This is not a photo of my actual car.

Has anyone else noticed that either NPR is now intentionally hiring broadcasters who stammer, or broadcasters are deliberately mimicking Terry Gross?  Or worse, World Cafe’s David Dye?

I have nothing against Terry Gross, in fact, I love “Fresh Air.”  Back in college, I remember listening to “Fresh Air” (usually on road trips in my 1967 Plymouth Valiant) and the way Terry Gross said, “From WHYY in Philadelphia, I’m Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air” made me believe that not only did she have the best job in the world, but she relished simply saying the words.  I still dream of being on her show some day.  Her stammer has always sounded natural, quirky, and endearing.  And her interviews!  She can make utterly uninteresting topics fascinating.  And clearly, she listens to the people she is interviewing.

I wonder about David Dye.  He stammers, too, but also fawns, and generally, while the music was once interesting (I’m thinking back to the 1990s), these days, I find it incredibly watered down to a bitter, weak tea.  There are exceptions, but usually I am lulled into a stupor by the mediocrity in his musical choices.  (Dangerous when driving.  And probably a reflection on what fits in the uninventive AAA format of radio in 2010.  cc: Elvis Costello.)  What bugs me the most about David Dye, though, is how he doesn’t even seem to be listening to what his interviewers are saying, but instead reading and preparing to ask the next question.  I can’t recall him switching gears, or probing deeper.  There is an art to the interview (as Terry Gross and her fans know) and David Dye seems more interested in flattering his guests than getting into real conversations.  And in style, I have long wondered about him: whether, when he interviews people, he is copying the cadence of Terry Gross, hoping some of her talent will rub off on him by association.

Then there’s Ira Glass.  I rarely get to hear This American Life, but when I do, I’m usually completely engrossed after a few moments.  Ira Glass stammers a bit, but it sounds genuine, usually at times when he’s baffled by some bizarre aspect of humanity.

But for a long while, I’ve noticed others on NPR stammering.  Stammer is cropping up in serious political interviews on All Things Considered.  And even on the weekends, there is an increase in stammering.

Here’s my thesis, based on a plethora of very exacting scientific research (ahem).  Maybe since George W. Bush’s “beer buddy” image of the 2000 Presidential election, NPR, and the rest of the friendly U.S., wants to feel more folksy, more disarming.  It’s human to stammer.  We all do it. (Henry James might be the one exception.  He was a stutterer, and as a child, he became used to drafting sentences in his head before he spoke them.  Ultimately, this, along with wrist problems, led to him dictating his writing to a typist.)

I do wonder if NPR is coaching their people to do this intentionally. “Listen to Terry, listen and learn!  She knows!” Human Resources might say to new hires.

25 thoughts on “Stammering on NPR

  1. I have been increasingly irritated at the stammering! I have listed to both Terry Gross and David Dye, and I noticed the same thing. Terry Gross starts almost every sentence with sso, sso, so….
    If she would allow the person being interviewed to complete their thoughts without interjecting her questions, then she might have time to formulate the question she is about to ask, properly.
    What is really interesting is that Terry Gross’ substitute (forgot his name) does the same exact thing. He stammers and asks questions the same way she does, which makes me beleive that he is mimicking her style. Because of this, I would say that they are interested in keeping the Terry Gross “Stammer” going.

  2. Eric, good point about TG’s fill-in. When people do this intentionally, I’m sure it has something to do with being disarming, or not intimidating people, and maybe even trying not to be stuffy and pretentious (as NPR used to be?) but it comes across as condescending, annoying, and yes, pretentious, to me at least… Glad someone else has noticed!

  3. Hi, Rebecca. Believe it or not, I found your blog through a Google search trying to confirm whether or not David Dye has an actual speech impediment. I really like XPN, but I can’t STAND his stuttering. It seems like an affectation, but I was prepared to be sympathetic if he had a diagnosable problem (even then I’d wonder why he didn’t get help from it – the man makes his LIVING by TALKING, for God’s sakes). Still no luck on whether it’s real or affected, so I’ll continue my annoyance campaign…

  4. Amy, how funny that you found my blog! The interweb is an amazing place. And it’s nice to know I’m not alone in my pondering these crucial issues. (I’m not being sarcastic, just hyperbolic!) It might provide a clue, maybe, to find someone interviewing David Dye, to see if he stammers on the other end of the microphone. Hmm, there’s something to google!

