Chapter 49: Radio and television bulletins

In the previous chapter, we discussed writing news for radio and television, with advice on how to simplify your writing and how to structure your stories to be most effective. In this chapter we give step-by-step guidance on preparing news bulletins.

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All your work as a broadcast journalist leads ultimately to one thing - the time when your listeners hear what you have produced. This can be the news bulletin or a current affairs program. You have to use your on-air time effectively.

Although we will concentrate in this section on producing bulletins for radio, you can use similar techniques for television. The main difference is that television bulletins also include pictures, which have to be coordinated with the script. If you can understand the principles of producing radio bulletins, you can use them for television, adapting them to the style of your particular newsroom.

The principles of bulletin preparation

Radio bulletins are usually made up from three types of material:

  • written stories in the form of a script;
  • voice reports from journalists, either recorded or live;
  • recorded sound called actuality. This is usually the sound of someone speaking, perhaps taken from an interview or a speech. A short segment of actuality is called a grab. Grabs are used in a similar way to quotes in a newspaper story. In some countries, grabs are called cuts or inserts.

Preparing a bulletin should not be difficult if you remember the basic principles of news reporting. Remind yourself of the criteria for what is news: Is it new, unusual, interesting, significant and about people?

Each of these criteria will help you to decide what stories you should include in your bulletin and where you should place them within your five, 10 or 15 minutes. It is usual to give the most important story first and the least important story last. If you are putting together your first bulletin, stick to this technique.

However, once you feel confident that you can put together a simple bulletin, you can start to consider some extra factors which will change it from a list of stories to a proper bulletin.

The two main factors you have to consider are the overall order or balance of the bulletin and the pace of it.

Balance

Try to avoid seeing the bulletin simply as a collection of individual, self-contained stories. If you put a string of economic stories (however important) at the start of the bulletin, you risk losing your listeners' interest.

They expect a balance of items, some heavy and some light, some about major political events and some about ordinary people. Of course, the actual mix of stories, their tone and pace of delivery will depend to a degree on the format of your station; serious national broadcasters tend to use more serious stories, delivered in a more deliberate style whereas youth-oriented music station bulletins might be lighter and brighter with more stories about popular culture.

Whatever your station format, your ranking of stories in order in the bulletin will give your listeners some indication of how important you consider each story. But there is some freedom within bulletins to re-order stories to add variety and balance to the bulletin as a whole.

Pace

You must also get the right pace of stories through your bulletin. By pace we mean the length and tone of a story as it appears to the listeners.

Some stories have a fast pace. The report of a fire, for example, will usually be written in short sentences, using short snappy words to convey simple ideas. It will have a fast pace.

By comparison, a story explaining some involved political controversy may need slightly longer sentences with words expressing more complicated ideas. The story itself may need to be slightly longer. The whole effect is one of a slower pace.

Too many long complicated stories will slow the pace of the whole bulletin and allow the attention of your listeners to wander. Too many short, sharp stories may leave listeners confused, unable to keep up with the pace of changing stories.

Your ideal bulletin will have a steady pace throughout to maintain interest, with variations in pace during certain sections; slower at times to let your listeners catch their breath or faster at other times to pick up their lagging interest.

How do you achieve balance and pace in practice? You should rank your stories in order of importance then look at the order afresh, to see that you have a good balance of items and variations in pace.

You may decide that your most important three stories are all rather serious political stories about taxation, health insurance and an internal party squabble. Ask yourself: "What will my listeners think of three minutes of this at the start of the bulletin?" If you think they will be bored, what about putting the report of a street fight up to the third place in the bulletin, to inject some pace into that section? This may force your party argument story into fourth place, but you will now be giving it new life by changing pace after the street fight story.

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Structuring the bulletin

Now you understand the basic principles behind building a news bulletin, you can start thinking about how the stories and components such as headlines and actuality can fit. Bulletins are the broadcasting equivalent of a page on a newspaper, except that in radio and television you are more limited in where you place the different parts because, as we know, news bulletins are linear, therefore all the elements must be placed along the line of time so they are used most effectively.

