Sam Sanders, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute, records a segment at NPR West on September 24, 2018.
Sam Sanders, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute, records a segment at NPR West on September 24, 2018.
What comes to mind when you imagine an "NPR voice"? You might hear the rich baritone of Bob Edwards. You might think of Terry Gross' velvety timbre. Or you might hear the hushed monotone parodied in Saturday Night Live's iconic "Schweddy Balls" sketch. Whatever you think of, you're not alone: Many listeners have an idea of what an NPR voice should sound like. And when reporters and hosts deviate from that supposed standard, our office hears about it.
We receive a regular stream of complaints about how reporters and hosts talk on air. Listeners have concerns about grammar, and filler words such as "um," "like" and "so." (Mark Memmott, the standards and practices editor, has addressed some of those issues in the past.)
But we especially hear about the tone and timbre of reporters' voices. Reporters get these complaints directly, too.
The Public Editor has examined concerns about pronunciation and accents, but for the most part, our office hasn't addressed complaints about how NPR reporters and hosts speak and sound.
One reason we don't comment on reporters' voices is because voice is personal. Reporters strive to sound clear and concise on air. And their voices reflect indelible features of their backgrounds — where they're from and the voices they grew up with. Criticizing someone's voice often seems to be a criticism of their identity.
"When you're critiquing a voice, you're saying, 'I don't like the thing that is you on the radio,' " Karen Duffin, a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, told me. She has received a few emails about her voice from listeners, including one that said she didn't sound certain saying her own name, which she briefly addressed in a Planet Money segment. Duffin said voice critiques don't bother her personally but that she worries they limit who feels welcome on the air. "People forget that there's a person on the other end of the email," Duffin said.
Investigating these complaints opens a window into a long-running debate in the public radio community: what — or more precisely, who — should NPR sound like?
We occasionally hear from listeners who critique what they perceive as the homogeneity of on-air voices. One from Texas wrote: "Not all Americans sound like White American politicians and I wish that could be reflected on your airwaves."
Indeed, there's an ongoing conversation within public radio about the extent to which the industry asks some journalists to change their voices to conform to the (mostly white) voices that came before them. Nearly 15 years ago, a previous Public Editor bemoaned the lack of aural diversity on NPR.
In 2015, Chenjerai Kumanyika, a radio journalist and professor, published an essay on Transom.org that sparked a conversation about race and public radio. While editing a piece, he found himself imagining the words spoken by a more white voice instead of his own. Speaking to NPR's Code Switch on his thoughts, he said, "Without being directly told, people like me learn that our way of speaking isn't professional, and you start to imitate the standard or even hide the distinctive features of your own voice."
In the ensuing #PubRadioVoice conversation, now-host of Weekend Edition Sunday Lulu Garcia-Navarro tweeted about a similar experience. She wrote how, "Sitting in host chair for first time I channeled white voice from Midwest and lost my own. I had to fight my own brain!"
Sam Sanders, host of It's Been a Minute, said that learning to write in his own voice was difficult. When he was starting out, he found editors "strip[ping] away [his] character" by removing vernacular and colloquialisms that felt unique to him. Those experiences felt like subtle whitewashing of his voice. Over his 10 years at NPR, he said he has grown emotionally to trust that his voice is enough.
Though NPR still has work to do on the issue of its newsroom diversity, over the past few years the numbers have been creeping in the right direction. The voices on NPR are more diverse than ever. That means some listeners have to adjust to new sounds.
One sound that some listeners are still adjusting to is often-called "vocal fry," a tendency to use a lower vocal register that can make words sound "creaky" as the vocal cords flap together. One listener from Massachusetts wrote: "We are writing to express our concern about the prevalence of the vocal fry affectation adopted by too many of your broadcast correspondents. It is always annoying, but sometimes makes the report(s) unlistenable. Is there not an audio producer charged with asking the reporters to speak with more maturity and confidence?"
Another listener from Minnesota wrote that "millennial correspondents" who speak with vocal fry "seems to counter NPR's high standards."
