Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Hearing Voices

I stumbled onto an intriguing job posting today.

No, I’m not looking for a new job. I just GOT this new one, for heaven’s sake.

In any case, the job is in an almost entirely different field from my current line of work; although some of the job qualifications I could have acquired eventually, had I somehow stayed in the journalism biz long enough and pointing in the right direction (which is to say, not the direction I was pointing, which was toward trade and tech journals, rather than television and radio).

National Public Radio is looking for someone to say, “This is NPR”. Repeatedly.

There’s more to the gig than that, but that detail was what got quite the attention of a number of my online acquaintances.

There’s a certain something about an NPR voiceover that makes it distinct, and distinctly different from, say, yahoo sports talk radio, or from 1010 WINS in New York City, or from most commercial broadcasters. Hard to pin down exactly what that certain something is. Once I heard some rube describe the men of NPR News as “announcers who’ve discovered their softer side”. But if you randomly turn a radio on and get an NPR voiceover, whether it’s “from NPR in Washington” or from a local affiliate’s on-air personality, you know you’ve hit public radio.

To describe the NPR voice, I suppose I could use adjectives like calm, relaxed, urbane, serene, or folksy; but that would label me as biased toward the organization. So sue me; I like the sound of it. With a few possible exceptions like the Car Talk guys, just about everyone on public radio, from news programming to “America’s Test Kitchen”, has those certain, yes, soothing elements in their voices. It’s a little jarring, the first time you hear “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” when one of the panelists is comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, he of the reedy and slightly desperate voice.

THAT’S what it is – nobody at NPR ever sounds like they’re breathless and desperate. (Except around pledge drive time, but that’s not really programming, that’s begging. So.)

Anyway, the job opening. I’m not qualified. I have a few of the qualifications that NPR lists in its classified ad, but not nearly enough for them to toss my resume in the “take another look” pile.

We’re looking for someone with serious production chops, … and is comfortable managing a complex workflow and ‘ready-to-air’ deadlines.” So, not me. I’ve only visited radio stations.

Must have strong [experience with] Dalet, Adobe Audition, ProTools or similar production tools” … I’ve heard of the latter two, but I admit that I looked at the first one and heard the word “exterminate!” in my head, so I think that tends to deny me full marks.

[Must have] at least four years of production or broadcast experience with emphasis in professional voice announcement and production” … not even nearly close, unless you count my emcee work at church hymn sings.

[Must demonstrate] at all times respect for the diverse constituencies at NPR and within the public radio system” … well, I know people who can confirm that I’ve never made fun of Garrison Keillor, Ira Glass or any attempt by NPR to cover professional sports, so that’s something. And, years ago, I wrote a set of lyrics to the tune of “O Tannenbaum” that on the surface made me sound like I was taking shots at the public radio fundraiser, but actually there was plenty of affection involved. (“O woe is us, O woe is us / If we don’t get your pledges / Our operating budget is / Ragged ’round the edges”…)

So, knowing that I was not going to be a finalist for this position, nonetheless, I got to wondering: what would I sound like if I tried to make an audition recording?

Very few people I know actually like the sound of their own recorded speaking voice. Something to do with how we’re used to hearing it from inside our own heads, and it sounds different on the outside, where we never are. Many times, students of mine have exclaimed, “that’s not me! That’s not us!” Ah, but it is.

(I’ve gotten used to my speaking voice. Now my singing voice is another matter, but that’s one thing that’s great about being a church choir director: you’re almost always facing away from the congregation.)

From the NPR ad: “Bonus points for the ability to sound authentic on the radio – we’re not looking for ‘the voice of God.’”

You’re not? Why didn’t you say so sooner!?

So for kicks, I marched over to my little digital recorder device, took a deep breath, and read the copy that NPR suggested would constitute a proper audition recording.

Support for this program comes from Zurich Insurance, providing risk management and insurance solutions to help businesses meet their ever-changing needs. Learn more at Zurich N-A dot com. {ZUR – ik}. Novo Nordisk, committed to diabetes care and changing lives for more than 90 years. Novo Nordisk hyphen U-S dot com. and CarMax, offering more than 35,000 used cars and trucks. Online, and in stores from coast to coast. Learn more at CarMax dot com. This is NPR.”

I will admit that speaking those words … words which for the most part are just ads for NPR’s corporate sponsors … put my mind in a different place than most words I speak.

All Things Considered is a production of NPR News, which is solely responsible for its content. Transcripts of stories you hear on this program are available for free the following day at NPR dot org. Select the “Transcripts” link on every story page. To find out more about the movies you hear about on NPR programs, go to NPR dot org slash movies. This is NPR.”

The equivalent in the non-NPR world would be contributing your own voice to the paragraph “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”

Or substituting your own voice for the CBS Sports announcer who used to rattle off the commercial sponsors of its NFL games: “Brought to you bahhh…”

Or using your own voice to pull a Don LaFontaine movie trailer maneuver, saying things like, “In a world… where this and that collide… one man… has the power to change the world… forever.”

Can’t pull any of that off. Sorry.

But this, I can manage:

And even though Ernest Shackleton organizes another doomed expedition to the Antarctic whenever he hears us say it … this is NPR, National Public Radio.”

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May 22, 2013 - Posted by | media, npr, radio, technology | , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Rob-I love this post. There is a great book…can’t remember the title of course, about broadcasting, the NPR way. It’s more of a technical manual, but there is some interesting insider stuff… being an occasional talk-radio guy, I love having the fourth wall broken down…

    Comment by Eric | July 9, 2013 | Reply


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