Friday, February 25, 2011

827 Radio News: an Opposing View

827 Radio News: An Opposing View

Colleagues will get out the flamethrowers and put snakes in the mailbox after reading the heresy to follow. But there are things here that need to be said. And while it’s radio-specific, there’s a lot that also applies to television.

A long time ago in a far off land, you could hear a radio newscast with a minimum of distraction and interruption.

New Yorkers did this by tuning in WOR and WQXR and WCBS. You turned ‘em on and someone told you the news. Period.

WOR’s news department was staffed by stentorian sounding announcers, many having no idea what they were reading on the air. But they were backed with a 25 or 30 person team of writers and editors who did.

WQXR had the luxury of news prepared by the New York Times and later the Associated Press.

WCBS had Ed Murrow’s late evening newscast. He told you what was going on. Murrow was a first class reporter-writer, despite the many people who said so, and he had two able right hands, Jesse Zousmer and John Aarons.

No tape. No BS. No reporters reporting about themselves. Few or no “live shots.” No “Man-In-The-Street” reactions to things. No sound bites with comments from people who had no standing in a story. No “pundits” or instant “experts.”

In all cases, plain prose you couldn’t misunderstand no matter how hard you tried.

As recording tape became cheap and available, more and more of the radio “news” was “sound.” Like comments from the fire chief, the police, the neighbors or the local congressman. And “natural sound.” Snow shovels scraping the ground, fire trucks, that kind of thing.

Adds little or nothing to a story. Just tell us the news. You think idiot sound makes stuff more “immediate” or “lively?” Ridiculous.

The Next Big Thing was I-A-V, Idolatry of the Active Voice. Or “people do stuff.” This may have been an overreaction to use of the passive voice at the time, but sometimes the action is more important than the actor. That’s why English HAS a passive voice. Eliminating it at all costs is ridiculous and results in sentences no one can understand.

Accompanying this was the wise-guy approach to writing. WNEW had a first rate news department, also 25-ish strong. Much of the time they squandered it by writing so cleverly that the words became the story, not the other way around.

The WNEW stylebook of that era, written by a guy who pretty much knew what he was doing, cautioned against overuse of cleverness. (He noted one item about a cemetery workers’ strike in which he said the lead sentence “Some cemetery workers are in grave trouble...” was too extreme. Apparently anything below that on the scale was acceptable.) Few paid attention to that caution.

Today, the template is audio packing peanuts that add nothing to a story but confusion, a reporter whose every other word is “I” and anchors who work at stations starting with the letter “W,” but who can’t pronounce the word “Double-You.”

Nobody’s perfect. Even Walter Cronkite declined to use the conventional pronunciation of the month, February, opting instead for “Feb-u-ary.”

Bring back announcers, writers and editors who just tell us the news. Please.

I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2011

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