Have you ever heard the show “It’s Been a Minute” on NPR? It plays on KUOW here in Seattle at 5:00 on Saturday afternoons.
One of the things I like about it is that it’s got a different voice and tone than most of NPR. Most of NPR is white.
When this gets pointed out, for example in newspapers or on websites like BuzzFeed, people – and by this I mostly mean white people – get irritated and angry. They talk about what constitutes a “professional” tone of voice and way of speaking. And they’re clear that the black way of speaking isn’t professional.
Would the world really come to an end if not everybody on NPR spoke with a “standard,” white, Midwestern accent? Especially since not everyone on NPR is standard, white, or Midwestern.
Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor of popular culture at Rutgers University, found a new, vibrant, authentic voice for radio when he brought in his own black, cultural patterns of speech and oratory (as he put it). He felt more centered, more like himself.
So why can’t he speak that way on public radio? Why can’t he speak more “black?” When he did a piece on this for NPR, some of the comments he got on NPR’s website were scathing.
But Wade Goodwyn is so clearly from Texas, and does that make him unfit to be an NPR reporter?
Sylvia Poggioli has a singsong cadence that must derive from her fluency in Italian. Listen to how she signs off on all of her stories. And she’s an NPR reporter.
How about Doualy Xaykaothao? I don’t know how to pronounce her name from just looking at it, but her being Lao-Hmong American, raised in France and the United States? Hasn’t stopped her from reporting for NPR.
There’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Alice Fordham, Leila Fadel, Richard Gonzales, need I go on? So there are already plenty of non-white voices on NPR.
Yet the comments Chenjerai Kumanyika got on his piece for NPR, some of them are ignorant, some are condescending, and some just plain intolerant.
There should be plenty of room on NPR for voices of all kinds. “Voices” in the sense of what they talk about, and also how they talk. Everyone should be able to talk in a way that is authentic and real for them, and that will resonate with their audience.
That’s one of the reasons I like “It’s Been a Minute.” Sam Saunders and his guests sound like Kyle. They sound like his family. They have a way of speaking and expressing themselves that I enjoy, that I feel comfortable with.
More to the point, they sound genuine, because they are genuine.
You can listen to Chenjerai Kumanyika’s NPR piece here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2015/01/29/382437460/challenging-the-whiteness-of-public-radio