I listen to radio almost nonstop for my job, and the more I listen, the more I notice trends. Producers can fall back on patterns that have worked and feel good.
We all know the ingredients of a good story: characters, conflict, hooks, turns, surprise, visual or sensory details, scenes, reflection… It’s easy to start listing these as checkboxes in our minds.
The problem is that once we operate according to checkboxes, we start making boring radio. We settle for an obvious descriptive detail, or check off the “surprising box” with a structure that isn’t surprising. Great intention can lead to lazy execution.
Here are 10 openers I’ve heard again and again from public radio producers and podcasters. They’re easy. They’re appealing. They’re overused.
1. The “Not Your Typical”
The concept behind the “Not Your Typical” beginning is that a character seems average—but there’s a twist. Often I’ll hear a reporter take some time to set a scene, then drop what’s supposed to be the big reveal—that this story is different.
Other times, a story might even open with a sentence like “Jane Doe is not your typical biker.” Even if this is the best concept to begin with, there must be a more compelling way to write or illustrate it.
More fundamentally, it’s not enough for a piece’s only “surprise” to be, say, that old people are doing something young people typically do. That kind of surprise wears off. It’s a reason to start reporting, but it alone won’t justify putting the piece together. A story needs another nugget, maybe an emotional one, to sing.
2. The “I’m Standing Next To”
“I’m standing next to the oldest building in the city. It’s been here for three hundred years…”
I get the sense that this just feels like a solid way to use natural sound. But you can put that ambi under literally any words you want. Better to use the little time you have to set up an interesting observation or metaphor.
There are infinite other ways to begin, so why not come up with some truly fantastic sentences?
3. The Physical Description
Including visual detail for the sake of checking of the “visual box” isn’t useful. When used well, an image can and should knock you over, change the way you see something, unsettle you or pull you in so that it’s impossible to move on with your day until you learn everything you can about it.
Unless the physical traits of a main character are extremely unusual or central to the story, hold off—and even then, resist if you can. Most of the time this isn’t the most interesting way to begin.
4. The Directions
“To get to Joe’s house, you drive five miles west of town until you hit a dirt road winding toward the base of the mountain, then…”
An extraordinary number of stories begin with the reporter giving directions, in some cases for no ostensible purpose. Even when directions do reveal something valuable, visualizing geography requires a lot of imagination on the listeners’ part. It’s too much work to require before you’ve convinced them the story is worth listening to.
Often, I zone out.
5. The Warm And Sunny
Isn’t weather what we talk about with strangers when we can’t think of anything interesting to say? Yes, radio thrives on sensory scenes. But producers need to write them vividly and with precision and purpose. If you want to stun listeners with the top of your story, don’t start with a weather report.
6. The “Okay! So…”
Starting with an off-the-cuff “Okay! So…” is huge right now. It’s colloquial, it’s personal, and it signals we’re jumping into action.
Brilliant producers use this line on brilliant shows, and it works.
But the Okay So has become such a go-to that to me, it’s starting to feel inauthentic, even cliché. When I hear it, I can feel a little manipulated, and I start focusing on the production instead of the story. Unless there’s a really compelling reason to begin with these words—and often there is!—avoid this one.
By refusing to rely on a trick, you’ll force yourself to write something new and strong.
7. The Long Intro
If you listen to PRX Remix, you know that I’m moving toward short intros—or often no host intro at all. I’m all for diving right in and letting a little mystery linger.
8. The Non-Narrated My Name Is
This one’s simple. Except in rare circumstances, start with strong tape, not a self-ID.
9. The Very Important Information
There are lots of issues I care about, but rarely will a story’s importance alone keep me listening.
Don’t start with a fact-vegetable and then assume that I’ll stay with you because I know vegetables are good for me. Start your story with an amuse bouche—a tiny appetizer that bursts with flavor when I pop it in my mouth and leaves me drooling for the main course.
And then I’ll probably eat my vegetables—er, listen to the facts.
10. Anything that isn’t stunning
A first sentence should transfix your listener. It’s competing with music, television, and all of the internet, so find the hook. Pick the detail you can’t stop thinking about and move it to the top. Challenge yourself to find new ways to write about things—which often means pushing yourself to push beyond the first few drafts—or to go deep right away.
So when I’m working, I repeat to myself:
Don’t start the way you think you have to.
When in doubt, write it better.
When uninspired, think Nancy Updike and her talk Die, Mediocrity, Die. (She has tips for what you should do, not just what you shouldn’t.)
When it’s worth it, break the rules. Even mine.