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Are Your Broadcast Segments Up To Snuff For Digital Platforms?

Broadcast programming will have to evolve in order to keep finding its way into people's ears wherever they choose to listen. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Broadcast programming will have to evolve in order to keep finding its way into people's ears wherever they choose to listen. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As public radio barrels toward a future where digital listening is the default, we'll have to do a lot more than create new content for those platforms. Our regular broadcast programming will also have to evolve in order to keep finding its way into people's ears wherever they choose to listen.

But we aren't just talking about your flagship show that you also distribute via RSS. We're talking about the bread and butter of public radio. The things we excel at.

We're talking about segments.

By that we mean Morning Edition and All Things Considered interviews, reporter features, heck, even newscast spots. One of Project CITRUS's main pillars is the improvement of broadcast-first segments to make them more independent, reusable and thus, "digital friendly." Over the past year, we listened to hours upon hours of our own segmented audio to pinpoint the biggest challenges posed by digital platforms where WBUR content may surface, like continuous listening applications (aka CLAs, which include services like NPR One and Google's Your News Update).

From the beginning stages of development, audio content should be conceptualized as being intended for many different platforms at once.

Based on our findings, we've put together a list of criteria to keep in mind when preparing broadcast audio for digital distribution. They fall within three main categories: independence, consistency and audio/mix quality standards.

Category 1: Independence

Independence refers to whether a segment can stand alone in any context, during any time of day, regardless of any content that a listener might hear before or after it.

In a typical CLA session, a listener will likely hear pieces from a variety of sources. They could go from a WBUR story, to a piece from Axios, to a short news item from AM news radio, and so on. These services are trying to mimic the radio experience. So naturally, they want an experience that is seamless and devoid of contextually incongruous language that could be confusing or jarring — just like a radio broadcast. Therefore it is crucial that each segment in a given flow is self-contained, without reference to the time of day that it originally aired or to the show in which it first appeared.

Here are some examples of what to watch for when considering whether a segment is independent and would thus hold up during this type of listening experience.

References To A Segment's Position Within A Show Rundown

This kind of reference most often occurs with content originating from magazine-format shows, like Morning Edition or Here & Now. An example of a reference to a segment's position within a rundown is language like:

"For the first part of this hour, we'll talk about _____."

Or:

"For our last story today, we're going to hear from _____."

There is no way to anticipate where a segment may fall during a listener’s CLA session and it is highly unlikely to be followed by content originating from the same source. References to where a segment falls during a show sound both out of context and confusing, and disrupt the continuous listening experience.

Suggestion: In some rare cases it may be possible to edit out a reference to the rundown or segment position after a piece airs. However, it's best to be mindful during the script-writing process and ensure all host copy has as few references to rundown order as possible.

References To Time Of Day

Writing around developing timelines is a common conundrum in broadcast journalism. The issue of timing becomes even more complicated when a piece of audio lives beyond its original broadcast in digital form for an extended period of time.

For example, say you want to introduce a politics segment by mentioning that a certain politician is expected to make an announcement later that day. If a listener were to hear this segment in a continuous listening experience after that politician had already made that announcement, the conversation would sound immediately dated even if the rest of the content was still relevant.

Suggestion: There are a few ways to address this kind of problem. The most simple is one we often already do in broadcast situations: acknowledge the time a recording is taking place. The other option is to write around the time reference so the segment is able to have a longer shelf-life.

Callbacks To Preceding Segments/Shows

Obvious examples of callbacks include phrases like, “As you heard earlier on the show…,” “Previously on the show we spoke about…,” “Last week on the show we spoke with X about Y... .” However a callback isn’t necessarily denoted by a specific phrase. More often they take the form of a reference to specific subject material.

Here’s a more contextual example from some of WBUR's own programming. This segment from Here & Now that aired on March 6, 2020, opens with:

“Let’s get to a governor who has to deal with this now. Governor Gina Raimondo joins us now…”

If a listener was served this segment randomly in a CLA, they might wonder, "Huh? Did I miss something? What is the governor dealing with?"

That's because a segment that opens this way assumes the listener has already heard what previously happened on the show and knows exactly what the host is referring to. Without that context, this segment is unable to stand alone.

Suggestion: References like this should be removed at the scripting level. Cutting references to other material after a segment has aired will be tricky in most cases. This is because these segments are written in a way that leans on previously heard show context for support.

Segments That Are Supplemental To Other Show Content

This category is very similar to the issue of callbacks — with one key difference. Segments that include callbacks are typically related but are able to stand alone with some tweaks to the lede. However, segments that we are designating as "supplemental to other show content" are fully dependent on previously heard show material for the purpose of commentary, follow-up discussions or debate.

