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That NPR Sound

Scott Simon: "My word!"

Scott Simon: “My word!”

I don’t get it when people say or imply that people on NPR all talk alike. To me their voices contain multitudes.

To be sure, there’s no question that, if the factors that determine dialect are age, ethnicity/race, class/education, and  region, NPR folk skew heavily oldish, white, overeducated, and from the U.S. quadrant that’s north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Minnesota-Dakotas line. It has to be that far west so as to include Garrison Keillor, whose voice is probably in the mind’s ear of most of those who say that people on NPR all talk alike. (Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion is actually not an NPR show, but people think of it as such, and it airs on NPR stations.)

My friend Andy is probably also thinking of Keillor, among others, when he complains that NPR journalists are too “empathetic.” Our arguments on this point have gotten so predictable—me screaming, “How can you complain about a journalist being empathetic?! Are you arguing for the alternative?!,” him chuckling indulgently—that we’ve agreed to a moratorium on the issue. But sometimes I see what he means, about not only Keillor but also the hosts Scott Simon and David Greene, who, when questioning someone who has gone through an unfortunate series of events, tend to lower their volume a few decibels and raise their pitch half an octave, so as to indicate they feel his or her pain. Greene’s voice actually sometimes trembles a little bit. Simon, for his part, favors some peculiarly old-fashioned locutions, like saying “I beg your pardon” when he misspeaks and “My word!” when an interviewee says something surprising. And, like Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep, he has a go-to belly laugh that I find a wee bit forced. On the other hand, the hearty laughter of Terry Gross, Rachel Martin, and Brooke Gladstone feels well earned to me, and I like it. One cannot bring up NPR laughs, of course, without invoking Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi, the sincerity of whose chortle has divided listeners for years. I tend to come down on the favorable side, though I respect the naysayers’ brief.

Also annoying to me is the “smile in their voice” (my wife’s term) of host Melissa Block and correspondent Neda Ulaby.  I dread the prospect of a two-way between them: The smiles will drown out the content.

As you can see, I’m a little too into it. And my sense of the universe contained within NPR-speak is probably a function of the narcissism of small differences. That is, I listen so much that the variations are bound to strike me more than the similarities. One embarrassing example: I collect the favorite speech particles of hosts. Linda Wertheimer: “Now.” Cokie Roberts: “Look.” Inskeep: “Oh.”

Not surprisingly, to my ears, NPR voices cover a great deal of real estate. The Southern contingent includes Debbie Elliott, good-old-boy-sounding Southwest correspondent Wade Goodwyn, New Orleanean Roberts, and Eleanor Beardsley, whose “lawl” (for “law”) is redolent of her native South Carolina. Where the Magliozzi brothers talk Boston to their core, you have to listen more carefully to pick up Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman’s New England vowels.  Jackie Northam’s Canadian inflections are so pronounced to me that, during her reports, I sometimes have to remind myself that I’m not listening to Joni Mitchell rapping about how nobody asks Van Gogh to “paint ‘Starry Night’ again, man.” Robert Siegel has erased his native New York from his speech, but not so Susan Stamberg, who sounds like my New Jersey relatives. The speech of Gross, a Brooklynite, is mostly NPR-neutral, but not completely, as when she introduces Rosanne Cash as Johnny’s “dawwter.” (Gross’s characteristic “anyways” may be a regionalism or it may just be a personal idiosyncrasy, like her fulsome “thank you”s at the end of interviews or her insistence on spitting out the word “died,” as if to call attention to her refusal to use a euphemism.)

NPR doesn’t do so well in the generational or ethnic department. The latter is a difficult area. I’m sure that aspiring African-American and Latino broadcast journalists get the implicit or explicit message that they shouldn’t sound too African-American or Latino, and NPR recruiters have to contend with the consequences. There seems to be a bit more space for South Asian or Hispanic inflections, as from Richard Gonzales, Felix Contreras, and the splendid Mandalit del Barco, whose signoff rivals Silvia Poggioli’s in brilliant ferocity. But when it comes to African-American representation, I, for one, have to peruse the photos at the staff directory page to grasp that NPR is actually more racially diverse than it sounds. (You can also go to the page if you want to learn the spelling of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.)

Gene Demby, of the Code Switch team, is pushing the boundaries both racially and generationally: He combines glottalization, the little-seen male vocal fry, and “So”-starting responses to questions. Much of the younger cohort seems to have emerged out of This American Life, where Ira Glass (now not so young) made casual inflections and vocal-mannerisms-bordering-on-speech-impediment acceptable, if not cool. I can hear his influence on Radiolab, on Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt’s “TLDR” podcast (where the hosts greet each other by saying “Hey, Alex”/”Hey, PJ”), and on the Planet Money economic-news team. Planet Money’s Zoe Chace probably has the most distinctive voice on public radio, a fact acknowledged in her NPR bio:

There is much speculation on the Internet about where Chace picked up her particular accent. She explains that it’s a proprietary blend: a New England family, a Manhattan childhood, college at Oberlin in Ohio, and a first job as a teacher in a Philadelphia high school.

Educational diversity is the real nonstarter for NPR voices. The unique selling proposition of the service is intelligence, which is what I grasped when I first became a fan some 25 years ago, driving across the Oklahoma plains over the course of a long research project and becoming acquainted with the All Things Considered Dream Team of Siegel, Wertheimer, and Noah Adams. I quickly realized that they were smart, tough-minded, great storytellers, quirky, and, yes, empathetic. Siegel, whom I consider the best interviewer I’ve ever heard (short-course division; marathon honors belong to Gross), sounds like a college professor, but what’s wrong with that? Wait, I’m a college professor!

It says a lot that the closest thing NPR has to dese-dem-and-dose guys are the Magliozzis, who between them have two bachelor’s degrees from MIT, one M.B.A., and one Ph.D.

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