Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Captivating Your Attention and Imagination

Storytelling-Once-Upon-A-TimeWe humans love a good story. Always have. One reason is that when you listen to a great story it triggers the imagination and empowers each of us to personally become involved in the story by privately conjuring up images, emotions, smells, noises and more in our head. Stories ensnare us by making us work to create the final product. Suddenly, we’re “personally” involved.

On the radio, there are several ways to harness the power of storytelling. For the sake of this blog let’s keep it planning, performance and use of audio.

Those three elements are also how I would I describe why I enjoy certain podcasts (Serial, Mystery Show, and Radio Lab to name a few) and certain radio shows and hosts (All Things Considered, Brandmeier, Ron & Don, Kevin & Bean, Scott Simon, and more.)

Planning. Planning includes actual planning. Having listened to the radio for three hours in  morning drive the other day heading to the airport, I am sad to report that “planning” and “prep” are endangered species. Planning doesn’t mean you have to write out every word and reaction, but that each segment has an intention and a payoff. More often than not what I hear is a couple hosts and a producer throwing out punchlines or inadvertently going in opposite directions. There’s no narrative to a segment of the show. Don’t “save it all for the air,” plan it out and make sure everyone knows where it’s going. I mentioned it doesn’t mean writing out every word, but it may mean just that in certain situations. Remarkable writing is powerful. (Listen to Scott Simon’s tribute to Will Rogers)

Performance. We are in show business. That doesn’t mean we have to act goofy, juvenile or over the top. We still want and need authenticity, but when you are on the radio remember that no one can see you point, roll your eyes, put your hands on your hips, put a finger to your lips or see your crazy shoes. Your words and how you perform them will greatly impact the listener’s ability to “get” you. Whatever your personality is, because the listener only has the ability to hear you, amplify it by 5% or 10%, 20% if you need it. I call it vocal animation. It means consciously and effectively using the full range of vocal attributes — intonation, pace, tone, volume, etc.  A little vocal showmanship is imperative to actually being heard and received the way you intend. (See: Rush, Beck, Howard, Radio Lab, and the list goes on.)

Audio. Podcasts are kicking radio’s backside as it pertains to effectively using image inducing, transportive audio. I’m not sure why… other than it takes more time. Not all stories and topics lend themselves to great natural, ambient audio or story-advancing sound clips, but we need to do a better job of seeking them out instead of assuming it doesn’t work or presuming you don’t need it. Audio is your paint. Great audio blended well creates remarkable images in the mind. Bad audio poorly placed results in a muddled mess. (Great example of good audio incorporation: The podcast Mystery Show)

Planning, performance and audio. Three ways radio shows and hosts can grab the attention of the listener and trigger their imagination.

Six Pointers for Writing Radio Promos and Imaging


Sometimes, I sit in my chair with a full cup of coffee, a cleared desk and a blank Word .doc page staring back at me waiting for station imaging to flow out of me like dirty water from a fire hose.

I sit.

I stare.

I check email.

I refresh Twitter. Just in case.

I end up writing something predictable, pedestrian, and yet somehow entirely acceptable and often times complimented by the radio station. We’ve all done this no?

Writing great production and imaging is hard. First off, “great” is debatable. Does great mean reflective of the brand promise? Does great mean encouraging listeners to take action? Does great mean you were able to fit 43 seconds of sales copy into a 30 second promo? Great is debatable.

Aside from that, it’s also hard because radio folk have come to expect a certain sound and style and anything too far off the ranch is quickly stamped out. (Raise your hand if you or your station is still using Star Wars laser sound effects.)

And it’s hard to capture a moment, an emotion, tell a story that resonates with the listener while selling them something (music, a benchmark, a contest, the news) that they didn’t know they wanted. Over the years my style has changed and evolved, as I assume yours has. Here are six of the most recent pointers I’ve picked up from various sources. Please share yours too..


TIMING:  :60s are dead. :30s are tired. :05s to :20s are where it’s at. The caveat! If you’re doing a :30 or :60 chunk it up in sections so you’re delivering one message or thought every :10 or :15 seconds. So, instead of one :60, think of it as four :15s.

