Vocal Color in Public Radio: "authentically black, but not too black"
January 30, 2015 10:53 AM   Subscribe

This summer during the Transom Traveling Workshop on Catalina workshop, I produced my first public radio piece. While writing my script, I was suddenly gripped with a deep fear about my ability to narrate my piece. As I read the script back to myself while editing, I realized that as I was speaking aloud I was also imagining someone else’s voice saying my piece. The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of Roman Mars and Sarah Koenig. Those two very different voices have many complex and wonderful qualities. They also sound like white people. My natural voice — the voice that I most use when I am most comfortable — doesn’t sound like that.
On the sound of public media, on the air and in the podcast world, from Chenjerai Kumanyika, communications professor and hip-hop artist. (via NPR) See also: All Things Considerate, How NPR makes Tavis Smiley sound like Linda Wertheimer.
posted by filthy light thief (33 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Funny, all those people trying to do The Voice in an audition... And that's the precise reason why I never listen to NPR. I like my radio voices way more New Yawky.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:00 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

That is because I was focusing on what I heard, and what I heard was the voices of white people on most popular and public radio shows and podcasts.

In my experience, you hear a type of voice that has become associated with a certain stereotype of white people, not "the voices of white people".

No one I know (and I live in a pretty white place) talks like an NPR host, but they can all imitate it.
Similarly, I don't know anyone with the deep voice cadence popular on syndicated morning drive shows (Bob and Tom or whoever).
Remember when every two-bit DJ was trying to sound like Casey Kasem?

The NPR voice is kinda like the Lite-FM station in your doctor's office. It's designed to be ... bland, middle of the road...dispassionate.
Excitement about a fish just doesn't fit the brand.
posted by madajb at 11:27 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of the things that always strikes me about coming back to the US from a longer trip abroad is when CNN is playing in the airport and it sounds like the anchors are all yelling out you. Fox is even worse that way. I'll take the "NPR Voice" any day over that.

Of course, I'm also squarely in their target demographic -- so I guess it works?
posted by Slothrup at 11:35 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

That Montopoli article talks up PRI as straying from NPR's Boomer cat nip, but still names A Prairie Home Companion as an example of its programming? Yeah okay.
posted by Maaik at 11:53 AM on January 30, 2015

Public Radio voices can be surprisingly divisive.

ETA: mobile format seems to be mucking things up. See the Freedom Fries section.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2015

And a lot of NPR reporters and voicers are people of color. Yeah, it's most definitely associated with race, and witha "Dominant racial syntax," even though the voice itself is not reliable racially descriptive.

I don't really disagree with Kumanyika. He makes a lot of good points about the "NPR sound" and for the need for radio programmers and producers to put more kinds of voices on the air. I really like Brian Montopoli's take in the second link, too:
...the sensibilities of their influential hosts and correspondents have come to dominate all other NPR programming. Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg, Bob Edwards, Carl Kasell, and their peers have a tight grip on the sound of NPR, especially Linda Wertheimer, whose cadence--a sort of patrician delay--still defines the NPR sound even though she no longer serves as a host...It is a sound created by boomers for an audience of their contemporaries....NPR's idea of cultural diversity is to recruit black personalities, like Smiley and new "A.T.C." host Michele Norris, and ask them to assimilate to the liberal, white, boomer mentality that dominates NPR's "All Things Considered."
Yeah, I mean that's sort of the boomer approach to all cultural diversity, right? As much as possible, act like upper-middle-class white people, especially males, and you get to play.

..but I'm not sure it's really broadly reflective of all of "public radio." It's reflective, maybe, of most of the anchor voicing on Morning Edition and All Things Considered which does sound most like Northeastern and near-Midwestern white people's general way of enunciating, and it's also reflective of their bland weekend comedy shows. This American Life (and a lot of its reporters) has a very urbane sound that I associate with Jewish intellectuals of late 20th century NYC, as does Michael Feldman's Whaddya Know, which is sort PRI's answer to Wait, Wait (but much funnier IMO). But not of the voices on Snap Judgment, Smiley & West, American Routes, Latino USA, the Thistle and Shamrock, Afropop Worldwide, As it Happens, Native America Calling, American RadioWorks, and so on. None of these shows regularly feature "The Voice," and that's one reason they're so enjoyable to listen to. Then, too, there are shows created by individual radio stations that aren't carried by the major distributors (NPR, PRI, APM). I realize that some local stations carry mostly NPR programming and so you can't always hear some of this, but there's a lot of wonderful radio out there to discover. It would be a shame to assume that "public radio" is only and always what your local affiliate is deciding to let you hear.

