Yes, it’s here: the golden age of podcasts. In the last several years, a host of independent science shows like Gastropod, with Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, and 99% Invisible, with Roman Mars, have sprung up, rounding out the cast of public-radio programs like Radiolab, Science Friday, and Invisibilia. To catch this wave, many writers have started to consider swapping their pen for a microphone.
Jumping into audio journalism requires writers to master new skills, like writing scripts, operating recording equipment, and editing sound files. But most terrifying of all, it requires writers to speak out loud. While being recorded. Knowing that others—possibly many others—will be listening. It requires relearning a skill we have unthinkingly used all our lives: talking.
A lucky few are naturals, says Joe Palca, a longtime science correspondent for NPR. “I’m not,” he says. “I had to work at it.” Like Palca and many others, aspiring hosts must learn to use their voices as instruments and to read a script while sounding like they’re not. Becoming an audio journalist also requires finding your own voice, and the guts to make it heard.
Your Voice: An Operator’s Manual
Many public-radio programs and podcasts aim for a conversational feel, but don’t be fooled by the soothing sound of hosts’ voices coming through your speakers. Broadcasters are not slouched back in their chairs, chatting with you over a cup of coffee. “It’s what I call enlarged conversation,” says Ann Utterback, a vocal coach and author of the Broadcast Voice Handbook.
Utterback defines enlarged conversation more or less like normal interpersonal conversation, but with better diction and more energy. You need to enunciate clearly so that listeners will still be able to understand you after your voice has gone through a microphone, through some degree of audio processing, to a satellite and back, and into their ears.
Most new broadcasters tend to drop ending consonants, especially the so-called plosives: “t,” “d,” “p,” “b,” “k,” and “g.” Utterback suggests practicing over-articulating sentences with lots of punchy words. However, she says to stop short of the aggressive enunciation used by stage actors, or you could sound over the top.
Listen to Utterback explain good diction and give an example:
Even more importantly, enlarged conversation has an extra jolt of intensity. “For any kind of broadcast, you have to be a step above the audience in your energy level or they are not going to listen to you,” Utterback says. (Note: Energy does not equal speed. No matter how energetic you are, people still need time to process what you’re telling them.)
Vocal energy comes primarily from good breathing technique, something few of us possess—except when we’re asleep. When we lie down, Utterback says, we breathe correctly: by expanding our ribs and lower abdomen, instead of inhaling shallowly into our upper chest or raising our shoulders. To get the feeling, lie on your back with a book on your stomach and watch it rise and fall.
Broadcasters must learn to do the same thing while recording. Standing helps by straightening out your lungs and abdomen—your breathing apparatus—and by energizing your body. And when you stand, don’t be afraid to gesticulate and move around. “People often are very stiff when they’re reading,” says Rose Eveleth, a freelance writer and host of the Gizmodo podcast Meanwhile in the Future. “If all your muscles are tense, your voice is also going to be tense,” she says.
Good energy also helps eliminate vocal fry—when the voice becomes low and gravelly, often at the end of a phrase. Few had heard of vocal fry until a few years ago, when a study identified the habit in two thirds of its college-age females. (It’s also common in men, as Ira Glass discusses on This American Life.) Some consider the sound unpleasant, but others think it’s normal, often depending on their age.
Regardless, fry happens when you run out of air, Utterback says. So if you want to eliminate it from your speech, she advises trying to make “the last word of a sentence to be as strong as the first word.” That way, you can go down in pitch at the end of a sentence—as most people naturally do—without producing fry.
Beyond that, there’s no ideal voice. Sure, you could try to change the register in which you speak or the nasality of your tone, but unless you want to be a prime-time news anchor, those facets of your voice are unlikely to hamper your radio or podcast career. “To me, the underlying thing that makes a good radio voice is that you are relatable,” Eveleth says. Sounding genuine will make people want to listen.
Once you’ve readied your radio voice, you need to tackle the next challenge: sounding natural while reading a script. The hardest part is getting over the circumstances, Palca says, which often make people feel nervous or awkward. For one, you’re basically talking to yourself. For another, if you don’t have access to a sound booth, you are probably standing in your closet or hunched under a duvet to dampen echoes and environmental noise.
To relax, Utterback recommends imagining that you are talking to someone you know. She even suggests picturing the space where you would be conversing. The idea is to make it feel like it’s just you talking to a friend—only “with several thousand people eavesdropping.” You can also use this mental trick to help scale the formality of your speech, by imagining different listeners, like a peer or a professor.
Audio journalists then need to learn to read with natural rhythm and inflection, and to imbue the words with the emotional weight they deserve. “When you have a script in front of you, and you just read the words, you’re not really processing them,” says Corinna Wu, who has done freelance radio and podcast work and produced the Science Update podcast for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Wu, now an editor at Chemical & Engineering News, took a voiceover class at a local public-access station taught by an actor who emphasized understanding and internalizing the script. “That’s when I was able to really communicate what those words meant,” she says.