TELL A STORY: People won’t buy what you’re selling until they can see themselves benefiting from it. Create a world for them to imagine.

NEVER SAY “IMAGINE THIS”: While creating that world leave our phrases like “imagine this” and “picture yourself.” Just take them there. Create the world you want them to play in.

Golden CirclePEOPLE DON’T BUY WHAT YOU DO, THEY BUY WHY YOU DO IT: This is from a popular Ted Talk from Simon Sinek. The idea here is don’t sell me 10 songs in a row, sell me the experience of zoning out to some killer tunes for the next half hour while the guy in the cubicle next to me refreshes his email every 30 seconds. I don’t care how many songs in a row you play, I want an uninterupted listening experience to bliss out to because it relaxes me, makes more productive, and makes me happy.

SWEET NOTHING: Being an audio medium, sometimes the most powerful thing you can do in production is nothing. Include silence in your promo. Stop everything for one beat longer than is comfortable.

TREAT WORDS LIKE WEEDS – CUT ‘EM DOWN: I like to write my script out completely and then chop it in half. And then chop it in half again. I look for extraneous words and phrases. Every word counts. Every word reflects the brand. It’s the difference between a “chauffeured limousine” or “a limo to haul you around” or “transportation included” or *delete* you can read about that part on the website.

Stop Questioning, Start Creating

February 3, 2014 1 comment

I use Grammarly’s plagiarism detector because I sometimes forget the difference between what I said and what I read. 


Asking listeners a question to begin a topic is lazy, easy, uninspiring and a talk radio cop-out.

Too many radio hosts and personalities on-air, in blogs, and on social media are asking too many questions. The theory goes, “If I ask a question the listener or reader will be compelled to listen, read or click for the answer.” I disagree. More often than not I find I don’t care about the question to begin with. However, I am exponentially more likely to pay attention if someone offers a well thought-out opinion, personal theory or thought-provoking observation. People, in general, have hard time not confirming or denying strongly worded statements.

  • Americans are egotistical.
  • JFK wasn’t a good president.
  • Steroids made baseball better.

It’s likely as you read those statements an inner dialogue began in your head (ie. Well, maybe Americans are egotistical, we probably are, but is that bad? Should we apologize for being confident and proud? In fact, it’s less ego and more certainty and other countries are jealous. And on and on and on…)

These aren’t necessary my personal believes, but examples to prove a point. If these were topics of discussion on radio or online today the first lines would likely read;

  • Are Americans egotistical?
  • How good of a president was JFK?
  • What is one thing that baseball bans actually makes it better?

(A – No. B – Pretty good. C – Tackling?  I don’t really care.)

Questions only draw you in if you’re already interested in the topic at hand. However, a strongly worded statement or compelling argument will draw you into a topic you didn’t even know you cared about.


Consider the first line you utter much like a writer toiling over the first line of a book. It should stir your curiosity and draw you in.

“Call me Ishmael.” That was Herman Melville’s opening line for Moby Dick.

George Orwell began 1984, “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

And then there’s Dicken’s A Tale of two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

These are considered by many to be among the best opening book lines ever by some of the most prolific authors in history. Questions hardly make the lines more compelling

“Can you call me Ishmael?”

“Why were the clocks striking thirteen on a bright, cold day in April?”

“Was it the best of times or the worst of times? Could it be both?…”

The authors use declarative statements to draw you into their world. They don’t want to bridge the gap between your life and their reality; they just want to suck you into their reality. They do that by immediately establishing the norms, the rules, the laws and parameters that the story abides by.


Today the questions being asked on sports talk radio are;

  • Are the Seahawks the greatest defense in history?
  • Was Malcolm Smith really the MVP?
  • Can the Seahawks keep the team together?

Rephrasing the questions above as statements instead of questions makes them more provocative, more engaging, and extremely more interesting.

  • This is not the greatest defense in history.
  • Truth is there were four other guys that probably meant more to the Seahawks win and the team than Malcolm Smith.
  • The Seahawks don’t need to keep the team together to keep winning Super Bowls.

