When you’re communicating facts to people, your voice is important. While the actual facts being said should, of course, be the most important part, the way they’re said can change how they’re interpreted — especially on the radio. You don’t have to look far to see reviews of podcasts where people comment on the way the host talks. That’s why broadcasters in the United States cultivate specific ways of talking to their listeners. It’s just necessary.
We generally think of accents as being the unchangeable way people talk, but there’s no doubt that an accent can be cultivated for the radio. An accent, after all, is just how we pronounce words and sentences. From the tinny sounds of the early radios to the proliferation of voices in podcasts, the accents of the airwaves paint a fascinating history of vocal norms throughout the United States.
Announcer Voice And The Mid-Atlantic Accent
If you’ve ever watched an old documentary, you’re already familiar with the “Announcer Voice”. There are a few features that might be part of someone’s announcer voice: it’s a little bit higher pitch than the average speaking voice, it’s staccato, the vowels are “softer” (“class” would be pronounced more like loss than lass) and it’s conspicuously missing “r”s after vowels (think: Boston). The accent was hugely popular on the airwaves from the 1920s to the 1950s, and after that, it pretty much vanished.
There are a few different reasons this accent formed. One theory that would help explain the higher pitch and nasal quality is that old recording equipment was bad at catching the lower notes in human voices, so people on the radio would have to speak higher to make sure they were heard clearly. The other main reason for this odd accent has more to do with society at large: elitism.
In the early 20th century, there was an accent called the Mid-Atlantic Accent, which was very popular in the northeastern United States. (To be clear, this is unrelated to the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., but rather refers to the actual middle of the Atlantic ocean.) The accent is so named because it’s supposed to sound like a cross between two accents from opposite sides of the Atlantic: British and American.
The accent of the United States was inflected by the British long after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Most notably is that when elite British people stopped pronouncing “r”s in the 19th century, so too did people in major American port cities like New York and Boston. (You can still hear remnants of that in the Boston and New York accents of today, but it’s no longer a prestigious feature.) By the earliest 20th century, rich and powerful Americans were affecting a somewhat British way of speaking to sound … well, rich and powerful. The British accent, after all, continues to be seen as “posh” or “intelligent” in the United States. But back then, this Mid-Atlantic Accent was being taught to children in private schools to make them sound proper, and it can be strongly heard in the speech of people like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Though it started among the rich and powerful, the Mid-Atlantic Accent soon became a major feature of cinema, theater and radio. The accent, which at the time was sometimes called “Good American Speech,” was in part defined by phonetician William Tilly and his student Edith Warman Skinner, who published a popular book called Speak With Distinction. Skinner then went on to teach this way of speaking at the Juilliard School, and it became a very noticeable feature of films in the first half of the 20th century. Through the end of World War II, the Mid-Atlantic Accent was the authoritative voice of the United States.
General American And Authoritative (Male) Broadcasters
For a variety of reasons, the Mid-Atlantic Accent fell out of favor after the end of World War II. Whether it was the forging of a new American identity, a rejection of elitism or simply the end of a fad, the “r”s returned to American speech in most of the country. What arose from its ashes was a new standard of authoritative speech: General American.
We’ve already written a whole installment on General American, so we won’t rehash the entire concept here. In short, it’s a kind of speech that is spoken in no particular region of the United States, but still sounds distinctly American. The place you are most likely to hear it, in fact, is on the news, where broadcasters often have been trained to lose any regional accents so they can speak like this. Whereas every other accent in the United States can carry the baggage of stereotype (“dumb Southerner,” “angry New Yorker,” etc.), General American allows a person to sound authoritative.
When talking about voices on the radio from the 1950s to today, however, you have to acknowledge it was a masculine voice that dominated airwaves. It was Walter Cronkite who exemplified the strong General American sound, which made him perhaps the most important broadcaster voice in the United States. Voices were deep and sentences were spoken with emphasis. It’s the kind of voice lampooned by Kent Brockman in The Simpsons, Ron Burgundy in Anchorman and Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As the 21st century approached, the male dominance in the field did begin to decline, but General American still holds a heavy sway over broadcast media.
“NPR Voice” And The Democracy Of Voices
If you’re flipping through radio stations today, you can find plenty of General American. But there has been a subtle shift among some from “authority” to “authenticity.” A more vernacular style of speaking was welcomed, as people started to distrust disembodied, emotionless voices. Broadcasters would try to convey the feeling of the story to keep readers engaged.
While the new tolerance for diverse voices could lead to a huge variety on the radio, some argue that’s not happening. Instead, a new accent is forming: NPR Voice. In a New York Times article, writer Teddy Wayne argued that more and more people, both on NPR and places trying to be NPR, are attempting to do variations on the same vernacular voice. It involves a lot of long pauses between words and sentences, strong emphasis on certain words and a generally softer tone of voice.
The most famous practitioner, if not the originator, of this form is Ira Glass, host of This American Life. In the Times article, Glass said his own use of the more vernacular voice was a rejection of the “phony” newscasters of his childhood. What the Times piece alleges, however, is that it has just replaced one norm with another. And it is true that NPR offers voice coaching to their employees to help “add resonance, tone and warmth” and “work with rhythm and cadence, avoiding sing-song reads.”
Other writers, however, have argued that this is an oversimplification of the media landscape. Today, it’s so easy to get your voice out there that there is a fantastic variety of voices you can hear. People will still complain about voices and accent features they don’t like — women’s voices especially get policed by listeners who will send in angry emails about vocal fry and upspeak — but there is nowhere near as strong a standard as before.
We’re still a long way from a general linguistic acceptance that allows people to feel comfortable speaking any accent anywhere in the country. But having people on the radio and on television who are speaking with their real dialects instead of General American is a way to shatter stereotypes about what having a noticeable accent means. Getting rid of strict verbal norms is a long, slow process, but it’s a way to democratize the media and give everyone a voice that will be heard.