Allison Skillman was looking for an opportunity to work with words beside just teaching them. So, the junior education-turned-English major was excited to find a Field Period placement this January writing local news snippets for listeners tuned in to the noon and 5 p.m. news broadcasts on a sprawling regional radio network
Skillman, an East Rochester resident, spent most of her internship writing short news stories, generally no longer than a paragraph, which would take a D.J. or news anchor approximately 20-30 seconds to read aloud. Pithy, local stories might follow regional or statewide pieces in order to appeal to a majority of the listening audience, tuning in to 68 different frequencies of the Family Life Network (FLN), which broadcasts across northern and central Pennsylvania, as well as upstate and Western New York and the Southern Tier.
Headquartered in Bath, N.Y., FLN, a Christian radio conglomerate, attracts a primary demographic that is “conservative, largely Republican, family people, not terribly politically active,” Skillman recounted. In contrast to most radio stations, where operating funds come from paid advertising, FLN is supported by donations from listeners. Its broadcasts reach Buffalo and Rochester, outside Syracuse and east of Oneonta, across the Southern Tier from Jamestown to past Binghamton, then south into Erie, Altoona, Allentown and Scranton, Pa. The noon news report runs for 30 minutes, the 5 o’clock segment for 15 and shorter news updates of about three minutes run seven times in three hours each weekday morning.
“It’s a big news station, but tries to focus on local [news] and make it personal for listeners,” Skillman said. “I didn’t do so much of the big headlines, but more local and issues-driven stories.
For example, one story she wrote, about a Howard man building a house out of straw, garnered interest from listeners.
“People responded and called in saying, ‘Hey I know him, He’s my neighbor,’” she said.
Sometimes listeners would provide the news leads, Skillman added, such as a teacher who contacted the station to suggest they feature a girl who won an award for saving her sister’s life.
While Skillman jokes that she tends to be “wordy” in her papers, she quickly learned that “writing for the ear and writing for the eye are two totally different things.”
“Hooking” a listener and drawing them into a story is still important, she said, but “you don’t want to take up too much time. I think the longest piece I ever did was probably 40 seconds. They were very short, very concise.”
At times, news reports also had to be carefully constructed, too. For example, Skillman said FLN’s news department reported the case of the Pennsylvania doctor facing charges for years of unsanitary conditions in his abortion clinic. However, the writing staff was “careful of the gory details, because they were thinking of moms driving their kids to school,” she said. Other news items, such as the opening of a new casino within the coverage area, would also be handled with caution as “unless it affected taxpayers or something, [the network] didn’t want to be seen as advocating gambling,” she explained.
Typically, FLN’s three full-time news reporters would record or broadcast live the pieces Skillman wrote. However, by the end of the second week of her internship, Skillman’s Field Period supervisor and the head of the news department, Bob Price, opted to record her reading her own reports for later broadcast.
“He said he couldn’t believe I didn’t have any experience and was I sure I’d never done this before,” Skillman recalled, in a well-modulated voice with a mature depth belying her years. She learned FLN had not been able to offer that opportunity to a previous intern because the girl’s voice sounded very young.
Skillman said she was taught that speaking clearly, slowly, with proper pronunciation, and a natural rhythm, or cadence, is the best way to read the news for broadcast. Non-news anchors told Skillman on-air voicing requires a mixture of authority, conversationalism, accuracy, and “still being relatable,” she said.
Both the writing and voice recording made it a fun Field Period for Skillman, who was invited to continue on with FLN this semester as an “elevated intern,” calling in with local news stories from Keuka or East Rochester. FLN employs a handful of part-time freelance “stringers” who call in news reports from distant regions of the network in addition to the three full-timers who broadcast news daily from the network news desk.
“I’m actually trying to do some work from here and then over the summer, I may go back to the station and work,” Skillman said, adding she welcomes the chance to continue to explore other aspects of radio journalism.
“I enjoyed it the whole time I was there, it never got stale or boring, but a month is such a short time to consider if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.”