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What Is A Dispatch

We have a journalistic field guide, What Is A Dispatch, that we sent to serious story-pitchers. The Nieman Foundation For Narrative Journalism, at Harvard, published a nicely edited version of it in three parts, on its website, and it's also reproduced here: 

Dispatches is a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio News weekly show of documentaries, essays, interviews and reports from around the world. Most are by traveling freelancers. Many are from CBC reporters on the trail of breaking news for our newscasts. So we're mostly at the mercy of where other people choose to be and for how long.

After 10 seasons, we're getting more pitches than we have time or money for, so we wanted to formalize some of the standards we use to decide what to do and how to do it. We also wanted to share with our contributors some of the thoughts about craft we've had over the years.

We wanted a document that aimed for high standards, yet offered help for people risking their lives in places they're just learning to spell the names of--to grind out $100-a-minute pieces for overworked editors with short deadlines and dwindling budgets.

We've included some pieces to listen to at the end of this post. They don't correspond one-to-one with the points we make, and they aren't all spectacular. But they're the kind of stories most professionals are capable of doing, and they serve as good examples of how to get more out of a piece by using a few simple strategies.

Part One: sounding out your story

What is a dispatch?

A dispatch is a report from a specific place - by a narrator telling us things only someone who is there could tell.

Good dispatches include vivid images, tension, change, conflict, contradiction, or irony. Humor is always welcome. A surprise isn't bad. The most memorable dispatches contain a strong "Who knew?" factor. The best ones shine a light into the lives of people.

A radio dispatch gets its veracity from the authentic sound of the reporter being in the scene--even interacting with others in the scene. That means, in a dispatch the sound doesn't stop. We don't broadcast "script & clip" items (where the reporter reads a script in a studio and plays clips).

Except for host interviews and on-scene conversations, our contributors talk directly to the audience. We don't use generic sound effects or music beds under the clips (unless the music is from a scene, or part of the story). And we don't put reporters or characters into scenes they really aren't in.

Be crafty and creative

We're telling people about the state of the world by taking them to the rarest of places, inside a stranger's life. How can you do that?

Flesh out your characters. Ask subjects about the things that define them. Hopes. Fears. Food. Heroes. Music. Weapons. Family. Childhood.

That's how you find out that your Congolese driver hasn't had three meals a day in 30 years. And the 11-year-old guerilla doesn't like the AK because it pulls high and to the right. These things might work into a clip. More often they work into your narrative, alongside the other things we like. For example, physical descriptions: hands, faces gestures, habits, tics.

Sticking with stuff you actually see shouldn't be restrictive. If the subject is audibly spitting tobacco juice during the interview, don't stop him. If a subject tells you how best to anaesthetize a pygmy elephant, it's probably worth a mention. For God's sake, tell us something we don't know.

Your presence is organic to the piece. Insert yourself in it. Leave some questions in your clips, so we hear you learning and thinking out loud. Leave in the ragged, unplanned moments that add to the intimacy.

If the nervous woman in a Sarajevo church suddenly tells you to shut up because a stranger has walked in, then she grabs your mic and causes some nasty hand noise--it's a telling moment.

Structure is your friend

We use elements of good narrative to pull these pieces together, starting from the simple fact that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The beginning tells us what's at stake in the story and gives us reasons to care about what happens. It introduces characters and sets up a conflict or a challenge. It might be the start of a journey, the middle of a standoff or the result of a troubled history. But, as a beginning, it engages us, makes us want to know what comes next, and how it got that way. It also lets us know what kind of a piece we're in for, and sets a mood.

The middle is about people working through this situation. In a good story, this leads to moments of suspense - turning points, at which the story could go one of two (or more) ways. Those turning points, as short story masters have learned, are the opportunity for digression--back stories, facts, history. There's usually a dramatic "what it's all about" scene in this middle part.

The end does double duty. It's the conclusion of the story and the last thing you leave the listener thinking about. Conventional news reports just trail off or embrace some rhetorical form of "Time will tell..." closing. We want to boost the effectiveness of Dispatches endings. Don't be surprised if we ask you what the closing scene is before asking for the opener.

Your dispatch might not be a full-blown narrative piece. It might be a simple report of an event, or a profile of a person, or a complex account of a developing situation. To succeed, though, it most likely will employ some of the things that make good narrative journalism work--things that you can easily incorporate into your story.

Here are some sample clips (some may take a minute to load):

Be in the scene--Connie Buys A Burka (Oct 15, 2004). For Connie Watson, things were pretty cool in Kabul in October 2003; but she learned if you're going to Kandahar , you best pack a burka. So she went shopping. It's good example of being with people doing what they do for a living--even though most of it was scripted and voiced later.

Let people tell the story--Mender of Lost Hearts (Part One - January 2009). Samite Mulondo is a Ugandan refugee and now a professional musician based in Ithaca, New York. He worked with former child soldiers in a recording project in Congo.  We let him tell his own story - and the stories of these kids, in two parts.

