Friday, February 6, 2015

How I Found My #PubRadioVoice (Spoiler alert: I'm still working on it)

At NPR, on air and online we’ve been having a conversation about #PubRadioVoice. It started with this essay from Chenjerai Kumanyika and then continued online.

I have been talking on the radio for 20 years now, and I am still struggling to find my #PubRadioVoice. I am not the only one. This is tough stuff.

I started my public radio career when I was fifteen years old as an essayist for Weekend Edition Sunday. Here is my very first essay:

The show’s producers and host invited me to write and read essays about my teenaged life because they wanted the voice of a teenager on air. There was no real pressure to sound like a grown-up or to sound authoritative in any way. I was just talking about what to wear on the first day of school, taking my driving exam, dating drama, etc. Still, I was a bit of a mumbler at the time and there’s no room for a kid you can’t understand on the radio so I tried to speak clearly.

When I was still a teenager, I got an internship at KQED radio in San Francisco and was lucky enough to do some on-air stories right out of the gate. I don’t think anyone told me “kid, you sound 19, work on sounding like a grown up.” But there’s no way I was going to go on the radio doing a story about homelessness sounding like I was talking to a bunch of other 19 year olds. So, I worked hard to sound more grown up. This was also in my writing.

My insecurity meant not much of my personality made it into my pieces. Maybe a little bit, but not much. I also bought a bunch of suits and wore glasses even when I didn’t really need them. I wanted to be taken seriously and I was doing everything I could to make that happen.

I spent probably 10 years trying desperately not to sound like what I was, which was a young woman from California, with an occasional southern twang I blame on my mother who grew up in Texas and speaks full-on Texan when on the phone with my grandmother. I went through more voice training sessions than I care to remember with high priced professional coaches (paid for by well-meaning employers). I underlined words for emphasis and tried to get the squeak out of my voice. After one coaching session I started trying to channel Marilyn Monroe. I don’t know if any of it really helped.

For years I felt like I knew how to get amazing tape, I could write a script I was proud of and get the facts straight and then I destroyed it when I voiced the story. I thought everything I did sounded terrible. It was so frustrating.

And then at some point I realized I had been making a terrible mistake. My stories didn’t sound right because they didn’t match up to the voice I heard in my head when I was writing them. The thing that was missing from my reporting was: me. Now I’m not arguing I have an amazing personality that listeners need to hear. But the people who I admire most, who I enjoy listening to the most are the people who just sound like themselves on the radio.

So, basically I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career trying to undo what I did in the first ten years. I write differently now, more conversationally and with shorter sentences. I have fun whenever possible (I like to think of it as adding pieces of flair to my stories). And when I am in the recording booth laying down my voice tracks I try to imagine myself talking to a friend or my mom. Generally I just try to forget that I am delivering the news.

People used to tell me “I heard you on the radio and I didn’t even realize it was you,” and I took it as a compliment. Now I take it as an insult, a well-intentioned insult. I just want to sound like myself on the radio, whatever that means. Maybe a slightly smarter, slightly more confident, authoritative version of myself who enunciates.

The other day a colleague tweeted some advice a correspondent gave him as he was about to track a story, “none of that I’m a cool 28-yo Californian guy stuff.” I wanted to shout through the internet “don’t make the mistake I made!!!” Instead I tweeted back “actually, I’d argue a little of it is important.”

What I meant was I want to hear that 28-year-old California guy on the radio, and I think our listeners are better for it too.