"Where's the Human Voice?" It's on Public Radio

Curator's Note

Historian, author and radio icon Studs Terkel kicked off the public radio project StoryCorps in 2003 by asking, “Where’s the human voice?” His anecdote of an emotionless, humorless, humane-less interaction, saved by the most basic of  human sounds, is a powerful commentary on society’s deficiency of human voice.

"Where's the human voice?" The answer is on public radio.

Select StoryCorps segments were recently animated for public television. While the visual cues add color and playfulness to the text, at the heart, Terkel’s commentary is about the human voice, in the human voice. Take away the pictures, and you have the same touching words. Take away his voice, and you’re left with nothing. 

StoryCorps has gone on to record thousands of peoples’ voices, permanently archiving each at the Library of Congress. Selected weekly segments air nationally on NPR. With both permanent locations and a mobile unit, StoryCorps seeks out and preserves the histories of everyday people.  That makes StoryCorps one of public radio's greatest accomplishments. But it's just one small fulfillment of public radio’s larger promise to inform, enrich, and entertain. Public radio outlets from the national network level down to the smallest, local stations offer listeners a textured collage of human voices, senses of place, and meaningful public discourse.

Some may argue the idea of public radio is an anachronistic relic in our current digitized, multichannel media environment.  Still, somehow, public radio thrives.  Like Terkel, I believe it’s because there’s nothing more true, more real, or more familiar than the spoken word.  

In a time when it’s sexy to throw a prefix on the word “media,” – social media, multimedia, new  media – there’s an old medium thriving – public radio.  Why? Because public radio delivers not just vox, but vox humana.  



What a treat to have you join our conversation, Jim.  I could probably spend hours asking you about your work and the larger mission of public broadcasting to "inform, enrich, and entertain."  Instead, I'll ask you about the persistence of "old media" forms.  Television did not kill radio, though it did shift its focus and formats.  Digital technologies also have not killed radio.

So have you noticed any "shifting" with respect to NPR's focus or formats today?  How is the encounter with digital technologies not only facilitating your mission but also, perhaps, pushing it in new directions?

I'm also curious about the persistence of localism--the assumption that there is some news and information best delivered by local companies and citizens.  Is this, perhaps, a value that has intensified for public broadcasting, despite or because of the fact that satellites and digital code allow the easy transfer of data across all boundaries and borders?

Karen: So glad to be a part! Whenever you want to talk public radio, you know who to call.

As for your questions: I have noticed NPR is more aggressively persuing digital technology, social media, and multimedia. It has to. Those are all realities of today's media landscape, public or commercial. What I appreciate is the network's understanding that radio is still its core strength.

Digital technology in the form of a digital radio stream has allowed us at the local level to expand our offerings. Signal scarcity in Atlanta means the FM band has no place to grow. Our digital stream offers three selections: our regular FM signal, an all news/information lineup, and an all-classical music stream. There's still a huge digital divide when it comes to receivers, but digital offers some a solution.  

From an Internet/digital standpoint, we have a whole new opportunity (and challenge). Lots of folks hear what we do through podcasts, social media sharing, etc. We've had to adjust to this, and continue to do so. It's great to reach people who've never heard what we do. But there are very real growing pains. In my newsroom, we're still trying to find a good balance and create a product that's as good delivered digitally as it is via radio wave.

Localism is expensive, but public radio is doing more of it because audiences want it and it fullfils our mission.  There are a ton of outlets covering national and international issues.  There are few covering regional, state and local stories. As for-profit media shrink because of fragmentation in audience and ad revenue, public radio's "listener supported" model is thriving. It's doing so because of a strong national network and a new (by new I mean in the past decade) focus on equally strong local newsrooms.

On a global reporting scale, digitization has absolutely made reporting easier, less expensive, and more accessible.  At the local level, it's had less of an influence. We, for example, now use digital recorders and desktop audio editing. But we largely still gather news the way we have for a long time.


I love StoryCorps and admit to having gotten choked up listening to some of the conversations recorded. I wonder if the absence of the camera, and the sole presence of the microphone, enables an intimacy and openness that participants may shy away from if their faces and expressions were also being recorded.

It seems a truism that while NPR is thriving, PBS is faltering. I don't have any real theories about why this is, but I think Jim's post gestures to a fascinating rationale: that in a mediascape of visual plenty, NPR provides something because of its sole aural-ness, missing from other kinds of content. 


You're absolutely correct. When people go into the StoryCorps booth, not only is there not a camera, there's no one but the people speaking. Curators who record and engineer the audio remain outside the booth. There is a soft table lamp, and the microphones. That's it. The idea is to limit external distractions so people can let their guards down and simply share their stories.

I think there are numerous factors that make public television more difficult to sustain. One, TV is an expensive proposition.  Few public television stations can offer local programming to the same degree radio stations can.  Only a handful have local newsrooms. PBS does what it does exceptionally well, I think. But for whatever reason--and I'm not sure I have the answers--public radio offers something unmatched in any medium. (Bias admitted!)  

Ira Glass used to say, “Radio is your most visual medium.” He was referring both to the power of the human voice, and the power of spoken language--words, description, but also tone, emotion.

I’m absolutely with you on the importance of hearing the human voice and the role of radio in preserving it. But I wonder if radio organizations like NPR diminish their own value with efforts like the ones you present. In the example provided here, there was actually a TV broadcast made that had the exact same audio as what was on the radio--but with images made to go along with it? It’s interesting and entertaining, but isn’t it possible this diminishes the unique importance of the human voice? Not to sound curmudgeonly, but there seems to be an increase in the percentage of NPR shows that have an accompanying website filled with images; on many NPR shows I hear, “To see more, click on...” or “To see images of what we’re talking about go to www...” What happened to the visual medium of just voices, words, description? Where’s the human voice? Indeed, it is on public radio, but it’s telling us to go online and look at pictures. 


Patrick:  Thanks for your comments. I agree the animation takes something away from the audio-only version. It also gives it something unique. Only a few were animated, including some quite emotional 9/11 stories. (And I had to come up with a visual for the post.  This was a practical way of doing that).

I think it's interesting to read a transcript of Terkel's StoryCorps submission. To me, the words alone are somehow different than the audio. It's fascinating how the same words take a different color based on how they're presented.

I don't think you're a curmudgeon, but I think one must be realistic: people expect to consume media when, where, and how they want. At the heart remains quality content, but NPR must keep up with the times. A web break-out often allows reporters to include more information.  As I mentioned to Karen, I think NPR (and PRI, APM--other public radio program distributors) know their core audience and strengths.  The question becomes is that core strength sacrificed in the name of being all things to all people? 

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