DIY Toolkit: How To Write A Commentary

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REAL VOICE.  REAL PERSPECTIVE. That’s what a radio commentary is all about! Commentaries are short, first-person stories that clearly express an individual’s opinion or world view and why it matters to the outside world. At Youth Radio, commentaries offer an opportunity for young people to share their perspectives on an issue they’re passionate about, and to become effective communicators.

Characteristics of a Radio Commentary

  • Come from a first person perspective
  • Assert clear point of view/opinion
  • Connect personal stories or experiences to bigger social themes
  • Communicate conversationally–how people really talk vs. formal essay-writing
  • Include opposing points of view, arguments and/or research
  • Keep it brief. Commentaries are best at 1-2 minutes long (that’s about one page single-spaced, or between 200 and 500 words).


ACTIVITY 1: Listening For The Parts Of A Commentary

Most people listen to the radio while doing something else — driving, making breakfast, getting ready for school, etc. When writing a commentary, your students’ goal is to leave listeners with a clear message or impression, even if they only have a minute or two of their time. That also means they’ll want to  grab their attention within the first few lines of your commentary!

A good way to test for clarity is to try two types of listening — passive and active — to see how the commentary holds up. Use the lesson plans below and the media provided (video above, audio here) to help students build their understanding of the important parts of a commentary and how to listen for them.


ACTIVITY 2: Coming Up With Ideas For Your Commentary

Commentary BrainstormYR

Objective: To develop commentary ideas (moving from statement to story)

Materials: paper, pen, 2 sheets of sticky poster paper (or you can use tape with normal butcher paper), markers


Instruct everyone to make two lists:

  1. Five things you know to be true in the world (Some examples if they need prompts could be “I love my mom.” “People are mean.” “My neighborhood is clean.”)
  2. Five things you care about

As students work on their lists, take the two sheets of poster paper and title one “I know…” and one “I care about…” (see picture above) and post them on the wall in the room.

  • Hand each student a different colored marker (this will help make it obvious who writes each response).
  • After students finish their lists, instruct them to choose three of their favorite responses from each of their own lists and add those items to the corresponding poster.
  • As a group, reflect on the posters. What are their impressions? Do they notice anything surprising? What were the most common answers? What answers stuck out?
  • Choose one of the true statements, or ask a group member to volunteer one of his or her “true statements.” How does the person know this is true? Can they share a story or an example that helps others understand?

(NOTE: If students are reluctant to share, choose a few of the statements and ask for the student who wrote them to tell you a little more).


ACTIVITY 3: Writing Your Commentary


You’ve listened to a few commentaries and you have a general idea of what you want to talk about. Now it’s time to get writing! If your students are feeling intimidated, ask them to keep in mind that great commentaries can be on just about anything. They can be happy, sad, serious, funny, and everything in-between. If your students know the opinion they want to express, ask them to think of a scene or story that is the perfect example of their point. Tell them to write the story the way they would tell a friend, and remember to speak from their own experience.

Check out our HANDOUT: Youth Radio Commentary Guidelines  to build your students’ basic understanding of commentaries and start to format their writing. This is the same handout we use with our introductory students here at Youth Radio.  For more help, check out our additional resources section below.


Q&A: From Science To Story (With The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal)

Commentaries are all about finding the story right in front of you — but that’s easier said than done! Give your students some tips on how to look at the world with a reporter’s gaze from seasoned tech journalist and the Fusion Network’s Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, Alexis Madrigal. He recently visited Youth Radio to share some of his secrets of science reporting.



Do your students have a great youth commentary they want to get on the air? Consider having them pitch it to our producers at Youth Radio by emailing us at We produce both 1-minute and 2-minute commentaries. We can’t promise that ever pitch will get published, but we will read every pitch they send to us. When your students write us, have them tell us a little bit about themselves, their idea, and why they think it would make a good commentary. Make sure to include the subject line “Youth Radio Commentary Pitch.”





This Lesson Plan is part of a larger effort by Youth Radio’s Innovation Lab for young people, working in partnership with veteran educators, to develop materials that will enable teachers and learners everywhere to engage youth in media and tech creation. Launched in 2013, the Innovation Lab leverages Youth Radio’s top-flight journalism and our track record as one of the first programs worldwide to teach teens to integrate journalism and programming to design dynamic new storytelling tools and platforms.  For more information about Youth Radio’s Innovation Lab, check out

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