When DaLyah Jones was a college student in Texas, a journalism professor gave her advice: Start your radio career in Iowa.
She believed the state has the most neutral of American accents, one supposedly unencumbered by regional idiosyncrasies and ideal for radio and TV journalists striving for a universally understandable voice. The experience would make her “sound less country on the air,” she said.
Jones got the message loud and clear: Hailing from Angelina County, near the Louisiana line, she had a proximity to Creole culture and a distance from urban centers that had created a distinct rural Texas twang.
She didn’t go to Iowa, but eventually she became the only Black producer and reporter at a public radio station in central Texas. She said her editors often told her they couldn’t understand her phrasing, didn’t know words she used and made her record her segments over and over again.
It’s an experience that many Black on-air journalists have had, according to University of Minnesota sociologist Laura Garbes. After interviewing more than 90 public radio staffers, she found that people of color, non-native English speakers and immigrants frequently face pushback about their speaking voices from listeners and editors who question whether those journalists are qualified to be on the air.
Black broadcasters bore a particularly heavy burden. “They specifically almost always have to contend with whether or not their voice ‘matches’ the voice of the network,” Garbes said.
Be they morning anchors, weather staff or public radio reporters, Black on-air journalists are often told, in overt and coded ways, that they sound different. And sonic difference isn’t rewarded in an industry still heavily invested in what some call “white voice” — modulated, grammatical, urban and urbane. While leadership may say they want diverse “voices” in the newsroom, that diversity doesn’t necessarily extend to actual voices speaking in different dialects.
The unspoken hierarchy of accents
“One of the myths of broadcasting is that it’s possible to speak without a dialect,” said Walt Wolfram, a linguist at North Carolina State University and executive producer of the recent “Talking Black” documentary series. “In reality, it’s impossible.”
Dialect diversity — or divergence, in linguist speak — is a fact of life. Our speaking voices are an archive of experience. As legal scholar Mari Matsuda put it in a 1991 article, in which she coined the term “accent discrimination,” how we speak is highly individual and culturally dependent. “Your accent carries the story of who you are — who first held you and talked to you when you were a child, where you have lived, your age, the schools you attended, the languages you know, whom you admire, your loyalties, your profession, your class position,” she wrote. “Traces of your life and identity are woven into your pronunciation, your phrasing, your choice of words.”
There’s nothing inherently better about one way of speaking over another, but how we interpret dialect differences reflects existing hierarchies.
“Linguistic standards change over time to match [the speaking habits] of the upper middle class,” said Garbes. “Teachers get trained to speak this particular way. Then, they teach children to speak this way, the ‘correct’ way. The stakes get higher and higher when you perform professionally for a living” — as broadcast journalists do.
Antionette Kerr, a Lexington, North Carolina journalist and nonprofit communications trainer, knows that all dialects aren’t treated equally. When she took her first audio job as a producer-reporter at a nonprofit radio service, a speech consultant wasted no time in telling her that she was saying certain words wrong. “’Month’ shouldn’t sound like ‘munth,”’ he told her.
Kerr wondered why being radio-ready meant taking speech lessons from a coach with a New York accent. “He could say ‘youse,’ and it was fine. I didn’t know [at first] my accent wasn’t good enough.”
She had thought her accent would be an asset. After all, her listeners lived in North Carolina and Tennessee. “I mean, why wouldn’t I sound like the folks I’m around or talking to? I told them that you don’t want me to sound Black. And I don’t know that I can change that,” she said with a laugh. She got fed up after about five sessions and eventually left the position.
Years later, she remembers it was hard to suss out just what her speech coach wanted or was trying to avoid. There’s no singular Southern dialect; Wolfram once identified at least five in Kerr’s native North Carolina alone. And not every Black American speaks African-American Vernacular English, once pejoratively referred to as Ebonics.
Yet Southern dialects and AAVE have one thing in common: stigma. For decades, scores of studies showed that listeners often associate Southern accents with less education, sounding less smart or speaking the “worst English.” Some of that is changing — many linguists now agree AAVE is a distinct dialect, complete with its own structure, grammar and vocabulary — but stigma still persists.
When Jones landed a prestigious fellowship in New York City, she spoke only “enough to be understood and to be heard,” but not enough to draw attention to her accent.
Inside she was roiling: “Do I sound smart enough to be in this space? Am I gonna have to repeat myself? Is somebody gonna make fun of me?” she said. “Black Southern accents are always deemed dumb, and I internalized that.”
Experiences like those of Jones and Kerr are “soul crushing,” said Collette Watson, director of the Free Press’ Media 2070 project, which has documented the long history of racism in U.S. media and advocates for media reparations. Across much of the media landscape, “whiteness is the default, [considered] objective, neutral, or normal,” Watson said. “Our media system has anti-Blackness in its DNA.”
Watson’s colleague, Joseph Torres, said it comes down to who the desired “public” is in public broadcasting and who is the decision-making class in media. “Who’s going to be the folks running the stations? Who are the folks who are the general managers? Who are the funders? Who are the underwriters of the program? And who’s the audience that [they are] trying to reach with that funding?”