Use personal experience--Anthony Eats Penis (April 4, 2006).Anthony Germain stretched his assignment as CBC's correspondent in Shanghai to sample some of the organs on the menu.  It might have shades of cultural snobbishness, but it's good storytelling, which reveals a lot about himself.

Narrate your story--Jody's War. In early 2007 Dispatches host Rick MacInnes-Rae interviewed a Canadian Afghanistan amputee in a Toronto hospital. Jody told his own story. Rick broke it up using the simple technique that comes straight from the narrative journalism bible: stop the story (in this case a simple monologue) at key points of suspense to digress into scripted background. Then continue.        

Part 2: composing with sound

The following are things you should start to figure out before you go out and collect your sound. And continue to figure out while you're collecting it. And consider again when you're putting your piece together. In all memorable sound pieces, the sound you collect determines the structure and presentation more than anything you can do afterwards in the writing or the mix.

Aim for compelling, sound-rich scenes. Don't leave a scene until you have the sound that can recreate that scene. By the time you're in the middle of collecting your sound and interviews you should pretty much know which are good candidates for (at least!) your opening, closing and "what-it's-all-about" scenes.

While background sound--the lull of street traffic or birds outdoors or waves--is good behind a short script or inside a clip, it's often too lame to drive one of these anchoring scenes. You want something distinctive. Don't just hold your mic in a crowd for a minute. Walk around; point it at individuals--talking, laughing.

With these anchor scenes in place, it's usually pretty clear how to get from one to the other. For example, a digressionary "how did it get this way" scene might follow a "what's it all about" scene--and set the direction toward the final scene.

Present strong characters. Strong characters require strong entrances and good lines. Introduce characters with material that shows what they're like, as well as their role in the story. For example, when Rhoda Metcalfe introduced us to the stoners who were abalone poachers, she signaled that this was a story about social conflict, not just a threatened species.

Memorable exit lines make solid connective writing a lot easier. It's all right, for example, to flip sentences in a clip to achieve this.

Let people make your pictures. As much as possible, get subjects to describe what's happening, what they're doing and what we're "seeing" on radio. You shouldn't have to do it all the talking. It's also a good way to break the ice with the person, and it might give you a line that makes for a good entrance or transition.

A colleague from Newfoundland said he was taught to "look for the doily" whenever he entered a home with his recorder. "What a nice doily! A lot like my aunt makes." was good enough to get a shy person to open up. There's a doily, figuratively speaking, in every home and office. Even in a cubicle you might see something personal. Better still, find a doily relevant to the story. If the person is a teacher ask them to show you drawings or essays or remember outstanding students. Ask questions with answers that help connect the character with the listener.

Use scenes where characters do what they're in the piece for. We don't want to hear every person just sitting at a desk or a computer or in a café. If he sells real estate, go out with him while he's showing a house or closing a deal; if she's a doctor, listen to her consult with patients. Let a writer read some writing or go somewhere she's written about; go to the market with a family that's scraping by. It just might get you something substantive as well. Good things happen to reporters when they go out.

Get your subjects to tell stories. Don't ask the subject "How did you feel when you found out?" Better: "What did you DO when you found out?" or something that might start a story. "And what did you do next?" "Yeah, and what made you think of that?"

Before you ask a question, think: could a person say just "yes" or "no."  If so, ask it differently. Don't ask: "Is it a good thing?" Ask: "What difference will this make?"

Make distinct scene changes. Shifting sound and scene underlines dramatic shifts in the story. Give scenes good entrances--another reason to get foreground sound to layer over the background.

Contrast the sound of your scenes. As much as possible, play intimate scenes against crowded scenes, loud against soft; or play against type--in a crowd, go up close to one person cheering or laughing.

Don't bore us with facts. Filling in background information is hard to do without bringing the piece to a halt. Pick a time when the conflict or drama of the piece will leave listeners hanging in suspense--a turning point. When your character faces a decision, stop. Tell us how he got there. The listener will tolerate scripts longer when there's a good sense of what's at stake.

Good use of sound is not gimmicks; it's not bells and whistles. It's what makes a radio piece work--that and a few well-chosen words. A photo editor once said: "A picture isn't worth a thousand words. But a picture and ten good words are worth a thousand and ten words."  We can add that good sound and some well chosen words--and a solid structure--are worth a million and ten words.

Some relevant sound clips

Structure and digression--Capetown Tabloid (Jan 28, 2008). Making the structure essentially a "day on the job " of a couple of tabloid newspaper people, Rebecca Zandbergen gets a grabby opening and a closing payoff for herself--while bracketing the heart-tugging scene with a murder victim's family AND setting up a digression at a journalism conference discussing what it's "all about." Strong characters (some good entrances) and contrasting tones of scenes.

