Chenjerai Kumanyika recently started an interesting dialogue about diversity in public radio. (Photo courtesy of Kumanyika). By Allison Griner Allison Griner is a freelance … Read More
By Allison Griner
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter through @alligriner.
“If you want to feel good about the way the world is right now, I might be the wrong person to talk to,” Chenjerai Kumanyika said with a deep laugh.
But it is precisely Kumanyika’s critical take on the world that is pushing others to rethink public media and ultimately create a more diverse media landscape.
Kumanyika is a modern-day Renaissance man, with a résumé that includes public radio producer, hip-hop artist, and professor at Clemson University.
An experience early in his radio career left him grappling with what it meant to be an African American man in a medium dominated by “white” voices.
Back in June 2014, as he leaned toward a microphone to record his very first radio piece, Kumanyika noticed his natural confidence had evaporated — and so had his natural speaking voice.
Instead of his own voice, Kumanyika heard the inflections of popular radio hosts like Roman Mars and Sarah Koenig slipping off his tongue. What he didn’t hear was the sound of a voice marked by his own distinctive African-American heritage.
So in January he wrote an article for Transom about the “white” styles of speech that dominate public radio airwaves. The piece outlined his personal struggles to maintain his unique vocal style and resist the pressure to speak with the “dominant syntax.”
But Kumanyika knew the pressure to conform was not just a racial problem. He was attacking a vocal hierarchy that disadvantaged anyone whose voice was marked by gender, region, class, or immigration status.
It was a problem much larger than Kumanyika himself. It was a problem of equality.
“When I wrote this piece, I was doubtful of my ability to capture the phenomenon I was talking about in writing,” Kumanyika told ivoh by telephone. But capture it he did, to broad acclaim. Buzzfeed and NPR picked up his essay, and the Washington Post did its own write-up of the story.
NPR’s Code Switch blog — named for the very same practice of switching between languages and linguistic styles — launched a Twitter conversation about Kumanyika’s essay. The hashtag it used, #pubradiovoice, trended nationwide.
“I was just blown away. I figured, nah, there are a couple of people that will resonate with it. I had no idea what was going to happen,” he said. “For me, as the person who wrote the piece, I understand how it affects people on a whole new scale now.”
The conversation Kumanyika inspired even made the leap to Canada. There, the influential radio show Q devoted a segment to whether or not Canada’s diversity was reflected on public radio.
Suddenly, Kumanyika was being flooded with stories. Female NPR staff told him about the times when they were “coached” to sound more professional. A former MSNBC personality recounted how he was critiqued for being “too animated.”
And Kumanyika was especially humbled to hear about the people who simply “ruled themselves out” from ever contributing to public radio, for fear of their voice sticking out too much.
“What we have to do is draw those stories out fully,” he said. “As we understand more about what people are struggling with, we will be able to see what aspects of that are problematic.”
But as the debate over what public radio should sound like grew and grew, so too did the pushback. Kumanyika was confronted with questions about what it means to sound “black” or “white,” or any other race for that matter. Critics pointed out, wasn’t his essay premised on a simplistic notion of race, on essentialism?
Kumanyika insists that’s not the case. It’s not about “performing your ethnicity,” nor is it about labeling people as “sounding white,” as if that were automatically a bad thing.
Instead, his goal is to allow everyone to speak “in a way they feel comfortable,” without having to shift their speech patterns to please someone else.
He also found that some critics were clinging to “an ideal of professionalism” a concept that hides behind words like “clarity” and “standards.”
“When you say clarity, I’m like, ‘Clarity for whom?’” he said. “Clarity is political. Clear for whom? Assumptions are being made about who the dominant is, who the public is.”
In his classroom at Clemson, Kumanyika makes a point of speaking, and sometimes dressing, how he feels most comfortable — just to shake up his students’ expectations of what it means to be professional.
“I dress and speak the way that they might expect a professor to dress, and I make it clear to students what expectations they will face when they enter their careers,” Kumanyika said. Occasionally, to challenge his students’ expectations, he dresses in “hip-hop mode”: a fitted hat, jeans, and the intonation of his “hip-hop voice” rolling off his tongue.
“Professionalism deals with certain standards as far as backing your stuff up with facts. But that doesn’t preclude any particular way of talking,” Kumanyika said. “It comes down to the power of your ideas. That’s what it is for me. That’s what I care about.”
But would audiences tune in to hear voices they weren’t accustomed to? After all, the audience for NPR, for instance, is overwhelmingly white. Could that audience really adapt to a vocally diverse public radio?
No question about it, Kumanyika said. Audiences adapt all the time. “Look at the fact that people are consuming things via different technologies on their phones. People can learn new things. It’s just a matter of whose priorities are guiding that learning process,” he said.
He admits that some audiences might have to make an effort to understand new phrases and new accents. But Kumanyika believes the process will be rewarding rather than troublesome.
By way of proof, he offered up an expression his grandmother used to say to him, one that made his ear “reach” for meaning: “Go get something out of the icebox.”
“If you unpack why she said, ‘icebox,’ you get the history, the evolution of technology that’s in that phrase. You know what I’m saying? You will learn from that process,” he said.
Ultimately, public radio needs to do more than just hire a diverse staff, Kumanyika said. It’s about making that staff comfortable enough to speak naturally. Only then can public radio start to redefine the sound of authority.
Though he may sound critical, Kumanyika actually professes a deep love for public radio. In particular, he’s heartened by projects like Transom, which offers workshops and scholarships to bring new voices to public radio.
And it is precisely that love for public broadcasting that inspires him to keep pushing for its betterment.
“I see it as all coming from a space of critical hopefulness. If you expect more, then you believe there can be something better,” he said. “That’s how I want to be in this world. I want to be in the place where I’m always looking for the next horizon of equality.”
And, for Kumanyika, reaching the next horizon means changing the very essence of public radio: its voice.