Talk American What is the "Standard American Accent"? Where is it from? And what does it mean if you don't have it? Code Switch goes on a trip to the Midwest to find out.
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Talk American

Talk American

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, CODE SWITCH listeners? We got a quick announcement for you. We are going to Alabama. WBHM and NPR have teamed up to bring you CODE SWITCH: Live From Birmingham. So on Tuesday, August 14, at 8 p.m. at UAB's Alys Stephens Center, we have some dope guests, including Mayor Randall Woodfin and WBHM's Gigi Douban. It's going to be a lot of fun. You can get your tickets now for the live taping of our podcast at nprpresents.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEION BROXTON: I'm Deion Broxton. I'm from Baltimore, Md. Before my speech training, I would say Baldimore (ph). But to say it the closest way to Standard American English, it's pronounced Baltimore.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Deion was a web producer for a TV station in Baltimore. His dream - to be a broadcast reporter.

DEMBY: Deion studied journalism in college, but it wasn't until Freddie Gray was killed in his hometown in 2015 that he really wanted to make his dream real.

BROXTON: When the Freddie Gray stuff happened, and I saw, like, CBS and NBC, FOX, CNN...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) For Freddie Gray.

JOHN BERMAN: Before America heard his name chanted in the streets...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Freddie, Freddie, Freddie...

BERMAN: ...Before his own cries echoed across newsreels...

FREDDIE GRAY: (Screaming).

BERMAN: ...And spurred riots across his city...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) We want justice.

BROXTON: ...I saw all this on TV. It made me felt like I want to be one of the people to tell a story about my city. I mean, I'm not trying to brag or say I know everything about the place. But when it comes to, like, politics, corruption, culture, dances, different rappers in the city, I can tell you about the Baltimore Sun, I can tell you all the news organizations - I just feel like Baltimore needs a person who can do that.

MERAJI: But Deion can't do that in Baltimore or anywhere else until he fixes the way he talks. News directors keep telling him he has to work on the way he sounds, and he does sound like he's from Baltimore.

DEMBY: And for Deion, sounding like he's from Baltimore is synonymous with sounding like he's black. You can't really separate the two.

MERAJI: News directors tell him he needs to have a standard American accent, the one that makes you sound like you're from Anywhere, USA. So this week, we wanted to find out - what is a standard American accent, and what happens if you don't have one?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And I'm going to call myself out for a minute. When I hear someone's voice, I automatically - like, in a second - start guessing things about them, like where they're from, their age...

DEMBY: Gender, the sexual orientation maybe, their education level. We all do it. I do it. And it's easy to say that those thoughts are, like, based on some kind of, you know, linguistic evidence. People with advanced degrees use words with more syllables, stuff like that. Men have lower voices.

MERAJI: Or people from New York pronounce O's in the front of their mouth, like chalklate (ph)...

DEMBY: Chalklate.

MERAJI: ...Versus chocolate.

DEMBY: Chocolate.

MERAJI: But when we're thinking about someone's accent, let's be honest - we're making judgment calls. We're listening to the way they speak to tell us whether they have power, whether they're trustworthy, whether they're smart, kind, annoying, innocent or guilty. We use people's accents to discern if someone is like us or if they're not like us.

DEMBY: And the research has shown that these judgments have real-life consequences on people. One study found that American customers think they're getting worse service when they hear someone with an Indian accent compared to someone with an American or British accent. Another shows that, by the age of 10, children were already ranking, quote, "Northern U.S. accents as sounding smarter and in charge and Southern U.S. accents as sounding nicer." And yet another study showed that people who were perceived to have foreign accents were judged as being less trustworthy than perceived native speakers.

MERAJI: That's right. And other research has shown that it often takes only 30 milliseconds - I think I said a second...

DEMBY: CP time.

MERAJI: ...For a listener to detect whether they're hearing a familiar or a foreign accent. So we start judging people before we even know what they're about to say.

DEMBY: Terrible.

MERAJI: And look. Everyone - everyone - has some kind of accent. Gene, where do you think this accent's from?

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

LESTER HOLT: Good Monday evening, everyone. And thank you for joining us...

RACHEL MADDOW: And I know this sounds like a little bit of inside baseball, but this is...

JAKE TAPPER: At one point, he said the leaks were real, but the news is fake.

DANA PERINO: So we'll be back talking about Ohio 12.

DEMBY: Back to you, Bob. So those are all newscasters. They all sound pretty much the same. And they're speaking in something that some people refer to as the standard American accent, right? Now, sociolinguists dispute that there's actually one thing that you would call a standard American accent. There's actually a constellation of ways that people speak that are standard American accents. But if you hear somebody talk about, you know, not having an accent, they're probably thinking that this is what they sound like, a newscaster from Anywhere, USA. And there's a reason for that.