Starting the bulletin

The start is the most important part of any radio bulletin. It determines whether or not your listeners will stay tuned. Just as the intro is the most important part of a news story, the lead item is the most important one in the bulletin. If your listeners find this boring, they will assume that there is nothing better to come and go out to dig the garden.

If you are faced with a choice between two stories of equal strength for your bulletin lead, choose the story which is more dramatic. If your obvious lead story is rather dull, you should write it in such a way as to add life. Keep the sentences short, the ideas clear and simple. Although you should try to write every story well, you should give special attention to your lead story. This is the one by which listeners will judge the bulletin.

Headlines

Once you have decided on the order of stories, you should write some headlines for the bulletin. It is usual to start a long bulletin by headlining the major stories. This may not be necessary for a short, three-minute bulletin, but for longer bulletins your listeners will want to know what kind of stories they can expect.

Your listeners will use the headlines to judge whether or not the bulletin is worth listening to, so write your headlines to promote the stories in the most powerful way possible.

It is good practice to headline the first two or three most important stories, and also one or two dramatic stories which come later in the bulletin. Many stations also like to headline the final story, on the assumption that, if they make the headline attractive enough, listeners will stay tuned to the entire bulletin until they hear that story.

You should write headlines for dramatic stories in such a way that you hint at the drama without giving away all the details. Remember that if you tell everything in the headlines, listeners have no need to hear the rest of the bulletin.

In English bulletins, headlines do not have to be grammatically complete. They can be more like newspaper headlines, stripped down to the main words. The following are examples of possible headlines:

"More trouble for the Asean alliance."

"Twelve die in a mine blast."

"Why Russia is angry with Israel."

When writing headlines about announcements or humorous stories, it is best to be mysterious, to keep the real information secret until the listeners hear the story itself. Such headlines are sometimes called teasers, because the tease the listeners' interest.

For example, if you have a story about rising petrol prices, you might write the headline "Motorists face another shock at the petrol pumps". Never write the headline "Petrol is to rise by 10 cents a litre" - that gives the whole story away, and your listener can now tune to another station's bulletin or go and dig the garden again.

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Closing stories

Sometimes called tail-enders, closing stories are almost as important as lead stories. They are the last stories your listeners will hear and remember from the bulletin. You need to choose them carefully. However, because many listeners do not maintain their attention throughout the whole bulletin, you should not keep your best stories to the end.

Light or funny stories make the best tail-enders. They add relief and a change of pace to heavy bulletins. They should be written in a more informal way than other stories, possibly with a play on words which your listeners will appreciate.

It is usual in English radio bulletins to signal the light tail-ender with the words "And finally...", as in the following example:

And finally, police in Apia are looking for a thief who broke into a house last night ... and left his trousers behind.

Be careful, though. Humorous stories may not be appropriate if the rest of the bulletin is dominated by a major tragedy.

Closing headlines

With longer bulletins, you can use closing headlines to remind your listeners of stories they may (or may not) have heard 10 minutes earlier.

Again they should be the major stories of the bulletin, excluding the tail-ender, which they should have just heard anyway.

Unlike opening headlines, which should attract your listeners to listen to the bulletin, closing headlines are simply there as a service, especially to listeners who may have tuned in late.

Each closing headline should be a summary of the main point of the story, written in one sentence. Any longer and they become a repeat of the story itself. Do not simply repeat the opening headline or intro of each story as a closing headline. This is laziness which does not serve your listeners. Never repeat teasers as closing headlines: give the details.

Closing headlines are usually introduced with a phrase like: "Now to summarise the main stories, ..."

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Actuality

Short grabs of actuality are a useful part of news bulletins, for a number of reasons:

They can often tell the story more effectively than a script. If your story is about a violent protest outside an embassy, a 10-second grab of demonstrators chanting and shouting will convey the atmosphere better than any words.

