On the radio, ‘whiteness’ is more than skin deep

It’s not much of a secret that public radio is white — really white. The lack of diversity has hardly gone unnoticed locally or nationally.

The origins go far deeper than race. Back when I was a young college student, my Boston accent was (mostly) beaten out of me in a voice and articulation class. If you wanted to go into the radio business, you had to sound like a Midwesterner, which at the time was considered the ideal American voice.

At the same time, people changed their names to hide their ethnicity. If you heard someone on the radio with two first names — Roger Allen, Gary Roberts etc. — you were listening to someone with something to hide.

We don’t do that as much now, but the industry still functions on the sound of whiteness.

This week, NPR itself pushed the issue front and center on its airwaves with this new twist: that it’s not enough to be a person of color on the radio if you don’t sound or write like a person of color.

“Public radio wants me to be black, but not too black,” Tavis Smiley once said.

Chenjerai Kumanyika, a radio producer/reporter, got the conversation started this week with a manifesto that has sparked a long-overdue conversation in the industry.

Writing on Transom.org, he said he was confronted with what a public radio voice should sound like.

Before I started writing this piece, this problem seemed simpler to me than it does now. That is because I was focusing on what I heard, and what I heard was the voices of white people on most popular and public radio shows and podcasts.

I didn’t want to hear it, but it would jump out at me despite my efforts to ignore it. Often, (not always) when I hear non-white journalists they also seem to be adjusting their vocal style of narration and reporting to what has come to be understood as professional.

However, as I dug deeper into this problem, I realized how tied up this phenomenon is with the broader complexities of speech, region, identity and dominant culture. Certainly, there are real problems with diversity that many organizations are working to address, but these problems don’t only have to do with race.

In fact, as I look across the landscape of popular podcasts, problems of representation regarding gender, ableism, sexual orientation, age and other parameters of ethnicity might be even worse. I’m focusing on the racial aspects of this problem because this is how I personally experience the imbalance.

I’m not saying that voices and styles of speech map on to the ethnicity of the speaker in any simple way. There is no single “authentic” African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American, or white way of speaking. To say otherwise would be to participate in a reductive and inaccurate essentialism of which I want no part.

So last evening, NPR’s All Things Considered put Kumanyika on the air.

  1. Listen Chenjerai Kumanyika speaking on the whiteness of public radio

    January 29, 2015

Then last evening, NPR’s Audie Cornish hosted a “tweetup” featuring people of color working in the public radio system. Their stories — those limited by the 140-character limit — are worth considering.

So why not just let your natural voice flow? Because on radio, the number one complaint of listeners is often someone’s voice.

Ironically, perhaps, the issue was framed perfectly by the man too many public radio people try to imitate — Ira Glass.

Related: Does public radio sound too ‘white’? NPR itself tries to find the answer (Washington Post).

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I’ve always associated the public radio voice with one slightly deeper, slower speaking and a little more breathy than a normal radio voice.

    In fact, when I had to test sound systems in college my bit was to lean into the mic and say, “You’re listening to Minnesota Public Radio.” True story.

    • You know,it’s odd. When I fly I use a different voice when talking to air traffic controllers. It’s the one that airline pilots use when they do their cabin announcements. It’s different than the one I’d use on the radio if my newscasting and THAT one is different than the one I use on radio when I’m on the roundtable.

      I think the actual problem of having diversity on public radio is going to be a lot easier to change than the one that mandates a particular sound on the platform.

      • Jerry

        I’ve heard that the airline pilot voice is because they are all consciously or unconsciously imitating Chuck Yeager

        • Jerry

          Or possibly Sam Shepard’s version of Chuck Yeager

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        I have a different voice when I’m at home in Iowa than I do here. *shurgs*

  • Nick K

    My favorite part of MPR is listening to the different accents late at night when the BBC is on.

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      I have a crush on one of the foreign overnight CNN anchors right now.

  • boB from WA

    I don’t think it’s just NPR, but rather the broadcast industry as a whole (you alluded to this Bob in your training ). I wonder though, if this is also true to other media broadcast sites that cater to a specific ethnicity/audience? Do they have to have “A Voice” which identifies them to that specific ethnicity/audience (think C/W or Classic Rock or even other language stations)? If that is the case then is NPR’s audience in line with the “sound” it produces?

    • Probably, but it’s hard to tell since NPR is a content provider and the demographics of the individual stations can vary. But I think it’s safe to say that “probably” has a good chance at being the right answer.

      The issue comes in the context of the greatest challenge facing public radio and, really public broadcasting in general: They aren’t making enough highly educated, affluent white people to sustain a business model that has existed largely on the participation of highly educated, affluent white people.

      The demographics of the country are changing and pubrad is trying to figure out how to become meaningful to the changing demo.

      In the past, this was the challenge that faced radio news based on age — that people would simply age into being attracted to news. That’s really no longer the case. This was the challenge that faced commercial radio (from where I came) and commercial failed at it which is why commercial radio news is, basically, dead.

      In a changing demographic, there’s no historical data to suggest that people outside of a demographic can adjust or assimilate into a public radio listening culture.

      What I find most fascinating about this piece is it raises the stakes a bit.

      I will submit — and this is only a personal assessment — that what you hear on public radio is largely formed by what you’ve always heard on public radio. Just as we adopt a “voice” that fits the platform, we’ve also adopted a template for the kind of stories that appear on the platform.

      So that’s an equation where this question of “voice” becomes a metaphor for something much, much deeper and, really, challenging to public radio’s future.

      I think what you’re seeing is attention being focused instead on platform, streaming, podcasts, digital non-terrestrial products that speak more to age and accessibility than content, per se.

      Podcasts provide some access to radio producers that they couldn’t get on radio because there’s nothing at stake. So change may actually occur through that mechanism.

      Complicating the situation is I don’t believe white people in the industry are generally capable of changing the voice. I think that has to be led by people who understand the voice.

      And I think this particular manifesto is a good starting point.

  • Jack

    I could listen to Dan Olson all day long. Love his voice, particularly when identifying MPR.

  • Reminds me of Parks and Recreation’s hilarious public radio spoofs:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDh8GLDoz-Q