    Does Nick Spitzer stammer? I don’t think I’ve heard him stammer. Very old school.

  5. I am listening to David Dye right now. He is doing the same thing as he usually does. I hope David Dye and/or Terry Gross find this blog so they can see that it irritates people. Maybe they will see it and do something.
    They make their living at speaking, you would think they listen to themselves on the radio from time to time and critique their own work. We cannot be the only ones who notice this annoying interview method.

  6. Eric, thanks for stopping back, if this is the same Eric. (Though I’m sorry it was prompted by irritation!) Again I’ll say how nice it is for me not to be alone in my critique. Maybe I should send this link to those two notables…

  7. Huh. I found your blog because I happen to like David Dye’s style, and incidentally, I find his stammer style to be engaging. Evidently, I’m not the only one, seeing as how he’s been successfully hosting World Cafe since 1991. I am also a big fan of Terry Gross, who has been doing Fresh Air since 1975. ;) Ira Glass-whom I also love–doesn’t so much stammer, but rather, uses pregnant pauses. There are plenty of studies indicating that (a reasonable amount of) stammers and pauses in speech actually force the audience to listen more intently–and as it turns out, more information is retained by the listener. There are countless examples of highly intelligent and thoughtful speakers who pause or stammer. My simple advice on the subject is–don’t be so simple. Get over it. Focus on content, and be less pedantic. In the long run, I think you’ll be glad you did.

  8. Hi Trish,
    Clearly, many people love David Dye and his programming. My main problem with him is his fawning boosterism of music that I usually find quite mediocre. (Which is says more about current AAA format/public radio music and programming than David Dye, sadly.) And as I said, I love “Fresh Air” and Terry Gross. You’re right–Ira Glass is more a hesitant/choppy cadence, which definitely adds texture to his storytelling.

    I’d love to see the studies you reference: “There are plenty of studies indicating that (a reasonable amount of) stammers and pauses in speech actually force the audience to listen more intently–and as it turns out, more information is retained by the listener. ” If there are web links you can share, please do. If people are stammering on purpose, simply because it’s trendy, or because other successful radio people do it, that would bother me. Pauses for dramatic effect are another thing, and I agree they can be very effective.

    The beauty about radio is that you can turn it on (and up, if you’d like) and I can turn it off. :) Cheers, and thanks for posting!

    1. Rebecca, yes, clearly. You can turn the radio on or off. ;)
      1) As far as information about speech habits are concerned, I recommend trying “Google.” I’m sure you’ll find the information you seek.
      2) Regarding people stammering on purpose–that seems highly unlikely. I know the ways in which many intelligent people struggle with such things. It’s typically something people fight to correct, since often, peers can be brutally unkind in these matters. That said, people certainly do pick up habits from others–including habits/patterns of speech.
      3) I did pick up that you are a fan of Terry Gross (speaking of gushing). Your comments regarding David Dye’s stammer, suggesting that he perhaps has copied the cadence of Terry Gross, strike me as petty conjecture. And I fail to see what stuttering and/or stammering has to do with his choice in music (or current AAA format/public radio music and programming), or his journalism skills–and for that matter–whether or not you approve. I have no need to defend David Dye, his skills, or his style. Hard news is obviously not his style, and he has never claimed otherwise. That’s not the point of the show.

      Now; obviously, I don’t know you, nor do I know how superb your personal taste in music might be, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s the abject criticism that leaves something to be desired.

  9. Thanks, Trish, for the dialogue. My taste in music is mine, idiosyncratic as anyone’s, and I’m no music critic. And you’re right; the way David Dye speaks has nothing to do with the content of his program. I am likely romanticising to a time when everything on the radio (and lots of other things) seemed more organic and less planned to elicit some sort of response… Those were the days! As they say.