They can add variety to the pace of the bulletin, breaking up a long section of reading by one voice. On the practical side, they allow the newsreader to take a 30 or 40 second rest.

They are often a chance to let people within your community speak on the radio. People like to hear their own voice on radio occasionally, or the voices of people they know.

Using a grab of someone speaking can convince listeners that the person really did say a certain thing. They might not believe your report that the Government is resigning. When they hear the Prime Minister announcing it, they have to believe.

Actuality grabs should be kept short (between 20 and 40 seconds), clear and well-edited. A minute-long grab of a dull voice will slow the pace of your bulletin and may force listeners to switch off.

Grabs must be introduced, stating clearly who will be speaking. You only need to identify a person after paying the actuality (called back-announcing) if the grab is long and the voice is not familiar.

Grabs in languages other than your own should be overdubbed with a translation. This means that you fade down (reduce) the sound of the original speaker until it can only just be heard, then play the voice of the translator over it.

You can occasionally use grabs in languages other than your own without overdubbing, but only if you know that your listeners will be able to understand them. A short grab in simple language may be usable without an overdub, especially when it is used to show the emotion behind a speech, rather than the content.

It is occasionally possible to open the bulletin with dramatic piece of actuality, then explain it with a back-announcement. Such a grab must be dramatic, short and make sense to your listeners. For example, a radio journalist used a 10-second grab of guns firing and people screaming during the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, then back-announced: "The guns which destroyed the hopes of peace in the Middle East as President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated."

Only use such opening grabs on special occasions, otherwise they lose their effect. Also, it is not good to play the grab before the opening theme, as it will confuse your listeners.

Music

Never use music as background to a news bulletin. It is distracting and ruins any variations in pace within the bulletin.

A special theme should be used to announce the bulletin and may occasionally be used within the bulletin, perhaps to separate different segments. We call such short music inserts stabs or stings.

Your opening theme should be short and dramatic. It should either end before the presenter starts reading or should be faded out under their opening words. Many record companies now produce selections of electronic or instrumental themes especially for use as stabs.

Any stabs within the bulletin should echo the opening theme as a link throughout the bulletin. However, too many stabs will annoy the listener and reduce the amount of time available for real news.

It is possible to use a closing theme at the end of the bulletin, although this should be different from the opening theme (you do not want to fool your listeners into thinking that this is the start of the bulletin). The best compromise is to use the opening bars of a theme at the start of the bulletin and use the closing bars at the end.

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Timing your bulletin

There is never enough time on radio for all the stories a journalist would like to include, so the timing of your bulletin is very important. By careful timing you will be able to include all your important stories, giving adequate details of each.

The exact time of each item depends upon:

  • How long the whole bulletin is;
  • How many items you need to include;
  • How many grabs of actuality you want to use.

You have to balance these three considerations. If your bulletin is 15 minutes long you can use up to 20 stories, several of them with grabs, and still treat each story properly. If the bulletin is only five minutes, long you might not manage more than seven or eight items and have time for only one or two short pieces of actuality.

Because some important stories can be told briefly and some less important stories need lots of explanation, you cannot set a fixed time for each story. However, if you aim to tell each story in about 30 to 45 seconds, you will be able to cover the news properly and in some detail.

If you have a number of less important stories which you want to mention, run them as briefs at the end of the bulletin. Briefs are short stories, no longer than one or two sentences each. They are not designed to tell the whole news, simply to let people know that something has happened.

The inclusion of briefs also helps to increase the pace of the bulletin if the rest of the stories are long and heavy.

If you are a newsreader too, you must always read your bulletin through fully before going to air. Use this opportunity to time each item, writing the time in the bottom right-hand corner. Eventually you will be able to look at a piece of copy and estimate within a second how long it will take to read. Initially, timing each item with a watch will help you to develop the skill. Some modern newsroom computer systems can automatically calculate the duration of a story based on the number of words and the newsreader’s reading rate.

Below, in the section Reading rate, we give some practical advice on how to calculate the length of your bulletin and its components.

