Short-form audio storytelling: 10 format ideas

Image source: via YouTube

Today we discussed a number of different permutations for telling a strong audio story in a short space of time. Hopefully this gives you confidence that, yes, you can tell a good piece of audio storytelling in 60 seconds to 2–3 minutes.

Here’s 10 potential formats you could use:

1. Traditional News Bulletin (Presenter read)

Not so common now, but you can sometimes hear stories — and sometimes entire short news bulletins — which are just a newsreader and a script.

2. Traditional News Bulletin (Presenter read + clips)

Check out the NPR hourly news summary which you can play from this page. You can also find traditional style bulletins from AP, Fox and others. The traditional bulletin style (Presenter read + short clip) remains an effective way to get across the key points/developments of the day, quickly.

3. The “I was there” recollection (Two-way/interview and subject)

We previously listened to examples of this format from the BBC World Service, with their show Witness: “The story of our times told by the people who were there.” At 8–9 minutes it’s a bit longer, but you can still use this storytelling technique for a shorter pieces. This show blends archive footage and new recollections, to tell the story of a key moment/experience.

In this recollective vein, also check out this interview with CBS new legend, Bob Schieffer, part of a week’s worth of coverage marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years Later.”

Schieffer was stationed in Texas working as a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1963. He was in the newsroom when the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald called and asked for a ride to the police station in Dallas.

4. The “Journalistic” Monologue

Listen to the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent for great examples of this. Short stories with no bells and whistles, just great scripts from master storytellers and reporters. Listen. Take notes. And learn accordingly.

“No interviews are included, there are no sound effects; no creaking doors, no footsteps, no noises off at all. Just the voices of the correspondents reading their scripts. As BBC senior correspondent Fergal Keane puts it: “Fooc is a programme which promotes story-telling rather than story-processing. It is the best programme we have in news.” (via the Guardian.)

Here’s 12 case studies from the show to listen to; including the one above which we heard in class about a nurse working with Ebola victims in Liberia. The piece is short. But punchy. Full of powerful evocative, description. You can read some scripts from the show if you look at the preview of this book.

5. The “Everyman” Monologue

There some great US originated monologues of everyday people captured by Listen to these two examples (they’re just under five minutes in total) of single memorable — and life changing experiences.

StoryCorps 337: Just Pass it On:

Thomas Weller explains how he got started helping strangers in need; whilst New York City bus operator Ronald Ruiz tells us what happened when he helped one of his passengers on the City Island line in the Bronx.

6. The “Nat Sound” Monologue

Edward Murrow’s WW2 broadcasts from London were pioneering. The natural sound in this extract is quiet in the mix, but Murrow’s report from the rooftop of BBC Broadcasting House (not disclosed at the time, for security reasons) whilst London was bombed by the Germans is a ground breaking piece of radio storytelling. Want more? Here’s the transcript.

7. “In the Field” Reporting

Skip the ads and jump 2 mins 21 secs in to the start of this episode. The first 2–3 minutes help set the up the rest of the story, but it also works as a great opening (and potentially standalone) vignette.

Corporal Scott Foster of the Hillsborough, NC Police Department worked closely with his K-9 partner, Talon, for many years. They located weapons and narcotics, tracked suspects through dark woods, and went home together after work. But when Talon was injured on the job and had to retire early, Corporal Foster was paired with a new dog and life got a lot more complicated.

8. The Two-Hander

Stuff You Missed in History Class is a popular example of this. No interviews, FX etc. Just two people talking. In the process, the presenters walk you through a famous (often quirky or long- forgotten) event or incident from the past. Shows are typically 30–45 mins long, but you could easily adopt this format for shorter, discursive, pieces. Introductory pieces in shows like This American Life, often do this well.

9. The Three-Hander

Can be used for comedy — like The Ricky Gervais Show — as well as other formats like the BBC’s Great Lives; a biographical series in which a guest and an “expert witness” discuss an inspirational life.

Here’s where Gervais’ record-breaking series all began.

10. Multiple voices. No narrator.

Last week, Professor Rob Quicke — an Associate Professor of Communication at William Paterson University and the founder of World College Radio Day - told us:

“The journalist is not the story, the interviewee is so you’ve got to remove yourself as much as possible.”

One of the way’s that Quicke has done this in his own work is by letting the voice of his interviewees drive a story forward. This two minute piece , about a radio station Rob worked on in the 90s (as did I) — whilst still a student at Oxford — just uses the voice of his contributors to move the narrative on.

It’s a format that requires a lot of editing, but it holds your attention and puts the contributors front and center of the unfolding story.

Any other ways in which you could do this?