‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over the Airwaves


The most influential speaker of “NPR voice” is Ira Glass, host of “This American Life.” “Any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like a news robot but, in fact, sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would,” he said.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

During a recent long car ride whose soundtrack was a medley of NPR podcasts, I noticed a verbal mannerism during scripted segments that appeared on just about every show. I’ve heard the same tic in countless speeches, TED talks and Moth StorySLAMS — anywhere that features semi-informal first-person narration.

If I could attempt to transcribe it, it sounds kind of like, y’know … this.

That is, in addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection. (This is a separate issue from upspeak, the tendency to conclude statements with question marks?) A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.

In literary circles, the practice of poets reciting verse in singsong registers and unnatural cadences is known, derogatorily, as “poet voice.” I propose calling this phenomenon “NPR voice” (which is distinct from the supple baritones we normally associate with radio voices).

This plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations must have come from someplace. But … where?

A primary cause of NPR voice is the sheer expansion of people broadcasting today. Whereas once only trained professionals were given a television or radio platform, amateurs have now taken over the airwaves and Internet. They may not have the thespian skills necessary to restrain the staginess of their elocution, leading to “indicating,” or overacting to express emotion.

Michelle Obama’s 2012 Democratic National Convention speech presents an interesting case of either indicating or of legitimately overwhelmed expression (or a combination of the two). By and large, the speech was received rapturously, though it had a few detractors, such as Walter Kirn, who wrote in The New Republic that the first lady was “overacting. Two gestures for every word.”

In an interview with NPR’s “On the Media,” he elaborated. “The emotions that were gushing up in her were exactly on cue with the lines coming up on the teleprompter,” he said. “That to me seems prima facie evidence of acting.”

Continue reading the main story