Writing For The Ear, And Other Lessons In Radio Journalism

Story by Elaine Ramirez / Photos by Gavin Huang, Taehoon Lee and Youkyung Lee

Radio is seeing a renaissance: While once seen as a dying art amid the rise of broadcast and social media platforms for journalism, podcasts are filling an important niche that broadcasters cannot afford to supply.

And that can lead to big bucks for entrepreneurial journalists who have every opportunity to start something great from their garage.

That is why AAJA Seoul hosted an audio storytelling workshop on Nov. 25 with some of the greats in the local radio industry: Jason Strother of NPR and PRI’s “The World”; Kim Hyung-eun of BBC Korea radio and web; Kwon Soon-cheol of the podcast “Weekend Baseball Why?”; Christina Seo of tbs eFM; and Kurt Achin of “Koreascape” on tbs eFM, in a panel and workshop hosted by CBC freelance correspondent Bruce Harrison.

Radio has advantages as a more available medium than text or video – you can listen to it when you’re cooking or doing other things. You can ingest radio, says Strother.

“Sound is intimate. Sound brings you into a story. Unlike television, it lets you use your imagination,” Strother says. That’s why, with his experience across the spectrum of mediums from text to broadcast, he has a passion for audio. “TV is very useful as a medium as well to tell a story, but I think with radio, you feel it personally.”

But one challenge of major networks is to gain the appeal of younger listeners, Kim notes. BBC, for one, has channels targeting younger people, and has invested heavily in quality radio programs. She has seen that mediums – text, radio, video, social media – have become diluted, so stories that could be suitable for online text could also translate into radio or video.

Coming from a print background, she had to “unlearn” a lot of things. For instance, a recent 50-minute interview with the surgeon of a North Korean defector would have yielded a full page in print, but in the end, her team produced a video of just one minute, 40 seconds.

The most creative stories maximize the use of sounds to bring the listener to the site, says Kim of BBC Korea. One example, BBC’s radio feature by Steve Rosenberg on how people don’t smile in Russia, made rich use of vox pops to illustrate the experience. “Smiling doesn’t come in sounds. Listening to that package I felt like I was in Russia. It was a piece really visualizing sounds,” she says.

Sounds like walking or atmospheric sounds make the listening experience multidimensional, adds Seo of tbs eFM. “Coming up with the right sounds to put you in that location is challenging. Sometimes less is more,” she says. “It’s very experimental.”

For Seo, sounding natural is a good feature, but honesty and intimacy are the most important characteristics of a good host. It’s useful to have storytelling skills when you make conversation, keeping in mind how to begin the story, then build up to the climax and conclusion. “For most Korean radio programs, it’s your daily companion that you listen to in the background every day,” she says, so it’s essential to have a connection with the interviewees that sounds genuine.

But not all interviewees are great speakers. Oftentimes, a subject who speaks English perfectly well can freeze up when a mic is pointed at them. Strother likes to chat up the subjects to build “jeong” and camaraderie before the formal interview. It’s important to remind the subject to ignore the 30-centimeter mic pointed at them, drop the scripted answers and have a candid chat, he says.

Kwon Soon-cheol, left, host of “Weekend Baseball Why?”

Kwon hosts the “Weekend Baseball Why” podcast, featuring weekly chats about the goings-on in the Korean major league. He sees his role of an emcee as bringing out as many stories as possible from the guests. “I give up my opinions to give the opportunities to the guest to speak,” he says. The best guests should be able to share their love and passion for the subject. Even if they’re not famous, their ability to communicate that passion will increase the listening rates.

“In order not to bore people and keep things comfortable for a long time, you have to make sure the hosts are having fun. If they’re not having fun, you just have to stop recording,” Kwon says. If the interview starts to veer in the wrong direction and the atmosphere isn’t great, he ends the chat instead of forcing it.

He and his two cohosts launched a segment called “Banmal Baseball Corner” – banmal refers to the informal form of speech that Koreans use between friends – on the premise of simply drinking and chatting about baseball. What started out at a 20-minute program got longer and longer – now it’s two hours long and the ratings keep going up, he says.

The key for its success, Kwon says, is that the hosts are not career broadcasters, not pressured into professionalism. “The hosts get along really well…There’s something about that that draws the listeners in.”

In 2010, most podcasts had the role of repackaging the news, but now podcasts are different and unique. Kwon grew up listening to baseball radio, but channels had to shut them down as the listening rates were so low. He entered the podcast market with no competitors, but his podcast’s success has inspired a spring-up of related shows. “‘They talk about subjects you can’t hear on radio shows. People love them because this is the kind of stuff you can’t have on public radio.”