MERAJI: As our teammate Kat Chow explains, that accent isn't from anywhere. It's from somewhere - Cleveland, Ohio.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: I'm standing outside this hospital in Cleveland across the street from Case Western Reserve University. I'm talking to Elizabeth Smith (ph). She's on her lunch break. A little bit about Elizabeth. She was born and raised in Cleveland. Her parents are transplants. Her dad's from D.C. Her mom's from New Jersey.

What do you know about accents and Cleveland?

ELIZABETH SMITH: Accents? I know that a lot of news people are from Cleveland because we have a really neutral tone. So it's easy for, like, I guess, public announcements and public projection.

CHOW: She's right. Cleveland was, for a long time, seen as a place with so-called Standard American English. Big caveat, though. What standard, of course, means...

SMITH: We all know that typical is a white guy (laughter) so, you know, major news sources like big "Nightly News" is - there's normally, like, an older white dude who's announcing what's happening in the world.

TED MCCLELLAND: It's actually, you know, what we think of as sort of broadcaster English or Standard American English is based on a Midwestern accent of an earlier generation of the 1920s.

CHOW: That is Ted McClelland. He wrote this book called "How To Speak Midwestern." It's a guide to the speech and sayings of Middle America.

MCCLELLAND: You know, it used to be that sort of the sophisticated way to talk was something called the Transatlantic accent. And you would've heard that if you listen to Franklin D. Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech. You know, he talked about declaring wahr (ph) on the Empire of Japan...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: On Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

CHOW: If FDR sounded like the rich New Yorker that he was, what did regular Americans sound like? That's where this guy John Kenyon came in.

MCCLELLAND: At that time, the leading expert on pronunciation was a man named John S. Kenyon, and he was at Hiram College.

CHOW: Hiram College is near Cleveland. Super convenient that this linguist, John Kenyon, chose his own backyard as a place that was standard. In 1924, Kenyon - he wrote a textbook called "American Pronunciation." And then, in 1944, he co-wrote "A Pronouncing Dictionary Of American English."

MCCLELLAND: So he decided that the standard pronunciations that he was going to promote were based on the way people talked in his part of the country. So he said, we're going to say war. We're not going to say wahr. And we're going to say not. We're not going to say naught (ph). And those are both features of the Inland North speech he heard in northeastern Ohio.

CHOW: And then, NBC picked up his work and used it as a guide for how their anchors should speak. Today, there's a range in how newscasters pronounce things. Sociolinguists say there's not just one standard, there's this cluster of acceptable pronunciations. But to most people's ears, they sound pretty similar.

MCCLELLAND: You know, if you're an - if you're doing a national broadcast, you certainly have to have something that everyone's going to be able to understand. And I guess that's what John Kenyon was trying to accomplish, you know? I guess he thought that the Midwestern accent was going to be the most comprehensible to the largest group of Americans.

CHOW: Part of the reason why NBC's standard of pronunciation stuck was because people had stereotypes about other accents. New Yorkers are brash and rude, Southerners are backward. It's not that these accents are hard to understand. It's that they're associated with so-called bad things.

MCCLELLAND: One reason that the Midwest accent triumphs, you know, is people didn't really have any negative associations about it. At the time, people associated the South with backwardness and bigotry and, you know, these - you'd see these comical senators like you'd see on "Bugs Bunny."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVELORN LEGHORN")

MEL BLANC: (As Foghorn Leghorn) Now what, I say, what's the big idea bashing me on the noggin with a rolling pin? Clunk enough...

MCCLELLAND: Or, you know, Foghorn Leghorn was based on a character named Senator Claghorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A JOKE, SON!")

KENNY DELMAR: (As Senator Claghorn) You know, we got two states down here - South Carolina and North Carolina. North Carolina. No such place. Why don't they call it Upper South Carolina?

MCCLELLAND: And then, you know, that Northeastern accent was kind of associated with a class that lost a lot of credibility during the Great Depression. And the New York accent - that was, you know, gangsters and wise guys and immigrants...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DONNIE BRASCO")

AL PACINO: (As Lefty) What are you doing? Wise guy don't carry his money in a wallet. See? Wise guy carries money in a roll like this. See?

MCCLELLAND: So I think when you heard a Midwestern accent, people really didn't have any negative associations about it.