    Oh right, Google! I should have thought of that. :)

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  10. I have proudly turned the radio off. i might stream this american life but will not listen to radio npr. first it was not in the programs but the news breaks read off scripts. Worse than any struggling third grader you have heard. they cannot read aloud. also i do not like michelle martin she panders has an innapropriate constant cheerfulness and likes to miss the most obvious follow up questions. or at least she did i have no idea how it is now because i have turned the radio off. and stop begging so hard for money or at least if you do read the phone number once in a while and dont repeat it constantly like you are a cheap infomercial. and this may hit home garrison keilor is funny sometimes but should not be allowed to discuss farting or sex or to say any word ending in sssssssss or to breathe constantly through his nose into the microphone i know you know what i am talking about and if i have a loved one who is no longer able to drive maybe i would like some sympathy instead of being informed that you are ready to swoop in like vultures for their car to finance all of the things i have just gone over. i know you like to broadcast critisicm of yourselves so feel free to rrrrree aa u gghh read this on the air and if i could i would like to leave you with my take away. nobody likes opera. take a poll.

  11. Jay, thanks for finding us! Your post reminds me a little of Tom Waits’ song, “Step Right Up” in the best possible way. I mean that as a compliment. NPR seems to be doing okay without us, alas.

  12. yeah, I too found this by googling “NPR stammer” . It’s driving me nuts. I didn’t notice Terry doing it until recently . I thought it was a widespread fad as everyone seems to be doing it. I have my own voice disorder (SD) so I would never ridicule someone, but my disability makes me appreciate the beauty of speech even more, so I hate to see this abuse for fashion. I have actually emailed Terry and others about this. Stop it. It was kinda cute for Bob Newhart, but who knew it would be contagious.

    1. :) Thanks for your comment, tracer. If Terry Gross replies, I’d love to hear what she has to say. (And I hope it’s clear from what I’ve said here that I have no intention of ridiculing anyone.)

  13. I actually emailed Terry to beg her to stop this. As a person with a speech disorder (SD), I hate hear healthy people butcher the music of the language out of pure affectation or worse, fashion. I actually googled “NPR stammer”, and what do you know–it’s a real thing!!! Has anyone noticed that there used to be no sports on npr and now there is, but it is gentrified a bit–usually talking about the business, instead of the plays. Also, they have gradually increased the length of the musical interludes. I liked them better when they were more brief and usually very interesting. Now they seem to be too long and frequently annoying.

    1. Did Terry Gross reply?

      I would wager that over time, NPR has opted to go more “folksy” or “accessible” which is probably in hopes of getting a broader audience. Which might be why they talk about sports more than they used to. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it’s nice if they are having fun–but it can sometimes feel forced. One thing that bugs me is the forced jauntiness of some of the weekend reporters. (I sometimes want to say to NPR: It’s okay to be nerdy! You don’t have to pretend to be cool.) :)

  14. It’s not just Terry Gross. Dianne Rheems people and everyboby but car talk tries to talk too fast and end up sounding like William F. Buckley on speed.

  15. tracer, i cannot stand the “interlude” music. it seems if it follows the formula of uninteresting and repetitive, it will make it to npr. then npr makes sure to repeat the already repetitive until my ears and brain hurt. i turn my radio off more often now than i ever hoped to.

    1. Lisa, I think they are trying to be hip with the interlude music, possibly? I am not excusing them. With all the information and stimulus coming in to our heads and lives these days, turning off the radio (and FB, and the CNN/news crawl, and our phones) seems like a really sane thing to do.

      1. This is a quite interesting conversation going on here. Like someone mentioned up there, I also happen to come across your blog by searching on Google whether Terry Gross has a stutter. I really do enjoy her shows, so for me it was purely a fact finding mission. Ira Glass is also another one I really enjoy…these two are the only ones who are able to capture my attention though.

  16. It took me 7 years, but I have finally found another person who noticed this! Thank you! ! In complete sincerity, I think I must have Aspergers… I often pick up on things like this, and I’m typically met with the same a quizzical look when I describe my observations to others.
    So, again, thanks. (:

    1. Just read the earlier comments. I noticed that Trish Hundhausen did a very good job putting her “quizzical look” into written form. :D

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