Archive for September 26th, 2007

Curb their tongues – Anne Karpf’s ‘Human Voice’

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

This from a section called ‘Curb their tongues’, in the book ‘The Human Voice’ by Anne Karpf –

Belief in the unsuitability of women’s voices for announcing began in the early days of radio, in both the US and Britain. According to the [UK’s] Daily Express, ‘Many hardened listeners-in maintain that… Adam has a more natural broadcasting voice than Eve. Some listeners-in go so far as to say that a woman’s voice becomes monotonous after a time, that her high notes are sharp, and resemble the filing of steel, while her low notes often sound like groans.’ [19.9.1928]

Many different reasons for denying women access to the British and American airwaves were advanced in the 1920s. One newspaper reported that ‘the general opinion is that there is only one woman in about 10,000 who is sufficiently educated in the general problems of the day to be able to announce news items as they should be spoken’, and then went on to quote an official saying that ‘women should no doubt get flustered in the rushing from one studio to another’.

The female timbre was singled out for particular opprobrium. The wireless correspondent of the [London] Evening Standard suggested that women’s high-pitched voices irritated many listeners, and that they talked too rapidly, over-emphasised unimportant words, or tried to impress listeners by talking beautifully. High voice in women was associated with demureness, and low voice with sexuality, so that – in a Catch 22 – the voice that escaped accusations of promiscuity wasn’t considered authoritative enough for serious broadcasting.

Women were also indicted both for conveying too much personality through their voices (‘Critics consider that women have never been able to achieve the “impersonal” touch. When there was triumph or disaster to report, they were apt to reflect it in the tone of their voices’) and too little (‘For some reason, a man… can express personality better by voice alone than can a woman’). America, too, threw up similar complaints about lack (‘Few women have voices with distinct personality,’ according to the manager at a Pittsburg radio station) and excess (‘Perhaps the best reason suggested for the unpopularity of the woman’s voice over the radio is that it usually has too much personality’).

In 1933 the BBC finally caved in and, in an ‘experiment’, hired a Mrs Giles Borrett to announce not the news but, daringly, ‘This is the National programme from London. The tea-time music today comes from the Hotel Metropole, London.’ The barricades had been breached, the fortress stormed. Or, in the words of the next day’s newspapers, ‘£500 A YEAR FOR A FEW WORDS A DAY: BBC DEBUT OF WOMAN WITH GOLDEN VOICE’, adding, for good measure, ‘HER BABY LISTENS IN’.

Borrett’s voice was reviewed by the News Chronicle’s music critic: ‘[She had] good, clear vocalisation, correctly pitched, pleasing in its cadency, yet free from pedantic exaggeration’, leaving the paper’s radio critic to report on the technical, or perhaps electrical, side of the story – the reaction of her 15-month old son (‘He gurgled with pleasure when he recognised the voice of his mother’).

On 21st August 1933 Mrs Giles Borrett advanced further, reading the BBC six o’clock evening news bulletin for the first time, although two months later BBC officials declared that the experiment had failed, not for personal but once again for ‘technical’ reasons. Elsie James, Mrs Borrett’s American counterpart, appointed as first female announcer in 1935, met almost exactly the same fate. Her NBC employer soon declared that he was not ‘quite sure what type of program her hoarse voice is best suited for, but he is certain she will read no more Press Radio news bulletins. Listeners complained that a woman’s voice was inappropriate.’

– from Anne Karpf’s ‘The Human Voice – the story of a remarkable talent’ (pp.157-9). I just love the idea of the radio’s daily slot for tea-time music! Times have changed, but there still aren’t many, if any, news anchor-women in British Broadcasting with the reputation of a Trevor Macdonald or a Jon Snow.

Karpf’s book is an interesting read – spiced with anecdote and packed with research-based evidence – about the workings of the human voice, and the influences both upon, and caused by, it. Her perspective that the proliferation of communication technologies enhances rather than lessens does nothing to detract from the importance of the human voice is one that rings true for me. I’m only half way through – so far the above passage is where the author’s passion for her subject seems at its most unleashed. All in all, good stuff.