It's not quite clear where the style comes from, but Mae West is often cited as an example, so it's not a new phenomenon. One study found that young women with vocal fry were perceived as less competent and trustworthy. In another, speakers with vocal fry received more votes in a hypothetical election. Speaking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, linguist Penny Eckert described a preliminary study she conducted that asked participants to listen to two clips — one with creak and one without. She found that people over 40 heard the utterance without any creak as more authoritative, while people under 40 found both clips authoritative. She summarized her findings to Gross this way: "Those of us who are bothered by some of these features are probably just getting old."
As a young woman who sometimes subconsciously dips into this lower vocal register, I don't even notice when radio reporters speak with vocal fry. But as the quotes above show, some listeners do notice — and they let the reporters know, too.
Vocal fry is one of the main voice complaints sent to the Invisibilia team, said project manager Liana Simstrom, who handles audience engagement for the narrative podcast about human behavior. Even the show's reviews on iTunes are full of complaints about the voices of the hosts, both of whom are women, especially their vocal fry.
Simstrom ascribes those criticisms to gender: "I have long had a theory that part of what people take issue with about our show is women speaking authoritatively about science."
She pointed out that Ira Glass, the host of This American Life who has an iconic radio voice, uses a lot of vocal fry. "I think of Ira Glass as the king of vocal fry," she said. "It's so quintessential to his delivery." This American Life even did a segment on the negative messages their women reporters receive about vocal fry. But Glass said in that episode that he never hears about his.
Eckert, the linguist, found that the biggest users of vocal fry are actually men. In the Fresh Air episode about criticism of young women's voices she said,"People are busy policing young women's language, and nobody is policing older or younger men's language."
Live from, um, NPR
While listeners sometimes write to us specifically about a particular voice they don't like, a survey of the emails we receive reveals a pattern. The vast majority of voice complaints that come into our office concern women and reporters of color.
Scott Detrow, a politics reporter, is a white man. He recently tweeted, "I've said this before, I'll say it again. I am a white dude on the radio, and no one has EVER tweeted at me critiquing my voice. Yet literally all of my female colleagues get constant criticism for how they speak or sound..." He told me, except for two pronunciation corrections, he has never received a complaint about his voice or speaking manner even though, by his assessment, he uses "like" and "um" just as much as the women on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Those filler words of such concern to some listeners are especially likely to slip in on live radio, when there is no opportunity to edit out mistakes or other problems. Jackie Fortiér is a healthcare reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma and part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News partnership. After she appeared live on Morning Edition for the first time, she received a detailed email from a listener, urging her to stop using filler words. He transcribed what she had said, changed the text color of "a few errors" to red, and suggested his own improvements in green brackets.
"You're on the air, not having a conversation with a buddy in a bar. Please try to make your reports professional. If I were grading you, your report would get, at best, a C-," the listener from Missouri concluded.
Comments like that don't bother or surprise Fortiér. She doesn't mind sounding human. The power of live radio, after all, is that it's live. And when people speak without a script they often use filler words or make minor grammatical mistakes.
"That's why you listen — it's to hear people talk," Fortiér said. Radio wouldn't have the same energy or be able to cover breaking news if every second was scripted.
Though Sanders, of It's Been a Minute, has heard from listeners that he and his panelists use "like" too much, he thinks it's indicative of a good conversation. He told me:
That is a sign that I've opened them up, they feel comfortable and they're talking in the way that they just regularly talk. I view the word "like" in the entire opposite manner than a lot of those critics. "Like" is a sign of a relaxed conversation. I would rather have my guests say the word "like" a lot or me say the word "like" a lot and have a richer, deeper, better conversation that goes more places than have everyone be buttoned up and stifled as guests and you never hear the word "like."
Filler words mean people are thinking in the moment, he added. Just like everyone else, sometimes reporters need a moment to collect their thoughts. One thing journalists I spoke to said: They're real people and they'd like to sound real too.
Room for improvement?
