We’ve been talking a lot in radio class lately about “tracking,” which is the narrated portion of a radio feature. Much like the host of a three-ring circus, narration provides the connective tissue of production that would otherwise be an assembly of noise. There is a canonical sound to NPR: commanding, authoritative, a crystalline symphony of journalistic merit and humanity. Think of Edward R. Murrow or Orson Welles. Whether announcing the London Blitz or a Martian invasion, their voices maximize the meaning of written copy. This is the lesson to keep in mind at Salt when you are standing in the sound booth at 2 in the morning, attempting a narration of your own pieces and detesting the sound of your voice upon playback. Compared to our forbearers, it will surely sound like a child wearing his father’s loafers, immature and clumsy. Take baby steps. Learn how to play the instrument you’ve been given. There’s some coming-of-age work to be done in radio production and “being confident in your voice” behind the microphone is a predictable milestone.
The sound booth at Salt is a near-perfect square and insulated with soundproofing material – foam pads that look like egg cartons line the walls, there’s a shag carpet on the ground, and a smattering of pillows. These are soft, absorbent things meant to soak up traces of the room. Done correctly, your voice should sound pristine. There’s a music stand for you to prop your script on, to stand in front of as you allow your diaphragm to expand and contract, your nerves to calm, and the sounds of your story to fill you from top to bottom. Our instructor Michael coached us to think of it as a performance. He advised us to bring another person into the sound booth, interpreting the story for them as a stand-in for listener X. It’s helped enormously, but is still nerve-wracking. I’m suddenly hyper-aware of my mannerisms, vocal tics, and the way I explain things, the natural consequence of confronting my own sounds. If I can push past that hurdle, however, perhaps I can also circumvent the tendency to read straight from the paper, and if I do that, perhaps my story has a chance to come to life. Perhaps.
NPR Morning Edition newscaster Carl Kasell says he imagines he’s summarizing the main points of a presidential speech to an imagined “Aunt Martha.” The method acting must work, for his voice sounds exactly as it would if those conditions were true: warm, conversational, and clarifying. The emotional timbre of his voice matches the meaning of his words. People do this naturally when telling a story, but it’s surprisingly difficult to recreate under studio conditions. It’s all too easy to be the mouthpiece of a message, instead of its interpreter. A salesman, instead of a friend.
The Super Bowl, a pageantry of sales pitches, was televised on February 3rd. It was the night before I left for Salt. In between chip loads of bean dip, my parents and I talked about the advertisements on television. A baby parachuted into a Kia Sorento. A goat consumed hundreds of bags of Doritos. Two men bickered about the better part of an Oreo in a library (i.e. traded whispers of “cream” and “cookie”). All told, it was a montage of gimmicks meant to shock, meant to provoke, and meant to amuse, but not to substantiate a powerful or profound idea. The radio equivalent would be a shock jock – loud noise conveying little information. “Stupid,” my Dad would grunt. I had to agree. It was like binging on the contents of a vending machine, a sugar rush without staying power. “Wow, look at Robin Williams eat a Snickers. That’s cute. Next.”
There was, however, one commercial made by Ram Trucks that held our attention. We even talked about it. It taught us something. The premise was simple: a two-minute sequence of still photographs cataloguing American farms and American farmers. Some of the images were black and white, while others were in full color. They appeared and disappeared on our television like candle flames, introduced and snuffed out by black cross-fades. Yet the most spelling binding part of the whole presentation, the thread that united the visuals, was a searing narration by the late Paul Harvey. This was a voice that didn’t echo the sales pitch of the other advertisers, cajoling, strained, and begging for attention. Instead, he let the copy—the substance of the words—make his case.
And no wonder: Harvey was an American broadcaster for ABC Radio Networks, someone who couldn’t depend on visuals and knew how to command a listener with his voice alone. The narration was excerpted from his “So God Made a Farmer” speech at the 1973 Future Farmers of American Convention. He spoke in praise of the American farmer and the humble acts he performs as a divinely appointed caretaker of the land. It’s a riveting account, but what makes it memorable in my opinion, what made Ram Trucks resurrect it forty years later, and 14.8 million people watch the commercial on YouTube, is how Paul Harvey delivers the speech. I showed it to another student at Salt and even now, six weeks later, it makes hair stand on end. In the hands of a lesser orator, there’s no telling whether the phrase “shoe a horse with a hunk of a car tire” would mimic the farmer’s work ethic with the same plodding rhythm. It’s unlikely that a farmer “who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners” would sound as steadfast or “somebody gentle enough to tame lambs” as compassionate, or “somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft, strong bonds of sharing” as downright heroic as the farmer of Paul Harvey’s reading. Harvey’s cadence matched the tenor of the farming livelihood in all its hope, all its frailty, and all its determination to endure. The farmer is animated by a voice that understands his life. There’s one line where this proves particularly true, where Paul Harvey slows his folksy pacing, takes a hypnotic, pause, and allowing each line to breathe, says:
“I need somebody wiling to sit up all night with a newborn colt.
And watch it die.
Then dry his eyes.
And say, “Maybe next year.”
In those few seconds, you the listener are taken on an entire journey through the life, death, and rebirth of a man’s faith. The narration has done justice to the subject. It services the story. It holds the listener’s attention. This is what the best kind of radio voice can do.