What if you switched on the radio one day and the voices were different? What if it sounded like all of your friends, not just a few of them? What would it mean? And what might happen next?
“Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories,” Chenjeri Kumanyika wrote in a manifesto for Transom.org. “… These voices most often appear as people who are interviewed, but this is not the same as having hosts with different perspectives and styles of speech.”
Kumanyika’s manifesto (picked up by BuzzFeed, too, as “The Whiteness of Public Radio Voice” and now sprinting around the Internet and the public media world) explained how hard it was for him, as a black man, to find his own voice on the radio.
It was a conversation that caught a lot of attention. (In a Q&A that was published in Current today, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn noted, “All of our programs should be infused with different voices, and that’s not just about race. It has to do with age, geography and politics. We have to have a patchwork of all these things.”)
So where are the smart, beautiful, authentic voices, no code-switching required, amid voices that are “consistent with culturally dominant ‘white’ styles of speech and narration”?
Emily Boghossian (who pulled together a great reading list about this, “These are not white men talking”), Adriana Gallardo and I built a playlist of stories in which the dominant voices were outside the NPR paradigm.
We wondered what kinds of stories would be told. What kind of listeners would show up?
And we wondered if public media is at a point when “the standard” has started to feel just … standard?
We had three criteria:
A host or producer who sounds great without sounding like NPR
Excellent production values
What Kumanyika called “the joyful, tragic moments and unique dispositions that are encoded in different traditions of oratory”
Then we put out a call to indie producers, pals on Twitter, and friends who have been interested in this question.
A few things we noticed:
- A lot of pieces fit two of the three criteria. It’s hard to find all three at once. (To Kumanyika’s point: the models just haven’t been there.)
- There were a few broadcast sources where hosts reliably sounded like they had *not* been whitewashed — Vocalo’s Storytelling Workshop, Radio Ambulante, State of the Re:Union — but most of the non-standard voices in professional radio come from story subjects, not storytellers.
- NPR’s “Code Switch” is a favorite with all three of us (“Grateful!” Adriana said, when I asked how she feels about it). The “Code Switch” team has been convening good conversations about Kumanyika’s questions.
- Youth Radio is where this change can happen. For some perspective, check out Emily Kwong’s “Listen Like A Teacher,” where she notes, Every teacher I talked to for this article placed a premium on stories that sound natural and authentic to the person who made them. Give up editorial control by trusting the voice of your student. Let that voice breathe.” Andrew Lapin’s “Raised on the Radio,” is another great argument for radio education programs as the first place to build a better public media.
- Podcasts are where this kind of experimentation happens most (with varying levels of production quality). RacismSchool’s list of suggested podcasts is a good place to start.
- There’s a role for allies. I wondered if there’s a way producers who have serious audio chops and naturally (or habitually) NPR-ish voices can help make room for a broader, deeper range of voices in audio work.
John Biewen, who directs the audio program at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, sent over “Nuevo South,” a non-narrated documentary that he co-produced with artist Tennessee Watson. “[A]s you can probably guess, the decision to do that piece without my voice in it was quite conscious — felt that, even more than in most pieces, my Midwestern white dude’s reporter voice would so be in the way in a piece about Southern blacks, Southern whites, and Latino immigrants,” Biewen wrote. “So much information and richness in those voices themselves and I just wanted to hear/present them with no intrusion or mediation.”
The list was built in Soundcloud, but there were several other pieces, hosted elsewhere, that we recommend:
- ‘Empire’ And The Importance Of Different Voices | Slate’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
- “Oakland, CA: The Self-Made City” | Laura Starecheski for State of the Re:Union
- “Audio Code Switching: Tackling Race on the Radio” | Shereen Marisol Meraji for Third Coast International Audio Festival
So, with a lot of help and suggestions, here’s a playlist that does most of what we wanted.
You’ll find some stories with hosts who have the kinds of voices that Kumanyika described and some stories that prominently include people with “outsider” voices as sources or central characters (there are tons of those in #pubmedia). And you’ll spot some stories about voices.
Now, help us out:
This list is an ongoing project, a way to help audio talent and listeners find audio beyond the “narrow range of public radio and podcast host voices and speech patterns that have become extremely common,” as Kumanyika puts it.
So, what do you suggest? Email email@example.com.
• Betsy O’Donovan is AIR’s editor and digital strategist.