In Radio, Word Count Matters

Here’s a scene: It’s a weekday morning. You’re stuck in traffic on your way into work. You flip on the radio to catch up on news and tunes. Between sips of coffee and taps of brakes, the station breaks for commercial. And then it starts – an unnaturally fast, incomprehensible rush of advertising madness that leaves you equal parts confused and longing to get back the 15 seconds of your life you just wasted.

Bad radio is all around and the biggest reason? Too many damn words.

Now, I’m a copywriter so I love the crap out of words, but when writing for a fixed amount of time, word count matters. You may feel like you’re getting more for your money by cramming as much into your allotted time as possible, but it’s to the detriment of your message. Without a natural cadence and spaces to breathe – literally and figuratively – the listener gets lost.

Think of it this way: in music, the rests are every bit as important as the notes because they add structure, convey emotion and give the listener a break to make sense of what they’re hearing. Without them, music becomes noise.

Rests in radio, or, really, any spoken piece, do the exact same thing. When your only context comes from sound, more sound is just more noise.

Here, listen to this little example.

This thirty-second recording comes in at 80 words. It’s a comfortable read with plenty of room for pauses and music. Now, imagine trying to fit all of this into fifteen seconds…

At 74 words, this 15-second spot is a garbled ear-full for the listener and damn mouthful for the reader. In fact, without the miracles of science (and post-production) to speed it up, it wouldn’t even be possible.

So what’s a radio writer to do? Stick to these rules of thumb:

  • 15 Second Spot – 30 to 40 words
  • 30 Second Spot – 75 to 85 words
  • 60 Second Spot – 150 to 170 words

But wait, there’s more…

Numbers: Spell out any numbers, but don’t be afraid to use number groupings (“thirty-one hundred” instead of “three thousand one hundred”).

Audience: Different stations cater to different demographics; who you’re talking to can be just as important as what you’re telling them.

Live Reads: Each DJ has their own style; some may need simplified messaging to reduce stumbles and others need room left for ad-libbing.

Radio is hard. Even experienced copywriters can struggle with this medium. But understanding how word count relates to retention is the first step to writing radio copy that actually works.

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