasting has been around for less than a century, radio listeners have come to expect their newscasts to be written in a particular way. Learning about broadcast sentence-structure is one of the foundations for developing effective skills at radio newswriting.

 

Keep it simple

Grammarians distinguish between three types of sentences: simple, compound and complex. A simple sentence contains a subject and a verb. A compound sentence is composed of two simple sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction ("and," "but," "or," "nor"). A complex sentence is composed of two simple sentences joined by a subordinating conjunction (which may be temporal, such as "when"; causal, such as "because"; or concessive, such as "although").

You probably remember this lesson from elementary school, but the distinctions remain quite relevant to broadcast newswriting. In your scripts, simple sentences are best. You will, of course, regularly use compound and complex sentences, but the clarity achieved through the use of simple sentences can rarely be surpassed.

Linguists describe English as a highly asyndetic language -- which means that clauses in the same train of thought do not always need to be connected by conjunctions or connecting particles. Such particles in English include the words "moreover," "furthermore," and "however," words that should be avoided in broadcast newswriting. Listeners are themselves capable of connecting the elements of a story if the story is presented clearly and concisely, and these listeners expect important news to be reported in simple sentences. This expectation is especially true of leads, which generally should be written as simple sentences. When a lead begins with a subordinating conjunction, listeners discount the story's urgency. This is why such leads almost always appear in feature stories or zingers.

 

 

Avoid your relatives

Relative clauses, which begin with a relative pronoun or adverb such as "who," "which" or "where," provide additional information about a noun in a sentence. Those relative clauses which interrupt the flow of the sentence should not be used in broadcast newswriting. In a text communicated visually, a reader has the words on a page or screen to help guide him back to the story after the detour of a relative clause. Listeners do not have such a guide and must rely on the speaker to provide information in readily understood clauses that are concise and uninterrupted.

A sentence with an interrupting relative clause should be rewritten into two simple sentences. Take the following example (note: broadcast writing is all caps, for ease of reading.):

FRED GRANDY...WHO PLAYED "GOPHER" ON THE ORIGINAL "LOVEBOAT" T-V SERIES...LATER SPENT 8 YEARS AS A CONGRESSMAN FROM IOWA.

A clearer means of expressing the same information is through two simple sentences:

FRED GRANDY PLAYED "GOPHER" ON THE ORIGINAL "LOVE BOAT" T-V SERIES. HE LATER SPENT 8 YEARS AS A CONGRESSMAN FROM IOWA.

Recognize that apposition -- the placing of a noun or phrase after another noun and marked off only by commas or, in this very example, dashes -- is like a relative clause without the relative pronoun. Long, interrupting appositions, like interrupting relative clauses, should be avoided in broadcast newswriting.

Relative clauses and appositions can be used at the end of a sentence. This placement is especially useful for clauses beginning with the adverb "where," as in

FIRE DESTROYED THE HISTORIC HOME, WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON ONCE SLEPT.

Clauses beginning with "who" or "which" are acceptable when placed at the end of a sentence, but sometimes it may be preferable to write two simple sentences instead. For example,

SIMMONS IS SUING FOR RETURN OF THE "BARBIE"-DOLL COLLECTION, WHICH HE SAYS IS WORTH A QUARTER-OF-A-MILLION DOLLARS.

could also be written

SIMMONS IS SUING FOR RETURN OF THE "BARBIE"-DOLL COLLECTION. HE SAYS THE COLLECTION'S WORTH A QUARTER-OF-A-MILLION DOLLARS.

 

Be active

Finally, two very common writing faults made by beginning reporters also appear nowadays in all other types of English writing, namely the overuse both of the passive voice and of the existential "there is," "there are" construction. Use the active voice. Write sentences with subjects that are doing things and not subjects that are merely receiving actions upon them. Do not waste time stating an object's existence (this is what the "there is" construction shows). Describe that object doing something.

Simple sentences with active verbs form the basis of effective writing for radio. All other broadcast newswriting techniques are built upon the foundation laid by this type of sentence structure.

