How to create a news and current affairs programme

Image by Werner Anderson released via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Image by Werner Anderson released via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

In this article we look at the steps involved in creating a news and current affairs programme for a national radio station. The information below is taken from a series of modules created for a training course delivered in Africa by one of the Media Helping Media team.

The following sets out some of the important steps involved in creating a radio news and current affairs programme.

All the elements listed below are taken from training modules on Media Helping Media (MHM), which in turn represent training courses delivered by MHM trainers worldwide.

Identifying the audience

The first step is to identify the audience and its information needs.

Advertisers use a tool called ‘audience segmentation’ in order to identify existing and potential customers. They then ‘target’ that group in order to sell their products.

They gather information about segments of society based on likes, dislikes, lifestyle, current product usage, interests, aspirations, and media habits.

A smart media organisation needs to do the same. It needs to know who it is creating content for and understand the interests and concerns of that audience.

Advertisers use segmentation to ‘superserve’ several audience groups in order to focus effort to achieve maximum return.

Journalists can adapt this strategy to ‘superserve’ clearly defined target audience groups whose information needs reflect those of the whole audience. Consider the diagram below.

Graphic by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0
Graphic by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0

Think of it like peeling an orange. Inside you’ll find nine segments. Each segment represents an audience group.

One segment might be farmers, another youth, and a third businessmen and women.

If you examine the information needs of each group you will find that there will be considerable overlap at the centre. This is your unique editorial proposition.

See our training module ‘Identifying the target audience and its information needs’.

Unique editorial proposition

The overlap in the segments shows about a number of issues that affect the majority of the audience.

Covering these issues will set you apart from the competition. It tells the audience that your station is where they will find the news and information that is most relevant to their lives.

You do this by planning editorial coverage that addresses those issues. This is about producing original pro-active in-depth journalism that digs deep and asks searching questions.

Gather your team and list the issues that impact the lives of your three main target audience groups.

Try to find at least 10 issues. Then try to find at least 10 topics on each issue, and finally try to find three original stories to illustrate each topic.

By the end of the exercise you will have 300 original stories. Revisit those stories twice a year and you have 600 stories, which is almost a dozen exclusive stories a week.

These stories are managed by your forward planning editor.

The graphic below shows this exercise carried out by MHM working with a media house in Africa.

Forward planning graphic by Media Helping Media
Forward planning graphic by Media Helping Media

See our training modules ‘Establishing a market differential with original journalism’ and ‘Strategic forward planning for media organisations’.

Themed weeks

Now you have a list of the issues, topics and stories you will be covering during the year you can introduce ‘themed weeks’.

Once a month you should consider tackling an important issue in depth with original journalism that explores angles ignored by others.

For March you might want to do Transport week, for April, Health week, etc. Below is a suggested year plan for monthly themed weeks starting March 2022.

Themed weeks 2022
Month Issue Topics
March Transport Public transport provision, remote communities, congestion, safety,
April Health HIV, TB, maternal health, covid, illegal abortion, malnutrition
May Environment Land degradation, climate change, flooding, drought, pollution, drinking water, food standards
June Economy Cost of living, inflation, taxes, pensions, insurance
July Education Quality of teachers, training of teachers, nursery, primary, secondary, and university provision, occupational
August Crime Burglary, murder, rape, abuse, hate, tribal
Sept Technology Internet reach, mobile phones and reach, radio, TV, satellite phones, new industries/jobs, remote communities
Oct Homes Urban migration, affordability, Rent or buy, Living conditions, Building standards, city and rural living
Nov Utilities Water, electric, gas, sewage, telecoms, waste disposal
Dec Jobs Availability, jobs for youth, requirements, retraining, retirement, redundancy
Jan 2023 Agriculture Large scale farming, coffee production, rural farming, market, fertiliser, factory farming, economics of farming
Feb Culture Tribal, religion, trends, arts and lifestyle, dance, music


Forward planning

In order to maintain a structured programme format, and to ensure a steady flow of original issue-led journalism that continues to inform the public, detailed and meticulous planning is required.

