Tuning in to NPR’s radio voice(s)

Back in 2009, Kristen at Act Your Age and I were talking about NPR’s coverage of that spring’s SXSW, which dovetailed into a discussion about Bob Boilen’s stilted interaction with Thao Nguyen. As the conversation continued, we began to air our shared disdain for him, which was engendered by his accompanying narration for song selections on All Songs Considered. These feelings were generated from his voice. We interpreted his voice and its tone as the epitome of rationally minded, sensitive white male condescension, particularly in his dealings with women and the output of female artists.

Having spent some more time with Boilen’s studied baritone, I’m not as prone to irascibility when I hear him speak. I still find his preferences to be predictable. However, it’s a criticism I’d wage on anyone affiliated with All Songs, as they tend to warm to the indie frippery of supposedly unadorned acts like Bon Iver, Mountain Man, the Swell Season, and Fleet Foxes. I appreciate that he can laugh at himself and take a joke when Robin Hilton and Carrie Brownstein mock his tastes. And I’ve found his guest dj sets with various musical artists to be very interesting.

But I do keep thinking about that word “studied,” which could be applied to any NPR correspondent. “Studied” is NPR’s M.O. It has long been the respite for liberals looking to escape AM radio’s conservative harangue. To these ears, NPR has as much to do with creating a through line between modern American intellectuals as rational, level-headed, and secular-minded people as the prevalence of deism did during the Age of Enlightenment. It also is particularly responsible for disseminating programming that appeals toward its white, upper-middle class, college-educated target audience. Patton Oswalt has ranted beautifully on the subject.

But the term “studied” is superficially applied here. Sure, when I think of NPR, I think of Saturday Night Live’s “Delicious Dish” segments, which centered around a fictional NPR program hosted by polite foodies Margaret-Jo McCullen (Ana Gasteyer) and Terri Rialto (Molly Shannon). Actually, one of my classmates in graduate school is currently an on-air personality for Austin’s NPR affiliate, and she got the job after imitating McCullen and Rialto.

Despite its uniform emphasis on elocution and non-regional dialect in the service of upholding radio’s tradition of providing what Michele Hilmes refers to in her seminal historiography Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922-1952 as “the national voice,” NPR correspondents do different from one another. I never confuse Nina Totenberg with Michelle Norris, nor do I have trouble singling out Ari Shapiro or Robert Seigel.

Terry Gross; image courtesy of advocate.com

Furthermore, I’d hazard to guess that one of NPR’s breakout personality, Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, is exclusively defined by her chewy alto. Of course, Gross — along with This American Life’s Ira Glass — is also noted for her interviewing skills. Though I find her style to lean heavily on assumption and often attempt to box interviewees’ responses into preconceived trajectories, particularly evident in a 2009 interview with Drew Barrymore, I recognize its contributions.

But some have fetishized Gross’s voice as the thinking person’s sex object. I find this objectification insulting and troublesome. Perhaps it’s a variation on Tina Fey’s glasses. Maybe it presents a cultural assumption of the linkage between radio personality and phone sex operator, something I had to forcefully clarify for the perennial harassing male caller along with several female colleagues at my college radio station. That several contemporary American horror movies, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre IIThe Fog, and Death Proof have positioned female deejays and radio personalities as victims and final girls further emphasizes our cultural discomfort with the disembodied female voice.


  1. Mirella Mcintyde

    Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your article seem to be running off the screen in Internet explorer. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know. The layout look great though! Hope you get the issue resolved soon. Many thanks

    • Alyx Vesey

      Hmm. I just opened it and the formatting isn’t a problem for me. Perhaps it’s your browser? I have problems with Internet Explorer sometimes. I did, however, remove two of the pictures originally included in this piece, as they’ve been taken down. Thanks, Mirella.

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