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Why Do These Women's Voices Bother You So Much?

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"I love the stories, but I just can't listen to these Valley Girls any longer."

In January, NPR debuted Invisibilia, a new podcast exploring the science of human behavior. The show was created and hosted by public radio veterans Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, who were founding producers of This American Life and Radiolab respectively. Between the two of them, Spiegel and Miller have over two decades of broadcast and journalism experience, a Peabody Award (among many others), and years spent reporting on the NPR Science Desk. But, after the first episode of Invisibilia aired, the consensus among critics was clear: "They sound like high school girls."

There were variations on the theme; listeners offered a litany of complaints about the hosts' voices: they sounded too similar, they were "high-pitched and up-talky," and of course, there was the vocal fry. Or, as one commenter put it, "vocal fry hell!!"

"Yesterday I was on Twitter, and somebody sent out a compilation of an Invisibilia episode that was just vocal fry," Spiegel told me. I looked it up on YouTube and found that in fact there were two compilations of Invisibilia "Vocal Fry Supercuts," both created by a user named Eric Woodward. The comments under these videos were equally incensed about the "gross affectation" of these women's voices. 

"But, the thing is, like, it's honestly just the way I talk," said Spiegel. "It's the way I've talked my entire life." 

Both Spiegel and Miller are clearly conscious of their critics in this area, particularly those who constantly complain of not being able to tell them apart. In an effort to acknowledge the issue, the co-hosts  made this a bit of a running joke on the show (commenters responded by demanding they "cut out the cutesy, jokey bits"). Speaking to Spiegel and Miller on a conference call, they asked if I could differentiate between them. I could, but admitted that I sometimes mixed them up on the show if I wasn't paying close attention. But, usually I was so wrapped up in the story that it didn't didn't matter either way.
The Invisibilia hosts are by no means the first to hear these kinds of complaints. The female voice has a long history of irritating people. Margaret Thatcher famously went through vocal coaching to learn to speak in a lower register, giving her voice a more "authoritative tone." According to biographer Charles Moore, it was Laurence Olivier who suggested she study with a speech coach at the National Theater, "and soon the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes..."

But for women these days, it's not as simple as trying to lower their voices. It's in that lower register that the dreaded vocal fry kicks in.  So, we're stuck between a rock and a high pitch. The solution is simple: There isn't one. Either you're a man, or you're nails on a chalkboard

Lea Thau was creative director of the landmark storytelling show The Moth for 10 years. She turned it into a podcast (and radio show), and now hosts the popular podcast Strangers on the Radiotopia network, in which she explores deeply personal stories in other people's lives as well as her own. Described as "an empathy shot in your arm," the show's singular quality is often attributed to Thau's intimacy with her audience, and the deep, misty voice with which she whispers these secrets into their ears. Her voice is unique among podcast and radio hosts, male or female. Naturally low and lightly accented (she is originally from Denmark), Thau's tone is impossible to describe and instantly recognizable. She has neither a "high-pitched uptalk-y" voice nor any vocal fry to speak of. And, yet:

"Her voice is just weird and she goes on and on about her love life or lack of it." 

Strangers and Invisibilia are two very different shows in terms of content, style, and listener followings. They both have a wealth of devoted fans. But, when it comes to their critics, the complaints are eerily similar.

"I was the only person who worked at The Moth who had never told a story there," Thau told me, recounting a particularly awkward moment during her tenure there. This was back in 2009, when the radio show had just gone on the air for the first time. Thau's colleagues had elected her to be the host — an honor she did not relish.

"I was just like, 'No, no, I like being the editor, the midwife. I'm not the front-and-center person.'" She'd always been self-conscious about her voice, thinking it weird ("I've always hated hearing [it] on answering machines"). Still, she reluctantly agreed to record the pilot as a host, and the episode went out to 130 radio stations. The good news was the stations loved it. The bad news was The Moth's board did not. 

"They said, 'You have the worst radio voice we have ever heard.'" As a nonprofit, The Moth was somewhat at the mercy of its board, and despite her decade of leadership and innovation, they wanted Thau's voice off the show. But, it was too late. Hundreds of radio stations wanted to air the episode, Lea and all. The show was an overnight success, and the board couldn't argue with that. "So, that was a bit of a weird tension."
Thau no longer seems ruffled by the memory, perhaps because the show was such a hit, and perhaps because she's come to terms with her own sound. "I mean, they were right in the sense that I don’t have a traditional radio voice." She soon left The Moth and started Strangers — which she records alone, with no one else in the studio. 

Despite the occasional critical comment, many of Thau's listeners find her speaking voice ideal for the medium. Now, her take is, "either you like it or you don’t." She doesn't apologize for it or even acknowledge it as an issue on the show. Listening to her talk about the great Vocal Fry Debate — and women in podcasting, in general — Thau seems to have a healthy dose of fuck-you attitude.

When asked for her opinion on the dearth of female hosts in podcasting, she laid out a sound theory about how podcasting requires a little cockiness. For one thing, it takes some ego to quit your job and go into podcasting, a medium which, though popular, is not exactly lucrative or steady work. 

Secondly, "Many podcasts are personality driven, and need to be in order to build an audience." It's about drawing attention. "That's something that women have traditionally been raised not to do.  It's not considered a feminine virtue, right?  To stand up and say, 'Look at me, I'm smart, I'm funny, I have something to say.' You know?"

Thau goes on to say, "It's funny, because I was interviewed about it a couple of years ago and said, 'I think it's gonna change on its own really, really soon.'" Indeed, there are a growing number of female-headed shows now: Death, Sex & MoneyThe Longest Shortest Time, and the audio juggernaut, Serial, to name a few. "I feel like I've been proven right," said Thau. She paused, then added, "I almost felt like an asshole for saying that, you know?"
 
I do know. Looking through my transcripts of interviews both with Thau and the Invisibilia hosts, I see equivocation everywhere. We hedge our yeses with nos. We say sorry before asking a question. We finish a sentence by double checking — "you know what I mean, right?"

The word we're all not saying is "sexism." It's so obvious it doesn't need to be said. But, I think Lea Thau hit the uncomfortable nail on the head when she pointed out that it's not only men making it harder for women to speak. Maybe we first have to admit that it is harder for women to stake a claim in this field — not because they have bad radio voices, but because we're not used to hearing their voices.

It's not easy being a pioneer. If podcasting is about strong personalities, then all three of these women are doing it right. They're smart, they're funny, they have something to say. Listeners are the one's who can't even find an original way to criticize them. Valley girls? Come on. 

"We did get a comment that said, 'Interesting content, but they talk about it like they're talking about going shopping,'" Lulu Miller told me. Again, these are two educated women talking about science. If we're hearing shopping in their voices, maybe that's on us. Maybe they're speaking just fine, and we need to learn how to listen. 


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