 

Leads & Teases

Getting listeners to keep their radios tuned to your entire newscast...that's the function of leads and teases. (Incidentally, the first phrase of the previous sentence is itself a tease.) Despite the importance of leads and teases, many radio journalists do not understand how to fashion effective "hooks" to keep listeners listening.

 

Repetition is the most common mistake

Repetition is the most common mistake made in leads and teases. As you may have experienced when recognizing the identity of the first six words of the subhead with those at the beginning of this paragraph, repetition of words or ideas is tedious. Listeners understandably come to believe that there is far less news than meets the ear.

Yet repetition is a far-too-frequent feature of news writing, especially between the lead-in to tape (be it voicer, wrap or actuality) and the first sentence on that tape. Here's one such example:

EMBATTLED STATE LOTTERY DIRECTOR SAMANTHA WU HANDED IN HER RESIGNATION TO GOVERNOR FREDERICK DOUGLASS. REPORTER SUSAN STARR SAYS WU TOLD THE GOVERNOR THAT SHE HAD BECOME A POLITICAL DISTRACTION.

IQ: "IN HER RESIGNATION LETTER TO THE GOVERNOR, WU SAID THAT SHE HAD BECOME A DISTRACTION...

The second sentence of the lead provides information that is immediately given again by the first sentence of the tape. This is not, however, the only problem with this lead.

 

Keep it fresh

Tenses of the past should be avoided in leads and teases. The preterite, or simple past tense, must almost never be used. Any past action should be described in the perfect tense -- "have/has" + past participle, which often ends in "-ed." The stative quality of the perfect tense can make it seem like the present.

Better still is the use of the present progressive tense -- "am/are/is" + present participle ending in "-ing" -- to describe an event that has just takenn place. In the story above, it would have been better to write:

EMBATTLED STATE LOTTERY DIRECTOR SAMANTHA WU IS CALLING IT QUITS. REPORTER SUSAN STARR SAYS WU FEARS THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING HER HUSBAND'S BUSINESS DEALINGS IS HARMING GOVERNOR DOUGLASS.

IQ: "IN HER RESIGNATION LETTER TO THE GOVERNOR, WU SAID THAT SHE HAD BECOME A DISTRACTION...

Present tenses give immediacy and energy to news writing, allowing listeners to feel that they are hearing about the news as it is taking place. Moreover, in the course of the day leads should be advanced to freshen the story...even though the same tape is being used. In the example story given above, a later lead for the same tape could be as follows:

GOVERNOR DOUGLASS MUST FIND A NEW LOTTERY DIRECTOR. REPORTER SUSAN STARR SAYS EMBATTLED CURRENT DIRECTOR SAMANTHA WU IS GIVING UP THE JOB.

IQ: "IN HER RESIGNATION LETTER TO THE GOVERNOR, WU SAID THAT SHE HAD BECOME A DISTRACTION...

The changing lead shifts the emphasis of the story to a future event, the appointment of a new lottery director. The tape then functions as background information for this future event, and so the package of lead and tape together remain fresh.

 

Absent antecedent alert!

A frequent error in teases is the use of pronouns without any reference to identify the pronouns. The pronouns' antecedents are absent. This error leads to teases such as:

HE WANTED TO DIE BUT THEY SAID NO. THE STORY NEXT ON 990 NEWS.

Who is "he"? Who are "they"? (The story concerns a convicted murderer who asked the jury to sentence him to death, but the jury decided instead on a sentence of life in prison without parole.)

Some might claim that this lead has mystery, and this mystery will compel listeners to stay tuned. There certainly is mystery, but confusion seems the only result in the minds of listeners. A better tease gives listeners information, not a guessing game:

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE FOR CHILD-KILLER WALT THOMAS. THE DETAILS NEXT ON 990 NEWS.

Teases should not tell the entire story, but teases are only a sentence long. Even the most information-packed short sentence can rarely give all the necessary details to satisfy listeners. The tease whets the appetite of listeners, who will want the completeness of hearing the full script if they have an idea of what the story is about. Deliberately confusing or gimmicky teases only frustrate listeners and drive them away.

