Tuning In To Diversity

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 31 2015 @ 1:09pm


Chenjerai Kumanyika feels that “few of the hosts of popular narrative non-fiction podcasts and public radio programs like This American Life, Invisibilia, RadioLab, Startup, and Strangers are non-white.” He wonders how greater diversity in narrators and hosts would affect the “public voice” of radio:

In August and then again in November 2014, my wife and I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri. When we first got there in August, I remember talking to some young African-American males who lived on the street where Michael Brown was killed. I asked one why he thought that there had been such an uprising in Ferguson. In response, he reminded me that Michael Brown’s body had lain in the street for four hours (he said eight) before being picked up. Of course I had heard this before, but he made me feel it. I sat quietly for over 40 minutes and let him tell his own story his own way. His voice smoldered with conviction as he spoke. The deep resentment and frustration in his steady low tones pushed through any detachment or emotional distance that I might try to maintain. I felt the weight of Michael Brown’s body, and the weight of so many other lives in this young man’s voice. I wasn’t hearing his voice thrown in as a sound bite garnish to another host’s main dish. Instead, he was the narrator, assembling memories, images, emotions, and even speculation into his own multi-modal account. I would like to hear people who speak with voices like this young man’s voice as hosts and narrators on public radio shows and podcasts.

Kumanyika comments on the above audio sample he recorded:

Some of what bothers me is just problems with poor writing choices. At times, I wrote with in a voice that isn’t my own (“Fisherman with Capital F”? What does that even mean?). 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. 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 re-recorded it with more of his own personality:


When I hear this rerecorded piece, I’m not sure how much more effective it is, but I feel better listening to it. My voice is calmer, but hopefully not boring. In place of “Fisherman with a Capital F,” I allowed myself to get passionate for a moment about my subject’s fishing credentials. Overall, I feel more centered and I sound like myself, rather than sounding like myself pretending to be a public radio host.