In fact, TV stations with Black-majority ownership comprise only about 2% of all stations, according to Federal Communications Commission data released in January. It’s a structural reality that’s easy to quantify — and equally as difficult to remedy as accent bias.
Desiring ‘Walter Cronkite in a Black female body’
Broadcast jobs “want you to sound like Walter Cronkite, but in a Black female body,” said a veteran news anchor in a Northeastern market who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns about workplace retaliation. NBCU Academy contacted numerous Black journalists in various settings for this story, but few would comment on the record.
“No station or network wants to be heard saying [to a Black journalist], ‘We told you that you need to work on’” speech improvement. Leadership doesn’t want to seem racist by pushing vocal issues, she said. In fact, early in her career, it was an experienced Black woman in the newsroom who took her aside and said, “‘Look, you need to work on your speech.”
She said newsroom management doesn’t seem concerned about a white host who makes many obvious mistakes and has vocal tics that merit correction. Her white co-anchors also don’t get mail that says, “I hate the way you talk” or “You’re so ghetto.”
After decades in the business, she recently hired a speech coach — at her own expense — so she can move to a bigger, better job.
It’s not that Black journalists can’t hack it, added linguist Garbes. It’s that they’re being held to different standards by a white-majority audience that doesn’t work hard to understand that not everyone speaks the same.
“You can say that [non-native speakers’] accent is just too thick,” said Garbes. “And it’s nothing about them; it’s just the country they come from. But there’s a sense of wrongness associated with domestic accents and particularly Black accents. ‘This person doesn’t talk right.’ ‘They’re ungrammatical.’ All of a sudden, everybody is like a nasty second-grade teacher with a red pen, condescending in a way that’s a different kind of violence.”
Pushing back against accent discrimination
Jessica Hansen is familiar with this sometimes-vicious feedback loop. Until she recently lost her job in a mass layoff, she was a voice coach at National Public Radio (her sonorous voice did the funding credits). She had a front-row seat to how audience members reacted to different voices — even in a system that’s sometimes known for its quirky voices, in sound and content.
Stations want to keep their listeners comfortable, she said, but they want to build younger, more diverse audiences — which takes putting younger, more diverse voices on the air. “Human beings don’t like change, and so the person who’s been listening to the radio for 40 years [may think] here’s something different and it’s disruptive,” she said. “And the leadership at member stations are saying, ‘How do we make everybody happy?’ And you can’t.”
Case in point: Some listeners have declared “Weekend Edition Sunday” host Ayesha Rascoe’s accent grating and unprofessional. Others have said that hearing her Southern accent — she hails from North Carolina, like Kerr — is a win.
Hansen, who coached Rascoe, noted that pre-layoffs, NPR national had gotten better at recruiting diverse voice talent over the past few years. From her perspective, “everything shifted from just the basic ‘What are you saying and who are you saying it to?’ to ‘Who are you, and where are you from, and how can we keep that and keep you authentic and true to yourself?”
Still, despite the shift at NPR headquarters, a dearth of regional accents remain. “We just don’t have people who sound like the various parts of this nation — and that makes me sad,” Hansen said. “You turn on the BBC, and you hear people with Irish dialects, Scottish dialects, those from every neighborhood of London. I would like to hear that in America.”
For her, coaching is not just about delivery, but helping broadcasters use their full voices and bodies to step up to the mic with confidence.
Kate West, an Emmy-nominated assistant professor at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication, doesn’t bring up accents to her broadcast students. More often, the college students approach her to ask how to reduce an accent they fear is distracting. After years of TV anchoring in Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia, West emphasizes clarity of speech, conveying energy through their voices, and making their voice pleasurable to listen to.
But “pleasant” is as subjective as “relatable” or “likable”: English may sound guttural to a Romance language speaker, and a Boston accent might ring odd to a Virginian and vice versa.
With one student, “I had a hard time understanding what she was saying,” said West. “But never once did I want to make her feel bad about the way she sounded because that’s who she is.”
West spent extra time helping the student practice recording for reels that she’d send to prospective employers and told her that “it’s up to her, how she does her future career.” West did, however, suggest that the student might want to focus her job search on the South — a tacit acknowledgment that many employers don’t take West’s identity-affirming approach.
If accents play a role in hiring and recruitment, then feedback about them certainly plays a role in Black journalists’ stress, job satisfaction and retention.
Jones, the journalist who was urged to seek a linguistic makeover in the Midwest, now works in philanthropy. She counters any lingering feelings about her accent by reminding herself that her ancestors and grandparents spoke this way, and she’s most at ease within earshot of her people. She tells herself that Black Southerners often excel at wordplay, whether white people understand them or not.
Still, memories of work trauma die hard. She remembered that she was once given a book primer on pronunciation, circa 1980s. A Latinx colleague received voice lessons, while she received complaints. She paused in the interview and let out a deep breath, then a sob. “I didn’t know I was still holding on to that.”