Always take more copy than you need into the studio, just in case you have misjudged your timing or you have problems with a piece of audio which does not play. The extra copy may be a story which you would not normally consider important enough for the bulletin, but which will provide a useful reserve in emergencies.

Keep glancing at the studio clock as you read the bulletin so that you can make adjustments, adding or taking away stories. And always be ready to use that extra story in an emergency.

In some cases, when your bulletin comes before a current affairs segment, you will not need to run full details of some stories in the news. You can say something like: "We will have full details of this story in our current affairs program after this bulletin."

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Special bulletins

We have been speaking so far mainly about regular news bulletins. There are, however, special bulletins which need considering.

News flashes

A news flash is when the newsreader breaks into a program on-air to read an important, urgent news story, such as a major disaster or the death of a national leader. The news flash should only be used on extremely important stories.

Urgent news which arrives in the studio as the bulletin is going to air should be read at the next most suitable break in the bulletin, although it usually makes sense to use it at the end of the bulletin, just before any closing headlines.

The newsreader should have the story as soon as possible, so that they can decide where in the bulletin to use it. If you intended ending the bulletin with a light story and the flash comes through of a major air crash, you must drop the light story.

It is possible to interrupt a non-news program for a news flash, although you must warn people in the studio that you are coming with the flash. The best method of introducing a flash is for the program presenter to introduce the newsreader with words like: "Now we interrupt the program to cross over to the newsdesk for some urgent news."

The newsreader should then read the story in their usual tone, speaking clearly and repeating details. If you only have one sentence, you can read it twice to get the message across clearly. You should end with words like: "Those are all the details available at the moment. We will give full details in our next bulletin, at six o'clock."

Weekend bulletins

You may need to treat weekend news bulletins in a slightly different way from weekday bulletins, because there are usually fewer stories available.

You will need to re-assess newsworthiness at weekends, perhaps running stories which you would not use at other times. Your listeners will understand this. In fact, they may even welcome a change from a diet of death, disaster and politics.

You may want to make your weekend bulletins shorter and perhaps include a segment on sports news. You may want to save lighter stories during the week to run at the weekend, as long as you still cover the major events as well.

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Practical techniques

There are many practical techniques which will make the job of preparing news bulletins easier and more professional. If you use these techniques, they will help you to overcome many of the problems which inexperienced journalists can encounter.

Ranking stories

One of the major problems in bulletin preparation is ranking the stories in correct order. Just follow some simple steps.

First read through all the stories available. Then go through them again, making three lists (or selecting the stories on to three piles). These categories should be:

  1. Important stories which you must use;
  2. Stories which you can use, but which are not so important;
  3. Stories which you cannot use, for any reason.

First look at the stories in category one. Calculate roughly how much news these will give you (if each story will be approximately 40 seconds long and you have four of them, they will take about 2 minutes 40 seconds to read).

Now choose enough stories from category two to more than fill the remaining time. Together with your essential category one stories, decide the order in which you want to use them, taking into account their importance, length and pace.

You can combine stories on similar topics, either running them as one story or as two stories linked with words such as "Meanwhile" or "Still on the subject of ...". A word of caution. Do not combine too many stories, because they will become a shapeless mass and you will lose the impact of separate intros.

Reading rate

It is very useful to know your reading rate or the reading rate of the newsreader who will read the bulletin. Once you know how long it will take you (or the newsreader) to read one line of type, you can time your bulletin by counting lines, rather than by timing yourself each time you practice.

Reading rates are calculated in words per second (wps) and usually range from 2 wps for slower readers in some languages to 3.5 wps for quite rapid readers in other languages.

Ask a colleague to help you calculate your reading rate. Get them to time 60 seconds while you read a short piece of news script. Mark where you stop after 60 seconds. Add up how many words you read in 60 seconds and write this number down. Repeat this process ten more times with different scripts. To calculate the average number of words you read in 60 seconds, add up all the numbers from the ten scripts and divide the total by ten. Divide this figure by 60 to get your reading rate in words per second.

