When one way of speaking dominates, who gets to tell their stories on public radio?

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"Radio Ambulante" co-founder Daniel Alarcón records an interview with boxing fans on an early reporting trip.

On May 8, 2018, NPR’s Morning Edition included a short piece explaining Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy that would, in essence, separate children from their parents seeking asylum at the U.S. border. The segment included audio from Attorney General Jeff Sessions offering a stern warning to migrants in English. But the piece was essentially a conversation between host Steve Inskeep and John Burnett, NPR’s correspondent for immigration and border affairs. In less than four minutes, Burnett led the listener through the specifics of Trump’s policy. In doing so, Burnett spoke on behalf of asylum seekers, invoking his conversations with Guatemalan and Honduran families.

Inskeep, Burnett and Sessions, all explaining in English the impact of U.S. immigration policy on Latinos. But let’s consider who we don’t hear. We don’t hear the voices of those families who will be directly impacted by these policies. Nor do we hear from the advocacy workers who are mobilizing on both sides of the border to address what they see as a human rights issue. We do not hear the Spanish language, or Mam, K’iche’ and Q’anjob’al, Mayan languages that are widely spoken at the border. It’s an entirely mediated experience in which the NPR listener is kept at arm’s distance from actual Latino voices. It also reflects NPR’s long march toward linguistic uniformity.

It wasn’t always this way

In 2015, NPR contributor Chenjerai Kumanyika wrote an article for Transom in which he described the implicit pressure for journalists of color to suppress their ways of speaking in order to find a home on public radio. In the essay, Kumanyika described a moment of realization as he was preparing a story for air when he became aware that he was altering his speaking style to fit what he believed to be the NPR voice.

When I spoke with Kumanyika about his essay, he told me some of these pressures are implicit. There simply aren’t enough ethnic voices on which to model one’s own on-air speaking style. Other pressures are explicit, involving the direction of editors and producers. But he told me it wasn’t always this way:

When you look at the original NPR, like when you hear the first All Things Considered, it sounds like they were in there with drugs or something. I think the first voice was like a Black nurse from somewhere. It really was a lot different than what it ultimately became.

As Kumanyika suggested, I listened to the very first episode of All Things Considered, which debuted May 3, 1971. Sure enough, the very first voice after host Robert Connelly introduces the episode is Janice, a Black mother and nurse who is struggling with addiction. When I spoke with Bill Siemering, who wrote the original mission statement for NPR, he acknowledged that this was intentional. “It was a statement I was making that the first voice you heard after the announcer was a Black nurse,” Siemering told me. “Because I wanted to talk to primary sources. Not about a topic, but from the people who experienced it.”

While the fact that the first Black voice heard on ATC is someone grappling with substance abuse is problematic in its own way, it’s hard to deny that the larger episode reflects a broader range of voices. Much of that first ATC episode is dominated by coverage of the protests in Washington, D.C., against the Vietnam War. During the segment, which runs over 20 minutes long, journalist Jeff Kamen engages a variety of people impacted by the protests. The result is a segment filled with local voices, which are clearly regionally and ethnically marked.

In my own conversation with Kamen, who describes himself as a middle-class Jewish kid from New York, he admitted that when he first started in broadcasting, he adopted what he called the “Midwestern flat” accent, believing that his own way of speaking may have been seen as “unseemly” because of anti-Semitism within the broadcasting industry. Like Kumanyika, Kamen also thinks that NPR was willing to take risks in its early days but fears that it has become more mainstream over the years. “As the institution became a bigger, richer, more dominant voice in America,” he told me, “there may have been a tamping down of that edge.”

Listening to that first episode, two things become clear. First, the segments on NPR’s magazine programs have become much shorter. Second, there is a heavier reliance on expert sources. Former NPR Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen told me that she believes that tighter show clocks have pushed out a greater range of voices. “You don’t want to have a 20-minute piece today,” Jensen told me. “So that is a problem. Because you don’t have people speaking for themselves, you have actualities being cut out. You have people [whose] perspectives are being summarized by the correspondent.”

An American phenomenon

In an essay titled “Broadcast English” (1926), Arthur Lloyd James, a lecturer in phonetics at the University of London, addressed two conflicting realities regarding the use of standard English in public radio. Written on behalf of the newly formed BBC, Lloyd James acknowledged that variation and linguistic diversity are intrinsic to all spoken languages. At the same time, a national broadcast system creates the practical need of utilizing a common language that can connect all parts of a nation. Written at the onset of radio, James described this paradox:

We now have a certain type, or rather a carefully chosen band of types of English, broadcast over the length and breadth of our country, so that although many listeners hear daily a type of speech with which they are familiar, and which they habitually use, many others hear a type that is different from that which they usually hear and use. This in itself is enough to ensure abundant criticism.

At the time, James recognized that choosing a broadcast standard would privilege some speakers while isolating others, but this raises the question: Whose way of speaking will become representative of the nation? Here, the BBC was unflinching. Seen primarily as an educational resource that could elevate the masses, the BBC promoted British Received Pronunciation as its broadcast standard, a spoken variety marked for the speech of the educated and the upper class in London.