It doesn’t matter if I’m right, because it’s my opinion. I just need to back up my statement with compelling facts, stories, or observations. Colin Cowherd likes to say, “I don’t have to be right, I just have to be entertaining.” And he’s right (except when dealing with facts and not opinion.)


This applies for advance teasing stories too. Asking a question is too easy and, ultimately, a too ineffective way to tease a topic whether you are a host or a news anchor. Write your teases in advance and make them so compelling I can’t afford not to stick with you.

Instead of asking “What was the question asked to Peyton Manning that nearly set him off? That’s next.” I would tease, “After the game, Peyton Manning bit his lip and parsed his words. He nearly blew his top. And not over the loss. That’s next.”

Do your research, make your observations, connect the dots, advance personal theories and compel people with statements.

Writing News with Vic Ratner

VIC RATNERVic Ratner has the voice for radio and he knows how to use it. For over 50 years he trumpeted through the radio with urgency and authority;  slipping, sliding, dancing through each story. It’s as if he was a jazz musician and the news was his muse. And boy could he jam. Sometimes it was just a word or a pause. An unexpected note. You never knew where Vic was taking you, but you felt safe enough to sit back and let him guide way.

But, to say Vic Ratner is a “voice” is to miss the essence of his success. In his soul he’s a writer; even a poet. His descriptions guide his voice and force listeners to see what he’s saying. He takes you there, wherever he is. How does he do that?

“An early boss told me, “When you go out the front door of your house everyday look around you and describe, as if it were for a radio audience, what you see.” And I think that’s like time spent in a gym building up muscles.

In an interview with the Radio Stuff podcast, he talked about how that piece of advice served him well during his 40 years at ABC Radio.

“When an emergency happens, the lessons you’ve learned over time in describing things for people on the other side of the radio – just kind of kick in.”

VicRatnerNASAFor Ratner, colorfully describing his world has become ingrained in everything he does. He’s written with such clarity for so long that now the words roll off his tongue in regular conversation. For instance, when he shared with us his experiences on the day Challenger exploded.

“You know every reporter has times when you don’t believe what your eyes see. When I woke up that morning, I went out to my rented car. There was ice on the windshield. And I told my producers in New York, “They’re not going to launch today. You don’t launch when it’s this cold.” We had been taught by the engineers that you don’t launch in sub-freezing weather. And we now know that NASA’s – some of NASA’s engineers – pleaded with the space agency the night before, “It’s too cold!” They said, “Don’t launch.” They were overruled by the administration and it’s the tragedy that followed. And when the shuttle system came apart you heard a pause in my voice — you could not believe what was happening in front of your eyes.”

For those hoping to walk in the footsteps of Vic Ratner, he does offer this advice.

“Go for it! Do it! Any place you go, any place you wind up do as many different things in as many different places as you can.”

Are Your Local Updates Out of Date?

There was a time when it was necessary to give scores and schedules on the radio, because people were depending on radio to deliver that information. There was no internet, twitter, cell phones, smart phones, I Pads, etc. That was then, this is now. Nothing disappoints me more than when I hear a sports update that goes something like this…

“The Giants beat the Colt 37-3. It was the Bills over the Lions 10-7. Bengals fall to the Browns 27-7 and the Steelers stole one from Philly 21-20. Tonight it’s the Cowboys and Rams. Kickoff at 8:30.”

The score doesn’t tell the story. The fact that the Cowboys and Rams are playing is not a story – it’s a detail. Tell me a story. Here are some ways you might flesh out the scores (all made up scenarios)

Peyton Manning is still scratching his head after throwing 4 interceptions and racking up  negative 15 yards rushing in the Colts 37-3 loss to the Giants. The Bills and Lions account for an all time NFL low…a combined 135 yards of offense.Buffalo wins 10-7. The Browns rally, posting 27 unanswered points in the fourth to upend the rival Bengals 27-7. Philadelphia baubles a onsides kick and turns the ball over with 12 seconds to go. Steeler’s QB Ben Rothlisberger fakes the hand off, casually walks towards the sideline and then runs 44 yards for the game tying touchdown. The extra point is good for the win with no time on the clock. Steelers 21. Eagles 20. Tonight, The Rams look for redemption with the Cowboys. St. Louis hasn’t won a night game against Dallas in 10 years. Both teams are looking to stay above .500 on the season. Kick off at 8:30″

Tell me a story. Fill it with action. Keep in the active tense.

