Mar 21, 2009

Amy O'Leary: Writing for Audio

Over here in the Back Bay, Amy O'Leary has been doing a for-real, nuts-and-bolts session on writing for audio. Structure is a beautiful thing. She has printed-out packets and listening exercises. I love it.

Perhaps the best part of this session was when she played a clip of NYT ethicist Randy Cohen being interviewed on NPR, versus reading one of his columns as a NYT podcast. The contrast was fascinating--on NPR he sounds great. On his podcast he sounds pretty much like a robot.

A fascinating glimpse into why the NYT needed to hire O'Leary in the first place.

One of O'Leary's big tips is that radio scripts should
not be written in the inverted pyramid style, giving away the point of the story in the first graf. Instead, you may want to take what's good at the end and put it at the beginning. You want to woo the listeners in, make them intrigued, and keep them listening until the very end. Save the main point for the middle of the story--start with hook and color and build to the "point" that you would put in a news story lede.

A magazine writer asked O'Leary, essentially, "Hey! But where's my nut graf? Won't the readers feel disoriented?"

Nope, O'Leary said. In testing audio slideshows at the Times, she said, people will listen to an audio piece for 15 to 20 seconds to test it. Once you get them past that point, they'll pretty much listen until the end. You've got to get them immediately. Put your best quote up front--don't even explain it, she said. You can backfill later.

O'Leary draws a comparison to Lost. TV is doing radical things with story structure, and she says right now our brains are primed to decode complicated narrative--people like having that kind of work to do. Don't spoon feed them.

More nitty-gritty after the jump.

Tips for Radio Scripts:
-Use a big font
-Double space text
-Indent quotes
-Write out tricky words--including numbers-phonetically

Exercise 1: we listened to JJ Sutherland's "The Battle of Shok Valley" from NPR and are now doing a "close reading" of what Sutherland did to make the piece so effective.

Some points from the audience about Sutherland's piece:
-Seamless narrative
-Uses spatial directions to orient the reader
-Also reminds the reader repeatedly how much time has passed.
-Sutherland's smooth radio voice gets more excited at exciting points--subtly.
-The soldiers he talks to aren't that effusive--they're strangely detached--but
-O'Leary: Sutherland points out that Rhymer is not a great talker and that the tape isn't great.
-O'Leary: Sutherland also repeats part of the soldiers' quotes for emphasis.
-O'Leary: All the things that propel the story forward are narrative. "Then things went wrong." "Their mission had changed." There are litte moments of suspense that push the narrative forward.
-Few adjectives. A lot of short description. The whole thing is a story.

Exercise 2: Re-writing a print script "A Model Middle School" for audio. This is based on a story that ran in the NYT.

The original lede:

"At a time when middle schools across the country are struggling with performance slumps and overhauling their progams, Briarcliff middle school in northern Westchester County is one of the rare good news stories."

As revised by audience members, this prose became more conversational--sentences broken up, contractions added, cute anecdotes brought to the beginning.

Exercise 3: We listened to an NPR interview of NYT's Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist," and then read a print article he wrote on the same subject: stealing other people's wireless internet.

Exercise 4: We watched a NYT audio slideshow, "An Unwelcome Neighbor," that was photographs and audio clips of farmers struggling with a proposed coal-burning power plant next to their farms. The exercise was to take the quotes and write a script around them to transform the farmers' quotes into a true narrative.

-Photo is from one of O'Leary's official web profiles.-

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