I do think there is a problem with the measured, monolithic drone of most NPR productions. There are things people can do about it, though: write your station's program director and ask them to carry a broader variety of shows; get involved with local community radio stations and help them select and/or produce programming featuring more kinds of voices; learn to make radio and submit stuff to PRX. Short version, yeah, we need more aural variety, and more genuine human variety, on public radio.
posted by Miko at 12:05 PM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Miko as you point out those shows are either new or limited in their scope. I don't think they're effective counter-examples that public radio is in fact flawed. It's like a whitebread mayo sandwich with one teeny corner dipped in wasabi salsa--the majority still tastes hella bland. I would also just like to say: Elvis Mitchell is awesome.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:10 PM on January 30, 2015

All I know is that the woman, (and the man before her), who does the "Contributors include..." bit, has the most gratingly horrible inflection of any sound I've ever heard. I desperately lunge for the dial when I hear her start her spiel. I imaging the audition interview included something like "that's nice, now can you try it more nasal and condescending? Good!".
posted by jetsetsc at 12:16 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't think they're effective counter-examples that public radio is in fact flawed. I

Almost none of those shows are new. I would say "Car Talk" is limited in its scope.

My point is that I think critics, including you, need to define more clearly what it is you mean when you say "public radio." That term is just too generic for this kind of discussion.

NPR is a specific organization. Morning Edition and All Things Considered are specific programs with specific production styles. Individual station programmers are individual people with preferences and priority audience demographics. All of these things influence what it is you hear when you turn the radio on. None of these things represent the whole universe of "public radio" accurately and fully.
posted by Miko at 12:48 PM on January 30, 2015

Apropos: Snap Judgment: NPR's Great Black Hope
posted by Miko at 12:55 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

My wife used to collect teddy bears. She has one called a "therapy bear" that says things like: "Who's your best friend?" "How are you feeling?" I swear the thing sounds just like Melissa Block.
posted by marxchivist at 1:22 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can't stand to listen to NPR for the same reason I can't stand to watch Portlandia or listen to Pomplamoose. There is this very specific I-Am-A-Smugly-Enlightened-White-Person-Who-Went-To-A-Prestigious-University vibe that pervades that dominant thread of liberal entertainment media which makes my teeth itch.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:29 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Can I just add how much I hate the TAL-turned-up-to-11 voice the two hosts use on Invisibilia? It. Is. Awful. It has shades of RadioLab in there, too. It is unlistenable. By comparison, the ordinary NPR Voice is great.

"And today? We're going to tell you a story.... that we think.... is goingtomakeyou believe something that you.... do not currently believe."
posted by BungaDunga at 1:45 PM on January 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

I also can't handle Invisibilia. From the voices to name that makes you sound like a douchebag when you talk about the show.
posted by the jam at 1:48 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is this where I get to bitch about the overproduction of Radio Lab?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 2:06 PM on January 30, 2015 [6 favorites]

Is this where I get to bitch about the overproduction of Radio Lab?

I bitched about it to a coworker once. She said "I just listen to it at 2x speed."

That actually fixed the problem I had with it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:07 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't think it would fix my problem, which is the hosts' constant playing of the "Gee Whiz," "wait...what?" "Soooo you're saying that..." fake-dumb role.
posted by Miko at 2:34 PM on January 30, 2015 [8 favorites]

I honestly thought 'the voice' on public radio had more to do with speaking with clear enough diction that you could be properly understood by everyone listening. Is that really not a part of it at all?
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 3:29 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is that really not a part of it at all?

It might be part of it, but it can't be all of it. People accommodate more (or are excluded more) in popular media than is required just for being understandable.

Then there is always the question of who is expected to understand who.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:46 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Middle aged white dudes, who sound like they just drank some really warm coffee"


I'm lucky we have a radio for the blind station in New Orleans that has a good range of at least the white accents in town.
posted by eustatic at 6:17 PM on January 30, 2015

I honestly thought 'the voice' on public radio had more to do with speaking with clear enough diction that you could be properly understood by everyone listening.

