Last summer, I produced my first public radio piece as part of a week-long intensive radio workshop run by Transom. While writing my script, I was suddenly gripped with a deep fear about my ability to narrate my piece. As I read the script back to myself while editing, I realized that as I was speaking aloud I was also imagining someone else's voice saying my piece. The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of 99% Invisible host Roman Mars and Serial host Sarah Koenig.
Those two very different voices have many complex and wonderful qualities and I'm a fan of those shows. They also sound like white people. My natural voice — the voice that I use when I am most comfortable — doesn't sound like that. Thinking about this, I suddenly became self-conscious about the way that I instinctively alter my voice and way of speaking in certain conversational contexts, and I realized that I didn't want to do that for my first public radio-style piece.
Of course, I'm not alone in facing this challenge. Journalists of various ethnicities, genders and other identity categories intentionally or unintentionally internalize and "code-switch" to be consistent with culturally dominant "white" styles of speech and narration. As I wrote my script for the Transom workshop piece, I was struggling to imagine how my own voice would sound speaking those words. This is partially because I am an African-American male, a professor, and hip-hop artist whose voice has been shaped by black, cultural patterns of speech and oratory. I could easily imagine my more natural voice as an interviewee or as the host of a news-style podcast about "African-American issues," or even a sports or hip-hop podcast. Despite the sad and inexplicable disappearance of NPR shows like Tell Me More, I can find many examples of African-American hosts — like Tavis Smiley, John Hanson, Roland Martin, Bomani Jones, Freddie Coleman and Reggie Osse (Combat Jack) — of both of those kinds of media. But in my mind's ear, it was harder to hear my voice, that is to say my type of voice, as the narrator of the specific kind of narrative, non-fiction radio piece that I was making.
I love listening to podcasts and public radio. I listen to them in my car, while chopping vegetables, while I'm working out, and when I should be doing other things (writing, grading, or producing my own podcast pieces.) The voices on podcasts and public radio are informed, interesting, gentle friends. They keep me company as they share important, entertaining, and sometimes tragic stories. But the timbre, accent, inflections, rhythm, metaphors, and references of these voices reflect class, region, ethnicity, gender, and other components of identity. Meanwhile — though I don't have the statistics handy to prove this — my impression is that few of the hosts of popular narrative non-fiction podcasts and public radio programs like This American Life, Invisibilia, RadioLab, Startup, and Strangers are non-white. In short, very few of these hosts speak the way that I speak. This is one reason that some of my black and brown friends refuse to listen to some of my favorite radio shows and podcast episodes despite my most impassioned evangelical efforts.
I spoke to hip-hop artist, poet, author, doctoral student, and podcast skeptic A.D. Carson about this. He and I have produced both scholarly and artistic works together, but we don't share the love of public radio.
Now I'm not sure I agree that all podcast voices are "warm coffee voices" and A.D. is clearly not moved by, or not aware of, the many different kinds of podcast and vocal styles that do exist if you know where to look. The problem is that you do really have to know where to look and if you don't, then you might only be exposed to a narrow range of voices. This is why whether we agree or not, we all know what A.D. is talking about.
To give you a sense of how this affects me, here's what I sound like as a hip-hop artist. Although I don't speak this way all the time, it reflects an important aspect of my personality. I wrote it after I heard there would be no indictment in the Eric Garner case.
How can I bring that voice into my efforts as a radio producer? On the other hand, here is what happened with the Transom piece. I hear more code-switch than Chenjerai on my first effort.
Let me say I'm proud of this piece. It would be arrogant and lazy to expect my first piece to be amazing. So my issue isn't about that. Some of what bothers me is just problems with poor writing choices. At times, I wrote with in a voice that isn't my own ("Fisherman with Capital F"? What does that even mean?). What bothers me most when I listen to this piece is that I'm acutely conscious of the way I'm adjusting my whole experience/method of inhabiting my personality. My voice sounds too high in pitch, all the rounded corners of my vernacular are awkwardly squared off. I've flattened the interesting aspects of my voice. On the suggestion of Samantha Broun and Jay Allison of Transom, I tried to re-record part of that piece to better understand and illustrate these subtle differences.
When I hear this rerecorded piece, I'm not sure how much more effective it is, but I feel better listening to it. My voice is calmer, but hopefully not boring. In place of "Fisherman with a Capital F," I allowed myself to get passionate for a moment about my subject's fishing credentials. Overall, I feel more centered and I sound like myself, rather than sounding like myself pretending to be a public radio host.
Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories. I make this point because there are many public radio programs that go to significant lengths to include the voices of underrepresented groups. These voices most often appear as people who are interviewed, but this is not the same has having hosts with different perspective and styles of speech.
In August and then again in November 2014, my wife and I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri. When we first got there in August, I remember talking to some young African-American males who lived on the street where Michael Brown was killed. I asked one why he thought that there had been such an uprising in Ferguson. In response, he reminded me that Michael Brown's body had lain in the street for four hours (he said eight) before being picked up. Of course I had heard this before, but he made me feel it. I sat quietly for over 40 minutes and let him tell his own story his own way. His voice smoldered with conviction as he spoke. The deep resentment and frustration in his steady low tones pushed through any detachment or emotional distance that I might try to maintain. I felt the weight of Michael Brown's body, and the weight of so many other lives in this young man's voice. I wasn't hearing his voice thrown in as a sound bite garnish to another host's main dish. Instead, he was the narrator, assembling memories, images, emotions, and even speculation into his own multi-modal account. I would like to hear people who speak with voices like this young man's voice as hosts and narrators on public radio shows and podcasts.
I can offer many examples of other voices that we don't often get to hear as hosts. I think about my colleague Marilyn, an African-American female lecturer who speaks powerfully in various voices. Marilyn is from Chicago and when she speaks to me the way that she speaks at home, I learn all kinds of things about her, her family, Chicago, and life in general that don't come across the same way when she speaks "professionally." There's no way to transcribe the music of her voice and that's the point. You can only enter that world by hearing it yourself.
I also think about Uncle Carlos. My uncle-in-law Carlos lived part of his life in Ecuador and part of it in the Bronx. I remember him reminiscing about his recently deceased dog. Many people have a version of this kind of story, but no one can tell it the way my Uncle Carlos told it. "Oh man!" He would say, almost yelling at me! "You don't understand the times that we," (he and his dog) "got each other through!" "After he couldn't walk so good, I would pick that dog up in my arms and carry him anywhere we need to go! You don't get it man." His voice — a beautiful mixture of New York and Ecuadorian English accents would cut into you. Then he would pause for long periods letting it sink in. This silence — the kind that is likely to be cut out in the editing process — was as important as his words. They were part of the unique rhythm and pace of his speech. He spoke loudly and passionately, too loudly and passionately for most public radio, but that's the way our family communicates. I wonder what my Uncle Carlos would share with us if he were the host of a show.
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 were the voices of white people on most of the popular 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, but 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.
However, I do think that there is what the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire called a "dominant syntax" and flowing from that is a narrow range of public radio and podcast host voices and speech patterns that have become extremely common. Public radio has become a kind of speech community with its own norms and forms of aesthetic capital. Just as it is not very common for me to hear a radio host with a thick South Boston accent, there is a whole range of vocal styles that are common in the African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American cultures but rarely heard from hosts.
Which all raises the question: What or who is the public in public radio? The demographics of race and ethnicity are changing in the United States. The percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. population dropped to roughly 63% in 2014. Middle growth series projections estimate that by 2043 the "minority population" will constitute a numerical majority in the total U.S. population. Latinos are already the largest demographic in California. With these changing demographics come new stories, new languages, and new ways of speaking American English. The sound of public radio and podcasts must reflect this diversity if we are serious about social justice and encouraging active, constructive participation.
So what do we do?
There are two important takeaways from all of this.
1. Depending on who you are, and how you speak, you may not find many examples of voices and styles of storytelling that sound like yours.
It is not just about the kind of stories that non-white journalists tell. It's also about the ways that vocal styles communicate important dimensions of human experience. When the vocal patterns of a narrow range of ethnicities quietly becomes the standard sound of a genre, we're missing out on essential cultural information. We're missing out on the joyful, tragic, moments and unique dispositions that are encoded in different traditions of oratory. Fortunately, there are organizations fighting for diversity in many areas of media. I recommend becoming involved with these efforts.
2. If you're a radio producer or podcast host and your way of speaking is different from what you generally hear in radio and podcasts, produce many, many, podcasts in which you are the narrator.
As boring and cliché as it is, there is no substitute for practice, and there is actually no other way to develop your voice. I'm still working on being a more consistently productive journalist in this regard. There's just no way around it: The more you get used to your recorded voice, and writing in your voice, the more confidence you will build.