Voices (or, How Mary Louise Kelly Stole My Heart)

Photo by neil godding on Unsplash

I will never forget the depth of my surprise when I finally met WBST’s Stephanie Wiechmann in person. Broadcasting each weekday evening from the studios of Ball State University, Stephanie was the authoritative voice of local news, weather emergencies, and station fundraisers.

“This station keeps you up-to-date with Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and an array of classical music, and now we need your help,” she would emphatically declare during membership drives.

I had never listened to public radio in my youth, and Stephanie now became the pulse of a majority of my homeward commutes and errand runs. Whatever the workday had thrown my way, I knew that she would reliably be at her post from 4:00-7:00 p.m. (I found out later that the 6:00-7:00 hour was actually a rebroadcast, much to my chagrin.) It was a few weeks into this daily soiree that I began to picture what Stephanie looked like.

In my mind, Stephanie was a forty-something brunette with wavy hair cast about her shoulders and indelible poise as she held a paper script and rhythmically recited the day’s weather into a filter-laden microphone.

“It’s currently a brisk 45 degrees outside the IPR studios in Muncie. Tonight will be cloudy with a 20% chance of showers and a low of 34 degrees. Tomorrow morning will be sunny, but the day’s high will only reach 36….”

I pictured her head giving a curt nod as she emphasized in Muncie, as if affirming to the listener that, yes, here you are, in my court.

I knew this mental image of Stephanie was erroneous in some way, of course, but I did not know just how wrong I was until I met her in the flesh. Shortly after beginning a job in the neighboring town, I decided to join the local young professionals group. After sending in a membership request online, I was emailed by the group’s membership director — Stephanie Wiechmann. My skin tingled as if I were meeting a foreign dignitary. I was invited by Stephanie to a call-out event at The Fickle Peach, a local-bar-deemed-heralded-institution by the thirty- and forty-somethings of Muncie, and duly accepted the invitation.

The group, around twelve members on the night, had reserved a long, pill-shaped table. As I walked from the bar to the table, I saw the cunning eyes of several prudent networkers, but I could not locate a forty-year-old with wavy brown hair. Nevertheless, I was there and had been spotted, so I took a seat and the introductions began. I waited with locked veins as each woman at the table introduced herself, wondering when the elusive Stephanie might make herself known. Finally, the introductions reached a woman of around thirty. As she spoke, I was awash with an eerie feeling of recognition.

“Hi, I’m Stephanie Wiechmann. I host the evening broadcast of IPR, the local NPR station.”

She indeed had brown hair, but it was straight and cropped above the shoulders. Shockingly, she wore glasses, and her eyes did not match the cool, neutral gaze of the Stephanie that I knew. Most disappointing, her voice carried far less weight, which in retrospect should have come as no surprise given the enhancing effects of advanced audio equipment but at the time was a major bummer. But the tone was identical — clean, crisp, and conversational — and her poise was undeniable. As the introductions carried on and Stephanie continued to speak, I was magnetized by the incongruence of the Stephanie I knew and the Stephanie I now had come to know. The seeds of an addiction that had been planted upon my first encounter with public radio had suddenly sprouted.

It all began with Serial and Sarah Koenig. Sarah’s is the coolest voice you will ever hear, I can guarantee. At the behest of a few true-crime loving friends, my wife and I decided to give the show, then in its inaugural season, a try. I was immediately magnetized by the presence of Sarah’s voice, the studio equivalent of an enchanting friend telling a gripping story at the dinner table, wine glass in hand. She knew the story was good but wasn’t boastful about it. After the first episode, I mandated that we listen in the complete dark while lying on the bed in order to best be enveloped by the aura of the show.

Over time, I would come to have a host of audio friends around my mind’s dinner table, some from the sweeping universe of public radio and others from the still-nascent world of podcasting. I was delighted at the prospect of never knowing their true appearances, if only I had the nerve.

I had come to know Josh and Chuck of the Stuff You Should Know podcast a couple of years after meeting Stephanie over the airwaves. My mind’s Josh was a lanky, friendly type of around thirty-five, the type of guy you would come to know at a party over discussions of cat breeds and chilled vodka. His calm demeanor betrayed a bubbling enthusiasm that occasionally came to the surface, and his voice would have easily brought a smile to a baby’s face. Chuck, on the other hand, was a handsome devil with a Breakfast Club coif and a radiant grin. He spoke with a familiarity that carried beyond his classic-broadcaster timbre. The two of them were a broadcasting revelation — two guys just chatting about interesting things that fleetingly cross all our minds. They made for a perfect antithesis to Stephanie’s unshakeable professionalism, the same professionalism that shapes traditional public radio.

My mind’s playful escapade with Josh and Chuck nearly came to a destructive end when searching for a potential past episode. I visited the SYSK website in pursuit of an episode on government shutdowns, which were once again dominating the news headlines (including those on NPR). When I came across a link titled “American Government Avoids Shutdown,” I stupidly assumed the link would lead to an audio file, perhaps a quick episode from days gone by. Instead, it led to an article by none other than Chuck Bryant, and my mind recoiled in horror as my eyes quickly darted to the profile picture of the author. Within moments, I regained my composure and looked away, but the damage had been done: Chuck was not a slick, coastal beau but an everyman clad in a baseball cap and dark mustache (the grin was spot on, however).