Ever watch Sportscenter? When was the last time they just gave you a score? Never. They make you work for it. SportsCenter goes through all the highlights in the game chronologically and then – at the end – tells you how it ended.

It takes more work. It takes more creativity. It takes more time to write. It’s also more entertaining, more informational, easier to listen to, and it makes you a sought after commodity.  Make yourself relevent. Be a story-teller.

Look Who’s Talking: Jim Cutler

October 22, 2010 3 comments
Jim Cutler Photo

Jim Cutler specializes in News-Talk-Sports voice-overs. He's heard on Nickelodeon, Judge Mathis, CNN, ESPN, Sunday Night Football on NBC, E!, TMZ, Nat Geo, Spike, E:60, Speed, Weather Channel, etc.

GIFF: How would you describe the state of radio production / imaging among news/talk/sports stations in America?  

JIM: It’s actually pretty good and getting better. Yes, people are working with less and some had even cut out their production person completely, choosing to save money with a national or group service for creative on barter. There was a time when I was reading only tags for stations that all ran the same national promo all over the country. Different tag for each station but the same promo for every market. But IRONICALLY when the bottom fell out of the economy and stations had even fewer resources to work with that radio did some soul-searching and figured out that being cookie cutter is what was KILLING us. Many realized that local creative was the last thing they should have cut. The less local you are, the more you’re handing your lunch right to the other national medias. But this has turned around. The group production services are killer great, and I voice for many of them to use as promo examples. But they are supposed to SUPPLEMENT and boost what you do, NOT REPLACE all your local flavor and local texture, issues, problems, joys…local relevancy, just to save money.  

You only have a certain number of promo avails each day to tell your story. If you just plug-in the same national “Glenn Beck rocks/Obama is bad” promos with your local tag every single day, there is nothing there that makes your city’s station special. People can hear the same promo in 100 different cities, along with the same music and shows. But instead if you take a clip of Beck and use it in something that promotes your town, your situation, your local politicians, your local personalities, your local political slant, your events and community vibe oh and by the way catch more of Glenn at 9am…then you’re taking Glenn and making him local. It’s strong, and that’s what I’m seeing more and more of.

If you’re not local you are going to go away. TV stations now know this. It’s why affiliate TV stations are putting on more local newscasts all day. What once was just 11pm local news, 6pm and a morning news hour is becoming news starting at 4:30am till 10 (not 9am anymore), news at Noon, again at 5p, 5:30, 6 and 11pm. Logically, your viewers can already get news anytime from FOX TV or CNN so why would anyone watch the local channel for more newscasts? Because in a time when listening and viewing is so completely fragmented among all the media screaming for your time, playing the LOCAL card actually is working. And you can make more money with it. I’m seeing a ton of really good scripts these days. it’s like the beginning of the return to creative thinking again. I’m VERY, very optimistic about radio.  

Of the hundred things I could talk about, let me give one solid tip you can use: In a PPM world, you have to make everything shorter. Promos should be 15 seconds instead of 30. I was just a part of an expensive focus group test in New York where we watched 100 real listeners each holding radio hand controls turn the station when they were bored. Anything longer than 15 seconds and they are gone no matter how brilliant you thought the creative was. and YES you can get it all in 15 seconds. When we moved from 60‘s to 30‘s people asked the same question, “How can you get it all into a 30?” You think about what you want to say, you keep your clips short and tidy, you write clear and distinct sentences and  you have a 15. In TV I read the daily news topical promos and they are only 10 seconds long. TV would love to have the luxury of being able to move up to 15’s.

GIFF: You talked about moving to the :15 promo, what are some keys to writing an effective promo in those time constraints?

