On the radio, ‘whiteness’ is more than skin deep

It’s not much of a secret that public radio is white — really white. The lack of diversity has hardly gone unnoticed locally or nationally.

The origins go far deeper than race. Back when I was a young college student, my Boston accent was (mostly) beaten out of me in a voice and articulation class. If you wanted to go into the radio business, you had to sound like a Midwesterner, which at the time was considered the ideal American voice.

At the same time, people changed their names to hide their ethnicity. If you heard someone on the radio with two first names — Roger Allen, Gary Roberts etc. — you were listening to someone with something to hide.

We don’t do that as much now, but the industry still functions on the sound of whiteness.

This week, NPR itself pushed the issue front and center on its airwaves with this new twist: that it’s not enough to be a person of color on the radio if you don’t sound or write like a person of color.

“Public radio wants me to be black, but not too black,” Tavis Smiley once said.

Chenjerai Kumanyika, a radio producer/reporter, got the conversation started this week with a manifesto that has sparked a long-overdue conversation in the industry.

Writing on Transom.org, he said he was confronted with what a public radio voice should sound like.

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 was the voices of white people on most popular and 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, (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.

So last evening, NPR’s All Things Considered put Kumanyika on the air.

Then last evening, NPR’s Audie Cornish hosted a “tweetup” featuring people of color working in the public radio system. Their stories — those limited by the 140-character limit — are worth considering.

So why not just let your natural voice flow? Because on radio, the number one complaint of listeners is often someone’s voice.

Ironically, perhaps, the issue was framed perfectly by the man too many public radio people try to imitate — Ira Glass.


Related: Does public radio sound too ‘white’? NPR itself tries to find the answer (Washington Post).