Scrambled Scripts

In radio reporting, your story is only as good as your clips. You can't fudge the quotes, you can't paraphrase them, approximate them, insert missing words inside brackets, or just plain use your own to tell the story. This sounds like a pain in the neck, but it also relieves you of much of the abstraction and wrestling with themes, arguments and narrative that print reporters endure. Script writing is a comfortingly concrete process. It begins by sitting down and arranging your clips in an order that makes sense. Often the constraints of continuity and logic will make the order self-evident. You can't play the clip of an interviewee explaining the solution to a problem until you have played a clip setting up the problem. You will want to play the audio of notable background noises close to the clip of a person explaining the source of the noise. Other times the order won't be so obvious, but you are at least bound by a finite choice of clips.

I actually write my scripts by putting all my best quotes and ambient sound on recipe cards, one audio clip per card, and moving them around like a jigsaw puzzle. (Many thanks to Kim Kierans of for an idea which has served me well for many years). The clips are rarely sufficient on their own, of course, and I include several cards for narration that will explain context, introduce characters and smooth over the continuity. But I don't write anything on them. I leave them as blank placeholders while I juggle the cards around, searching for the best order. As I do, all those abstract concerns that print writers seek by staring out the window just seem to reveal themselves. And once they do, filling out the narration cards is often a snap.

This exercise simulates that process. I've taken a script for a radio story I produced about immigrant children in Halifax schools and written each quote and piece of ambient sound on a moveable card. The narration has not been written out word for word; instead each piece of narration has been briefly summarized to indicate the main point. Then I've scrambled the cards. Pass your mouse over the cards to drag and drop them in any order you like. Find an order that makes some kind of logical and narrative sense. Then listen to the original report at the bottom of the page to see how your ideas compare to mine.

There is no correct answer, of course. You could write a different script with the same material, but the exercise should give you a feel for how to write a script without actually writing anything.


  • NARRATOR: Having this many languages in the classroom is really hard on teachers.
  • CONRAD (REPORTER): Do you guys talk about where your from?
    CONRAD: Do you tell them about Liberia?
    WAYHEE: Yes.
    CONRAD: Sahira, what does he tell you about Liberia?
    SAHIRA (STUDENT): Once he talked about the war in Liberia, it happened. That he ride on his mom's back. Because he says that he was fat.
    CONRAD: What happened Wayhee? Why were you on your mom's back?
    WAYHEE: I was too fat and I couldn't run. I was too little to run fast.
    CONRAD: Why did you need to run?
    WAYHEE: The war. There was people having guns. Shooting. It's even on Youtube still.
  • KAREEM (STUDENT): The homework everyday twenty pages.
    CONRAD: Where? Here?
    KAREEM: In Egypt. And every page is ten questions. So it'll be about 200, or 100.
  • SANTI-RAN (STUDENT): "U." "O." "Y." "N." "T."
  • NARRATOR: One student thinks that more than half the class is from other countries.
  • NARRATOR: Some of the kids have escaped war.
  • NARRATOR: The school is making efforts to get parents involved.
  • WEEDON (TEACHER): So I have a little girl here from Belarus and she speaks very little English, and another little girl from China, virtually no English. We have three Nepalese children. They're language acquisition is a "little different." Then I have a boy from Iraq, who doesn't speak much English, and a little boy from Ghana... (Fade out)
  • NARRATOR: All the kids get along well.
  • NARRATOR: The kids say school in Canada is easy.
  • WEEDON: I think my biggest thing is making sure they feel, that their self-esteem isn't eroded. But there was one time with this little boy, his first language is Spanish but e speaks French. Very very shy. Head down all the time. So for lessons when were talking about bullying and health lessons I would often let him speak in French and then I would translate to the class. Which gave him that comfort level, especially due to the topic. So I was constantly switching from French to English, which isn't a bad ting because they're starting core French this year, but then this little girl from China started, and I was trying to explain something to her and finally I went on the computer to the Chinese translator. But my brain was like "urgh" and I started to speak in French to her. And one of the girls was like "Miss Weedon, you're speaking French to her." (laughs) But my brains was trying to somehow grasping at straws to communicate to this little girl.
  • SANTI-RAN (STUDENT): I know. I know. (Sadly) Ohhhh. It's nice speak English. I'm see TV. I practice. Every day. I see TV.
  • NARRATOR: The immigrant kids help each other.
  • NARRATOR: Some of the students get frustrated when the teacher doesn't pick them.
  • NARRATOR: A conclusion.
  • NARRATOR: The bell rings and kids line up to come in from lunch.
  • RENE (STUDENT): Some of them speak English but they don't all speak good English. Santiran's learning a lot everyday, but Julia and Fu Lin, they're still don't know that much English. Me and Nicole we help Gorab sometimes, and Fu Lin and all that, with writing and math and all that.
  • WEEDON (TEACHER): You know, it was really interesting doing some rememberance discussion, and trying to talk about world war and Canada's experience in it. And they've had experience with civil war that I found a lot of our conversation became that. To let them have a voice, and share, and it's amazing that they come and they function just like regular child, but yet they've witnessed things.
  • NARRATOR: The school board does not provide much money to help immigrant students.

 Listen to the story:

For 15 years, Conrad lived in Mexico, where he worked as a freelance radio and print journalist. His work took him into a minefield, a gunfight, a dugout canoe and the homes of many fascinating, brave and generous people. He is also an avid teacher and has led classes in radio, robotics, soccer, physics and anthropology in a diversity of places, including office towers, lecture halls, fields and palm thatched huts.