Reading List: These Are Not White Men Talking

 On Wednesday, when Shereen Marisol Meraji of NPR’s Code Switch asked her followers to “describe the typical public radio voice,” Twitter came through — “Bob ross. ‘happy little trees!'” and “what I’d imagine the Operating System from ‘Her’ would sound like if it existed in real life,” and this well chosen clip from Parks & Rec.

But overwhelmingly people seem to agree that the voice of NPR (you know, that voice) sounds “white.” 

This week Chenjerai Kumanyika wrote a piece for Transom (a slightly different version was picked up for Buzzfeed and headlined “The Whiteness of Public Radio Voice”) on the missing vocal color in public radio. Chenjerai’s piece got us (and a large hunk of pubmedia) talking about what many of us have been thinking: What do our voices say about us, what do they say about the dominant culture of public media and what can we do to inject some much needed representation and flavor into the ecosystem?

This week, AIR HQ has been reading up on code-switching, uptalk, and the vocal gymnastics that we perform to hit that patented NPR sound.

Here’s what we found:

• “Vocal Color in Public Radio” | Chenjerai Kumanyika for Transom

“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.” 

BONUS: Last night, Chenjerai was interviewed on ATC. NPR’s Code Switch organized a followup Twitter chat on the “Whiteness of #PubRadioVoice,” Storified here.

• “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS (Act Two)” | Vocal fryer Ira Glass for “This American Life”

“Somebody said that I sound like a stoner 13-year-old; somebody said that my voice sounds like gravel.” The women of “This American Life” dig into the hate mail they have been receiving.

• “VIDEO: Talking While Female” | Selena Simmons Duffin for NPR 

Vote for me? How uptalk and pitch influence voters.

• “Audio Code Switching: Tackling Race on the Radio” | Shereen Marisol Meraji for Third Coast

“NPR is thought of as pretentious, elitist verbal wallpaper. One way to combat that is to diversify.” And check out AIRster Will Coley’s Storify for thoughtful commentary and links.

• “Can Changing How You Sound Help You find Your Voice” | Laura Starecheski (an AIR New Voices scholar) for NPR

There are worlds of information coded in speech pattern and intonation–can changing a question to a declarative or switching from “we” to “I”  change how we are perceived?

• “Tribune Columnists on Hate Mail and Self-Censoring, Feminist Wednesday” | Mary Schmich and Heidi Stevens on Vocalo’s “Morning AMp” 

“It’s not about smothering your real opinions; it’s being a little more careful about the words that you use.” Chicago Tribune columnists Mary Schmich and Heidi Stevens on battling self-censorship. Highlight: Brian Babylon asks “how can somebody be a slut talking about — you know — city policy?” Brian meet Internet. Internet, Brian.

Considering the Impact of Social Change and Technology” | Bitesize for BBC

Why is “BBC English” still the gold standard for public radio?

• “The Problem with Sounding White” | Leila Day for KALW 

“People ask me that a lot. They’re like, ‘Do your radio voice.’ I say, ‘This is it.’ My goal on the radio is to sound like me. I don’t want to sound like the host who is e-nun-ci-at-ing the headlines to you.”

• “Sign Language that African-Americans Use is Different from that of Whites“| Frances Stead Sellers for The Washington Post

Carolyn McCaskill remembers exactly when she discovered that she couldn’t understand white people. It was 1968, she was 15 years old, and she and nine other deaf black students had just enrolled in an integrated school for the deaf in Talledega, Alabama.

• “Preaching on the Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African-American Religion” | Dan Rodericks interviews Lerone A. Martin for WYPR’s “Midday”

At 33:51, Lerone A. Martin explains the importance of the phonograph — and the sound of black preaching — in shaping modern African-American religion in his book, “Preaching on Wax.” 

• “Key & Peele: Phone Call” | by Key & Peele for Comedy Central

They get it. 

Two asks: Do you know of a great public radio story that was reported in a not-NPR voice? We’ve built a playlist to show off what public media could (should?) sound like; suggestions welcome. Send ’em to

Did you see a great piece that we missed? Email and we’ll post a round-up. Also, be sure to follow #PubRadioVoice on Twitter for more.

• Emily Boghossian, a recent graduate of Carleton College, is AIR’s Editorial Operations Associate. You can find her at @boghosse and wherever books are sold.