After that, you can work on developing a range of vocal colors—to express whether something is fascinating, entertaining, devastating—and the ability to speak as if you were articulating an idea for the first time. “One of the hardest things to do when you’re reading as opposed to talking is knowing when to pause,” Palca says. We usually pause to buy time to think, but with a script, “the words are all there in order.”
Listen to NPR’s Joe Palca demonstrate a range of emotional color:
Listen to Palca demonstrate a speech habit called “double pumping,” when you say the first syllable of a word two or more times:
Listen to Palca demonstrate how to insert pauses while reading a script:
Sometimes, however, a sentence just won’t sound right no matter how hard you try, Palca says. “Some people can pick up the phone book and start reading it and it will sound interesting, but for the rest of us, you’ve got to actually write for your voice.” He advises looking up from the script and spitting out what you mean to say. “You’ll hear the words that your brain wants you to use.” (For more tips on writing for audio, see our story on “Smooth Scriptwriting.”)
You’ll most likely catch hiccups and speed bumps in the script while practicing, which Utterback highly recommends for beginning broadcasters. Practicing can also help you plan when to breathe and how to structure the ups and downs of your intonation (pros often mark up their scripts to plan their entire performance). However, beware of losing freshness. “I’m not an actor,” Palca says. “I am a reporter, and I lose spontaneity with repetition.”
After mastering these skills, you may still find that your voice doesn’t sound like the ones you hear on the air. That’s what happened to Chenjerai Kumanyika, a hip-hop artist and professor of popular culture at Clemson University, while participating in a workshop with Transom (a great resource for all things audio). The workshop was on narrative nonfiction, “but in that particular type of storytelling, I couldn’t think of a black voice,” he says. Instead, he caught himself imitating the voices of other well-known radio hosts—white voices.
Listen to Kumanyika’s first take of his Transom script, where he felt he was not speaking naturally (Audio clips are from Kumanyika’s essay, “Vocal Color in Public Radio,” published on Transom.org):
Listen to Kumanyika reread his script in a voice that sounds more like his normal speaking voice:
This experience prompted Kumanyika to write an essay drawing attention to the lack of diversity in public-radio and podcast voices. It’s a problem, he says, because “voices carry cultural wisdom.” They are more than just pitch and tone—they also reflect the identity and experiences of the speaker. As a result, Kumanyika says, hosts with different voices bring different stories to the table (although he recognizes that public-radio programs already strive to feature guests from diverse backgrounds).
Homogenous voices can also turn off potential listeners from unrepresented groups. Kumanyika is an avid consumer of public radio and podcasts, but he struggles to interest some of his black friends in these programs. He says that’s because the voices they hear can be signifiers of other factors, like privilege or power, and because “the topics, sometimes, and the cultural references—the whole feel of it—it alienates people,” he says.
The good news is that there’s never been a better time for new voices to break into audio journalism. “People are really hungry for different voices,” Eveleth says. “Especially for people who don’t hear themselves in radio, we need you!”
It’s not always easy. Some people react negatively to hearing nontraditional voices. But Eveleth says she takes it as a sign she’s doing something right when she hears complaints about her voice (a problem that disproportionately affects female broadcasters, as illustrated in This American Life’s segment on vocal fry). “As reporters, making people uncomfortable is something we should be comfortable with,” she says.
Harder Than It Looks
Whatever voice you decide to aim for, be prepared to work on it for a while. Perhaps your whole career: “I spent 20 years trying to sound like I sound,” Palca says.
It takes practice to develop your vocal technique to the point where you don’t have to think about energy and articulation on the air, Utterback says, and to achieve a relaxed, conversational manner. “There really aren’t quick fixes,” she says.
In fact, the casual style of public-radio shows and podcasts often belies how difficult they are to produce. Eveleth interned at Radiolab in 2011, where she saw the hard work first hand. “Those conversations sound really natural and off the cuff,” Eveleth says, but “they are in the studio for hours.” Don’t be afraid to do a ton of takes and ask for help, she says; the radio community is incredibly open and supportive.
In addition, the best thing for beginning broadcasters is to listen to people you like and think critically about what they are doing. Just as writers benefit from reading others’ work, Eveleth says every aspiring audio journalist must become “a scholar of voices.” However, she says, don’t give in to the temptation to imitate. “Stop trying to be Ira Glass”—someone who, by his own admission, was horrible at the beginning of his career. “Just do your own thing.” (Here are some uplifting words from Ira Glass on getting into audio journalism, sucking at it, and sticking with it anyway.)
Julia Rosen is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon, and covers earth science, energy, climate, and food. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Science News, Scientific American, Nautilus, and elsewhere. Find more of her work at her website or say hi on Twitter @ScienceJulia.