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A “white” NPR?

Caricature of SteveIt’s an interesting question raised by The Washington Post and one the public radio network is debating.

My broadcast career began in 1961 so I’m old school. Back then the ideal voice was a male baritone or bass. And I spent years speaking with a lower vocal register.

I went to a radio school right after high school. At Brown Institute in Minneapolis the emphasis was technical skills and correct speaking for broadcast. The latter stressed proper grammar and pronunciation.

Although I lived most of my youth in Marshalltown (Central Iowa), I was born and reared until age nine in a small, rural Southeast Iowa community. The area was populated generations early by folks migrating from the southern United States following the Civil War. That historical legacy is apparent when residents speak.

One of my radio instructors, who had worked in local radio in Central Iowa, asked me one day if I were from Southeast Iowa. I was surprised that he guessed that.

“We have to move your accent up to Marshalltown,” he suggested, “then we can get rid of it.”


Getting rid of any regional accent or dialect was the goal in those days. The Midwest neutral sound was the ideal, even though legendary newscasters such John Charles Daley and several of the so-called Edward R. Murrow boys from World War II had distinctive East Coast accents. But a neutral sound still was preferred.

Slowly over the decades, however, as the diversity of broadcasters increased—and specialized radio formats expanded—so did their way of speaking.

Today, it’s not surprising to hear a Country Music radio host with a southern drawl or twang. It’s common to hear bilingual Latino broadcasters with a hint of Spanish accent when speaking English. And the so-called urban accent of Black announcers and newscasters is de rigueur.

Television, of course, reveals immediately one’s racial background and many professionals of all races and regions speak with no pronounced dialect. And the presence or absence of an accent, of course, is not a measure of education. But non-standard grammar certainly is.

Should NPR and other media embrace greater diversity among its employees? Absolutely. Should the NPR sound reflect that diversity? Yes.

But I would prefer that “sound” to be more reports that examine the broad American experience—both good and bad. More female reporters will mean better stories about issues that men may ignore. More journalists of color and different sexual orientation will cover topics that white, middle class males like me would not consider.

I can’t chuck all the baggage from my old school experience. I still prefer a neutral sound when I listen to radio and watch television. But if NPR and other broadcast organizations (especially radio) believe that grammatically correct English, but unmistakable accents will attract a more diverse audience, I support that.

To me it’s more important that the speakers know what they are talking about rather than what regionalism or dialect they use.   But please, use correct grammar when you speak.   I’m still old school about that.

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