I just went on WGN—I went on at 9:38 AM, and was on, if my impression serves, for about a week. (I know you’re supposed to announce these things before you go on, but I wanted to limit the damage.)
I grew up on radio. Every Christmas my mom would buy cassette tapes of radio programs for my grandfather—"old-time" shows, Prairie Home Companion—and when he was done with them, he’d give them back, and I’d listen to them until the tape wore out. There aren’t a lot of kids who grew up in the 80s listening to Fibber McGee and Molly and The Jack Benny Show, though it was endearing to find out that comedian and Chicago native John Mulaney went to sleep listening to Burns and Allen because he was scared of people breaking into his house.
Which is exactly why I listened to those programs late at night.
I listened to Larry King; I listened to Bruce Williams ("the sixth greatest talk show host in radio history"); I tried to bring in distant sporting events on the radio, once picking up a Notre Dame basketball game out of South Bend, which seemed like a small miracle from western Virginia. When I went to Smith Mountain Lake during the summer, I went to sleep listening to weather radio because that’s all that was in my room, and the flat affect of the computer voice was soothing. I listened to Rush Limbaugh with my mom, a liberal Democrat who listened to him because he’s a really, really good radio host.
And I still don’t really know how they do it. About all I know comes from David Foster Wallace’s "Host," a fascinating essay on demi-Limbaugh talker John Ziegler. About 30 seconds in I was trying not to swallow my tongue. (I especially don’t know how WGN hosts do it, what with working in full view of one of the busiest stretches of sidewalk in the city. What happens when you need to scratch your butt?)
It’s not a matter of stage fright or of fear of public speaking. I have both, but I took two years of mandatory public speaking in college—long story—and by the end I actually was good at it, if I do say so myself. But the trick I learned, after an excellent teacher told me I was just reading essays out loud, was that I could actually write the rhythms, inflections, and informality of semi-formal talk into the speech itself, literally onto the page. It was a confidence game, in both meanings of the word, and I was proud of myself for pulling it off.
Speaking off the cuff, however, has always been a holy terror, because of how I talk. When I was in college, I saw an excellent psychologist who happened to be blind; the first blind person, if I recall correctly, to go through his medical school. He was outstanding, but my mother pointed out an interesting reason I liked him that I’ve never forgotten.
Being blind, he couldn’t use the visual cues most of us employ when we’re talking. So when I spoke my peace, he would wait just a couple beats longer than most people to start talking, to ensure I was done. My mother pointed out that it’s exactly how I talk, with a deliberation that the sighted find disorienting. I’ve had friends, from New York naturally, complain about this.
Nor can I stand the sound of my own voice, and if I don’t use it very much, I can pretend it’s dignified. I know I’m not the only print/Web journalist who blanches at the thought of transcribing his own interviews; it’s natural.
But it’s also the fear that those of us from the sticks have of our own accents, exemplified by a horrifying letter Ask Amy addressed the other day in ‘Fargo’ accent bothers date:
Early on, before we spoke on the phone, he warned me that he has a certain kind of "northern Michigan/Canadian" accent.
Amy, yes, he does! And it really is a discordant note to my ears.
I came from a rural area in Wisconsin, and the first thing I worked on when I went off to college was the sloppy diction, etc., that I grew up with. Now, no one would guess where I was born.
Can I ask him if he’d be willing to work on his accent? Or do I just have to take it or leave it?
My friends are divided, and I am torn.
Divided? Oh, no.
When I was very young, I had a pronounced Southern accent. But I started taking college classes early, when I was 14, and in academia you learn to drop it. I didn’t work on it; it just disappeared, for reasons I’m not proud of. When I finally went off to school, my dad called the dorm, and the phone was answered by a Groton kid. He came to get me and said "your dad’s on the phone; he sounds like he’s from the Dukes of Hazzard."
Oh God, I thought. I bet I do too. Even though I didn’t, and don’t. Not many people in higher education do. In my last year at the University of Chicago, we had a guest lecturer in our geology class talk about environmental justice in Appalachia, and I was stunned to hear her pronounce it Appal-atch-a, as it’s pronounced in southern Appalachia, instead of Appal-lay-cha, as it’s said everywhere else. I assumed it was because she’d done fieldwork in West Virginia and picked it up, since where I come from, Appal-lay-cha is short for I’m not from around here. It turned out she was a Kentucky native. I felt horrible.
Nor is it just big-city higher ed. My mother taught for years at a state college in western Virginia, which drew students from the farthest reaches of Appalachia, and she’d remark about how her students’ accents changed from talking to her and talking to their parents; as mine does, actually. Even though she herself comes from a family that hasn’t really left Appalachia since not long after the Revolutionary War.1 It was a strange shell game of accents: a confidence game.
I didn’t know, growing up, that losing it was a mistake; as Jason Isbell sang in his perfect, heartbreaking song "Outfit,"2 "Don’t worry about losing your accent / a Southern man tells better jokes." But you can’t get it back, just like you can’t go home again.
It’s why I’m so comfortable behind a monitor: all I can hear is the rain-like patter of the keyboard. On the air, my thoughts are deafening.
1I come from a Hessian who fought under Lord Cornwallis, and was recently pleased to find out that the first Hager in my line was tricked into fighting for the British, and was not a voluntary warrior as I’d previously assumed: "To his free and independent spirit," his son wrote in 1878, "the position he was made to assume toward the brave and gallant people of this country was anything but pleasant; he was constantly on the alert for an opportunity of escape or capture that would enable him to turn against the British and aid in fighting for the land he had determined to adopt as his home." In other words, I’m not the descendent of a twice-traitor.