CHOW: It's important to point out that this was all during the Great Migration, when the Midwest was dramatically changing as millions of black folks were moving there from the South. But for most people at the time, the Midwest still meant white people. When I asked people recently who live in Cleveland to describe how people talk in Cleveland, well, they said a lot of different stuff.

SMITH: Neutral tone. We don't have a twang. We are before the, I guess, proper Bread Belt (ph) and, like, deep Midwest.

JIN LEI GLOVER: It's, like, not a country thing, but it's not not a country thing. So you'll hear a lot of people saying stuff that - it might sound like they're from down South. But it also sounds like they're from the city.

CHRIS SCHMITT: When you travel, you could pick up, you know, someone that's from Ohio or some - from the Midwest that doesn't necessarily have the other accents that most people are familiar with. So they could - you could see kind of that evenness.

KEVIN HOFFMAN: I've heard a lot of people say malk (ph) as opposed to milk, so I'm not sure if - exactly where that comes from. Or, like, they'll shorten room to, like, rum (ph). Like, it'll be like a, you know, almost like an apostrophe in there or something.

CHOW: Those are the accents of Elizabeth Smith (ph), Jin Lei Glover (ph), Chris Schmitt (ph) and Kevin Hoffman (ph). I talked a little more to Elizabeth Smith. And she kind of started questioning in real time her accent and what it means.

One of the things I'm trying to figure out is if there's like a different Cleveland accent for different racial groups. So, like, do, you know, Latino people who live in Cleveland have a different sort of Cleveland accent than, like, black people who live in Cleveland versus Asian? Like, how do you see that play out here?

SMITH: That's totally true. I know personally - because of where I grew up and where I went to school and how I talk, that's definitely affected versus somebody who's same age as me who might, you know, live in different area of Cleveland. We could have completely different accents. But I guess in the grand scheme, it's pretty general. I don't know. I would say that definitely location and upbringing. Socioeconomics - that's a big thing, right? So yeah. I - maybe my accent is not neutral.

CHOW: She's right - it's not. But that linguist, John Kenyon, his influence is so lasting. It's all over mainstream news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROXTON: So this is a thing that Deion Broxton, who we heard before, is dealing with right now. He's trying not to sound like a black man from Baltimore.

BROXTON: I would get close to, like, getting that job. But then, news directors will tell me, work on your speech a little bit more. So I've been working on that.

MERAJI: So he can sound more like a white man from Cleveland. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Yo, real quick. So Shereen and I popped over recently to sit down with our play cousins at Pop Culture Happy Hour to talk about "Sorry To Bother You." If you haven't heard of "Sorry To Bother You," it's a new movie by the rapper Boots Riley. It's full of magical realism. It's about the ills of capitalism. It's about code switching. It's about mutants. It's a lot. It's doing the absolute most. And suffice it to say, Shereen and I disagreed about it. And if you want to hear why, look up Pop Culture Happy Hour wherever you are listening to us right now. Cool? OK. Back to the show.

Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. All right. Back to Deion Broxton.

BROXTON: A few months ago, I had, like, a really promising lead for a job. I mean, I damn near had the job in Florida. The news director was - called me. I like you. I like your resume, blah, blah, blah. The only thing that's bothering me is your accent. I need you to prove to me you can work on your accent before I hire you. And I'm - OK. All right. I started working on it. I would send them new stuff.

And ultimately, I didn't get the job. And I don't want to say it crushed me because I have a optimistic view on life. Failure is a part of growing, you know. If you don't fail, that means you aren't trying. This failure has taught me I need to take a different angle towards my success. And I realized it's time to hire a speech pathologist.

CATHY RUNNELS: Good morning. Come in. How are you?

DEMBY: Every week, Deion would drive 45 minutes, from Baltimore to the suburbs of D.C., to work on his accent with a speech pathologist named Cathy Runnels.

RUNNELS: All right. You have a deep voice. It's low. And then, you speak with what we call small mouth opening...

BROXTON: Yes.

RUNNELS: ...Minimal, aural openness. So we went to open up your mouth a little bit more. Instead of the sounds being in the back of your mouth, like one, two three - it's in the back. It's like I'm swallowing them. One, two three. Why don't you do it?

BROXTON: One, two - oh, keep it closed.

RUNNELS: Yeah, keep it in the back.

BROXTON: One, two, three.

RUNNELS: And where do you feel it vibrating? Where?

BROXTON: In my, like, throat.

RUNNELS: Yeah, almost like we're going to swallow that sound. Now I want you to push it forward, pretend like there's a marble in your mouth. And instead of almost swallowing it, you're going to push it further into the front of your mouth. So let's try it.

BROXTON: One, two, three.