And that planning needs to be long-term planning, as opposed to planning for tomorrow’s programme or next week’s programme. This is often referred to as forward planning.

Your planning editor should have:

  • A wall chart setting out the stories to be covered for the entire year.
  • A list of all the agreed issues, topics, and stories the programme editors have decided to cover.
  • A clear plan, agreed with senior editors, of what in-depth stories will be prepared for certain months – ideally following the model of a themed week examining a particular issue during one week of each month.

The planning editor is also responsible for keeping a log of follow-up dates.

This means that when stories are covered, a date is automatically put in the shared forward planning calendar setting out when that story should be followed up to find out what happened next. Questions will be asked about whether promises made by politicians etc were met.

Following up is essential because, otherwise, the audience is not fully informed. They will be looking to you to keep on top of a story – particularly if it affects their lives – and cover the story’s development.

Guest bookings

Working with the planning editor will be a news producer or researcher who is in charge of guest bookings. They are responsible for keeping a record of who is invited on to the programme. They need to ensure the best possible contributors, with a diversity of voices and views in an attempt to represent all strands of opinion across the country.

They need to keep a record of who was invited on to the programme, what was discussed, and their contribution.

The planning editor must attend all news meetings and must have a say in what is covered.

The person in charge of the day’s output – the editor of the day (EiC) – needs to be able to rely on the planning editor to supply at least one original story a day.

Shared planning calendar

A useful tool for the planning editor, and the whole team, is a shared online calendar. You can use any of the free options that are available. Google calendar works fine for this, but there are others.

The planning editor needs to set up the newsroom planning calendar and plot all the events that have been agreed so that everyone is aware.

News and current affairs meetings

A radio news and current affairs programme will typically have several news meetings a day.

The first will be immediately after the morning programme has been broadcast. This is the main meeting of the day. It’s a disciplined time-limited meeting led by the EiC. It’s business-like and follows a set pattern.

Five minutes – review

The first five minutes will be spent considering the programme that has just been broadcast.

In this section of the meeting the EiC will encourage discussion around what went well and what didn’t go well. Analysing your failings is the most important and useful part of the learning process, so that the news team, and the output it is creating, continually improves.

In this section of the meeting the EiC also attempts to draw out ideas about how to follow up any important developments or leads in the next morning’s programme.

Twenty minutes – planning

After the review the EiC will pass round a list of the stories she or he wants to be covered along with a list of the current stories covered by print, broadcast, online, and social media.

At this point participation is encouraged. This list will have been produced in advance by a newsroom researcher or producer working with the EiC. Everyone will be given a copy.

Presenters, producers, reporters and researchers are then invited to share their ideas about fresh angles to take on the topics set out by the EiC.

The team will also discuss story treatment such as whether a package, interview, or vox pop needs to be produced.

The EiC will then agree the story hierarchy in terms of importance to the audience.

At this point everyone involved in the production process will have a clear idea of what is expected for the next morning’s programme.

Twenty minutes – pitching

The EiC then goes round the room giving those gathered the chance to suggest story ideas.

Every journalist involved is expected to have a story idea. At first, people may find this challenging and uncomfortable, but the EiC needs to encourage collaboration and draw on the experiences and contacts of their team.

A journalist might not have a specific story idea to put forward, but they might have a point of view that is worth exploring. They might have read something hidden in a newspaper report that is worthy of following up. They might have a personal experience relevant to a current news story.

Five minutes – summing up

The EiC will then sum up what has been discussed and make clear what each member of the team is expected to do.

The entire meeting should last no longer than 50 minutes. Discipline and a sense of urgency is essential.

Minor update meetings

Three more minor update meetings take place over the following 24 hours. These should total no more than 45 minutes.