Kim advises to talk about something that interests you — even as niche as North Korean literature — with people who share that interest. While it might not be a moneymaker, it can be something you can do in your spare time that eventually leads to jobs.


So You Want To Write For Radio

Writing a radio script is far different from writing an article for print. The sentences are shorter, the language is simpler, and the points are stronger and more direct.

According to Ira Glass, who wrote “Radio: An Illustrated Guide” about a day in the life of producing the show “This American Life,” an episode starts with an anecdote to draw in the listener. That’s a sequence of actions that set the context. It’s followed by a moment of reflection to raise the question that will drive the rest of the episode.

As Glass says, radio is a very didactic medium. We need to explain things to people, especially to help them relate.

Bruce Harrison.

For sharp radio writing, Harrison offers three simple tips:

  1. Attribution precedes assertion.

The he-said-she-said of radio is different from print, going at the beginning of the sentence to ground the listener. Otherwise, the listener wonders who said what.

In print, you’d say:

Put the kimchi down you glutton, said his wife.

But in radio, you’d say:

His wife called him a glutton and told him to put the kimchi down.


  1. Hearing is different from reading.

The first rule of writing for the ear is to speak it before you write it. If you wouldn’t say it that way, don’t write it that way. Sometimes this means using sentence fragments or colloquialisms.

Radio is linear – it always moves forward, chronologically speaking. Thought’s should be simple, too: One long sentence in print can be broken down to four short sentences for radio.


  1. Don’t echo your actuality.

Given a radio’s constraints of time, an actuality – a sound bite, or a quote – should stand on its own. Avoid saying what your interviewee is about to say. If you’re an anchor, don’t step on the reporter’s toes.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of doing that because it’s so simple. Even the pros do it. But there are ways to build bridges into the next sound bite by building off the quote, such as taking a keyword from a previous quote to build a bridge to the next bit.

“Not making these mistakes in my writing excites me,” says Harrison.

Kurt Achin, left, and Bruce Harrison.

Other tips include:

-Press record as early as possible, and don’t unpress it. Record everything, even when you greet your subject. Then you can use that filler for transitions. It also saves you peace of mind about whether or not you already pressed “record.”

-Also bring extra batteries and extra SD storage.

-When you’re out in the field recording, collect a bucket of moments. While a print reporter with a notebook can construct the scene later, radio journalists must deconstruct the scene – stuff will be going on that you want isolated sounds of.

-Have the conversation/interview, and lay a separate sound underneath – but don’t record them at the same time.

-During recording, eliminate as much background noise as possible – that background hiss or hum of the air conditioner will distract and destroy the audio quality.

-If you use a smartphone mic, place it not too far from the speaker, but not close enough to get the Ps and breaths that will distract from the message.

-Don’t share – everyone needs their own mic.

-Environment is important. If you’re recording narration in your apartment, build a pillow fort or throw a blanket over your head. Put egg-crate foam around your desk.

-Narrating is a performative voice. To yourself, you might sound a little bit cheesy. The basic techniques: breathe from the abdomen, let the words come from your toes. The throat has to be as relaxed as possible. Tense chests will lead to constrained voices. Have a wide open pipe for the voice to come through.

Kurt Achin.

Getting The Right Tech

Journalistic abilities aside, radio journalists need the technical skills to produce audio. That’s becoming easier and more affordable, with several free programs and tutorials available to guide you on how to record and produce sound, says Strother.

Great editing programs include:


-Garage Band

You also need the right gear. You can get a decent entry-level setup for $100-$150, working up to $1,200 or more for professional-grade equipment, says Achin.

No matter your level, you need these in your toolbox:

-Shotgun mic — a sensitive, directional microphone that lets you record from far away.

-Dead cat — a muffler used over a shotgun mic to block the sounds of wind. Without one, outdoor audio is all for naught. (You don’t have to break the bank on one, either. Harrison made one out of a paint roller and fake fur he bought at Home Depot.)

-Shock mount — holds the shotgun mic in place. Without one, noise as subtle as your thumb cracking will be transmitted.

-Pop filter — muffles the Ps and breaths for a smoother sound.


Check out these devices:

Zoom H1: $100

I-rig  (plugs into smartphone headphone jack): $70

Norance PMD 661 (top-line equipment): $550


The best vendor for gear is B&H in New York.

The PowerPoint presentation can be seen here:


This workshop was free for AAJA members. To get news on your local subchapter’s programming, you can become a member here.