JIM: It’s what TV does every time so it’s quite easy. Put in the important impact-full stuff and you must leave out the stuff that doesn’t matter. Once you get used to it you then think going back to 30’s feels wasteful. It’s the elevator speech, you have 15 seconds to impress and that isn’t hard. Leave out the stuff that isn’t important. And if there’s a ton of clients that have to be in you have to leave their slogans out of it. If a lot of clients are in the spot do several 15’s and just rotate 3 clients in each. Here’s an example of re-writing a 30 down to 15 seconds:

First the 30:

“WZZZ presents Lunch with a Legend. This month’s Legend is New York Giant‘s Quarterback Eli Manning. Thursday October 4th at Mortons the Steakhouse at 722 West 43rd street in Times Square. Come and meet giants QB Eli Manning. Reserve your spot now by calling Bonnie at 212-555-1212 , that’s 212-555-1212. Lunch With a Legend is presented by Capitol 5 Financial Management. WZZZ’s lunch with a Legend at Mortons the Steakhouse in times Square, Tickets are going fast. Join us for Lunch with a Legend by calling Bonnie at 212-555-1212.”

 Here’s the 15:

 “Are the Giants for real? Hear it from the QB himself, Eli Manning at WZZZ’s Lunch with a Legend. October 4th at Mortons in Time Sq. Presented by Capitol 5 Financial Management. Join Eli Manning and WZZZ for Lunch at Mortons, call for reservations: 212-555-1212”

Boom, your done.

GIFF: What advice would you give to account execs working with clients who want to shove 20 seconds of copy into a :10 sports update sponsorship? 

JIM: Ask them for help. You’re not blowing the order. You want to fulfill the order and make client happy, YOU JUST NEED THEIR HELP because there is something wrong. Tell the agency it doesn’t fit, send them the voice track to illustrate it and tell them you’re standing by. That puts the onus on them and after hearing the voice track there isn’t much they can deny about it. They will cut the copy. It’s when you don’t send the voice track that they live in fantasy land about “Well I can read it at my desk and it all fits”. Sending the voiced example and saying “This ten is coming out to 13 reading at warp speed as you can hear, please let us know what to do” does the trick.

I deal with this almost every day but more on the network or big agency level where people have already approved the way too long copy and legal has locked it in. It’s still way too long but it can’t be changed. I read it at warp speed and send it to them unproduced so they see the problem. 

How about a station promo that’s too long to be a 15 because of all the client mentions? Make several versions of the same promo that rotates the different sponsors in it. 

When you write this stuff from scratch, know that you only have 15 seconds to tell the story. That immediately should tell you to get to the point fast. Boom. Boom. Boom.

GIFF: As an amateur photographer and a v/o artist you’ve had the experience of telling stories with just the eyes and with just the voice – what have you learn from each to make you a better story-teller? 

JIM: GREAT question! Photography teaches a good a lesson about PPM. If you just take snapshots you won’t know the following: A Professional Photographer’s job is to think about what to capture so that you communicate what you want to say, but more importantly the job is to CUT OUT ANYTHING THAT IS DISTRACTING. If I’m making a Larry portrait outside Staples Center I might blur the background so the viewer sees that the focus is you. If there is a distracting sign over your shoulder or some people standing near you I’ll recompose so none of those distractions are in there. Just Larry in the clear well lit, with a creamy out of focus background (called bokeh) where the Staples Center is recognizable behind you but only as atmosphere. Most people don’t know that photography is the art of elimination so your story is clearly told without distractions. In a radio PPM world you need to be much shorter, much more to the point. Say it straight and make it interesting. Leave out the flowery language and the generic. People are going to tune away the first time you give them the opportunity: the ridiculously long intros, the generic writing that says nothing, the music bed that plays out of spots for 20 seconds before your host begins talking. So apply the same photography rule to what you do in radio, tell a great story and eliminate the distractions and the reasons to tune away.

GIFF: What does it feel like to be spoofed by Saturday Night Live? (see the video here)

JIM: Surreal. My coffee came out my nose. It was very funny and the Collinsworth imitation rocked. I think the guy who did me had me down pretty well. 🙂 The guys at Sunday Night Football loved it.

Jim Cutler is everywhere