After this harrowing encounter, I began to adopt a siege mentality. I would not be caught unawares by an errant Google search or, heaven forbid, unsolicited video clip (Josh and Chuck were, after all, TV men before they became podcasters.) All the while, I continued to invite additional guests to my league of audio all-stars.

The first new guest to join the party was Guy Raz of TED Radio Hour fame, whose cheery cadence is unmatched in its dynamic predictability. I have yet to determine if he moves wildly about the microphone when speaking, or if to believe that he does so underscores his tricky talents. Then came Ira Glass, whose groggy nonchalance has been enticing listeners of This American Life for years. I unfortunately caught a fleeting glance of Ira while browsing through the website for the true-crime podcast S-Town, the well-received offshoot of Serial. I had come for pictures of evidence — and, admittedly, crime scene photos — and stumbled across a picture of three folks eating dinner in a round booth. The first was identified as Brian Reed, the host of S-Town, whose appearance pretty much fit the bill of what I had imagined (dark hair, round face, serious demeanor). The second was Ira, a youthful and deeply pensive Gen X-er wearing a bashful smirk. I originally thought Ira was a young African-American, which in hindsight makes it seem like I wasn’t paying attention, but hey, first impressions. The third diner was a bespectacled and dark-haired woman of somewhere between the ages of 35 and 42. She held her head high with eyes penetrating deep into the lens of the camera. That was Sarah Koenig. Siege broken.

These three were followed by NPR’s Morning Edition trio of Steve Inskeep, David Greene, and Rachel Martin, whose appearances I have managed to keep imaginary. Inskeep’s may be my most detailed (and thus likely the most inaccurate) mind portrait — reddish-blonde hair, strong jawline, and dark beady eyes occasionally bespectacled by sharp glasses with thick black
frames. Green is quite handsome — a long, slender face wearing a bright smile — bearing witness to the notion that an attractive voice equals an attractive face. (OK, maybe it’s just a “notion” to me. Still, it is in direct contrast to the old adage of having a “face for radio.”) Disappointingly, as a result of similarities in name and voice, Martin looks strikingly like Rachel Maddow in my mind, which is exactly what I hoped to avoid. But, as any fiction reader will attest, the mind draws what it wants.

It was well into my mind’s dance with voices that the voice of Kelly McEvers would enter the scene. McEvers, co-host of All Things Considered at the time, spoke in a way that can only be described as sexy, words oozing off of her tongue as she casually lowered the pitch at the end of an interview question. Like Greene, this led to an attractive mental image: I pictured McEvers with cropped blonde hair and oceanic eyes that rarely widened. Importantly, she never entered the territory of overly-contemplative host that is characteristic of so many podcasts. Rather, her coolness reflected a serious journalist who just so happened to have an alluring cadence.

Shortly after coming to know the voice of McEvers, a new voice — one which would become my favorite of all — appeared out of the darkness: that of Mary Louise Kelly. Kelly had begun an occasional co-hosting role on All Things Considered following the retirement of Robert Siegel — he of white mustache, kind eyes, and corduroy jacket, at least to me. In fact, it was during a broadcast of All Things Considered hosted by both women that I began to see what really made Kelly stand out. Her voice was immediately captivating, with its thick, sticky delivery and inflection rising and falling like a bell curve. But it was also the way that she spoke, a perfect balance of airy and resolute, challenging guests of authority while playing with more lighthearted stories. She was perfect even in the way that she asked for periodic donations to local stations, conveying the sense that it was the natural thing to do rather than something that ought to be done. I pictured her in the studio with bouncy curls colored like igneous stone and a cunning grin appearing as she introduced her next guest.

I was delighted to learn on-air a couple of weeks later that Kelly had accepted a full-time position as the new All Things Considered co-host. However, while her voice became a regular staple of the workweek, the voice of McEvers had vanished. Curious to learn more, I nervously Googled her name, only to find an article stating that she had stepped down to focus on hosting and producing Embedded, an NPR podcast that dives deeper into stories that are only briefly covered on regular news shows — shows like All Things Considered.

I was listening to WFYI, the local NPR station in Indianapolis, last fall when host Matt Pelsor — quirky and impeccably-dressed — announced that Embedded was to record a live show in Indianapolis, featuring none other than Kelly McEvers. Several questions raced through my mind: What would a live recording look like? Would it just be she and a microphone? Did I want to see the magic behind the microphone and learn how a podcast is actually made? And, finally, the most important question of all: Was I ready to see Kelly McEvers in person?

I began to imagine the scene. I would be perched high in the balcony and a voice would come from overhead introducing McEvers. She would walk onto the stage, perhaps with cascading brown hair and a beaming gaze, and my mind’s image would be ruined. But would that be a bad thing? Readers of novels watch film adaptations all the time, even if the characters are not portrayed on-screen as they are in-mind, and do not seem to be any worse for it.

Ultimately, I decided not to go. Some images are not made to be broken.