As long as radio survives, many Americans will get to enjoy a favorite pastime of media — critiquing voices coming out of their transistor.
Novelist Teddy Wayne, for example, lets public radio have it this weekend with a New York Times essay on the NPR Voice, which he describes as having too many pauses. Apparently… he…. doesn’t, you know…. like it.
That is, in addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection. (This is a separate issue from upspeak, the tendency to conclude statements with question marks?) A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.
In literary circles, the practice of poets reciting verse in singsong registers and unnatural cadences is known, derogatorily, as “poet voice.” I propose calling this phenomenon “NPR voice” (which is distinct from the supple baritones we normally associate with radio voices).
This plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations must have come from someplace. But … where?
Say it together with me now, public radio fans: Ira Glass.
Speaking on (the more traditionally velvet-voiced) Alec Baldwin’s WNYC radio program “Here’s the Thing,” the most influential contemporary speaker of NPR voice, Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” said his own colloquial broadcasting style had anti-authoritarian roots.
“Back when we were kids, authority came from enunciation, precision,” Mr. Glass said. “But a whole generation of people feel like that character is obviously a phony — like the newscaster on ‘The Simpsons’ — with a deep voice and gravitas.”
For his more intimate storytelling, Mr. Glass “went in the other direction,” he said. “Any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like a news robot but, in fact, sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would.”
Wayne’s theory also involves Michelle Obama, untrained people being allowed to speak to you on the radio, David Foster Wallace, Sex and the City, and, of course, the Internet.
This style of writing then became most rampant on social media, especially Twitter, where the casual riposte trumps the carefully wrought and where, for fear of resembling a soulless corporate account or stiff elder, users typically traffic in, um, slangy approachability.
Conversely, specialists in fields where objective authority is still prized rarely stoop to the hesitations and self-doubts of stammering confessors. In disciplines like academics, technology and finance, many speakers pepper long speeches with “right.” Their pitch does not rise on the word, which comes in the middle of a series of statements — “analytics are most valuable over longer periods, right, than shorter ones, so … ” — rather than at the end.
He concludes his assertion with a classic smackdown…
Then again, maybe it’s sort of just, well … me?