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The listenability of radio

Early radio audience
Early radio braodasters were not sure how well they were understood.

In spite of the financial difficulties of commercial radio, radio audiences are growing rapidly. In 2009, the number of radio listeners in the U.S. jumped from 33 to 42 million, an increase of 27 percent, according to a report by Arbitron and Edison Research.

Rather than being threatened by the growth of digital technology, radio gains from it. Digital radio and the Internet's podcasts and streaming audio and have expanded access to thousands of stations throughout the world.

Increasingly, radio is a flexible medium. Listeners can easily engage with radio, even when performing other tasks such as driving or housework. Although the average American listens to 17 hours of music a week on the radio, the most popular format is the news/talk/information program. In covering big news stories, radio provides a depth of information that television cannot match.

Writing for the ear

Listening to speech is a complex process that makes it quite different from reading. We may be good readers but are terrible listeners. David Brinkley once said that the ear is the least effective way to receive information.

When radio broadcasting first started, the broadcasters were not sure how their new audience would react to distant, disembodied speakers. There had been nothing like it in history. They quickly discovered that you cannot take a report from news-wire or newspaper text and read it as-is over the radio. Most of the audience would not understand it. It has to be much simpler.

Studies showed that some audiences were not understanding half of news and information broadcasts.

In 1948, investigators discovered why. They found that listening skills fail to keep up with reading skills after the 8th grade. Most people will find text above the 8th-grade level more difficult when heard than when read.


Afghan radio audienceA modern Afghan audience.
Radio has lost none of its power for communication.

The listenability formulas

Others studied the effectiveness of the readability formulas when applied to spoken texts. While a few formulas were developed just for spoken text, investigators found out that the popular readability formulas worked just as well for speech as written text.

Rudolf Flesch had claimed that his formula worked better for speech than for text. He wrote: "If material is put on the air rather than on the printed page, easy matter becomes easier but difficult matter more difficult. Radio will therefore magnify differentials in difficulty by the writer’s formula." When spoken, easy texts are easier, and harder texts are harder.

If the differences between speech and text are taken into account, the modern readability formulas are useful predictors of the difficulty of spoken texts.

A large amount of verbal communication is not understood because it is too complicated. This includes radio, TV, classes, educational materials, and communications between professionals and clients. Health professionals, for example, should not assume that a patient will understand more of a consent form by hearing it read out loud rather than by reading it. Verbal explanations must be much simpler than written text. The responses of the listener to questions should indicate how well the material is understood.


Abraham Lincoln

America's plain speaker

Abraham Lincolon and Tad.
Abraham Lincoln
reading to his son Tad.

Abraham Lincoln not only had a talent for public speaking, but he pursued and practiced it earnestly all his life. As a child, he would give speeches to his playmates from a tree stump. As an adult, Lincoln prepared for major speeches in a lengthy process of thought and preparation. "Lincoln always composed slowly, and he often wrote and rewrote his more elaborate productions several times,” observed journalist Noah Brooks. Mr. Lincoln not only tried out ideas on paper. He tried them out on people. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote that Mr. Lincoln was “a man who habitually read things aloud to hear how they sounded and who needed a live audience to get the right effect.”

As a result, he became one of the finest speakers in history. His manner of speech was revolutionary, set apart from the lush political speech of the times. He filled his informal speech with homey aphorisms and metaphors, often taken from farm life. He advised other speakers to address "the lowliest member of the audience so that all would understand." He emphasized brevity and used only the most necessary words. The Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most famous speech in U.S. history, consisted only of 250 words.

Historian Theodore Blegen wrote: "He respected the meanings of words, and he wrote and spoke with clarity. He knew what he was talking about. He had consummate skill in logical analysis. He was able to put profound thoughts simply. He was sincere and earnest. He had both dignity and humor. He could rise to a lofty eloquence that has not been surpassed in the history of oratory. His language was pungent and he knew the art of timing. He was a master of balance and had an ear for rhythm.”

Douglas L. Wilson wrote: “What is most astonishing about Lincoln’s performance in this regard is that he managed to bring his language within the range of ordinary vocabularies without cheapening his expression and, if anything, lending it even greater dignity. In so doing, he ennobled himself and the Union he loved."