A segment in the "supplemental" category cannot stand alone as is. To illustrate, let's imagine a politician comes on your air to for a two-way with your midday host. In the following segment, the host welcomes on your station's top political reporter to analyze the discussion.

The majority of what is said throughout this second conversation will rely on the listener having already heard that initial interview with the politician. If a supplemental segment like this comes up in a listener’s feed, they would be missing all of the necessary background information, leaving them confused or frustrated by constant passing references to a conversation they did not get to hear.

Suggestion: Due to its utter reliance on show-provided context, this type of segment should not be made available on a continuous listening application without significant repackaging.

References To Upcoming/Future Content

This category is similar to the previous examples about callbacks and references to show rundowns, in that it reminds the listener that the content they are hearing is part of a greater whole, instead of a standalone segment.

For example:

“Coming up on {station's} All Things Considered, {prominent author} talks about their {latest publication}. But first, let's welcome {city's} secretary of public health to discuss the latest coronavirus metrics in {city}..."

Leaving in references to upcoming show content like this is contextually confusing and inconsistent with a continuous listening experience. This is because the host is calling ahead to something that the listener will likely not be hearing.

Suggestion: Here again, a scripting tweak is the easiest way to avoid this kind of reference. In cases where a reference to upcoming content is needed, thoughtful scripting can ensure the language could be cut easily from the segment intro or outro.

Category 2: Consistency

Consistency refers primarily to brand indicators, such as station, show, reporter and host IDs. The following suggestions pertain to how stations may want to standardize these elements to strengthen their brand representation on the air and across digital platforms.

References To Dial Number

References to a station's dial number in digital segments can sound incongruous with the technologies through which an increasing number of listeners are getting their public radio content. Additionally, references to a dial number may limit your station’s brand to being solely a radio broadcaster instead of broadening it to include an ever-expanding range of digital and on-demand products and platforms.

Suggestion: This change would be implemented at the scripting and hosting levels (ideally, as an organization-wide practice). And if you aren't ready to remove station dial numbers from your broadcast segments quite yet, write them in a way that is easy for an engineer or producer to cut post-broadcast.

SOQs

Since you're here, reading this article, you probably know what a SOQ is. But for those who don't, a SOQ is when a reporter states their name and station at the end of a reported story. For a number of reasons, stations may want to consider removing SOQs at the ends of their digitized segments.

For one, the standard practice around segment ledes dictates that the reporter is introduced before the story begins. Having a reporter’s name said once more at the end of the segment is repetitive and not an efficient use of time. Additionally, SOQs commonly contain a station's dial number, which we addressed in the prior example. We see including SOQs in digital segments as an unnecessary holdover from broadcast, where having the reporter and station name at the end of a segment is important in case a listener tunes in mid-story and didn’t hear the ID at the beginning of the segment.

Suggestion: A SOQ would be easy to cut at the end of a segment before submitting it for digital consumption. However, cutting the dial number from SOQs altogether is a move that should be considered at all levels as fewer and fewer public radio listeners will be hearing broadcast segments via traditional radios in the coming years.

References To Your Website

This isn’t a practice to eliminate, by any means. But scripting references to your station's website requires forethought and careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. Here are a few CITRUS suggestions:

  • Beware of time-sensitive examples (purchasing tickets, getting information on events, etc.)
  • Keep the user’s path to the suggested web content short. Whenever possible, give listeners an easy URL to type in so they can get to the desired page directly, instead of having to navigate the twists and turns of the website.
  • Consider what pathways are available on a variety of devices. Say, if the listener wants to view photos of an exhibit on their screened device, or find out more information immediately via smart speaker. Create those pathways.

Segment Intros

Also known as a "lede," what we're referring to here is the portion of a broadcast story that is read by the host before the main content (i.e. a debrief or two-way, report or feature) begins.

Suggestion: This should be an obvious one, but segments should always be packaged with their intros attached. These intros are part of the full story, and often contain crucial contextual information.

Category 3: Audio/Mix Quality

This category refers to best practices for mixing segments for digital distribution. These practices deal with elements that make the actual listening experience easier, such as loudness, abrupt ends or edits and segment length.

These details are crucial to making any station's content stand out as polished and professional — wherever a listener is finding it.

LUFS

LUFS stands for Loudness Unit Full Scale. It’s a measurement of the perceived loudness of a particular piece of audio. Just like how broadcast audio has to be leveled within a certain loudness range (-24 LUFS), the loudness of digital audio should also be standardized across platforms.

