Writing for Radio: The Art of the Audio Essay
PWR 2 Fall Quarter 2007
Jonah G. Willihnganz
Stanford University

“Radio is a form that can’t make strong demands on memory and patience.” —Geoffrey Nunberg

Writing for the Ear: Geoffrey Nunberg’s Principles

Below are a set of principles for writing for writing radio essays of any length.  You should see these as a complement to the on-line handouts by the Canadian Broadcasting system.  These are an expanded version of the principles offered to students in this class by the linguist and radio-essayist Geoffrey Nunberg in April of 2005.  We will discuss these in class. 

Content and Structure

  1. Fix the listener in a particular time and place

  2. Use concrete examples as often as possible, especially those that encourage identification

  3. Signpost regularly: replace visual cues with aural cues, esp. with voice (EEG, conclusion)

  4. Quote others sparingly, briefly, but use actualities (taped interviews, performances) freely

  5. Be informal, conversational, but not flippant or careless—every word must count toward the point you are developing

  6. Posit an “ideal listener” for your piece


  1. Be sure every segment of exposition has strong cohesion (Use simple parallelism, compare/contrast, or devices such as "Topic Strings" or "Chain-Linking")

  2. Avoid long relative clauses, especially at the beginning of sentences

  3. Avoid complex sentences

  4. Avoid lots of adverbs

  5. Keep lists short

  6. Use voice rather than content to indicate attitude and posture—this helps eliminate a lot of exposition

  7. Vary inflection regularly—by section if possible—and to signal transitions and approaching conclusion