Listeners respond to a changing American landscape on the radio

Public radio listeners, appropriately so, are sticklers for accuracy. So it’s at least a little amusing to read this week’s NPR public editor (formerly ombudsman) column which tackles the complaints of listeners who object to reporters and hosts pronouncing things correctly — specifically, non-English names.

The complaints typically involve the pronunciation of Spanish names, Elizabeth Jensen writes.

One listener left a voicemail for Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the first Latina to host an NPR newsmagazine, Jensen pointed out.

But when are we going to start saying, for instance, “Vlad-ee-meer Poot-een” when we refer to the president of Russia? And every time someone mentions the prime minister of England, should we go into a cockney accent and refer to “Theresa May?”

I mean, would it only be equal? So kudos to speaking the Spanish names in a Spanish manner. But to not be exclusive to one ethnicity, which is racism, I think it should be done for all ethnicities.

On Twitter, Garcia-Navarro defended her accuracy.

“We can’t forget that it’s a language that predates the Union and is at least somewhat spoken by a bunch of us Latinos in the US. To demand anglicization feels personal and, honestly, feels designed to deny the Americanness of our experience,” NPR reporter Eyder Peralta added.

There’s a lot of that going around these days, and God bless NPR’s Eric Deggans, who doesn’t hold back the honesty in giving his view to Jensen.

[The complaints are] “rooted in a paranoia about cultural dominance – some version of ‛Spanish is taking over everywhere’ – that is ultimately racist and unfair,” he said.

Not everyone at NPR agrees. Former MPR reporter Martin Kaste, a longtime NPR correspondent who speaks fluent German and Portuguese, is one.

My priority as a radio journalist is clear communication in an aural medium. Pronouncing a place name with a foreign pronunciation distracts the listener, and [they’re] liable to miss what I’m trying to communicate.

Anglicized place names evolved because they’re easier for an English-speaker to understand. I think @NPR sometimes tries to use “authentic” pronunciation to virtue-signal (or education-signal) … which listeners pick up on. It can be interpreted as arrogant. (Not saying it’s meant that way, but it can sound that way.)

Here’s the reality: the country is changing, Jensen acknowledges and “NPR needs to change with it.”

In fact, Garcia-Navarro said NPR has already been changing. She joined NPR in 2005 as the Mexico City-based correspondent and had many more conversations with editors then about acceptable on-air pronunciation, she said. (Here’s what NPR’s first ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, had to say on the topic that year.)

“I think times have changed. I hope we have a better understanding now of how multicultural the country is,” she said.

So should there be a carve-out, an exception for Spanish, as Peralta suggested? In my opinion, yes. Language mirrors society. But why not go further and gradually expand the number of names and places that are pronounced authentically, to the extent that it’s possible for the journalist?

Eventually, I’d expect that the audience would catch up. Garcia-Navarro put it well: “I fundamentally believe it’s a matter of respect.”

She’s right. Eventually the listening audience will catch up to the changing American landscape.