The afternoon meeting (15 mins maximum) follows the lunchtime TV and radio bulletins when the production team gather to check on the progress of the stories being produced for the morning and also consider whether any changes need to be made to the running order in light of news developments during the first part of the day. The EiC might be involved in person or via phone, video link, or instant messenger.

The next meeting (15 mins maximum) follows the evening news bulletins when the production team considers whether any adjustments need to be made in light of any breaking or developing news. Again the EiC will need to be consulted and informed.

The final news meeting will be early in the morning immediately before the programme is broadcast. The production team and anchors will meet briefly (15 mins max) to check the running order, assess any overnight developments, and go through the morning newspaper and website editions.

Planning meetings

As well as the daily meeting format suggested above, weekly forward planning meetings must be held. This is where the planning editor presents an update on the items being produced.

Broadcasting formats

Essentially, a radio news and current affairs programme has four main format types. These are:

The interview

This is where the presenter interviews someone in the news. It could be about the main story of the day. If it is the most important story this interview would take place immediately after the main news bulletin. It should be between around five minutes long, although this could be stretched to 10 depending on the seriousness of the topic. There will also be shorter interviews throughout the programme.

The reporter package

A package will be put together by a reporter or correspondent and will include a number of clips of people the journalist has interviewed. A package will typically be about three and a half minutes long and contain three or four clips. Each clip will be about 20 to 30 seconds long. The package can be pre-recorded or live.

The two-way

This is where the presenter interviews a reporter or correspondent covering a story. It is designed to tap into the journalist’s background knowledge of the story being covered and is sometimes used before a main interview. A two-way can vary from between 90 seconds to five minutes depending on the importance of the subject matter.

It is different in tone from interviews with outside contributors. When the presenter is interviewing someone from outside on a big story, the tone will often be adversarial, pressing the interviewee on important points. In a two-way with a reporter, the presenter is simply trying to draw out the most important facts in a neutral tone.

The vox pop

This is a mix of clips from members of the public who are giving their reactions/opinions on a news story. This should be no longer than three minutes long.

Structure of a current affairs programme

The main purpose of the show is to cover the news and get reaction to it. So the main ingredients are news bulletins, with interviews and longer reports about the individual news items.

There is more to it than that.

There will also be other information vital to the listener, including weather forecasts and sports news, plus perhaps business news, summaries of what is in the newspapers, programme trails for the rest of the network and so on.

These all need to fit together in a regular pattern, so that with familiarity, the listener gets to understand how the programme works. You can think of this as arranging the furniture of the show.

You will probably want your main news bulletins to happen on the hour, perhaps with summaries on the half hour. These are the first fixed points.

The weather and the sports news should also happen at exactly the same time each morning – just as they appear in the same place every day in a newspaper.

The audience likes predictability in the way the content is presented, so that they know when to tune in for the information in which they are most interested.

When you are happy with your programme structure, the task for the production team every day is to think about how the news stories and interviews fit in.

Running order

Every edition of the show works to a running order. A rough running order is produced at the very first programme meeting and then modified and updated as the day and the night develop.

The following is a rough outline for a two-hour-long radio news and current affairs programme.

