NPR Fresh Air

I’ve always thought of myself as a comic novelist. It’s a tough road to hoe because comedy means light in people’s mind. There was an ambitious part of me that kind of chafed and was secretly relieved when the comedy was overlooked, but at a certain point, it becomes wearing for people not to get the humor.

Jonathan Franzen in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air

Pair with our review of Franzen’s new novel, Purity.

We know from decades of linguistic research that all people express themselves in ways that can convey an affiliation with a particular group or identity. We know that gender identity, sexual orientation, regional background, socioeconomic status, racial/ethnic affiliation, level of education, age, political beliefs, and many other social categories can be indexed through manipulations of voice quality, pitch, rhythm, vowel quality, consonant articulation, etc.

Crucially, it’s not just the minorities of these categories who use such features; majority groups make use of these indexical features as well. For example, straight male speakers of American English are known to have deeper voices than straight male speakers of many other languages; even prepubescent boys in the US have been documented to have significantly lower pitch than girls of the same age, even though the two groups are physiologically indistinguishable in their throats. This trend has been getting more extreme since the 1960s, with American boys getting deeper and deeper voices with each generation.

This means that inviting a gay man to talk about how his voice conveys gay-maleness is (scientifically speaking) just as valid as asking a straight man to talk about how his voice conveys straight-maleness, how a white person’s voice conveys whiteness, how a middle class person’s voice conveys middle class-ness, how a college-educated person’s voice conveys education, etc. But I can say I’ve never heard of such an interview from your program or any program; this is only something that gets asked of women, gay men, African Americans, immigrants, and other people who are in a socially un(der)privileged position.

The questions that get asked are “why do gay people/women have to talk like that?” or “why can’t blacks speak (what we consider) proper English?” instead of “why do straight people/men have to talk like that?” or “why don’t whites know how to speak (any variety of) African American English?”, etc. There is no logical reason why we should ask the questions like the former two and not questions like the latter two.

Not only is it inaccurate to label minorities as the only ones who convey their identities through their speech, it also perpetuates a misguided belief that there is a “natural” way to speak, or a way to speak that has no “styles”. This concept of “naturalness” or “authenticity”, which came up many times in your interview, assumes that only some people (i.e. minorities) are adopting “styles”, deviating from “natural” speech in order to convey their identity.

This myth comes up all the time with another linguistic feature brought up in the interview, “vocal fry”. This type of voice quality, which linguists call “creaky voice”, “glottalization”, “laryngealization”, or a host of other terms depending on the specific acoustic characteristics, appears to index a number of social categories in American English: younger age, urban background, and (lately in the popular media) a sort of femininity. Ms. Sankin’s technical description of the voice quality was not incorrect (it does involve a slow vocal fold vibration with often incomplete closure), except for the part where she said it is harmful or unnatural.

Endless popular articles and podcasts (and your interview) describe “vocal fry” as a deviation from a natural voice quality, that it can be physiologically harmful to the vocal folds, that it grates on the ears, that it’s a “style” coming from singers of pop music, and that it should be avoided in order to be successful in life. None of these claims has any basis in reality. In truth, these voice qualities are used extensively in languages like Danish, Vietnamese, Burmese, Hmong, and many indigenous languages of Mexico and Central America (such as Zapotec, Mazatec, and Yukatek Maya), far more than they are in English – and as you might imagine, speakers of those languages do not suffer from medical problems in the throat any more than speakers of other languages.


Excerpt from Open Letter to Terry Gross, by Sameer ud Dowla Khan on Language Log

This whole post (and its comment section) is worth reading – it’s written in response to an interview on NPR Fresh Air about a documentary on “sounding gay” but also stands well on its own.  

UPDATED: The possibility of humans colonizing outer space may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but British astronomer Chris Impey says that if the U.S. were pumping more money into the space program, the sci-fi fantasy would be well on its way to reality.

“I think we might actually be living on the moon and Mars,” Impey tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “Maybe not many of us, but we might have our first bases there. We’d have robust commercial space activity or people routinely in orbit. America wouldn’t have had a hiatus of four years and counting when we couldn’t get astronauts into space. It would be probably quite different.”

Despite the cuts to NASA, Impey says the possibility of humans living in space is very real. And if — or when — it happens, the space settlers will face conditions that may cause them to become an entirely new species.

