The Rise of the NPR Radio Voice

You might remember this skit from Saturday Night Live poking fun at the speaking styles of NPR announcers in the US.

The closest we have to this sort of radio can be heard on some CBC programs and a few community and campus stations. In America, though, NPR voice seems to have taken over vast swaths of the airwaves. The New York Times reports. (Via Peter)

During a recent long car ride whose soundtrack was a medley of NPR podcasts, I noticed a verbal mannerism during scripted segments that appeared on just about every show. I’ve heard the same tic in countless speeches, TED talks and Moth StorySLAMS — anywhere that features semi-informal first-person narration.

If I could attempt to transcribe it, it sounds kind of like, y’know … this.

That is, in addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection. (This is a separate issue from upspeak, the tendency to conclude statements with question marks?) A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.

In literary circles, the practice of poets reciting verse in singsong registers and unnatural cadences is known, derogatorily, as “poet voice.” I propose calling this phenomenon “NPR voice” (which is distinct from the supple baritones we normally associate with radio voices).

This plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations must have come from someplace. But … where?

A primary cause of NPR voice is the sheer expansion of people broadcasting today. Whereas once only trained professionals were given a television or radio platform, amateurs have now taken over the airwaves and Internet. They may not have the thespian skills necessary to restrain the staginess of their elocution, leading to “indicating,” or overacting to express emotion.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “The Rise of the NPR Radio Voice

  • October 26, 2015 at 9:52 am

    With all those pauses, no wonder NPR programming makes me want to sleep.


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