His speeches today maintain their power and eloquence. In the middle of the Civil War, he exhorted the nation with words that still inspire and uplift all peoples facing great crisis:

"The dogmas of the stormy past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country."

Plain-language classic

Pearl Buck's window on China

The Good Earth book cover
First book cover. Written at an easy 7th-grade level, the novel was an instant best seller and has never been out of print.

Pearl S. Buck begins her 1931 novel, The Good Earth, with the young Chinese farmer Wang Lung getting out of bed the morning of his wedding day. He goes to the tiny window of his home and thrusts his hand out to feel the air:

"A small soft wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and murmurous and full of rain. It was a good omen... Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to wish him well. Earth would bear fruit."

Care for the earth would be the focus of Pearl Buck's story as it follows Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan through drought, famine, displacement, war, and locusts to eventual prosperity and love.

The appearance of the book could not have been more timely. In the midst of the Great Depression in the U.S., the midwest was plagued by dust storms and soil loss caused by bad farming practices. The government responded to the crisis with programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the start of today's environmental movement.

The Good Earth film poster
The poster for the film that, in 1937, won Acadamy Awards for best actress and cinematography.

Buck's story takes place in rural China around 1928, during the early phase of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists. Written at an easy 7th-grade level, it became immensely popular, though ignored by critics for years. In 1932, Buck's novel won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1937, the film based on the book received two Academy Awards for best actress best cinematography. In 1938, Buck became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces." The Good Earth is also credited for helping Americans join the Chinese as allies in the Second World War. Today's critics have come to rank her with John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis.

The women's struggle

The Good Earth was also a feminist treatise. Her book shows us the child-selling, wife-buying, foot-binding, infanticide, and the self-sacrifice of women to the point of starvation. It shows us the indomitable O-Lan giving birth and immediately picking up her hoe to go back to the fields. It shows us the Chinese family as a lineage extending across generations of the past, present, and future.

Pearl S. BuckPearl S. Buck: defender of the Chinese people and the rights of women and children.

Pearl Buck was the child of missionary parents and spent 37 years of her life in China. She had witnessed war and had no sympathy for either the Nationalists or Communists. Chinese women, she felt, needed no revolution but would be satisfied if husbands just lived up to their responsibilities.

Buck returned to the U.S. in 1934 to join Eleanor Rooseveldt in her struggle for the rights of women and minorities. She focused on the right of Americans to adopt children abandoned by American soldiers in Asia. Buck established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to "address poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries." In 1965, she opened the Opportunity Center and Orphanage in South Korea, and later offices were opened in Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

When opening Opportunity House, Buck said, "The purpose... is to publicize and eliminate injustices and prejudices suffered by children, who, because of their birth, are not permitted to enjoy the educational, social, economic and civil privileges normally accorded to children."

Pearl S. Buck died of lung cancer in Danby, Vermont, in 1973. Her writings and humanitarian work continue to be honored at historic landmarks in South Korea, her birthplace in Hillsboro, West Virginia, her home in Zhenjiang, China, and her room at Nanjing University, where she taught for 12 years and penned The Good Earth.

Many of the customs that Buck described in The Good Earth no longer exist. The book will, however, be long cherished as an sympathetic and engaging portrait of China's people at a critical point in their history.


Plain language in the news

Innumeracy and the mortgage crisis: http://tinyurl.com/28zc99u

Reading skills in Australia: http://tinyurl.com/23h5nx6

The power of plain English: http://tinyurl.com/2dltx3k

Clear content boosts sales: http://tinyurl.com/2cscoes

Neil James' plea for plain English: http://tinyurl.com/26zbtzk

Plain English for entrepeneurs: http://tinyurl.com/32wcaja

Huge cost of poorly written letters: http://tinyurl.com/22reeja

Texting a plus for communications: http://tinyurl.com/2cqv92m

Plain language awards: http://tinyurl.com/22m5yss

What's a third-grade reading level?: http://tinyurl.com/29fjsay

Poor communications by foundations: http://tinyurl.com/2cy36gc