The result for many of us is that we don’t notice most voices, and have a bit less respect for the deep ‘authoritative’ presenter. They sound too much part of the system, too much like ‘just a voice’, not only disembodied by the medium but de-humanised by their role. This is an effect of the weight of current affairs and news on speech radio, and neutralised poop of radio DJs.
In this article I’m naval-gazing, ignoring the interviewees, and looking just at the staff, the people who oversee and present. I’m also referring particularly to the US, where I don’t live and have only briefly visited, and which is the source of very much of my podcast listening.
In most speech-led radio, the voice shouldn’t matter much – it’s the content that matters. The content being both the script and the delivery. So my jaw dropped open when, a few months back, I read that many establishment figures of American public radio have a visceral reaction to vocal fry – vocal fry being, in essence, a standard mode of speaking for young people (certainly as as portrayed in American film and TV). It’s more common in young women than men, and in the US than elsewhere.
Some of these responses to vocal fry are from a closed email list so I’ve condensed and anonymised them:
…no harm in trying to minimize quirks that many listeners find annoying…
…obnoxious… mindless affectation…
And something worse from some radio guy on Twitter which I can’t find because I unfollowed him.
Quite how are young women supped to be on the radio? Should they write out their words and hire professional vice-oiver actors to deliver them? How mind-bogginly Victorian. It’s like me complaining how few NPR newsreaders speak BBC English.
Older people in the majority who object to new modes often feel their concerns are being dismissed out of hand. So I’m going to nod and respond to their concerns, before telling them to snap out of it.
Some will have queried how I described vocal fry as a standard mode of speaking for young women.” If it’s not a standard, how would I know it, having only spent a cumulative three weeks in the US? Because I’ve met American peers, duh.
Another point raised is that vocal fry is a unconscious sign of subservience, and women shouldn’t have to do that. Maybe it is, but if it’s unconscious, how can you penalise people for it? Should soft-spoken Welsh people not be allowed on BBC Network radio, until they learn to have booming arrogant voices? Of course not! So allow young women on-air, to sound like themselves, and not have to undergo vocal cosmetic surgery to fit your standard. Because in one country, in one nation, and frankly in one largely homogeneous social subset of that nation, seriously, you have what it takes to handle multiple standards.
So that’s dealing calmly with the objectors, to be followed with my own admission that I was once among them too.
Vocal fry used to make me switch out (if not switch off) – my reason was that in my mid-20s my limited exposure to it had been in a rough relationship. And I blanketed such voices with mistrust and anger. I only ever heard them in American podcasts, including even my happy place, back then, Radiolab. And eventually I realised, dammit, I’m missing out. These women are saying maybe fascinating, maybe moving, maybe beautiful things, and I’m rejecting that for no good reason. I’m missing out! I’m being a d**k! And so, in that regard at least, I stopped being said appendage, and got way more out of American radio.
But I’m just a listener. Far more important that the choices of one listener, are the choices of editors, station managers, and the people who decide what goes on-air – and as a consequence, who gets to be heard, to let their peers hear role models, and to enrich radio, with the (potentially unsettling) impact that such a flexible medium must enable, to live.
So, a plea to the senior men of the establishment. You are great in many ways, you have been leaders, you have championed… all sorts of things. Now, stop being bellends.