The Great ‘Beyond’: Contemplating Life, Sex And Elevators In Space

Photo credit: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center

Caption: Astronomer Chris Impey examines the possibilities of the universe in his new book Beyond. “I like the idea that the universe — the boundless possibility of 20 billion habitable worlds — has led to things that we can barely imagine,” he says. In the 1970s, NASA Ames conducted several space colony studies, commissioning renderings of the giant spacecraft which could house entire cities.

Jenna Fischer, actor – a wistfully sweet remembrance of acting with directors and camera people – as heard on NPR Fresh Air 

INTERVIEWER: So, when you’re giving one of your pained looks or one of your: this is absurd, looks to the camera, who’s the camera person? Is there an actor behind there that you can kind of, like, interact with? Or is it just, like, the camera with a camera person?

FISCHER: Well, there’s two different scenarios. When we’re just shooting the show and it’s a scene, the camera operator is this man named Randall Einhorn. And he’s our director of photography. And we will look at him, we’ll give him the look, or we’ll look into the camera at him. And he’s become another character or another actor on the show to us. So, we do actually act with him.

And it’s really cute - whenever Pam smiles at the camera, Randall can’t help but smile back. The man, Randall, smiles at you while he’s holding the camera. And there are scenes that we’ve done that have been really touching. And you’ll look at Randall, and he’ll be, you know, sort of teared up.

And when we shoot our talking heads - our interview segments - the director of the episode serves as our documentarian for that week. Some of the directors, we have them back again, and again, and again. And one director we’re particularly attached to is Ken Kwapis. He directed our very first episode, and he comes back every year and directs a couple of episodes. And last year, he directed the finale. And he’s always taken a particular interest in Pam and her journey. So, I feel very close to him.

And in that moment, when Jim burst into the conference room while Pam’s giving an interview, and he finally asks her out on a date, I turned to the camera. And in the moment that they used, I’m sort of tearing up. And the reason that I teared up was because when I looked back at the camera, I saw Ken Kwapis. And he - his eyes were full of tears. And he smiled at me and gave me a little wink, like, that’s right. You finally got what you wanted, sweetie.

And it just, oh, it was a really powerful moment between me and the director. So it’s interesting. There’s a lot of acting that happens on the show that is with our crew members or, you know, people - that doesn’t normally happen when you’re making a movie or a television show.



Hi friends,

I wanted to take a minute to introduce myself in the best way I know–with photos! I’m Molly and I’m Fresh Air’s associate producer for online media. For the last 6 months I was working with Fresh Air on a freelance basis and now I am happy to be a full-time associate producer.

I’m a longtime Fresh Air/public radio listener and enthusiast, thanks to my Chicago roots growing up with WBEZ. As a kid, my mom would say (many times) in the car that, “Terry Gross has the best job in the world.” Now that I’m here, it’s incredible to be a part of the process.

I went to Bryn Mawr (top left) a women’s college outside of Philly. There I studied urban and environmental history and developed a passion for architecture. So that might explain why many of the photo breaks are architectural.  Louis Sullivan (designer of gate detail top right) is one of my favorite architects.  In fact, my cat Sully is named for the famously cranky guy who coined the phrase “form follows function.”

The Job:  I build Fresh Air’s webpages in conjunction with Internet goddesses Nicole Cohen and Beth Novey at NPR in D.C.  Though lot of my work is with NPR staff, I’m with the remarkable Fresh Air staff in Philadelphia at WHYY, where the show is produced. One of my favorite things is listening to the chitchat before and after the interview in the live feed from the studio while Terry is recording. 

 I also run the Twitter, Facebook, and tumblr. 

Let’s see… what else? After spending quite a bit of time in Paris I became obsessed with French film noir.  If you haven’t seen Rififi, stop everything and watch it now. The cinematography is breathtaking.

Speaking of film–one of my favorite interviews of late is with director Alexander Payne. I especially admire how he peppers comedy throughout rather bleak storylines, as in Nebraska and Election.  His films capture real life in a way that is both subtle and piercing. I share a cube with associate producer Heidi Saman (who is also a talented filmmaker) and we gush about his films all the time.

