28 – Radio

I don’t watch much television, but I do listen to a lot of radio. The quality of current affairs and information programs on ABC radio in Australia is vastly better than the most of what is on television (including ABC television). I also like the way radio doesn’t have to dominate one’s attention as much as television does.

A couple of weeks ago, the Pannell Discussion was a draft script for ABC Radio National. My request for feedback and suggestions prompted a huge response, with many more useful ideas than I expected, so thanks again for your help. It will take me a little while to work through them all.

One of the responses was from my father John Pannell, who worked for many years in the media, and provided a bundle of general tips for writing scripts for use on radio. It seemed so useful that I thought I should share it more generally. And since he’s a Pannell, it can still be a Pannell Discussion!

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Writing for radio

Radio is a wonderful, creative medium and, despite the popularity of television, is probably the most effective means of mass communication that we have today. Think of the influence that John Laws has!

There’s an old story, often quoted by radio producers, about a young man who, when asked whether he preferred radio or television, replied “Radio, because the pictures are better.”

We’ve all experienced disappointment, sometimes disillusionment, when seeing a picture of our favourite radio personality for the first time. That’s because radio is about pictures in the mind, pictures which every listener develops from information supplied, and a good radio presenter makes constant use of this.

If no information is supplied, or is scant, the pictures will probably be wildly inaccurate, but if the appropriate information is provided the images should be realistic, helping the listener to better absorb any information being conveyed.

To this end, then, a radio presenter should supply easily visualized examples. For instance, as well as saying half a tonne of sand, add “that’s about two domestic trailer loads.” (Don’t quote me on that!). The commonly used measurement of water storage, Sydarbs, is a perfect and very Australian example of this sort of easily visualised example. (For non-Australians, a Sydarb is the volume of water in Sydney Harbour).

Another thing that should be kept in mind is that, while a reader can go back to a previous part of a document to check on something, the listener has no such opportunity. It is up to the presenter, then, to provide this information whenever necessary. “You’ll remember that … ……….” is a good way to put it.

Also, you can’t expect the listener to immediately absorb everything you say. The reader can go over a passage time and again until all is clear but, again, the listener can’t do this and once his mind wanders off into the land of wonder, you’ve lost him. In this respect. “or to put it another way” is a very useful phrase.

Avoid the use of jargon wherever possible or, if you must use it, explain. Of course the audience must be kept in mind, as it always should, but remember that anyone can tune in to your talk and some will not be as expert in the jargon as you.

When you’re writing your talk, use punctuation (commas in particular) to indicate pauses in your delivery as much as for indicating meaning. You should know by now that it’s not easy to read aloud while having to work out the meaning as you go.

And, finally, a couple of tips about typing out your script. One and a half line spacing is a lot easier to read than single. If you can, print it on paper that doesn’t rustle too much and turn up the top right hand (or left hand if you’re a molly-dooker) corner of each page to make changing pages quieter. There’s nothing more distracting than an unexplained noise during a broadcast.

I have worked as an educator in radio, television, film, print and multimedia. Of all of them radio is my favourite. That is not only because it is by far the cheapest and quickest to produce, but because I really believe that, used creatively, it can be by far the most effective. After all, the pictures are better.

John Pannell