Why Doesn't NPR Sound More Like the Rest of America?

The ombudsman is away. His column will return next week.

When it comes to aural diversity, NPR sounds, well... like NPR. That is, not very diverse at all.

Listeners say they can always tell when they are tuned to a public radio station. They say they can tell by the sound of the voices, the cadence of the delivery and the intonation of the reporters and announcers.

Many listeners who are non-English speaking immigrants to the United States say that NPR and public radio in general give them the best information and the clearest diction on American radio. Anyone who takes a taxi in Washington, D.C. can attest to NPR's popularity among immigrant cab drivers.

Overseas, people listen to NPR and to public radio stations on the Internet. They say that their American pronunciation gets better just by tuning in to NPR.

Back home, listeners write to say they appreciate the NPR sound — its clear pronunciation and its overall high standards of broadcasting.

Who Is Listening?

But for a country as aurally rich as the United States, shouldn't NPR sound a little more like its listeners?

Some of NPR's precision and formality in diction and delivery can be attributed to public radio's origins in university radio, in the Midwest and the Northeast. Many of the first announcers and reporters came out of that environment. Their tonal quality can still be heard more than 30 years later.

NPR sounds a little less formal and a bit more conversational these days. This is especially noticeable when reporters and hosts are talking to each other in an interview. Reporter's scripts are a lot less formal than they once were.

Occasionally listeners say they can detect, and appreciate, an accent. NPR's Wade Goodwyn and John Burnett report from Texas. Listeners know that even before they say where they are.

But regional accents do not predominate on NPR.

Noah Adams is a longtime NPR host and reporter. His roots are in Kentucky. He was told to "lose the accent" if he hoped to make a career in broadcasting. Other southerners at NPR say they have had to learn how to sound "less Southern."

Hispanic and Black English

For many journalists of color in public radio — African Americans and Hispanics — similar pressures exist, but with racial pressures. Some tell me that they are urged to sound less like themselves and more like the NPR "standard," whatever that is.

This homogenization of American English is, in my opinion, bad for NPR's journalism. It's unfair to the listeners who are missing out on the richness of our language. It's also unfair to the journalists themselves who bring something to NPR that seems not sufficiently valued.

NPR listeners are divided on this, at least in their e-mails to me. Some object to what they perceive to be kind of flaunting of the reporter's ethnicity.

But more and more listeners want to hear the varieties of American English — as long as the reporters sound clear and well informed.

'What Did He Say?'

On occasion, the English spoken on NPR is not clear. In radio, when the listeners "mishear," their concentration is broken. Listeners stop to puzzle over what they thought they heard. Meanwhile the reporter continues on, unaware of course that a listener has fallen off the journalistic vehicle.

The fault may be found in certain less accessible regional pronunciations.

NPR has compiled a list of words whose pronunciation, or mispronunciation, can confuse listeners. Here is an excerpt from those NPR guidelines for reporters:

Words That Should NOT Sound Alike:

Demur/Demure

Imminent/Eminent

Terrorist/Terrace

Err/Air

Oil/All, Awl

Pin/Pen

Stocking/Stalking

Auto/Otto

Mayor/Mare

My favorite was a reference in a report to "bald peanuts." It took me a minute to realize the reporter was referring to "boiled peanuts."

You Say 'Orientate;' I Say 'Orient'

Occasionally, NPR has hired English-speaking, non-American journalists — Britons, Canadians and New Zealanders, to name a few. Each brings a rich variety of intonations and pronunciations who occasionally "out" their origins in subtle ways.

A small Britishism made its way into a May 11 news report on Morning Edition by NPR's Philip Reeves. It struck a linguistic nerve for listener Julia Knaus, among others:

In listening to Morning Edition this morning, in the 7 a.m. hour, I heard an NPR correspondent say the word "orientate." I was astonished to hear such a blatant error on the air.

To say "orientate" instead of "orient" is not a "blatant error." But it has been the preferred British pronunciation.

Here's how Reeves used it in his report from Iraq:

REEVES: Scrubbing out graffiti is easy. Forging bonds with Mosul's residents is not, though Daley says his platoon's been making significant progress. Some half an hour into the mission, the platoon receives the first bad news of the day. To orientate themselves in Iraqi cities, the U.S. military uses American street names.

In this context, to orientate in the U.K. means the same as to orient in the U.S.: to adjust or adapt to a particular situation.

But surprisingly, American dictionaries seem to find orientate and orient to be equally acceptable. Neither Webster's New World College (Fourth Ed.) nor Random House dictionaries differentiate between the two.

In checking the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, it surprisingly came down on this side of the Atlantic:

Orient, orientate — the latter is a needless variant of orient, which means "to gets one's bearings or sense of direction." Sadly the longer variant (a back-formation from orientation) seems especially common in British English...

So to avoid any further... um... disorientation, I asked NPR's reference librarian, Kee Malesky, for guidance:

I am disappointed to report that our American dictionaries show this usage (orientate) as acceptable... It is certainly a "needless variant," as our British friends realize. Since radio people are always trying to be efficient with language, it strikes me as an unnecessary waste of a half-second of airtime.

But in the interest of aural diversity, perhaps even Reeves should be allowed to "orientate" the listeners.

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