Writing for radio: it’s what we do…

Martin Cooper.

So, after forty years in the broadcast media business, including two decades teaching young journalists about the arts of the trade, I’m still finding that I have to explain what “writing” has to do with “radio”.

Over the course of listening to hundreds of hours of BBC and commercial radio output for my book about radio culture – published by Bloomsbury Academic – I’ve been struck by one thing as a listener: good radio should sound and feel like a natural conversation. In this article I’ll mention Stephen Fry, Huw Edwards, Radio 3’s Petroc Trelawny, Raymond Chandler, Brian Clough, and Radio 4’s Ed Reardon. There is a link. Stick with me.

The fact of the matter is that talking on the radio is a bit like a duck (not a swan – that’s a different analogy). When you’re swimming along your head is moving about, scanning the horizon, looking for food and checking for predators (just watch a duck on the water) and out of sight your little legs are kicking furiously. Well, the legs are the writing bit. (Ed: this analogy is getting a bit strained).

Casual radio listeners can often imagine that their favourite stars are skilled at improvising. Roman Kemp (Capital FM), Chris Moyles (Radio X), Zoe Ball (BBC Radio 2), as well as Petroc Trelawny (BBC Radio 3) all sound thoroughly professional. To the listener each appears to be talking off the top of their head, to be making up their conversation as they go along. That tells me two things: each one has, in fact, thought carefully about their utterances during the entire show, and each has planned in detail what they’re going to say when their mic goes live.

Three decades ago there was a sign hung in some radio studios: “Engage brain before opening mic”. You see, the art of good radio is in the planning. And that fundamentally means writing down what you’re going to say. Excellent radio is 95% planning and 5% performance. Some presenters (Chris Moyles is an example) work with topic lists and bullet points, each assigned a defined timeslot in their programme. So, you might have 0805: verbally abuse producer in studio, 0815: discuss last night’s telly, 0823: verbally abuse producer again, 0830: say something comic about the newsreader.

Other presenters work with more detailed notes. Petroc Trelawny will have details in front of him of the symphony, its opus number, the conductor, the lead violinist and the name of the tailor who sewed the cuffs on the shirt of the timpani player at the back on the right who sounds as if he’s got a sniffle and a cold on this recording from 1973 by Deutsche Grammophon…

I work with a mix of both: detailed written scripts when I’m sharing factual information, and more informal bullet points when I’m free-thinking about topics live on-air.

So what’s this got to do with writing for radio? It is indeed one of the essential skills, sometimes ignored and underrated in the industry. My students over the years have often looked quizzically when they’ve seen a module in their radio journalism degree syllabus with the title “Writing for Radio”.

Mind you, some at the Beeb – including the newsreader Huw Edwards – do care about the art and craft of writing. Here’s his tips for young, aspiring, journalists:

Simply, writing for radio is the art of putting words, phrases and sentences down on paper (or more likely these days, on a screen) and writing them in such a way as to make then sound like a conversation when they’re read out. The challenge is to read something written by someone else and make it sound interesting.

Here’s the comedian and film star Robin Williams impersonating the actor and producer of theatre, radio and film John Houseman. To be frank, it’s not the funniest performance by Williams. However, it does make a point – albiet a somewhat laboured one. Houseman reportedly had a reputation as a teacher who could train fellow actors to lift even the most boring of words off the page and give them spoken meaning and significance.

One question journalism students ask is: do spelling and punctuation matter? In my opinion they’re crucial. I remember a colleague rushing in to present the news live on air, and misreading a crucial line. It was in a story about spies and the British security services. He read his final sentence as: “The M-Fifteen is investigating.” Making the spooks’ organisation, MI5, into a three-lane motorway, and in the process turning the story into nonsense.

I think the quality of the writing is important too. Many stations have house styles, and in my time I’ve produced guides for colleagues in York. Each newsroom produces its own handbook. Click this link for the BBC News Style Guide. Two examples: I can’t abide using job titles adjectively (“said Broadcaster Martin Cooper”); and I detest the idea of protestors being “up in arms” or ambulances “rushing to the scene”. Clichés both of them.

Here’s an example to consider. Should sport have its own style? Or perhaps web, radio and TV outlets should all use a similar writing style? Does difference matter? You may care to have a read of this, by Phil McNulty, and think about such questions of style. I’d be interested in your views. Let me know. (By the way, Leicester is my home town. Just saying.)

But perhaps worrying about the minutiae of our radio scripts is to forget a really important thing. All this hard work in radio is lost to the ether – unless you’re on “Listen Again”. As one of the characters observed in the 2017 BBC Radio 4 version of Graham Greene’s 1932 novel Stamboul Train: “Ah, the ephemeral nature of journalism…”

So, good radio writing must mimic how we speak: mostly in short sentences without subordinate clauses. Listen to how you yourself speak and try to put the punctuation in as you go along.

But we do need to get it right. In particular, grammar rules OK. In one episode of the BBC TV comedy quiz QI a panellist, Matt Lucas, tells the show’s chairman Stephen Fry the following joke:

Lucas: Knock Knock
Fry: Who’s there?
Lucas: To
Fry: To who?
Lucas: No! It’s “to whom”

QI, 2015, BBC 2, (Series M, Episode 01)

Which makes the audience laugh and puts Stephen Fry in a state of humorous embarrassment.