For example, you might find that over 10 scripts, you read 125, 126, 119, 123, 118, 120, 122, 126, 118 and 117 words in 60 seconds. Add these up; they total 1214 words. Divide this by 10 to get the average number of words per script (121). Now divide this average by 60 to get the number of words per second. The answer is roughly 2 words per second - your average reading rate.

Once you know your average reading rate, you can estimate how long it will take to read each story. Of course, you will not want to count all the words in all your stories; this would take too long. It is better to count just the number of lines.

First, count how many words there are in 50 lines of your standard news scripts, then divide the total by 50. This will give you the average number of words per line. For example, if there are 600 words in 50 lines of script, the average is 12 words per line.

Now you can calculate how long it takes you to read a line of script. For example, if your reading rate is 2 words per second and your script contains an average of 12 words per line, you can read one line in 6 seconds (12 divided by 2). By counting the total number of lines in each story, you can calculate quite accurately how long they will take to read. For example, a story with 8 lines of type will take 48 seconds to read (8 times 6). Mark the time on the bottom right-hand corner of each story.

One final step is to add up the times for all your stories. This will tell you the total time it will take to read them all. When you are adding up total reading time for the bulletin, add an extra two seconds for the pause between each story.

(One tip on counting lines: If the final line in the paragraph ends less than half way across the page, ignore it. Count only those lines which end more than half way across the page. Over a number of paragraphs, this will average out accurately.)

Of course, you may need a calculator to work out all the sums, but it is worth the effort. Once you learn how to calculate the length of your bulletins, you will be able to time them accurately. After many years, you may become so experienced that you can judge the length of a bulletin just by looking at it.

[Back to timing your bulletin]

The script

Most newsrooms today use computers to produce news stories and features which newsreaders can either print out or read directly from a screen in the studio.

If your newsroom uses printed scripts they must be typed neatly, with any last-minute changes clearly crossed out. If you make more than a couple of crossings-out, re-print that script.

Start a new paragraph for each sentence and type double-spaced. Type only one story per sheet, as this will make it easier to find stories if you want to drop or insert them during the bulletin. Use good quality paper which will not rustle as you move it.

Never turn a phrase from one line to the next and certainly never hyphenate words from one line to the next.

Never staple the pages of your bulletin together. You must be able to pull the sheets aside noiselessly as you read them. Stack the stories neatly on one side after you have read them; do not throw them on the floor.

Even if you read “off the screen”, much of the above advice still holds though the challenge now is how to manage the scrolling of the script and the re-arrangement of stories while you read. As mentioned earlier, television newsreaders usually read from an autocue operated by another member of the production staff. Radio newsreaders seldom have such help so have to present their bulletins single-handed.

Whether you work in radio and television, if your news stories and bulletins are well-prepared in an orderly manner, you will make your work easier and serve your audience more effectively.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Let us look back at some simple rules discussed over the past two chapters:

  • KISS - keep it short and simple
  • Do not use quotes on radio or in television scripts
  • Avoid unfamiliar words
  • Repeat important words
  • Keep punctuation simple
  • Simplify numbers
  • Avoid abbreviations
  • Show how to pronounce difficult words

When constructing bulletins consider:

  • balance
  • pace

Remember radio and television news is presented in a linear way over time.

Consider how you will use different elements and how they go together in sequence.

Time your bulletin precisely but always have extra material in reserve

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>>go to next chapter

 

 
Index to Chapter 49
  1. The principles of bulletin preparation
  2. Balance
  3. Pace
  4. Structuring the bulletin
  5. Starting the bulletin
  6. Headlines
  7. Closing stories
  8. Closing headlines
  9. Actuality
  10. Music
  11. Timing your bulletin
  12. Special bulletins
  13. News flashes
  14. Weekend bulletins
  15. Practical techniques
  16. Ranking stories
  17. Reading rate
  18. The script
  19. To summarise
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