Is radio news ready for the sound of diversity?
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
The UK broadcasting industry is quite rightly looking to increase diversity, in all areas of production and output. However, there are challenges with this, not just in terms of attracting talent from diverse communities, but also for managers and listeners to accept that diversity will mean changes to how things sound.
In 2021, there was a fascinating debate sparked by the former head of the CBI Lord Jones, who took issue with the BBC presenter Alex Scott, because of the way she pronounces words ending in 'ing'. People like Stephen Fry led to her defence to talk about whether a few words said differently made her a 'bad' presenter. But to some, the fact that she doesn't pronounce the 'ing' sound means she is uneducated and stupid.
That is the key issue with how we judge people by their voice. Alex Scott is not stupid, she just has an accent that means certain words sound different. The Home Secretary Priti Patel has the same trait, as does the excellent Sky News Political Correspondent Beth Rigby. Both are often criticised for the way they speak. Beth Rigby is from Colchester and Priti Patel grew up in north London, meaning certain words will sound different. Both are well-educated and evidently not 'stupid'.
We want to attract people from different backgrounds, not just cultural, but from different class backgrounds, regions and upbringings. This will make newsrooms richer and allow opinions and views to be heard that often get ignored or squeezed from the mainstream. Seeing stories with an alternative perspective will make us all better journalists. Too often I have worked with people who think the same and judge the world through a very narrow middle-class lens (I count myself among those people by the way).
For this to happen though, the industry has to accept that changes will happen on-air. If you are not brought up to speak 'received pronunciation' then you will say words in a way that some people may call 'incorrect'. I recently heard a football reporter talking about a team being 'roofless'. Was he wrong? It's just his accent is different. On the outstanding podcast from Serial Productions, the new journalist Hamza Syed has a Birmingham accent and doesn't pronounce his 'Ts' in places. Words like 'better' become 'bedder' for example. Does this affect my enjoyment of the podcast? Not at all.
Where this issue becomes difficult to address is with news. A correspondent, presenter, reporter or pundit saying words 'differently' can be accepted by management and listeners. The expectation for someone reading the news is that they should speak 'properly' and prounouce things 'correctly'. This is because the role requires authority and to management and listeners, the pronunciation of certain words is key to this.
Take the word 'says'. A simple word and in radio news used a lot. But some people prounounce it 'say-z', almost adding an extra syllable. I always corrected newsreaders for doing this and I know a radio group that once told its journalists to spell it 'sez' in order to get it 'right'. Pronunciation is not about education though, as the issue with 'says' was one that affected Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister. So we are not saying people that do not pronounce things 'correctly' are stupid. Or are we?
Research shows that people with certain accents are perceived by others to be less intelligent. A study by the University of Essex found voices with working-class backgrounds were also judged to be less friendly and trustworthy by middle-class peers, while ethnic minority voices were also deemed to be less intelligent. Surely the way to change these perceptions is to increase the diversity of voices we hear. But how many people running newsrooms will be happy if a newsreader doesn't say ings with a g or says TH with an F sound? More importantly will listeners also accept this?
In 2006 the arrival of Neil Nunes on Radio 4 provoked debate amongst its audience, with his rich Jamaican accent causing consternation. A few years later and the fuss was gone - people were used to it (it really helped that he has a lovely voice to be honest). That debate was 15 years ago but the challenges faced when introducing different voices is the same. We are certainly more used to hearing regional accents on radio than we were then, but I don't think managers and (most) listeners are willing to hear those differences in bulletins.
What that leads to is a shaping of people to fit what we want. You may grow up in Essex or the West Midlands, but once you are in the 'system' (university, media courses) you will get taught how to speak 'correctly' and lose your natural voice or accent. Much of the media likes to look diverse, but does it want to sound it too? To achieve this, hiring managers need to diversify their thinking and not judge people by the way they say certain words. We should embrace difference and challenge perceived norms in news bulletins as we are beginning to do elsewhere in broadcasting. Then we will move towards a truly diverse media in sound and look.