National Prozac Radio (December 17, 1997)

What is it about these people? I’ve been wondering and trying to figure it out for a while now. Someone told me “Saturday Night Live” was doing a bit on NPR so I watched it and it was okay, but they were too easy on the NPR “personalities.” The characters were not smug enough, smug being the adjective that might best apply if one could use only one adjective.

NPR announcers all use a tone of voice that to me is infuriating in its measured, soothing, oh-so-carefully restrained smugness. (Note: I’ve never seen some of these names written so spelling may be incorrect.) Listen to how they announce themselves.

“I’m Corey Flintoff.” A spoiled, nasal whine.

“I’m Ann Taylor.” The voice of a creature totally devoid of personality.

“This is Daniel Schorr.” Or, “Daniel Pinkwater.” Indistinguishable, interchangeable, both incapable of imagining that anyone would find them less than totally fascinating, and so swelled with self-importance, I almost expect them to explode right on the air.

The prize for the most annoying voice tone and speaking style goes to “Christine Arrowsmith.” She drawls, almost sings her last name, with the final syllable a couple of tones lower than the rest. It’s very easy to picture her gazing into a hand-held mirror as she loving coos her name into the microphone.

In the past, this column has expressed alarm over certain words and phrases, patterns of speech people are picking up from mainstream media. I’m coming to see that NPR is the source of many of these admittedly small but nonetheless real horrors. The stressed proposition: “OVER the side, IN the outhouse.” The still up-and-coming, highly unnecessary phrase “In terms of.” I heard a local doctor speak on the subject of hepatitis C. He was obviously an NPR listener, and inadvertently gave me a perfect example of the silliness in the phrase: “…This [medical procedure] has proven to be very successful in terms of treating hepatitis C.” Remove “terms of” and you get: …This [medical procedure] has proven to be very successful in treating hepatitis C.” People apparently think this phrase makes them sound smart, but it doesn’t. It makes them sound like they listen to NPR and believe every word they hear. Want to have a little fun? Listen to NPR for one hour and count the number of times they say “in terms of.”

But still, what is it about all of them, the similarities, the measured tones, the smugness? Last night we went to a local nightclub. It was “open mike” night, when anyone can get on stage and do a “performance” of some kind. There’s no cover charge for this, and you definitely get what you pay for. There were a couple of “poets” there, reading some things they had written. I knew we were in trouble when the first one got up. She was a dreadfully ordinary-looking woman, and introduced herself by saying “I’m a weird one.” And I’m thinking in your dreams, lady. Her “poem” detailed a perfectly colorless, boring life, and from the beginning the cadence, the tone, were familiar. NPR! She was mimicking, without knowing it, the sound of NPR announcers. So — the soundtrack to this dull, uninspired life was the smug drone of National Public Radio. Getting to the end of the poem, the woman read — repeatedly — “It’s a Prozac existence.” One of the verses was about smoking marijuana and the essence of it was, “I used to take drugs, but Thank God I’ve found Prozac.”

There it was, the defining influence of so many stamped-out “liberal” politically correct pretend-intellectual Nice People, and the answer to why NPR announcers sound like that. It's National Prozac Radio.

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