When NPR was established in 1970, the network was designed to reflect more populist sensibilities and, therefore, reflected different assumptions about language. However, NPR’s approach to language has been anything but democratic. In practice, NPR has continued the tradition of employing Standard American English, in which regionally and ethnically marked features have been suppressed. It is a way of speaking that is commonly perceived as neutral or “accentless.”

But as sociolinguist Leslie Milroy argues, the notion of a universal and socially unmarked standard makes privileged ways of speaking appear mainstream, while nonstandard speakers are considered deviant or deficient. In the U.K., standard in English is marked by class, but in America, the standard is defined in terms of what it is not — that is to say, it is marked by the absence of race and ethnicity. According to Milroy, the standard of popular perception is what remains when all the nonstandard varieties spoken by disparaged persons are set aside.

These broadcast practices have particular implications for various forms of Latino speech, which remain highly stigmatized within the U.S., including the use of Spanish, code-mixing and accented English. NPR has, over time, pushed out Latino voices, a reality that first became evident when it canceled Enfoque Nacional, a Spanish-language news program, in 1988. Facing criticism that NPR was abdicating its responsibility to create minority programming, NPR’s then-president, Douglas J. Bennet, essentially cemented the network’s identity as an English monolingual space by shifting responsibility for reaching Spanish-speaking Latinos to commercial radio.

How NPR standardizes language

Today, the standardization of language is enacted in everyday broadcast practices. There are style guides and standards manuals. And then there are editors and producers, who ensure a consistent approach. These seemingly benign measures may ensure organizational efficiency, but they inadvertently serve the purpose of keeping nonstandard speakers out. In 2019, Gisele Regatao wrote an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review in which she recounted her attempt to pitch a story to NPR, only to be told by an editor that her piece would not air out of concern for her accent. Regatao, who speaks in a slight Brazilian accent, has voiced stories for Public Radio International and WNYC and was surprised by NPR’s categorical rejection at the national level. In her essay, Regatao wrote that NPR’s rejection of her piece reflected the network’s failure to accurately represent the country in its entirety.

I asked Regatao why she felt compelled to write this essay. She told me that she was interested in the power that national news organizations have to exclude entire communities, stating, “It’s not just about me and my voice. It’s about a large percentage of people that are not being represented.” During our conversation, she told me that she wanted to investigate the issue from an academic standpoint:

I am a scholar of journalism, and the fact that an editor of a major, national public radio news organization was telling me in an email that one of the reasons that my piece was not airing was because of my accent, I felt it was a subject that I needed to write about it. I really wanted to understand why people don’t like accents. … I felt it was an issue that we needed to talk about.

For Regatao, NPR’s standardizing practices inhibit its ability to accurately represent the nation. “Ultimately, accents reflect who belongs and who doesn’t,” Regatao wrote in her essay, “and what the voice of our country sounds like.”

This was a perspective shared by Daniel Alarcón, host and co-founder of Radio Ambulante, NPR’s only Spanish-language podcast. Alarcón and his team have made it their mission to reinsert Spanish into public radio and, more broadly, claim the right to be considered part of the public that NPR is tasked with serving. Alarcón described to me how essential it is to enable Spanish-speakers to be active, rather than passive, agents in telling their own stories. This is especially important when covering a topic like immigration. He told me:

I think that our audience expects, quite rightly, that we’re going to cover immigration. And we do. And we cover it extensively and we cover it sensitively. And we cover it from the point of view of the people living it, primarily. And so, we rarely have expert voices. I don’t want a professor telling me what it’s like to be raided by ICE. I want the workers that were there to tell me. And the families that were most affected. The kids. And I think that’s a really important difference. Not necessarily different from shows like This American Life which covers immigration that way, but from the news shows on NPR.

Publicly, NPR supports this effort to include Latino voices. When NPR announced a new season of Radio Ambulante, NPR Senior VP of Programming and Audience Development Anya Grundmann celebrated the unique reach of the podcast, stating:

Radio Ambulante brings us sound-rich stories from all over North and South America. NPR is so proud to support the most ambitious, deeply reported, nuanced Spanish language podcast. Their work adds range and depth to our journalism and highlights voices and perspectives we don’t normally hear.

However, there are limits to NPR’s support of Spanish. In 2017, Grundmann essentially told NPR’s Office of the Ombudsman that Spanish may be fine in podcast form but would not be aired extensively on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. “We’re basically an English-language American broadcaster trying to bring in all perspectives,” Grundmann said. “For that reason, it’s unlikely NPR listeners will again hear news content entirely in Spanish on the radio as in the Enfoque Nacional days.”

