Who Should We Listen To?

This summer during the Transom Traveling Workshop on Catalina workshop, I produced my first public radio piece. While writing my script, I was suddenly gripped with a deep fear about my ability to narrate my piece. As I read the script back to myself while editing, I realized that as I was speaking aloud I was also imagining someone else’s voice saying my piece. 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.
Of course, I’m not alone in facing this challenge. Journalists of various ethnicities, genders and other identity categories intentionally or unintentionally internalize and “code-switch” to be consistent with culturally dominant “white” styles of speech and narration.

Chenjerai Kumanyika, a public radio host, has written a telling essay about the proliferation of code-switching in the radio and podcast industry, and the impression that one has to “sound white” in order to sound professional; couple that with this week’s This American Life (arguably, the whitest podcast in all the land, but I generally fall asleep before finishing a complete episode so what do I know) on disrespect for female hosts with vocal fry, and this is what we we learn to be true: people just want to listen to white men.

Like me, Chenjerai is black, and, also like me, a rapper, and he has trouble reconciling his actual speaking voice with one he feels is fit for radio. “What bothers me most when I listen to this piece is that I’m acutely conscious of the way I’m adjusting my whole experience/method of inhabiting my personality,” he says. “My voice sounds too high in pitch, all the rounded corners of my vernacular are awkwardly squared off. I’ve flattened the interesting aspects of my voice.” He brings us through his process — -recording and rerecording, trying to capture his voice’s authenticity and character without totally evading the “dominant syntax” of his industry. I imagine this isn’t the first time Chenjerai has done this — -code-switching runs rampant, especially among people of color.

I do it too! Going from a majority black high school to a majority white college, then moving back to the urban enclave that is Brooklyn really fucked up my speech — -you know how Ryan Gosling adopted a weird accent when he was younger in order to sound cool but now he can’t shake it? Same. The atmosphere in my high school supported my rounded “-er”s, turning “water” into “wurdur;” my college turned the amplifier “mad” (i.e., “that was mad funny!”) into “super,” a change I am still trying to reverse; and coming to Brooklyn and hearing the last vestiges of regional accents have brought up a voice in me that I think sounds gritty and authentic but sounds more like a cross between horny Tony Soprano and my ma.

Black voices sound familiar to me, so there’s no part of Chenjerai’s voice that feels “alien” or strange to me, but also decidedly familial, like I’m listening to my father or my sister talk to me. As much as I hate to admit it, unconsciously, white voices do sound somewhat more authoritative to me, because white people are always the ones in command — -I’ve never had an boss of color, and I can count the number of diverse college professors I’ve ever had on one hand. So maybe it’s not that people aren’t ready or willing to accept a diverse range of voices take an authoritative stance, it’s just that they’ve likely never heard it before.

This sucks, right? Chenjerai offers internal solutions — -namely, encouraging his peers with “non-traditional” voices to narrate as much as they possibly can — -but it’s also up to us, as consumers, to seek out diverse programming and to hold it in the same high esteem as we would a more “orthodox” show. We lost one of the good ones when Tell Me More was cancelled, but there’s so many others out there: I’m partial to Black Girls Talking and TL;DR, but I’m always on the prowl for more (ultimate self-care is knitting and listening to a podcast giiiiiiiiirl you don’t even know). What are you listening to?