I think you would have to break down what "clear enough diction to be properly understood" means. Like, when you listen to Kumaniyaka, can you sincerely not "understand" him? "Properly?" What is "properly?" Who decides what that means? Who gets to judge whether diction is "clear enough" or not, and for what audience?

When I used to take my Northern broadcasting English to Texas for visits to my relatives, they'd laugh and say "Slow down. I cain't understained you!" But it clearly wasn't their "proper diction" that NPR news shows were aiming to produce. Their accent was totally marginalized in that venue, if not mocked, outright, even though it was entirely understandable and proper in that milieu. And even though my own accent had the endorsement of a hundred broadcasting networks, that didn't make me easier for them to understand..

I think it's nearly impossible to separate ideas of "proper," "understandable" diction from "dominant culture preferences."
posted by Miko at 6:57 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

By limited scope I meant they arent on as many stations as car talk Miko. And believe me I'm with you on snap judgement. It's all the best parts of TAL without any of the dumb parts.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:10 PM on January 30, 2015

They're not, but that is my point. Why do you hear what you hear on so many stations? Why do you hear the fusty standbys instead of more of these great shows? That's not down to an entity called "public radio," because those shows are public radio shows. "Public radio" is a giant category of activity. Instead, it's down to programming choices by individual radio station programmers, and production and distribution choices by powerful networks like NPR and PRI.

It's only by getting more specific about how radio works that we're going to be able to solve the problems where the problems occur. Not all "public radio" is NPR shows on NPR affiliate stations. Even NPR stations have the choice to carry any of hundreds of available shows that have a strong following and a deep archive, and not only NPR-produced shows, either. The manager of each station is asking the program director to propose a great program lineup. The program director is looking at audience demographics past, present, and potential. They are also looking to the underwriting/development/membership department for information about where a growth sector lies. Then they're choosing what they think the audience most wants - or will squawk loudest if it doesn't get. "Car Talk" is a wicked safe choice for a past/present demographic in many markets, but likely to be a less good choice if you don't want your audience to shrink over the next two decades. There is a lot going into the decisionmaking at individual station-level programming.

The fact that Car Talk is ubiquitous is not because someone at monolithic NPR deems it so : "all must listen to Car Talk!". It's hundreds and hundreds of cumulative decisions, nationally on hundreds of stations, that give Car Talk its ubiquity. And it's thousands and thousands of members writing in and saying they love Car Talk, and sending in their membership dues, that keep it that way - along with the absence of membership dues from the audiences that are not being cultivated. Car Talk is making stations money, where Snap Judgment or any other less-standard show is not (or not as much).

If we love public radio [writ large], and we want it to change to be more diverse and more representative, we - the audience, in communication with broadcast outlets and producers - have to be the ones to change it. And we can do that simply by saying look, there are dozens of fascinating shows out there that you're ignoring to play two repeats a week of PHC or Wait, Wait or two repeats a day of Marketplace. There are sets of solutions to apply at each level - at producer/distributor level, at station programming level, at membership level, and at DIY level. It's not so much a "public radio" problem as it is a network, station, and membership problem, in which we're all complicit by action or inaction.
posted by Miko at 7:21 PM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think you would have to break down what "clear enough diction to be properly understood" means. Like, when you listen to Kumaniyaka, can you sincerely not "understand" him? "Properly?" What is "properly?" Who decides what that means? Who gets to judge whether diction is "clear enough" or not, and for what audience?

Exactly. We're talking about people making the effort to talk to an audience. And that audience making the effort to listen.

From Kumanyika's Transom piece:

Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories. I make this point because there are many public radio programs that go to significant lengths to include the voices of underrepresented groups. These voices most often appear as people who are interviewed, but this is not the same has having hosts with different perspective and styles of speech.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:32 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Agreed. Whadya Know? is much better than Wait Wait. Funnier and less smug. It's a great weekend background show.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:48 AM on January 31, 2015

Am I the only one who hates Snap Judgement? It feels so...argh, for the lack of a better word, minstrel-y. To me, it reads as "the 'urban' TAL." I want so much to like and support people of color on public radio, but I am totally put off by Snap Judgement.

I'm willing to be proven wrong though. Serious question: for those of you who enjoy it, what do you like, and are there particular episodes that you'd point to as exceptional?