Finally, thank you all for listening to the show and following the blog!  Please say hi and tell me a little bit about yourself. I’ll be here and @nprfreshair on Twitter.


(All photos are my own, except for a screenshot of noir Bob le Flambeur and Alexander Payne… I wish, that’s the Huffington Post)

NPR Fresh Air

Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch at Fifty: Another Appreciation

The Gazette celebrated the 50th anniversary of Eric Dolphy’s recording the masterwork Out to Lunch last week; as it happens, NPR’s Fresh Air was also observing the occasion. Here is Kevin Whitehead’s appreciation of Out to Lunch.

Listen to the Appreciation…

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NPR Review

Rosemary Clooney Box Set: A Holiday Stocking Stuffer

Hope your chimney is at least 12 inches wide: Santa will need the clearance to get Mosaic’s new box set, The Rosemary Clooney CBS Radio Recordings 1955-61 into your hearth this holiday season. Listen to critic Kevin Whitehead’s review of jazz box sets on NPR’s Fresh Air (including his paean to Buddy Cole’s keyboard romps), telling you why you should put Mosaic’s Rosemary Clooney box on your holiday wish list. To hear more, and to order your set, go here.

Listen to review…

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Liev Schreiber, actor – on the best way to learn a dialect – as heard on NPR Fresh Air

“I just find it, you know, aside from doing the normal dialect work, one of the best ways to learn a dialect is to try to learn the language because then you have a sense of where the emphasis is and words and the sounds that are maybe not as familiar in your native dialect.”


I was trying to think why do I get angry when someone’s racist to me? I think it’s ‘cause when someone’s racist to you, there are no comebacks. There is nothing I can say to get back at this guy because what am I going to be like, I’m not going to be racist 'cause I’m not racist. And almost everyone who’s racist to me is white, and it’s very difficult to be racist to white people. Like what am I going to be like, oh I’m Kumar? Well… you’re the main character in most movies that come out! SLAM!
—  Kumail Nanjiani, NPR Fresh Air.

“Infobesity,” “lumbersexual,” “phablet.” As usual, the items that stand out as candidates for word of the year are like its biggest pop songs, catchy but ephemeral. But even a fleeting expression can sometimes encapsulate the zeitgeist. That’s why I’m nominating “God view” for the honor.

Uber’s “God view” shows a map of the cars in an area and the silhouettes of the people who ordered them. Geoff Nunberg says Uber-Santa doesn’t just know when you’ve been sleeping, but where.

Feeling Watched? ‘God View’ Is Geoff Nunberg’s Word Of The Year

Photo credit: Ralf Hirschberger/AFP/Getty Images

Listening to The Hawk Flies High

The Hawk Flies High was Coleman Hawkins’ 1957 debut on Riverside Records and featured a young cast of modernists. Hawk had been a champion of bebop in the ‘40s, especially the music of Thelonious Monk. He was a perpetual modernist. In fact, trumpeter Booker Little was planning to arrange an album for the tenor saxophonist when he died tragically at the age of 23 from uremia. NPR’s Kevin Whitehead listens to the reissue of the album.

-Michael Cuscuna


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Mel Brooks, actor – on preparing Sweet Georgia Brown in Polish; working with his wife, Anne Bancroft; and marriage – as heard on NPR Fresh Air 

INTERVIEWER:  How much rehearsal did it take?

MEL BROOKS: Oh, about a month, you know, because we had a Polish teacher who taught Eastern languages - when I say Eastern I mean Russian and Polish at UCLA - and she’d spend an hour with us every day working on the song and working on the lyrics that are Polish because I don’t know, she and somebody else did a translation of it.

INTERVIEWER: Does that bring back specific memories?

MEL BROOKS: I think of all the rehearsals we did and the joy of finally being together, working on a movie together and being there every day. And, you know, so we saw each other for a period of three or four months 24 hours a day. And it wasn’t bad. It was kind of beautiful.

INTERVIEWER: If you don’t mind me asking, this is a personal question not a cinematic one. Was there a secret to your marriage?

MEL BROOKS: I don’t know if there was a secret. I don’t know what you would call a secret. I think we - from the first minute I saw her I fell in love and it lasted until the day she died. That’s something. That was the secret. I mean I just fell in love with her.