Stuck for several hours in the BA lounge at Geneva airport one evening last week thanks to French air traffic controllers, I used the time to catch up on that day’s newspapers.
An article in the Daily Telegraph caught my eye and I’ve been mulling it over since. It was a tribute by Max Davidson to the BBC Radio newsreader Rory Morrison who died recently.
Max Davidson highlights one crucial factor about radio broadcasting – that it’s a far more intimate medium than television. Gifted radio broadcasters like Rory Morrison – in news, sport and many other areas – understand this. Describing some of them, Max Davidson writes:
They brought such conversational ease to the microphone that listeners felt part of the conversation.
On radio you have fewer distractions than on TV… like pictures. The words of the broadcaster carry straight to the listener. As Max Davidson says:
You can’t fake it on the radio. It is a much less forgiving medium in that respect than television. If you are being arch, or showing off, or simply trying too hard, the listeners will smell you out in seconds. The knack is to speak without strain or affectation, as if telephoning a friend.
I once learned this lesson the hard way.
When based in Brussels for the BBC, I once wrote a despatch on a EU story, filed it to London and then jumped in a taxi to the airport to catch a plane to Munich. Awaiting me there was a blistering message from my foreign editor lacerating me for one phrase I had used in my dispatch, namely my reference to the “ongoing European situation”. He told me the phrase “is not worthy of us”. He was absolutely right. My words were complete twaddle and bore all the hallmarks of the “strain and affectation” that Max Davidson refers to. Nobody would use such a phrase while having a chin-wag in the Dog and Duck.
I’d clearly forgotten what I’d been taught as a trainee broadcast journalist.
How to write for and broadcast on radio was driven into me by senior editors when I first worked in the radio newsroom at Broadcasting House. On radio, words have to sound like natural speech or they die a death.
In those days we didn’t have computers in the BH newsroom. We had… typists. Two or three journalists shared one typist. It was to her that you dictated your news story (I can’t recall any male typists!).
Let’s say you were pulling together a story about an earthquake in Outer Mongolia. You would have in front of you some Reuters wire copy from Peking (as it was called in those days), maybe something from the BBC monitoring service in Caversham and possibly a statement from the Foreign Office with advice for any Brits in the earthquake zone.
The trick was to absorb in your head all the written information in front of you, push the copy to one side and then turn to your typist and tell her the story, just like phoning a friend as Max Davidson identifies in his article. If the typist (who would be typical of the average listener) didn’t understand what you were saying or regarded it as contorted, over-complicated or over-blown language, she would soon tell you.
Armed with easy-on-the-ear news writing, news readers like Rory Morrison and his colleagues on Radio 4 bring the story alive for the listener by delivering the news with that “unflustered professionalism” that Max Davidson mentions – i.e. natural-sounding words delivered by natural-sounding voices.
It’s something to be borne in mind not only by radio interviewers or presenters but also by anyone sitting on the other side of the studio table – the interviewee.
Too many interviewees regard their three or four minutes on the air as a platform from which they can pontificate. Very soon it starts sounding like a jargon-ridden PowerPoint presentation. This is not good radio. So, throw away your notes, don’t lecture the listener and just keep one person in mind while you are speaking. That’s whom you’re talking to. Would they understand you or want to listen to you? In other words, bring to your interview that same “conversational ease” that has distinguished our most talented radio broadcasters over the years.