Dynamic scenes--Baboon Break-ins (Sept 10, 2009). A couple of short scenes at the top establish the drama and the menace of the marauders, and suspense for digression.  More important, the opening sets off a more engaging structure than the straight sequence of scenes you normally hear in one of these situational pieces. The action jumps around a little more.  Rhoda Metcalfe did a similar job with turning her story about threatened abalone populations from a wildlife piece to a story about human conflict.


Part 3: writing for radio 

We at Dispatches have seen thousands of first-draft scripts across the 10 seasons of the program. Most are problematic. Some just require moving a scene or two for the structure to click into place. At other times we've had to make the reporter tell us the whole story again to find why we assigned it in the first place. When it's the dog's breakfast, we look for some kind of order: Chronological? Sensational opening? Two funny scenes that just have to go together?

As in billiards, when you break the proverbial rack, tracklines for writing sharpen up once a few items fall into place. From here, give and take between a reporter and producer becomes teamwork rather than confrontation. This is the start of what we call the vetting process, where the reporter and the producer work together to brainstorm, reorganize, and negotiate until they get a structure that works.

We on the desk like to think of the vet as the guts of what we bring to our pieces. But we know the best vets happen after the reporter does a good job in the first place (see parts 1 and 2 in this series).

After vetting the structure, the writing is what fills in those tracklines. We've figured out tips to help you avoid a few of the standard "tripping" points.

Tell the truth that you know. Report what you really see and can verify. "The overworked officer approaches a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk"  might not work so well--you actually often can't verify he is sleeping, or homeless even, or that the officer is tired. Try:  "The officer is in the 12th hour of an overnight shift. He approaches a figure--bare feet sticking out from a pile of old blankets and newspapers on the sidewalk."

In the first description, a listener's pre-formed opinion of police and homeless people will shape his value judgments more than your description does. In the second, you're not only more accurate, you're in better control of the subjective aspects as well.

Create the image you saw and want the listener to see. Start with a lot of details; you can edit it down in the re-write, or save them for the print edition. Picture those details when you're reading your script too.

Read your script out loud, in your real voice, while you write it. Then try it out on a partner or colleague. Don't be shy; after all you're going to read it on the radio.

Don't be sentimental. Your writing and characters must provoke emotion. How do you know when you cross the line into sentimentality?  Drama teachers tell us that sentiment is unearned emotion. Earn emotions. Also, avoid assumed emotions, such as: "He was devastated."  Try: "He was so upset that he..." or simply just describe what he did "...so he broke it into little pieces."

Move the plot along by pointing your sentences. Pointing is moving the writing along via logical baby steps--each sentence or clip ends with an image or thought that points to the beginning of the next sentence or clip, or the next sound we hear. Don't make big leaps or refer back to things we heard a while ago or won't hear until the end of the clip that follows. Again, it's all right to flip sentences inside a clip to achieve this, as long as you're not distorting anything.

Write into the sound. Write from the sound. Yes, set up sound, but don't telegraph new sound. Let new sound happen before you address it. Don't tell us what we're going to hear next. Let us hear it; then fill us in.

Avoid passive voice and long subordinate clauses. Make new sentences.

Use more verbs and fewer adjectives. Verbs show people doing things. Vivid verbs work better than dull ones.

Write to the ending. An important thing that narrative journalists teach us is to avoid the inverted-pyramid structure-where all the best stuff is at the top, and the disposable stuff is at the end. We want strong endings. When you know the ending, a lot of the earlier writing is easier. It also helps you choose the telling detail your ending will reinforce, so you can find the right place in the story to foreshadow the ending.

All the above (including the material in Parts 1 and 2 of this series) add up to a lot of time and effort, especially in the field. But these strategies save time in the writing, vetting and production stages. Not to mention the next time you do a piece.

At Dispatches, compiling these thoughts has given us a common language to use when we talk shop.

But most of all, we believe it pays off for the listener.


Here are some examples of reporting what you see:

Michael McAuliffe in Baghdad Children's Hospital (January 28, 2004). One prolonged scene, one character-but a story with a wallop. Michael dropped in on the hospital on a whim. He got an hour of walk-around sound with an English-speaking doctor. We cut it by half. Then Michael listened to it in his earpiece, and simultaneously recorded a running commentary on another mini-disc. We cut and mixed the two tracks back in Toronto and ran it the next day. That voicing is also a great way to achieve a personable storytelling tone, speaking in natural voice.

Jared Ferrie in Guinea-Bissau (November 24, 2008). Jared found this basket-case country is a major packaging place for illegal drugs bound for Europe. Even though a lot of his recorded material was wiped clean by police working with the druglords, he got great scenes, because he took risks and remembered the details. His first radio story.  The PM was assassinated a month or so after this ran.

David McDougall essay from Congo (November 17, 2008). David was doing mostly print work in Congo when he was invited to in meet the crazy warlord Laurent Nkunda.  It's a good example of recalling personal reactions and impressions and noticing some telling details-even though, as you hear, he lost his equipment in the end. That's why it's an essay.

Both David's and Jared's pieces are triumphs of naivety.

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