The link between gender and the voice police

Here’s a dirty little behind-the-scenes secret about the glamorous world of radio:

Back in the day, women were encouraged by managers to become smokers. It would lower their voice, give it a raspiness and — the theory goes — make it more pleasing to the ear. The more a woman sounded like a candidate for lung cancer, the sexier it apparently sounded.

This, of course, was all a nod mostly to male listeners, who had a nasty habit of their own: elevating themselves to dictate how women should sound on the radio.

There’s not much of the smoking directive around any more. The insufferable men? They’re everywhere.

Linda Holmes, the popular culture podcast host for NPR found that out over the weekend when she appeared on Weekend Edition with Scott Simon on Saturday.

It was a segment on romantic comedies.

Then Holmes had to deal again with something too many women in radio have to deal with: the voice police. The men.

This, of course, isn’t something exclusive to women in radio. Just ask any woman on television.

Slowly, NPR is shedding its snooty image of old aristocrats and allowing more voices on the air — regular, varied voices — that would have never made it to air a couple of decades ago, not without a carton of heaters first.

It’s a good thing. They come with unimaginable expertise and intelligence.

Holmes says she’s not upset that people don’t think she belongs on the radio because people have been saying that for 10 years and there she is — on the radio. But, particularly on a weekend when we were forced again to confront our lack of niceness to each other, how can any human not be affected by a bombardment of such messages? How can any human send them, and, in particular, mention their monetary support of public radio — as if that’s a license of some sort.

“If you haven’t heard the segment, which I loved doing, listen to it and ask yourself what it would take to listen to me and to Scott and — he won’t mind me saying this — concluding that I am inadequately serious,” she tweeted.

Here’s to being a nicer people this week.

  • Al

    You know who I LOVE hearing on NPR? Ayesha Rascoe. If this is the new NPR, I am here for it.

  • Gary F

    High rising intonation or Valleygirl talk, makes me turn the station.

    • Thou hast that choice.

      • Gary F

        The Valleygirls are glad I’m not sitting on the other side of the hiring desk too.

        • For a second, it sounded as if you believe that there’s a world where you actually could be.

        • Angry Jonny

          Does grandpa need his lap blanket?

        • I’m curious if you listened to the discussion? It was actually quite good. And if you did listen, did you notice the male voice in the piece and, if so, why did he escape your criticism?

          • Gary F

            I listened to about, half, then turned the channel.

        • Rob

          You mean, when you’re interviewing for a job?

    • Angry Jonny

      High rising intonation? Been to northern Minnesota lately, then?

      • theoacme

        People who think women’s voices are bad would have hated calling my house…I have been mistaken for my mother and my wife on the telephone (even by family/close friends), and they mistaken for me…

        …I won’t get into the Halloween masquerade party that I, as an eight year old, went to – the commenter to Linda Holmes, poor dear, he would have blown his mind…

    • theoacme

      Technically, wouldnt that be “what’s the frequency, Kenneth?” (Your health insurance wouldn’t cover the whole-body hernia you’d get by turning the MPR building.)

  • Gary F

    Did the indoor smoking bans hit the radio industry pretty hard?

    • MrE85

      That’s MY joke, Gary!

      • Gary F

        Or the bowling alley. I will hold back when a smoking topic comes up.

  • MrE85

    On behalf of my gender, my apologies, again. I was once told by an instructor that I had a “public radio voice.” All these years later, I still don’t know if that was meant as a complement or a slam.

    • Rob

      The instructor probably meant it in the same way that he/she would observe that some people have great radio faces.

    • Guest

      I know I have a “face perfect for radio” 🙂

  • Long ago, a friend of mine remarked about listening to the radio – it was better to hear good content on the cheapest, tinniest-sounding speaker than awful programming on the finest stereo system. That’s pretty much the way I feel about voices on the radio, too. Your voice is your voice, and I’ll listen to what you have to say as long as you have something sensible to say, and if you are on NPR, chances are that you so.

  • I heard that “romcom” piece and wasn’t bothered by her voice, at all.

    The parts that bother me is the “dropped-t” pronunciation that seems to be making its way into speech.

    /Didn’t we have this discussion a couple years ago about “vocal fry”?

  • BJ

    Ok – I didn’t hear any Valley girl talk – she used the word totally – but not in the gag me with a spoon way. It was completely, entirely, wholly, thoroughly, fully, utterly, absolutely, perfectly, unreservedly, unconditionally (ie totally) a fine word choice. I also didn’t hear any gushy talk from her, actually thought Scott Simon was a bit gushy.

  • ec99

    I wonder if WCCO had a smoking edict when Joyce Lamont was there.

  • crystals

    Fun fact: Linda Holmes used to be an attorney in the Twin Cities!

    Not so fun fact: I’m super tired of the term vocal fry (I honestly still don’t even know what it means) and how it is used to widely criticize women’s voices.

  • Barton

    We all do understand that this happens to women nearly every time they are (I am) in public, yes? Radio, TV, movies, public figure, just a random woman in the back ground of a video montage. Heck, walking down the street means some man believes they have the right to tell us what they think we should be. We should be nicer, we should smile more, we should wear skirts, we should apologize more, we should [insert whatever said man thinks is best]. Hiring managers making decisions based on what style you wear your hair (you’d better straighten it if you want to be taken seriously). Then there was that call center job in college where they taught the women to speak in a lower register – even those of us with already low voices.

    None of this shocks me, especially not a random man telling Linda HE was embarrassed for her. Just situation normal for a woman.

    • Al

      This is all so true, and an upvote didn’t seem like enough validation. It’s a man’s world, and we women and girls might give it meaning, but only meaning to the men in charge.

  • Guest

    To attract applicants, they feel comfortable applying where others look or sound like themselves.

    Deliberately diverse radio voices are a wise business move.

  • Chris

    Gender-neutral criticism…could Guy Roz and Audie Cornish do an interview witout saying “right, like….”. Modernizing the sound of public radio is important but I really miss the elevated tone from Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Jacki Lyden, to name a few. Luckily we still get to hear Nina Totenberg from time to time.

    • crystals

      Gender neutral, maybe, but not in other ways since the two people you called out are both people of color (“modernizing” NPR) and the people you admire (with their “elevated tones”) are all white.

      • Chris

        I appreciate your comment. I had no idea Guy was not white. I just thought it was interesting that when I thought of the great voices of NPR, the first three I thought of were women. I could have easily included Michele Norris or Michelle Martin if I was thinking about race rather than gender, as the headline of the post referred to gender.

        • (Great voices of MPR)

          Wade Goodwyn!!!
          Sylvia Poggioli

    • Brian Simon

      Def include the elevated voice of Michele Norris; I miss her.

      And who’s the international reporter, often from Dakar? Another great voice!

  • lindblomeagles

    Linda Holmes was discussing romantic comedies. She wasn’t supposed to give a male version of a play by play series during Sunday Night Football. Come on men. Not every subject (or sex) should sound like a board room, topless bar, or press box.