Challenging The Whiteness Of Public Radio : Code Switch Chenjerai Kumanyika loves public radio, but when it's his turn at the microphone, he worries that he doesn't sound like himself. It got him thinking about the predominant white sound of public media.
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Challenging The Whiteness Of Public Radio

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Challenging The Whiteness Of Public Radio

Challenging The Whiteness Of Public Radio

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This conversation about the sound of public radio caught our attention.

CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: What do you hear, the voices of those journalists, what do you hear?

A.D. CARSON: I hear middle-aged white dudes who sound like they just drank some really warm coffee.

BLOCK: That's A.D. Carson talking with his friend Chenjerai Kumanyika. Kumanyika loves public radio, Carson, not so much.

CARSON: Like, it sounds like the whole joint is recorded in the back of Barnes & Noble.

BLOCK: That exchange was part of an essay Kumanyika posted this month on the public radio website Transom. It was called "Vocal Color In Public Radio." We invited him to share his thoughts and tell us about his experience last summer at a Transom workshop when he got a turn at the microphone.

KUMANYIKA: My piece was about a fisherman who manages the Tuna Club of Avalon, but while editing my script aloud, I realized I was also imagining another voice - one that sounded more white - saying my piece. 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. This is one of the reasons that some of my black and brown friends refuse to listen to some of my favorite radio shows, despite my most passionate efforts. This really affected me as I was producing my Transom piece. And sometimes I speak in a voice I'm using right now, but as a hip-hop artist, I use a very different voice. Checkout this verse I wrote right after I found out that no one would be indicted for Eric Garner's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUMANYIKA: (Rapping) I can't breathe; hear my brother dying, every day another name, another mother crying, oh, Lord.

So the question is how can I bring that kind of voice into my efforts as a radio producer, right? Now compare that to how I sounded on my first piece for the Transom workshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUMANYIKA: For John, losing a fish is no small thing because John is a fisherman with a capital F.

Fisherman with a capital F - what does that even mean? So what bothers me most is the way I'm inhabiting my own personality. My voice sounds too high and all around the corners of my slang are squared off. It's like I don't even recognize myself. It's like, who am I? So just as an experiment, I rerecorded part of that piece to see how a relaxed, sort of less code-switched style of narration might sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUMANYIKA: See, what you might not understand is that for John, losing a fish is no small thing. John is a real fisherman. I mean, this guy's caught hundreds of fish in his lifetime.

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. I sound more like myself rather than myself pretending to be a public radio host. Of course, it's not just about what potential journalists face. It's also about the audience and the mission of public radio. Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories, and vocal styles communicate important dimensions of human experience. What are we missing out on by not hearing the full range of those voices?

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. My wife and I spent some time in Ferguson, Mo., in August and November of 2014. I was standing on the block where Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown and I asked one young man why he thought there had been such an uprising in Ferguson. He reminded me that Michael Brown's body had laid in the street for four-and-a-half hours before being picked up. Of course, I had heard this before in the news, but this young brother made me feel it. No one was there to translate. Instead, he carefully told the story his own way. I felt the weight of Michael Brown's body and the weight of so many other young lives in this young man's voice. So what do we do? We really have to think about who is the public in public media. The demographics of race and ethnicity are changing in the United States. The sound of public media must reflect that diversity, so get on it. It's time to make moves.

BLOCK: That's Chenjerai Kumanyika. He's an assistant professor in Clemson University's Communication Studies Department. And we want to hear what you think about this, so we started a conversation on Twitter. You can join in by using and following the hashtag #PubRadiovoice.

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