RUNNELS: A little bit better. A little bit better. What do you feel...

MERAJI: All these reps Deion's putting in to change his accent, all the times he's been turned down for on-air reporter jobs because of it, all of this has made him hyper aware of how he talks.

BROXTON: I'm definitely conscious of the way I speak 24/7. If I were in a group - in front of a group of kids from Baltimore from, like - you know, like, one of the roughest hoods, I would speak in a way to make them feel comfortable. But when I'm at work, I want to sound like myself, but I have to realize where I come from, where I was born isn't accepted for journalism.

DEMBY: This is classic code switching. I don't know if you ever heard of that term, Shereen. Have you ever heard of it?

MERAJI: Yes, I have.

DEMBY: Oh, have you? OK. Anyway, we do this all the time. Obviously, we talk with, like, our friends in one space, we talk with our family one way. And we sound very differently when we're here at work.

MERAJI: But the thing is, it's not like Deion's out at these job interviews, you know, using Baltimore slang that only kids from the rough neighborhoods, as he calls it, would understand.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: He's using his work voice. He just has a different accent.

BROXTON: Thinking of it from a strictly accent standpoint, there is discrimination in the news room when it comes to that. I mean - and a lot of these news stations are owned by old white men. So if they don't like it, that's the rule of the land, you know? You can't go against it. You got to do what they like.

DEMBY: And we've done some reporting on stuff like this in the past, right?

MERAJI: Yes, we have.

DEMBY: I mean, like, you - our play cousin - shout out to Chenjerai Kumanyika - he wrote an essay that got a lot of attention about the whiteness of public radio voice, right? Public radio voice, you know what we're talking about. And he wrote about the way that people of color are so often forced to adopt a different, unnatural way of speaking to fit in with the sound of public radio.

MERAJI: Yeah, one of the guys Chen spoke to said it sounded like everyone at NPR was, you know, a white guy in the back of a Barnes & Noble sipping on some coffee.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I could never get that description out of my head.

MERAJI: I know. I think it was lukewarm coffee.

DEMBY: Lukewarm coffee. Right.

MERAJI: I don't know. Am I making that up?

DEMBY: Just somebody very content.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: And it's something we've talked about a ton and about ourselves, too. I am well aware that I sound different on our podcast than I do when I'm reporting a story for All Things Considered. I'm totally much more myself with you and much more formal on All Things Considered.

DEMBY: I'm so flattered by that, actually.

MERAJI: (Laughter) You make me feel at ease. Thank you, Gene.

DEMBY: Lots of people are fighting to change that, right? Lots of people are trying...

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: ...To change the way that public radio and television, just the media in general sounds. But Deion, he's just trying to get a job, right? He's not really in a position to change things. But we get comments all the time about the way this show sounds, you know.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: We use slang that people don't understand. And this is from people who love CODE SWITCH. They write in, and they complain about us talking too fast, talk about us mumbling. They talk about us talking too quietly. They talk about you being too loud, Shereen.

MERAJI: (Laughter) How dare they?

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Gene, how often do you think about the way you speak?

DEMBY: All the time. When I first came on NPR, the first time I ever did a show, like, I got a ton of letters about it. Like, I was on Morning Edition, I think. And I - you know, I had a speech coach here, you know? Like - and it's one of those things I think about all the time whenever I have to cut one of those promos. Hey, guys. Come see us in Birmingham. I don't - I mean, like, I don't sound like that, but I walk it back all the time - you know? - and always try to do it like super enunciated, and then come back and - but I feel like - I kind of feel like Deion a lot. What about you?

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. I am constantly thinking about the way I sound, also because women's voices get policed in all sorts of ways that men's don't.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: We get criticized for doing uptalk - you know, the habit of ending sentences like they're questions. And I'm from California, so I'm especially conscious of the way I talk so that I don't sound like I'm a Valley Girl or so that, you know, I don't say like all the time, which is something my mom will point out after she listens to an episode. Thanks, Mommy. You always got my back. And I can't imagine what it's like for someone like my dad, who has a very pronounced Iranian accent...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...When he's speaking in English.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: I know, for a fact, it was harder for him in job interviews. It was harder for him to make friends in the neighborhood that I grew up in. And I'm not going to lie, as a kid, I would get really embarrassed when we were out in public and he was talking. I feel bad for that, to this day. I'm so sorry, Dad. I'm making amends in this episode.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: Right? I feel like I'm learning stuff, and we're teaching people things about accents and linguistic stereotyping. And I talked for a long time with a language expert about accent perception and linguistic stereotyping. She's an associate professor in the Applied Linguistics program at Northern Arizona University, and she's been studying this stuff for a decade but thinking about it for a lot longer. Her name is Okim Kang.

