Before Easter some of the University of Lincoln’s journalism students were treated to a talk from Harry Youtt, who teaches creative writing at UCLA, about how to write creatively for radio. Here’s my notes from the talk.
To get an idea of what works on the radio it’s good to listen to other examples of fascinating radio. Harry Youtt is based in Los Angeles and he says as an outsider the US is jealous of the BBC. There’s such a variety and scope of documentaries and programmes on BBC radio that are interesting listens.
The only equivalent in the US, Harry Youtt says, is This American Life presented by Ira Glass. The hour-long show covers a variety of topics and each week’s show has a theme but predominantly the show explores human nature.
A good way to approach creative writing for radio is to think about the perfect listener. They are already interested in your programme topic — do you think they will enjoy it all and continue listening? Is your story worth telling?
Think about your top lines — this is how you draw your listener in so start somewhere that matters and shape the rest of your piece around that. Also consider centring your topic on an individual because people identify with other people’s difficulties and challenges easily.
Let others do the hard work for you. Characters speak for themselves so let your interviewees speak and not you speak on their behalf. It will mean more coming from them and leave the presenter to narrate the story.
It’s a cliche but Harry Youtt says “Actions speak louder than words” and radio gives you the perfect opportunity to be creative with this statement. You could just talk to someone about an event, or you could go to the event and get involved remembering to record interesting sounds as you go along. Then it’s not just a chat but actually getting the listener involved.
Interview techniques are also key to good radio. When it comes to programme making this means going beyond just what questions you are going to ask because you want to be able to use all parts of the conversation. Interviewees need to feel comfortable and you can take the time to get good answers.
For news bulletins in radio you need to act quickly so you can ask the difficult and daunting questions first and these questions are likely to be asked to people who are being held to account, so they expect it. If you are making a programme then you are more likely to be chatting to someone who has a story to tell which will take time to get out of them. It doesn’t mean you have to use those first easy questions and you can change the order of the answers to suit how you tell the story.
Harry Youtt has some good techniques to help with interviews including remember to look at people’s faces when you are interviewing them, as it helps to get more of idea of how they are feeling. Also research is always a good idea and sometimes it pays off to do extra research to help you out.
Essentially the best pieces of radio you will create are about topics that you are emotionally interested in. Make a list of the stories you want to tell and rank them in order, now you know what you want to report on.