I love public radio. Seriously, I do. I give money to public radio, I listen to it all the time, and when I criticize it, it’s out of love. No kidding.
It’s a question sometimes whispered but never boldly confronted: Does NPR, and public radio in general, sound too “white”?
NPR itself suggested Thursday that the answer might be yes in an unusual bit of public self-examination. In a commentary aired on “All Things Considered,” its signature newscast, and in a subsequent Twitter chat that quickly trended nationally, the public radio network lit the fuse on an explosive discussion about how a broadcast should sound.
The commentary came from Chenjerai Kumanyika, a black communications professor, who complained that he has to code switch when he goes on public radio — that is, speak with a voice unlike the voice he uses in everyday life. Excerpt:
What bothers me most is the way I’m inhabiting my own personality. My voice sounds too high and all the rounded corners of slang are squared off. It’s like I don’t even recognize myself. Who am I? Just as an experiment, I re-recorded part of that piece to see how a relaxed, sort of less code-switched style of narration might sound.
I’m not sure how much more effective it is, but I feel better listening to it. My voice is calmer, but hopefully not boring. Overall, it’s like I feel more centered and I sound more like myself rather than myself pretending to be a public radio host.
It’s worth clicking on the link to hear Kumanyika’s “radio voice,” and by comparison, what his piece would sound like in his own natural voice. He has a strong accent.
I see why he speaks in a different voice for the radio. His natural speaking voice calls attention to itself, gets in the way of the story he wants to tell. This is not, however, a black thing. I’ve recorded a few commentaries over the years for All Things Considered, and the way I sound on those pieces is different from how I sound in real life. The producers compelled me to speak in a more neutral tone, and to enunciate more clearly than I customarily do. This was for the sake of clarity. Recording those pieces made me feel like I was putting on a tie and buttoning up my collar. But so what? The point of the exercise was not about how I felt about my public radio voice, but about clarity of communication.
Think about it this way: How many Southerners are on-air personalities at NPR? Do you know? I can think of three, based on their accents: Eleanor Beardsley, a native South Carolinian based in Paris (even her French pronunciation sounds like it’s spoken by someone from the American South), Wade Goodwyn, a native Texan, in Dallas, and Debbie Elliott, based once again in her home state of Alabama. I actually got to know Debbie a little bit when she came to my town to do an All Things Considered piece about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Her accent is a bit different off the air than on — more, well, Southern, in its rhythm and pronunciation.
Again: so what? She has to communicate to a national audience. Using a more broadcast-neutral accent facilitates that communication. Whenever I go on TV, I’m more careful about enunciation, especially pronouncing the ‘g’ at the end of a word; Southerners typically drop the g. I used to catch hell about this from my sister, who thought I was being fake. The whole question of accent and identity was huge with her, as it clearly is with Prof. Kumanyika. But why should it be?
Years ago, when the black media figure Tavis Smiley had a public radio program, I used to listen to it. He has a strong “black” accent, and it was a part of his on-air personality. I didn’t mind it at all, because it was his show, and it was a show about black people and black issues. Because I grew up with black kids, I usually don’t have any trouble understanding black English, even heavily accented black English. And still, there were times when I’d miss something Smiley said. If Smiley had been a correspondent or regular commenter on a main news broadcast, his accent would have been problematic, and would not have invited more listeners in. Smiley’s substitute host, Tony Cox, is also a black man, but he spoke with a trained radio announcer’s voice, one that was far more broadcast-neutral, and thus able to be understood by people who might have struggled with Smiley’s accent.
Again, the question is, what do you want to communicate? Yourself, or the story? Is your job as a radio journalist to draw attention to yourself, or to be the frame in which the subject of your story takes center stage?
It’s a pet peeve of mine when NPR’s Hispanic on-air reporters conclude their pieces by pronouncing their names in a strong Spanish accent. It’s a gesture that calls attention to itself. I’m not sure why, but sometimes you hear American reporters — and not just Hispanic ones — pronounce the name of Latin American cities with a distinct Spanish accent. It irritates me for the same reason it would irritate me if Eleanor Beardsley began signing off her reports as being filed from “Paree.” That is the correct French pronunciation of France’s capital city, but it would be pretentious to speak that way to an American mass audience. If she were reporting from Berlin, and wanted to pronounce the name of the German capital in the Germanically correct way, she would say, “Bair-LEEN.” But that would call attention to the reporter, not to the story.
Whenever I travel in France, I adjust my English to make it easier to communicate with French people who may understand some English, but who are unaccustomed to hearing it. The point is not to assert my identity as an American and as a Southerner, but to communicate. I even, at times, will pronounce American place names and proper names in a Pepe Le Pew accent, because as ridiculous as it makes me feel to speak that way, it helps the French people who don’t speak my language, or who don’t speak it well, understand what I’m trying to tell them.
In the end, I think refusing to use a broadcast-neutral voice, or at least a more broadcast-neutral voice than in everyday life, in a mass communications news and information medium is selfish. Most of the radio voices on NPR sound like people who are from Nowhere, or, in the case of the Southerners I mentioned, who are from somewhere, but are toning their Somewhereness down for the sake of being understood by a mass audience. That’s appropriate to the medium. If I told you a story while sitting on my back porch, it would sound much different from my telling the same story in a formal print magazine piece. And that too is appropriate to the medium.
But how very NPR for NPR to worry about this kind of thing! Do people who work in network television ever fret over whether or not their black on-air correspondents and presenters sound “authentically” black? Does ABC’s Pierre Thomas, who is black, betray himself by speaking in a broadcast-neutral voice? Who gets to define what is an authentically black sound, anyway? And why are the broadcast-neutral voices of most NPR personalities considered “white”? No white person in my town speaks like NPR personalities (Debbie Elliott somewhat excepted). So what? NPR’s Ari Shapiro is openly gay; does he sound gay enough for the radio? Does he code-switch when off the air, and speak in a more stereotypically gay voice? Who cares?
The identity politics of liberals spoil everything.