All this said, very few reporters or hosts speak on air exactly as they do in person. Duffin, of Planet Money, said that when she's recording she tries to sound like "a more listenable, polished version" of herself.
Like any job, radio journalism requires training. Sounding clear and natural on air takes time and practice.
Jessica Hansen, one of the voices of NPR's funding credits and its in-house vocal coach, helps reporters hone their voices for air. She helps people who find they sound monotone, sing-songy or low-energy. (And yes, she also hears a lot of feedback on her own voice.)
She can help reporters reduce vocal fry in their speech if they want to. There's still debate in the medical community about whether vocal fry harms the vocal folds, but Hansen said it can stress them. If reporters find that their voices are "tired," reducing vocal fry might be one way to help. She said she wants to give reporters more control of their voices to increase their storytelling options.
"They can feel more comfortable, confident and relaxed, because they feel like they have command of this instrument and their performance," said Hansen. "When they sit down and open the mic to tell the story, they aren't just hanging on for the ride and hoping that it ends soon. They're actually choosing their path and doing the steering."
Sometimes reporters do incorporate feedback about their delivery.
After Sanders and his panelists discussed a mysterious case of American diplomats in Cuba suffering from a possibly psychosomatic illness, listeners wrote that his tone had been too light-hearted for a serious subject. While he generally wants to be playful on his show, he said he's since tried to be more sensitive to when subjects require serious delivery.
Other reporters hone their delivery as well. Even politics reporter Detrow, who doesn't hear from listeners about his voice, said he evaluates his own interviews. If he catches that he's saying "you know" a lot, he'll try to cut down on using it.
Duffin said she notices if she sounds "too throaty or gravely" while recording. Producers, who listen while reporters record their scripts, are alert for issues with speed and clarity, and will ask reporters to try again if necessary.
She likened speaking into a microphone to a "performance that should be as authentic as possible."
Sounding like America
That authenticity is key to NPR's original mission to "celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied." Allowing reporters to sound like themselves helps NPR reflect the variety of identities in its audience, and meet its long-term goal to "sound like America," with all of its diversity.
That holds true for the sources NPR interviews on the air, just as it does for the voices of correspondents and hosts.
Keith Woods, NPR's vice president of newsroom training and diversity, told me that a variety of voices is one way to achieve greater journalistic truth. "If you sound like America, then it's America that's talking. It's not just one part of America or one slice of America," he said. "We ought to be able to hear all of that in the voices that the audience is hearing, whether that voice is the voice of somebody in a community somewhere in the middle of the country or that voice is the voice of a host or reporter for NPR."
He added, "There's a difference between sounding clear — and having great journalism behind that sound — and creating a sound that is pleasing to every listener in the audience. I don't think the latter is our goal."
Given NPR's millions of listeners, pleasing each one all the time would be an impossible goal. But journalists can sound clear without all sounding the same.
What's a listener to do when they hear a voice that they don't like? Sanders wishes listeners would be less reactionary and more open when they hear voices they find unfamiliar or even unpleasant.
"You have an opportunity as a listener to expand your worldview by hearing all different types of voices," Sanders said. "What would happen if you approached different-sounding voices with curiosity and said 'Let me see how this works, see how this feels, and try to understand where they're coming from'?"
One listener did just that. He wrote to us about his experience hearing reporters who did not sound like he does. "It has expanded my own understanding of the world and the people you have brought on board are excellent," he wrote. "I thought it felt strange to have a voice that did not sound like me reporting on the most powerful people in the world. Of course, that is a feeling that non-white, non-male, non-midwesterners have felt for most of the history of broadcasting. Ultimately, I realized that it is deeply right to have many different voices reporting on the powerful."
Just as NPR's reporting can expose listeners to new ideas, listening to national radio is an opportunity to hear voices from many backgrounds.
Aural homogeneity discourages listeners and future radio-makers who don't fit the mold. It sends the message that only some people can be trusted to report the news. Public radio should mean that all voices, relaying solid reporting, are respected enough to inform the country.
Liana Van Nostrand (@lbvannostrand) is an intern for the Public Editor's office.