So You Think It's Easy!
Tongue-twisters, mike fright, and other announcer woes
Monday, September 09, 2013 - 10:00 AM
For the January, 1944 of the WQXR Program Guide, the station's announcers got together and wrote the following:
Have you ever thought: "I could be a radio announcer. My friends say my voice over the telephone is good"? Maybe you could--and then again maybe you couldn't. And after reading this article cooperatively written by members of the WQXR staff--maybe you wouldn't even if you could.
Probably when knighthood was in flower, and jousting was the rage of the day, there was a maligned little fellow who announced the lists. He had a loud voice, was considered stupid, and never announced his name (which was probably Guillaume a la Voix Pomme Triste).
His life was clouded with uncertainty. At the main joust he might get a frog in his throat...which would result in his immediate decapitation. Or Artur de Gwelph de Montmorency-Chiffraude might demonstrate with an axe his displeasure at hearing his name slurred-over. Not only that, but he had to have at his command a large and complex vocabulary which included such words as tilting, unhorsed, truncheons, gauntlets, visors, and many other words which have since gone into rusty disuse...He also had to be able to identify instantly thousands of knights by their heraldic symbols...a burden which spoiled his sleep and digestion.
Now probably very few of the lords and ladies who attended these colorful tourneys realized that this apocryphal fellow came from a long and honorable line. His antecedents included Homer (the first great ad-lib artist), the Muezzin (who calls Mohammedans to prayer), and all the hawkers of goods who had extolled the value of their wares from time immemorial.
The latter-day counterpart of our hero (Guillaume a la Voix Pomme Triste) is the sports announcer, whose command of the situation at a basketball or football game is so tenuous and delicate as to be a subject for amazement. For today, as always, announcing is a difficult profession. And though there are no more furious knights ready to avenge the pronunciation of their names, to this day hell knows no fury like a sponsor mispronounced. We refer you to any of the 5,000 announcers throughout the country.
But pronouncing names is one of the easiest tasks a WQXR announcer has. If he can't pronounce Aulikki Rautawaara or Saudades das Selvas Brasileiras he wouldn't be working here in the first place. Now this is not to blow our own horn, but if you hear one of us mispronounce a word, chances are YOU are wrong...and Rex Benware will cite at least three unimpeachable sources to prove it (not including the station's own musical dictionary instigated by Abram Chasins). Of course, during a week of outlandish titles and rarely-performed early French Church music, a wrong accent will creep in. And what would you expect when even the sources frequently disagree?
For example, we often get letters berating us for mispronouncing the name of Robert Casadesus, the eminent French pianist. Now, we know for a fact that M. Casadesus himself is not sure how he wants his name pronounced. His wife, Gaby Casadesus, has her ideas on the subject too. And so, pending a final decision, we're pronouncing it KAH'-SAH-Duh-SU'...on the authority of Emanuelina Pizzuto, who studied with M. Casadesus in Fontainebleau...before all this came up.
However, an announcer's speaking acquaintance with several languages is only the 1/7th of the ice-cube above the surface of the highball...as it were. Announcers have many other duties, including producing programs, making out reports, and the care and feeding of FAMOUS GUESTS. This last is always interesting... and we must admit to a certain pride when we see someone we've always heard of, in the throes of mike-fright.
Then, there is the spare-time to be filled. This is usually occupied with chess-playing, reading, and (by far the most popular) talking. There is an almost constant discussion about languages, pronunciation of Russian villages, or the works of Sigmund Freud swirling about the head of our hard-working Chief Announcer, Albert Grobe. This gay chatter is spiced with anecdotes about fine mistakes which have gone out over the air. (For examples: Melvin Elliott's "Chakes and Stops" for Steaks and Chops"; Duncan Pirnie's "New Juinea Gungles" for New Guinea Jungles"; or Allen Ward's incredible "Sloat Flulu" for flute solo.")
Every profession has a patois all it own. And just as Guillaume a la Voix Pomme Triste had to know his escutcheons, truncheons and visors, so his latter-day counterpart has to know how to say such things as "Mr. Gassenheimer, your pot is dirty." This is not a reflection on Mr. Gassenheimer's kitchen technique, but means that the knob that controls the volume of the broadcast makes funny noises when manipulated. "Punch" is not a mild drink which has more or less fallen into disuse, but rather a strained, lilting quality of speech not often used by WQXR announcers. "Cold" does not mean a lessening of molecular action, but it is an adverb which indicates the announcer is reading something he has never seen before (and usually hopes never to see again). An example of this came the day Woody Leafer was reading the newscast, and Mussolini resigned. Woody read steadily for half an hour, as the Associated Press ticker in the news room ground out detail after detail. The news was "hot" off the ticker, but Woody was reading it "cold."
This, however, is nothing compared to the sign language employed between announcers and engineers when a "live" (as opposed to "recorded") program is on the air. In this secret cabalistic exercise a well-versed announcer can do everything but ask for a dry martini, while regaling the listeners with a critique of Buxtehude.
Since men first grew ears to listen with, other men have been telling them things. And the process of "telling" has steadily been improved until announcing has reached the peak at which it stands today. Still, there is always that fearful moment when a wide-eyed newsman rushes in with a bulletin about the fall of Dneproderzhinsk (40 miles from Dnepropetrovsk). The announcer churns past the Scylla of pronunciation, narrowly avoids the Charybdis of hysteria, and wonders why he does this for a living anyway.