NPR’s Robert Smith Shares Radio Reporting Tips

By Erin Horan
Class of 2012

Planet Money Correspondent Robert Smith spoke to students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism this month on the art of crafting a 45-second radio spot.

The veteran journalist, previously a New York based NPR correspondent, debunked the myth that shorter stories have less substance. “There’s more room for storytelling and creativity in 45 seconds than you thought,” he said.

Smith started his talk by playing his own audio dispatches from the field and even included a few short pieces that didn’t make it to the airwaves. In this video clip, Smith plays a spot about the jobs report that didn’t make the cut.

Robert Smith, Correspondent for NPR’s Planet Money – Sept. 7, 2012 from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.

He also invited CUNY J-School reporters to share their work. Smith gave critiques on how to take their audio reporting to the next level.

“The amount of pre-planning that goes into my stories…I talk about this every year and keep upping the percentage. I would say 82% of a story success is what you do before you go out,” he said. “By writing it in your head, you’re going to know, I need someone explaining this [topic] because you’ve pictured where it’s going to go,” Smith added.

When a press conference doesn’t yield the type of information needed to file a story, he explained, a reporter stand-up can add style and substance: “Sometimes the character [of a story] is a reporter, on the quest for information,” he said.

From the voice of a stranded New Yorker, hailing a cab in the rain, to audio of a woman recreating sounds of a former bustling port (for desperate but ingenious reporter Channa Joffe-Walt,) students learned how to re-think a story using what’s available in the field.

“If you go into a story and it isn’t working, you change it around in your head,” Smith advised.

Aside from a journalist’s flair with words, Smith emphasized the need to have “one, single focus” when reporting a story. It’s about “knowing the moment” you want, before picking up the microphone.