P.S. Pop Culture Happy Hour is my favorite public radio show -- not pretentious, they seem to genuinely enjoy the topics and each others' company, and they get excited about stuff. And of course, Linda Holmes is a Mefite!
posted by Ragini at 1:41 AM on January 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Since I moved and got rid of my TV, I've been listening to a lot of NPR. It becomes my default background noise.

Parks and Recreation did, I believe, a great parody of NPR, even down to the calming yet grating nasal tone of the host.

(I also wish that Nefertit's Fjord was a real band.)
posted by spinifex23 at 1:55 AM on January 31, 2015

One interesting thing during the horribleness of the terrorist attacks in Paris has been the reporting on NPR by Eleanor Beardsley, who apparently speaks flawless French and has adopted a very straight NPR voice for ordinary reporting. But when she is reporting on the fly, like standing outside of the Charlie Hebdo offices, suddenly she's got a lovely South Carolina accent and sounds like she could be my cousin.

There are other little glimpses of regional accents on NPR when they bring in a report produced by a local station or actually go to a place and talk to people on the streets, but the sweet accent of Eleanor Beardsley always makes me feel like maybe talking like I do is socially acceptable outside of the southeast.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:28 AM on January 31, 2015

I adore Eleanor Breadsley.

Hey, this morning I caught this story on Weekend Edition - an interview about Kumaniyiak's piece with Gene Denby of NPR's Code Switch team that covers race and culture. He makes some interesting points (including that ATC host Audie Cornish doesn't usually raise any hackles "until people Google her and realize she's black," and that a lot of reporters of color don't sound like what people might expect them to. But he also explores the problematics of adopting the NPR tone and the reality that a lot of younger people do not feel their voices are reflected on NPR shows, which is a problem for its future. Anyway, #pubradiovoice is trending on Twitter and CodeSwitch hosted a Twitter chat on the topic, so there's apparently a robust discussion on this into which many public radio journalists have leapt. I'm going to check it out today.

Am I the only one who hates Snap Judgement?... for those of you who enjoy it, what do you like, and are there particular episodes that you'd point to as exceptional?

I kind of get where you're coming from, and the show took a while to grow on me. At first I found it a little forced-sounding, too. But I think that reaction is one worth examining. Glynn Washington isn't living out someone else's vision - he's both host and executive producer. This is a project he wants to do. Yes, he shaped this project with people from the networks, and yes, I think it aims to be a crossover (which isn't the worst idea if you're trying to expand listenership while also holding onto existing listenership). But I don't think that dooms the show. Lately I admit I've been finding TAL a bit hoary and their faux-insecure, hypercasual voice worn. Snap Judgment's hosting style is scripted and much more performative, but has energy and focus. And the stories are excellent. There is a freedom the storytelling allows; it doesn't force everyone into the same sort of story arc and style that TAL does. Old Man Lost and Found is a good example of a lovely story that would never make it onto TAL. I really loved their Halloween episodes..not usually a scary story fan, but these are well chosen and told. In the end if you don't like the show you don't like it, but it's probably an important transitional element in an NPR that will hopefully get more genuinely diverse, and will probably spawn new crops of reporters and storytellers that will also go on to further transform radio.
posted by Miko at 5:50 AM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Serious question: for those of you who enjoy it, what do you like, and are there particular episodes that you'd point to as exceptional?

I go on and off Snap Judgment and the Moth, but I like the Ghost stories, and I like hearing different aspects of his life - like he talked about teaching in Japan, and he talked about when his family lived in this little house at the top of a hill and were part of a religious cult. I can't point you to specific episodes, though, sorry!

I don't think it would fix my problem, which is the hosts' constant playing of the "Gee Whiz," "wait...what?" "Soooo you're saying that..." fake-dumb role.

Who, this is so weird - that's part of what I like about it. There's a casual enthusiasm that I'm drawn to on podcasts - and those sorts of things, which strike me in the moment as distillations of honest confusion - are part of that. I also really like "uptalk", though I'm less fond of "vocal fry" in men or women. For me, it reads like they were confused in the moment and had to look closer, and I have that experience all the time. It also reads as a lot more conversational to me. (This reminds me so much of discussions of Book Six Harry Potter, where I'm like "HOW DID YOU HACK MY BRAIN??? I WAS SO ANGRY ALL THE TIME AT NOTHING AND IT MADE ME ANGRIER" and my brother was like "No one is like this.")

