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On Voice

Posted on 31 January 2015

“You have presence in your ideas and presence in your body, but your voice is sort of right in-between those two things.”

– Ray Fenwick

Are the voices on public radio too white?

This is the debate happening amongst public radio enthusiasts in the United States this week, thanks to a piece written by Chenjerai Kumanyika on Transom.org. In it, he discusses his experience as an African-American radio producer subconsciously changing the way he spoke to emulate white people:

“The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of Roman Mars and Sarah Koenig. Those two very different voices have many complex and wonderful qualities. They also sound like white people. My natural voice — the voice that I most use when I am most comfortable — doesn’t sound like that.”

“Challenging the whiteness of public radio”

One of the things I like about radio over TV is the lack of baggage it brings to the table. On TV we’re used to seeing people in proper makeup, wearing expensive clothes, in studio environments. We make all sorts of pre-judgements about a person based solely on how they look that it limits our ability to hear from “real people” without subconsciously making assumptions about them.

Radio has less of that, but it’s still there, and it’s largely in the way people speak. For most of its history, radio has been the domain of white men with deep voices. That’s opening up, but people are still more likely to react positively to a traditional radio voice and, conversely, react negatively to someone without one.

Having read listener feedback on radio hosts male and female, I can say with confidence that people are far more likely to write in complaining about a woman’s natural voice. It’s alternately shrill, ditzy, or just too darn high, and can not be listened to/taken seriously.

I don’t think that the people writing in are being deliberately sexist, either. It’s just that for years we’ve been trained that the intelligent, authoritative voice is that of the baritone male who speaks in “proper” English.

And the issue of race isn’t limited to the United States, either. This past week, CBC Radio welcomed Shad as a guest host of Q. Shad is a bilingual, award-winning musician who earned a master’s degree at the same time he was becoming one of the most successful rappers in the country. He also used the word “dope” on the radio. 

Again, I don’t think this Tweet is deliberately racist (indeed, the person who wrote it says he has no idea what race Shad is). But it is making a judgement call on what the “correct” linguistic patterns are on public radio. People who use words like “dope” do not belong in these upper echelons or, if they do, they must silence that part of themselves to be more acceptable. And more often than not, those are going to people who aren’t white.

This conversation doesn’t just affect hosts, either. It’s something that happens to guests. More than once, I’ve been part of a debate about whether someone’s accent would be understandable to the average radio listener and, therefore, whether we should have them on. Again, an accent is not necessarily a race-based thing. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the people who have these accents are usually not white.

We’ve also had intelligent, passionate people with brain injuries or hearing loss that cause their pattern of speech to be slower than what we’re used to, and it represents a conundrum as to how to fairly present them and their views without risking alienating the listener. One method is to pretape the interview, and then edit out the pauses or difficult to understand passages. It works, but I question sometimes whether we’re being fair to the subjects themselves by altering their voice in this way. That point is presented powerfully in this piece, in which a man who stutters uses the power of radio editing to clean up his own voice, only to reject the artificiality of it at the end.

The last point I’d throw in there for consideration in Canada is the subject of First Nations speech patterns. From here I’ll turn it over to the Reporting in Indigenous Communities website, a resource for helping journalists understand how to cover indigenous issues fairly and holistically, in particular this passage on speaking with elders:

“Interviewing elders can be a frustrating and puzzling experience. Traditional Aboriginal storytelling is elliptical and sometimes, it’s difficult to pry specific information out of an elder. “How do you feel about XYZ?” may result in a half-hour tale about a childhood experience. If you’re only looking for a 10-second clip, or a short quote, explain the conventions of your medium – at least that person is forewarned that you plan to reduce their teachings to a sound-byte.”

In my experience, this method of speaking isn’t just elders, either- there are a number of First Nations people across the north who speak more deliberately, who pause for a longer-than-expected amount of time before delivering an answer. There is nothing wrong with talking like this – in fact, there are many advantages – but it doesn’t fit in to what we are used to hearing on the radio. How do we bring more of those voices into the conversation without erasing their cultural nuances?

Again, no answers from me here, on any of these fronts, except that I agree with Kumanyika when he says “the sound of public radio and podcasts must reflect… diversity if we are serious about social justice and encouraging active, constructive participation.” That’s true in the United States, and it’s true in Canada.

Keep talking.

Further reading/listening:

Challenging the whiteness of public radio” by Chenjerai Kumanyika (audio version via NPR)

How Code-Switching Explains the World” by Gene Demby

Is There a #PubRadioVoice That Sounds like America?” by Kenya Downs

Special Effects” by Kevin Murphy

Aboriginal Customs and Protocols” by Reporting in Indigenous Communities

Opening quote by Ray Fenwick

Filed under: radio

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