One of my favourite radio sit-com characters is Ed Reardon. He’s a struggling writer who, since 2005, has had some uncomfortable encounters both with the world of print publishing and with writing for radio. I discuss him in my book. Reardon once remarked of a pitch he was typing: “Better put this in 16-point. It’ll make it look like I’ve written more” Ah, yes. The strains on a struggling freelance writer…

I’ll return to more examples from the Ed Reardon’s Week radio series in a moment. I enjoy his relentless negativity.

One can never be too good, or too awful as a writer. Raymond Chandler once remarked that,

“If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better I should not have come.”

cited in Scorn: with Added Vitriol (1995), ed. Matthew Parris, London: Hamish Hamilton, p.183-4

But there is a trend amongst writers to complain just a little too much. Sarcasm sometimes becomes us, as the fictional Ed Reardon once said:

Like-minded professional writers often gather together to complain about the BBC, delays in payment of fees, and pretty much anything that appears in the Guardian’s G2 section. Last week I found myself agreeing with a colleague about public execution for weather girls who finish their forecast with [imitates simpering voice] “and that’s your weather”.

Ed Reardon’s Week, 2007 (S04E06), BBC Radio 4

Why do I mention a character from a radio sitcom? Well, because I take the position that fiction can – and does – shed light on the factual world. It’s a key starting point for my examination of one hundred years of cultural representations of radio.

William Faulkner once reportedly commented that, “The best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism”. It was that sort of thinking which could be said to have inspired Hunter S. Thompson to develop his “gonzo” journalism in the late 1960s which was personal, subjective, and often full of opinionated invective.

There is, however, the problem that surfaces once you’ve finished writing what you consider to be your classic of literature. And that’s finding a market for your stuff. One episode of Ed Reardon’s Week is called “The Writer’s Dilemma”. Reardon ponders to himself that,

Professional writers simply do not have the freedom to write what they want. At least, to get to the point where they can write what they want, they have to show they can write what other people want. Or, what other people think other people want. And the trouble is that by the time you get back to being able to write what you want, you’ve forgotten what it was you wanted to write about in the first place.

Ed Reardon’s Week, 2005 (S01E05), BBC Radio 4

But, of course, sometimes too much effort can produce rubbish. In 1944 J. B. Morton and his Beachcomber column in the Daily Express made fun of radio broadcasting and looked forward to what would eventually become the Third Programme (later BBC Radio 3):

Some gramophone people recently went to New Caledonia to make records of ancient native songs. They found a native who said he could sing a rare and most interesting folk-song. So they spent many hours getting ready the recording apparatus.

When all was ready they summoned the old lad, and waited in a state of almost delirious excitement. The native drew himself up proudly and sang “Oo-wah” over and over again for thirty-seven minutes.

Is it too much to hope that this song will one day serve to fill up a dangerously silent gap in a radio programme, between a talk on what to do with stale jelly and an up-to-date version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony specially arranged for the electric xylophone (with coloured lights bobbing in and out and commented on by a comedian)?

Captain Foulenough and Company (1944), London: Macmillan & Co Ltd., pp. 112-3

Quite so. Which strongly reminds me of the Granada TV show of the 1970s, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. It was based on a fictional working men’s club in northern England. The club chairman, the comedian Colin Crompton, sometimes rang a red fireman’s bell and shouted at hecklers and rowdy audience members,

“Can we have some quiet PLEASE!? If you must talk, talk while the act’s on…”

Colin Crompton, The Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club, Granada TV, 1974-77

Conversely, we in radio are obsessed with avoiding silence. The needles must keep moving; the transmitter has to be fed. Otherwise the “loss of signal” alarm lights start blinking on the desk. Perhaps yours is labelled “TX fail”, but it all amounts to the same thing: certain panic and your programme organiser screaming down the intercom at you to get it fixed. As if he really does think you have an advanced degree in electrical engineering.

To consider the importance of the tension between radio and silence, I’d point you to the 1961 children’s book by Norton Juster called The Phantom Tollbooth. It features a young boy called Milo and his fantasy adventures. On pages 128-9 there is this thought-provoking scene:

Milo walked slowly down the long hall and into the little room where the Soundkeeper sat listening intently to an enormous radio set, whose switches, dials, knobs, meters, and speaker covered one whole wall, and which at the moment was playing nothing.

“Isn’t that lovely?” she sighed. “It’s my favourite programme – fifteen minutes of silence – and after that there’s a half-hour of quiet and then an interlude of lull. Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But, sadly enough, no one pays any attention to them these days…”

Norton Juster (1961), The Phantom Tollbooth, Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, pp. 128-9.

Later Milo thinks to himself that even though the Soundkeeper says she loves silence, she certainly seems to talk a lot.

Which brings us, finally, to a clip from the archives. The journalist and politician Austin Mitchell passed in 2021. He is missed by many. This video is from his time as a regional journalist with Yorkshire Television. It’s his encounter with two grumpy men: the combative football legends that were Brian Clough and Don Revie. Watch how Mitchell eventually withdraws and lets them argue face-to-face between themselves. By doing so, he allows the duo to reveal their mutual disdain for each other. It makes for captivating viewing.

And spot also the leaden silence at the end – moments before Cloughie tells Mitchell off for interrupting. It’s that tension again between silence and sound.

Let me know your opinion in the comment box below. And leave your examples of good – and bad – radio writing too.

One thought on “Writing for radio: it’s what we do…

  1. thanks Martin, fascinating & deserves a few re-visits to explore the links. I feel I should give Ed Reardon more of a chance if he’s on R4 again. Speaking of cliches, two that you hear a lot from younger folk in the media, including E Radacanu last night, are ‘insane’ & ‘surreal’… as you may well have noticed…!


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