This means that Spanish, code-mixing and accented English will be limited to highly restricted spaces. In an April 24, 2019, piece titled “You Say Bogota, I say Bogotá,” Jensen articulated NPR’s policy around on-air pronunciation of non-English words. Her essay was written in response to feedback from listeners who had expressed concern that NPR was engaging in a form of language-based discrimination by choosing to pronounce some formal names and titles in Spanish. While NPR hosts and reporters will occasionally pronounce words as spoken in their country of origin, Jensen noted that of the complaints she received, listeners expressed concerns only about accurate Spanish pronunciations.

Jensen argued that NPR, under limited conditions, should reflect the diversity of the nation while respecting the linguistic practices of its hosts and correspondents. This seems like progress, but the essay obscures a larger point. The Spanish pronunciation of formal names may be tolerated on NPR, but otherwise Spanish, code-mixing and accented English are restricted. Editorial decisions are ultimately made in favor of a presumed listener who is an English monolingual. In this space, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, the only Latina host of a flagship NPR news program, may be permitted to pronounce formal names in Spanish, but she does not have the capability to report in Spanish, a language in which she is fluent.

In Jensen’s essay, Mark Memmott, NPR’s standards and practices editor, framed this as a choice between linguistic diversity and clear communication. “We want our correspondents and hosts to speak naturally,” Memmott stated, later adding, “as long as it’s understandable to the bulk of the audience.”  

The presumed audience is, of course, an English monolingual, and it has become commonsense knowledge that this listener must never be made to feel uncomfortable. This sentiment was repeated at the member station level. My interviews with station managers, programming directors and on-air correspondents revealed that there is pressure to retain listeners, particularly those inclined to support the stations financially — what one station manager described as his “legacy audience.” This means that journalists avoid interviewing Spanish-dominant speakers or, if they do, they mediate that conversation. As one journalist told me:

We’re not going to let [Spanish-speakers] speak for 15 seconds. Because the general listener just doesn’t understand. And they’ll tune out. But let them speak in their language for five seconds or so, and then as the reporter I’ll come in and paraphrase.

The station managers and programming directors with whom I spoke were candid in their assessment that it’s difficult to include Spanish, code-mixing or accented English without isolating their current listeners. The reality is that they are operating in a highly competitive environment in which there is intense competition for listeners. Anything that might challenge or disrupt that listening process is a risk. For many, this was not a risk they were willing to take.

NPR’s trope of the ‘friend’

When asked to describe the NPR voice, a general manager with whom I spoke characterized it this way: “It’s like a wise friend that has a lot of information.” The idea that NPR speaks to its audience like a close friend was a recurring trope within NPR discourses. In the network’s retrospective This is NPR: The First Forty Years, host Susan Stamberg recalls her early discussions with Bill Siemering regarding the voice that NPR wanted to cultivate. “We want NPR to sound more relaxed. Conversational,” she recalls Siemering saying. “We’re going to talk to our listeners just the same way we talk to our friends – simply, naturally.” Jonathan Kern, executive producer for training for NPR News, echoes this sentiment in Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production, stating, “We should communicate to that archetypal listener, much in the way we actually talk to our friends or family.”

While the practice of treating the listener as a close friend may seem intuitive, the nature of speaking will, in reality, depend on who that friend is and where that friend learned to speak. It will also depend on the specific context of the exchange. It is linguistic diversity, rather than uniformity, that is the natural state of being. Institutional claims that there is one ideal way of speaking are dubious at best.

Despite its pretense of informality, the NPR speaking style may be best described as what scholar Fern Johnson describes as an idealized dialect, meaning that it is a linguistic style that is not really spoken anywhere but instead is acquired through professional training. Based on my interviews and a review of NPR’s internal documents, I found that NPR has deliberately cultivated a speaking style that is meant to appear conversational but that is, in fact, highly scripted. In this way, NPR follows in the tradition of other broadcasting networks, which employ a form of spoken English that converges toward a uniform way of speaking.

However, these practices have profound implications. They have a fundamental impact not only on whose stories get to be told and by whom, but also who is invited to listen. This kind of policing of linguistic boundaries frames Spanish as foreign, despite its prevalence in the U.S. Poet Julio Marzán states this well when he argues that “even though Spanish pre-dates English on North America by a century, is spoken across a third of America’s landmass and is either first or second language of the nation’s largest composite ethnic citizenry, it is still taught as the language of some other place.”

But it also undermines NPR’s original mission of engaging listeners civically, particularly those most disenfranchised. After all, speakers who are educated and of high status are likely to have the firmest command of the speaking style promoted by NPR. Conversely, speakers of stigmatized forms of speech continue to be isolated civically. Consequently, NPR’s broadcast practices are disconnected from its original mission, while becoming more and more out of sync with a country that is becoming more ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse. To reverse course, NPR must move beyond monolingualism as its starting point and begin to embrace linguistic diversity as a strength rather than a deficiency.

Christopher Chávez is an Associate Professor and Doctoral Program Director in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. His research lies at the intersection of globalization, media and culture. He is author of Reinventing the Latino Television Viewer: Language Ideology and Practice and is co-editor of Identity: Beyond Tradition and McWorld Neoliberalism.

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