OKIM KANG: Technically it's Ok'im (ph) because originally, I'm Korean, but it's not - even for Korean, Ok'im is hard. So I go by Okim.

MERAJI: Professor Kang studies speech production and perception, and this work is very personal for her. It started when she was an undergrad in Korea.

KANG: English was the most difficult subject in my life. And nobody understood my English. And I had a chance to go to New Zealand when I was sophomore. And when I try to even buy one piece of chewing gum, nobody could understand my English. I was so discouraged. I lost all my confidence. I didn't want to speak. Then, I started to have some of my own interest into people's attitude. So, always, I felt that people were downgrading me. And there was a discrimination just because I got this weird accent.

MERAJI: And she clarified this weird accent is something that she would hear from other people. Those were their words, not hers. She says all of us have accents, whether we want to believe it or not. But she also knows that the so-called standard American accent has power. She says we're conditioned to believe it's better, as kids, from cartoons and Disney movies.

KANG: Like accent is used either for like a evil genius or some kind of comedy, so very likely, not the main characters. You know, you don't find beautiful princesses or handsome prince with a strong, heavy accent. Children are growing up with this type of expectation and stereotypes that good people should never have an accent.

MERAJI: And those same children often grow up to be adults who stereotype people based on the way they talk. The academic term for it is linguistic stereotyping. You hear someone's accent, and you make judgments about them - negative judgments. Professor Kang says, in the case of Americans, those negative judgments are reserved for people who don't speak English with British or French accents. Western European accents are generally regarded positively here unless they're German.

KANG: But the least-favorite accent, even worse than the German accent, was Asian accent. And Spanish accent wasn't highly ranked either.

MERAJI: All right. I know this is probably not surprising to our listeners who speak Spanish as a first language or who are Asian and learned English as a second language. You're like, yeah, tell me something I don't already know. Well, Professor Kang did an interesting study with students in 2009 where she played them the audio of an astronomy lecture done in a Standard American English accent, and she projected this huge photo of a white man while playing the lecture for her students. And then, later, she played the same lecture while projecting an image of an Asian man.

KANG: And students found the speech sample with a picture of an Asian face more accented. And because they had convinced themselves that they were listening to someone else who had a second language accent, they concluded that the lecture was difficult to understand, you know? And as a result, the students' listening comprehension scores were significantly lower than those from the Caucasian face. And I did this study in 2009. And since I often teach introduction to linguistics here at Northern Arizona University, on the very first or second day, I do this activity just to find out, like, what students' perceptions would be. And every time, it gives me the same results.

MERAJI: She calls this reverse linguistic stereotyping. Professor Kang believes that, you know, no matter how much we work on perfecting our standard American accent, it may not be enough. And she says it's really wrong to put all the onus on the speaker to fix things.

KANG: Oftentimes, we try to teach students to improve their speech so much thinking that you have to change this and that, but many times, doesn't matter how well how good your speech is, listeners are not willing to listen, and nothing's going to happen. The communication's going to be a total failure, no matter what. So we also have to train listeners. And both listeners and speakers need to be aware of this issue.

MERAJI: Professor Kang is now working on solutions to the problems she's identified in her research. She's trying to figure out the best way to train listeners to understand and accept that accents are powerful parts of people's identities. We all have them, and we all have to make a real effort to listen and understand.

DEMBY: So what ever happened to your boy Deion Broxton? Well, he finally landed a job in broadcasting. He's now reporting for NBC Montana.

MERAJI: Whoa, that's a long way from Baltimore.

DEMBY: Very long way from Baltimore. Montana...

MERAJI: Very different.

DEMBY: ...We looked it up, it is 0.43 percent black. Hold your head, Deion. He moved to Bozeman in June. He's eating his bison burgers. He's seeing the coyotes. He's doing the Montana thing.

MERAJI: Congratulations, Deion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, ya'll. That's our show.

MERAJI: Huge thanks to Huo Jingnan and Kaylan Reshard (ph) for bringing us the idea for this episode and helping us report it out. You did so much work, we thank you so much.

DEMBY: Y'all should subscribe to our newsletter. You can sign up at npr.org/newsletters. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. You want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send your burning questions about race to the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. And subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Leah Donnella, with help from Angelo Bautista. It was edited by Leah Donnella, Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez.

MERAJI: Oh.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah.

MERAJI: That was better.

DEMBY: Kat Chow, who you heard earlier in the podcast. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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