The Unbearable Whiteness of Being a #PubRadioVoice

What it means when your inner public radio voice is white

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you’re turning on the radio dial, or more likely, streaming your favorite public radio station. Whose voice is it that you hear delivering the news or telling that surprisingly engrossing personal narrative? Perhaps it sounds like this:

The voice Clemson University assistant professor Chenjerai Kumanyika heard in his head was, in part, a white woman’s. Kumanyika wrote about the experience in a recent post:

The voice I was hearing and gradually beginning to imitate was something in between the voice of Roman Mars and Sarah Koenig. Those two very different voices have many complex and wonderful qualities. They also sound like white people. My natural voice — the voice that I most use when I am most comfortable — doesn’t sound like that. Thinking about this, I suddenly became self-conscious about the way that I instinctively alter my voice and way of speaking in certain conversational contexts, and I realized that I didn’t want to do that for my first public radio style piece.

Kumanyika’s post was the inspiration for Thursday’s #PubRadioVoice Tweetup, hosted by Gene Demby of NPR’s very aptly named Code Switch blog. The chat took up the question of sounding white on public radio. Kumanyika was far from the only journalist facing this problem, as some of NPR’s biggest names, many of whom are also journalists of color, described their own struggles:

The struggle with an overwhelmingly white-sounding aesthetic has the potential to ice out entire demos:

But what exactly is meant by whiteness? Participants pointed out that regional accents, Southern, for example, could elicit similar prejudices to those that sound anything but from the East Coast and upper-middle class. NPR reporter Sam Sanders brought up the point that in talking about “whiteness” we may just be conflating that with what he described as soft talk.

The idea of race and voice — whether spoken or written, whether we mean who is telling a story or what is the story being told — has been a prominent one in DC media this week, also appearing in Jeet Heer‘s “historical reflection” on TNR‘s racial history. But what better way to make use of the magazine-we-can’t-stop-writing-about than as a proxy for the conversation about diversity all of us in media should be having?