I also tend to be very... emotive in my voice and eclectic in my phrasing, even online - though honestly my online typing is strongly informed both by the blandness with pervades my professional writing like a poison and the dispassionate detachment of my educational writing. The other online influence is places like Tumblr and the like, though, so phrasing like "all the feels" and deliberate misspellings like "rilly" and "ohai" are an indication of comfort/enthusiasm for me online. I read that much like the produced nature of Radio Lab and Invisibilia - it's a language of emotional content that is adding to the spoken words that can be read as affectation (see also: parens in the last paragraph) but which is trying to convey internal states.

I love Kumanyika's analysis of his voice - especially the bits where he tries out different things and you can actually hear the differences. Looking at how we present ourselves, how others take it, etc... There's a drawl to his second voice taking which seems very "not NPR" but which reminds me both of the South and of another favorite podcast, The Read - but it also makes me a little uncomfortable because I expect that voice in the context of race and hip hop, but not in the context of fishing - even though I'm now realizing those expectations are... stupid. Racist. Small.

Another thought - I have mixed views of Ira Glass, but I think my favorite episode of This American Life (TAL) ever was when they talked about his dog. It was interesting hearing his voice, and the shifts in it as he talked, and the flavor of his rationales. I felt like it gave me a much better sense of him as himself and how that shaped TAL.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:42 PM on January 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

distillations of honest confusion

I agree that's what they're going for, but I dislike it because it's insincere. Their shows are heavily planned, highly produced and carefully scripted. There's no way Robert Krulwich is surprised, in the moment, by anything he's hearing because it's already been thoroughly researched by him and his team. He knows the outcome already. It's that fake-wow thing that grates on me. He's trying to stand in for the listener, and mimic their reaction, but he's not the listener. He's the broadcaster.

As for TAL, I never heard it the same way after this years-ago NYT Magazine piece that went into how carefully the show's sound is designed and engineered, down to the vocal cadences and word choices. I mean, I still listen to the show, but it was one thing to imagine it as just someone speaking extempore into the mic, and another to understand that the mic was the end point of a careful, intentional process.

So it's not the freshness of these expressions that bothers me - it's the faux freshness. Like, there's no reason not to be excited about what you're hosting, but if you think I'm thinking you just thought of it right then and there, then you must think that I, the listener, am too dumb to realize you've been working on it for weeks and months and that this is just a posture or an effort at lending drama to the storytelling. And I don't like that.
posted by Miko at 8:04 PM on January 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

I guess I read the over-production of it as their lamp-shading of the fact we all know they agonized over every millisecond? So I less see it as fake, and more see it as theater.

Like, one of the complaints I saw once about Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is that the two main characters fall in love while singing a pastiche of pop love songs, and how unrealistic it is, but Luhrmann talks in his director's commentary (I LOVE DIRECTOR'S COMMENTARY! TELL ME ALL THE THINGS!) about how he knew it was riDONKulous that these two people would fall in love in five minutes, but the plot demanded, and so he deliberately used all of these "so in love" songs to cue what was happening in order to set up the greater tragedy of the overall story (which he also keeps lamp-shading through the entire show because Luhrmann is nothing if not unsubtle). The point is this sort of "more real than real" theatricality which is meant to ultimately build the momentum needed for the climax of the movie.

Likewise, I experience this sort of white US liberal over-production as a "more real that real" distillation of a variety of emotions, sharing factual and emotional knowledge in a carefully choreographed package which never gets too real, because actual unrehearsed emotions are frightening/destabilizing (see: TAL's production on Yellow Rain and the aftermath for a time when this led them to be very cruel to a man and his daughter, as well as quite racist, because they were so intent on the story that they forgot to pay attention to the moment - a semi-common problem in US liberalism). It seems like a logical extension of white European stiff upper lip denial of feelings combined with the growing realization that feelings actually are important and do things, and we should pay attention to them, but very carefully and within a narrow set of rules and guidelines.

I also find it intensely comfortable because it seems like an extension of the graveyard humor so common in my profession and which comes naturally to me due to how my life progressed. I'm a deeply ironic and sarcastic person, so presentations of emotion in that context meets me where I can easily be.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:37 PM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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