 

Rewriting Copy

Radio reporters spend as much time rewriting scripts as writing them. Stories are rewritten from three types of sources: newspapers, press releases and other radio news scripts. The first two of these sources are not written in broadcast style, and radio reporters need to be aware of the differences between print and broadcast.

 

Differences in style

One obvious difference involves numbers. In print style, numbers can be written out to exactitude, while on the radio numbers are reduced to two significant digits. Ages in the newspaper are written between commas after an individual's name; in broadcast style, ages are given as adjectival phrases preceding the name.

Newspaper stories also display a greater use of the past tense. Print is a distancing medium, separating events through the filter of the written word from the immediacy of their occurrence. Newspapers are also written hours before they are read, so the events described seem "old news." Radio, on the other hand, has an intimate, "you-are-there" quality that is enhanced by the use of the present tense. Newsmakers spoke to newspaper reporters ("Bush said...."); they speak to a radio audience ("BUSH SAYS....").

 

Please release me

Most of the press releases a newsroom receives concern community groups trying to gain publicity for themselves or their events. Usually these press releases are of minor news value. In smaller communities, however, listeners expect to be informed of such events, and program directors may well inform the newsroom that a story must be aired. Generally, though, if a news or program director believes a press release is worth a story, a reporter will make a phone call or visit an event, with the result that the reporting is original rather than a rewrite.

Businesses and organizations often use press releases...through mail though increasingly through the fax machine or PR Newswire...to tout promotions, reorganizations, mergers, hirings, layoffs and other activities. These press releases are the first, and sometimes the only official contact the business or organization will make with the media. Press releases are an essential aspect of business reporting. Let's say your fax machine spits out the following press release from an out-of-town bank announcing a deal for it to buy a local bank:

Heron Bank, Inc., of Lyons, has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire the Middleville Savings Bank, Inc., of Middleville, in a cash transaction for $8,375,000.

Mary Gonzales, President and Chief Executive Officer of Heron Bank, announced, "We are very pleased with opportunities afforded by our prospective acquisition of Middleville Savings Bank. We are looking forward to serving the Middleville community."

The closing of the acquisition transaction is subject to the completion by Heron Bank of its due diligence investigation of Middleville Savings Bank, as well as regulatory approval by federal and state banking officials.

Middleville Savings Bank has assets of $65,000,000 and operates three branches, two in Middleville and the third in Smalltown.

Heron Bank operates in seven markets in two states and has assets of $1,880,000,000. Heron Bank provides a full range of banking services to individuals and small-to-medium businesses.

This press release is full of legalese and large numbers. Bring the story close to home for your listeners by referring to something that will directly affect their lives, as in the lead to this 16-second reader:

YOU MAY SOON SEE A NEW SIGN OUTSIDE YOUR BANK. MIDDLEVILLE SAVINGS BANK IS ACCEPTING A BUYOUT OFFER FROM LYONS-BASED HERON BANK. THE EIGHT-POINT-FOUR MILLION DOLLAR DEAL WOULD ADD MIDDLEVILLE TO THE SEVEN OTHER CITIES SERVED BY HERON. THE DEAL STILL NEEDS THE OKAY FROM REGULATORS.

Remember that press releases are primary sources of information, like the tape from an interview. The information in a press release contains the bias of the organization that sent it out. Be aware of that bias and show the same prudence in dealing with press releases as you show with other forms of newsgathering.

 

Keep stories current

In the course of the day, stories you or other reporters have written need to be rewritten. Rewriting is essential not just because each time you tell a story it should sound different and fresh, but also because situations change. Keep the focus on what is current. An early-morning house fire will bring stories about the blaze, the firefighters and any injuries or fatalities. By midday, the lead concerns the amount of damage to the building. In the evening, the focus shifts to the family that might be homeless that night. The shifts in focus require rewriting the story several times in the course of the day.

Rewriting is an important aspect of radio journalism. Knowing how to adapt stories to your medium and to current situations will aid you in informing the public and gaining respect as a timely provider of news.