Programme running order
Time Item
0700 Welcome and news bulletin setting out the latest developments in the topics being covered in the programme
0709 Top story. This slot is typically used for exploring the top story of the day. The item might start with a two-way with a correspondent/reporter setting the scene.
0711 After the introduction, an interview, live or pre-recorded, with one of the main characters in the top story, or with an expert in the subject matter.
0714 Second story. An interview, two-way, vox pop or package on the second most important story of the day.
0719 Third story. An interview, two-way, vox pop or package on the third most important story of the day.
0723 Markets, finance news
0726 Sport news
0728 Weather
0730 New summary (including clips from the 0710 interview)
0733 Top financial story of the day
0738 Newspaper, broadcast, website, social media news review
0742 Light-hearted story
0745 Headlines
0746 Vox pop on top story of the day
0752 Fourth major story of the day
0754 Recap of the main stories of the day
0758 Preview of second hour
0800 News bulletin (including clips from the first half hour interviews)
0810 Second look at the top story starting with a short intro, a clip from the interview in the first hour and a new guest putting another perspective.
0815 Studio debate with invited guests to discuss the main story.
0820 Recap on secondary story either with a package, a two-way, a clip from the first hour, or a vox pop.
0822 Studio debate with invited guests to discuss the secondary story.
0826 Sport news
0828 Weather
0830 News summary (including clips from earlier live interviews)
0832 Return to the third top story of the day with an alternative perspective illustrated and introduced with clips from the first hour treatment.
0836 Newspaper, broadcast, website, social media news review
0845 Headlines
0846 Other news – a roundup of other stories circulating and highlighted in the previews newspaper, broadcast, website, social media news review.
0850 A look back on the programme including clips and the new angles explored.
0855 Financial update
0857 Preview of the topics being covered by the programme the following day.
0900 News bulletin made up of clips on the top stories of the day from the programme’s output.


Exploiting content for maximum impact

Your production team should include at least one person monitoring the live output being produced by the programme.

This person is looking for newsworthy clips to package for the news summaries on the half hour and the main bulletins on the hour, and to illustrate live studio debates.

Your programme needs to be a breaking news production line, continually delivering original newsworthy clips.

This production role should also share all the breaking news clips from across all output and on all appropriate social media channels.

Creating a programme trailer

In order to attract new listeners, you need to create compelling programme trailers to advertise the material to be broadcast in the following morning’s programme.

This is essential, and has to be factored into the daily work pattern. The trailer must promote the main story of the day; the one in which you are planning to invest most resources.

Creating the sort of trailer that will stop people in their tracks and make them pay attention can help win over new listeners, introduce them to the subject matter to be covered on your programme, and, hopefully, encourage them to spread the word by mouth and social media.

A promo trailer should be around 30 seconds maximum, the shorter the better. You want to grab attention. Give the audience a snippet of what is coming up. You don’t want to give them too much, but just enough that they think “I must tune in tomorrow to hear more about that”.

And you want your trailer to be shareable on social media, so the better it is, the more chance it has of going viral. Ask yourself would you share the trailer with your friends? If not, work on it some more. And keep working on it until you think it has the quality to go viral.

Recipe for a good trailer

So how do you create an attention-grabbing radio trailer? Here are a few suggestions.

Encourage your reporter and producers to always be alert to an audio clip that sets out the scale of the issue, but doesn’t give the solution.

For example, you might be doing a story about the rural economy and how people are struggling to survive.

You will have interviewed farmers and villagers. One might say something along the lines of “I didn’t know how I would survive”. Such a quote will make the audience want to know what happened next. What did the interviewee do to survive? Could it be relevant to the listener’s own predicament?

That clip is less than five seconds long, yet it is likely to resonate with thousands of people in a similar position. Of course your piece will no doubt have examined the issues the farmers and villagers face, and you will probably have covered how they coped. But save that for the programme.

The next trick is to package that clip, and perhaps another, with a carefully crafted text that explains WHY people MUST tune in to your programme in order to learn more.

The wording is important.

You could use ‘calls to action’ where your trailer invites the audience to ‘listen’, ‘take part’, and ‘assess’.

Words that suggest drama work well, such as ‘revealed’, ‘for the first time’, ‘life and death decision’.

But you must remain honest. You are in the business of facts not fiction. Never exaggerate.

Another benefit of trailers is that it could encourage your competition, both broadcast and print, to tune in so they can follow up your story. And that’s a good thing. You want them to be following your lead, you want to be known as the station that sets the news agenda. Because by the time they have heard your news item you will have already moved the topic by inviting guests to respond live on-air.

Because trailers should be part of your daily output, you should probably consider creating a template so that it can be used every day.

Something like:

“In tomorrow’s morning programme we will be looking at (here you can mention up to three items), and we will be talking to xxxx about xxxx (insert short clip here).”