Learning to breathe, and other tricks of radio reporting

  • May 1, 2020

By Brianne Ledda

I probably don’t need to say this, but Spring 2020 was an unusual semester. 

I don’t believe I can describe the tension at Stony Brook University in early March, the week before spring break, as the world became aware of the onrushing COVID-19 pandemic. I have never seen anything like it, and hopefully I will never see it again. I think most of us knew, though it hadn’t been formally announced yet, that when we left that Friday, March 13, we probably wouldn’t be coming back. 

My last day at Stony Brook was also my last day working in person at WSHU’s Long Island bureau. Terry Sheridan, the station’s news director, had told me that if I was interested in continuing to work for the station remotely, I should take home equipment, so I packed a bag before I left. I took home a recorder, a mic, two wires, extra batteries and a clamp.

I’m still not sure how I’m going to return everything. 

It was certainly a process adjusting to reporting from home. I didn’t know how I would record interviews or track audio at a quality that was good enough to air without access to the resources in the office. 

I practiced “interviewing” a friend over Zoom, to test the quality of Zoom recordings. It turned out better than I could have hoped. I learned how to use a recorder, which, previously, had seemed nearly alien. I only covered one press conference from home, but I ran into an issue because I didn’t have recording permission on the Zoom call. I figured out how to download a video of the press conference from Facebook and stripped the audio to get a quote. 

The one thing that was a struggle until the very end was voicing. I’m not a natural by any means, but with a lot of practice and tutelage from Terry and J.D. Allen, the station’s assistant news director (and a School of Journalism alum), I’m starting to get somewhere. I learned that I needed to be aware of my pronunciation, since I tend to slur the ends of my words together. I needed to practice sounding natural when presented with a mic; in the beginning, I was very uncomfortable in the recording studio. I tend to raise my voice when I’m speaking into a mic, and especially in the beginning, I struggled to fall into a natural rhythm. 

Another thing I learned was how to breathe. I ran out of breath as I approached the ends of sentences or paragraphs, so J.D. told me to pretend I was playing an instrument. I should plan where to take breaths. One word of advice for future interns — print out your script if you can, and mark where to take a breath. 

My scriptwriting has definitely improved since the start of the semester. One habit I had to break out of was writing for print. Radio writing likes simple sentences in the present tense – so use “says,” not “said”; use “had been,” “has,” etc.; no “-ing” words. I wanted to pack in as many details as possible, and when I first started, it took me hours to write a script because I didn’t know how to break down information to its barest bones. Terry told me to pull the five most important points and then structure those into a script. 

Towards the end of the semester, J.D. asked me to report for a piece on Connecticut hospital capacity. I was incredibly excited to work on the project. I needed to work overtime to get it done, but it was worth it. I’m grateful that J.D. trusted me enough to work on it. 

I learned a lot from this internship, although I think I have a long way to go before I can consider myself a proficient radio journalist. I wish I had taken the audio journalism course beforehand, if only because I would have been able to produce better-quality work from the start, and it would be a good opportunity to apply the skills I had learned in class.

I’m extremely grateful I had the opportunity to work at WSHU. If I had to give incoming interns a word of advice, it would be to take full advantage of being here. Learn as much as you can, and take critique to heart. 

Everyone I worked with at the station is incredibly kind and patient. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.