Most listening applications have some kind of loudness requirement or guideline for submitted audio. This is especially relevant for CLAs that take in audio from many different sources — such as Google's Your News Update — so that the listening experience is somewhat consistent throughout. Because your content will likely be sandwiched between pieces from outside publishers, it’s crucial that the volume is not overly loud (and jarring for the listener), or, even worse, quieter than the audio that came before it.

Suggestion: Project CITRUS previously conducted a survey of the LUFS guidelines of several CLAs and found that the common requirement falls at -16 LUFS.

Beginnings And Ends

Ensuring that the beginnings and ends of audio segments are clean and professional is one of the simplest ways to make sure your digital audio sounds high-quality and cohesive within a CLA. Examples of imperfect beginnings and ends include breaths leading in and out of segments, cut-off outros and abrupt endings.

Imperfections like truncated outros or clipped breaths at the beginning of a segment lower the overall production value of your audio. They are also irritating and jarring for a listener to hear, pulling them out of the continuous listening experience.

Suggestion: A final human ear should listen to and quality-check all segments prior to submitting them for digital consumption. You may also want to consider setting some edit guidelines for things like leaving breaths in before an intro (we feel there should never be a breath before the listener hears any voices in a given segment).

It should be noted that this is also a case against automated processes for cutting segments out of shows. Automation will be more likely to result in these types of errors that are otherwise very easy to avoid.

Music And Nat Sound Tails

It’s a common public radio practice to end an arts piece or other content that prominently features a musical component with an extended topical music tail. This also often serves a dual purpose if producers are looking to fill extra time with deadroll to top off a segment.

Because of this, long music tails are a wonderful — and at times necessary — element to include during broadcasts. However they don’t always translate as well to the CLA space.

For one, legal guidelines around what music can be used in audio pieces and how may be different for digital versus broadcast. If music plays in a broadcast segment, it’s over after the initial time of air. However in a digital context, that music lives on your platform for an extended or even indefinite period of time.

Second, in a CLA context, an extended music tail would sound starkly out of context when sandwiched between spoken-word content from different audio houses. This also goes for extended "nat sound" tails. Long nat sound tails can also sound like a production mistake, like a piece of ambient tape that was meant to be trimmed after a reporter’s sign-off but wasn't.

Suggestion: When preparing segments like these for digital consumption, music tails should be trimmed in a way that sounds natural and doesn't exceed several seconds after the reporter or host's final words.

Adopting A 'Platform-Agnostic' Approach

All of the suggestions we've outlined above fall under the wider umbrella of an approach we've chosen to refer to as "platform agnostic." From the beginning stages of development, audio content should be conceptualized as being intended for many different platforms at once — instead of being thought of as “radio-first,” and then altered to fit digital or on-demand forms later.

It may seem like a big, somewhat scary, pivot for any organization that identifies primarily as a radio broadcaster. But actually, switching to a platform-agonistic approach only requires a series of slight adjustments to how audio content is scripted and voiced.

Hosts, producers and editors should approach the idea of “platform agnosticism” the same way they consider objective language around contentious issues, or writing around times and dates to avoid expiring content before necessary.

Platform-agnostic writing avoids references to the following:

  • Distribution medium (including dial numbers)
  • Time of day or broadcast (when possible)
  • Segment position within a show rundown
  • Previously heard content or future programming, etc.

The Bigger Picture

Podcasts have proven what we've known for a while: You don't need a radio tower to stand out in the audio space anymore. And this latest podcast boom is demonstrating that radio doesn't even have the monopoly on newscasts and short news segments it once did.

As papers, digital news outlets and venture-backed startups crowd into this space, they have one obvious advantage over radio: They don't have to fret about broadcast content; they can focus solely on digital-only content. Not to mention, tech giants like Spotify and Amazon are getting into the mix — saving themselves a lot of time and a world of effort by buying up fully established production houses like Gimlet and Wondery (which are typically chock-full of public radio-trained producers) to make content for their own services.

In order to remain a robust competitor in the audio space, public radio must seriously prioritize digital audio, particularly short-form productions and segments. The easiest way to do this without sacrificing the quality of our beloved terrestrial content is to make broadcast segments digitally compatible from the beginning stages of production.

We hope the suggestions outlined here provide a helpful guide. If you have further questions or feedback, feel free to reach out.

Franziska Monahan Twitter Assistant Digital Audio Editor
Franziska is the assistant digital audio editor with WBUR's Project Citrus. 

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