Radio can be a familiar friend, source of knowledge, a marker of time and place. But as a cultural institution, what constitutes a “good voice” in radio reflects and transmits cultural norms and structures. When I started my Community Storytelling Radio Fellowship at Making Contact, I prepared by reading articles from Transom and AIR media about interviewing, storytelling, and production. I felt more intimidated as I read about advice on ‘how to do radio,’ especially since some parts were very physical (e.g., holding a microphone close to a person for a significant length of time).
I wondered, “Where do disabled people like me fit in the radio community? Why don’t articles about diversity in radio ever mention people with disabilities?” Al Letson’s 2015 Transom manifesto explores the the default straight white male voice. It resonated with me immediately and I’d also add that the “default human being” on radio is able-bodied as well.
Good Voices/Bad Voices
By centering the default “good voice” of radio as one that is able-bodied, one that is pleasant, clear, articulate and devoid of any markers of disability, you erase disabled people, rendering them the Other (or in fancy terms the subaltern). Media and cultural studies scholar Dr. Bill Kirkpatrick wrote about the problematic nature of the invisibility of disabled voices and bodies in radio in a 2013 book chapter, “Voices Made for Print: Crip Voices”:
… there is no shortage of self-evident reasons why non-disabled voices thoroughly dominate radio, not least of which is the commercial imperative: broadcasters want listeners to stay tuned, therefore they find speakers and speaking styles that audiences are willing to listen to, with voices that listeners can easily understand and find pleasing to the ear. While undoubtedly sensible as a matter of capitalist logic, however, we need to question the aesthetic reasoning at the root of this supposedly listener-centered approach to speaker selection as well as the idea that “pleasing to the ear” is somehow a sufficient explanation for the absence of disabled voices on the radio. We cannot begin to expand the range of permitted voices on radio without simultaneously undermining the ideologies of ability and disability that disqualify those voices in the first place.
In the broader discussion of diversity in media, I see parts of myself included as a disabled woman of color. But more often than not disability is not included because many do not regard it as a culture.
For radio, this is total bullshit. If you think about it, disabled voices are the missing instruments in this symphony that is public media. Letson stated in his Transom manifesto:
Stories are told that are incomplete, cultures are discredited because it doesn’t conform, we are a symphony with one instrument playing all the parts. To make the symphony as dynamic as can be instruments must be given to other players.
The conversation on diversity needs to expand in several ways: 1) including people with disabilities and other marginalized groups and acknowledging their cultural contributions and 2) conceptualizing diversity as disrupting institutions, practices and structures rather than the symbolic inclusion and hiring of diverse people.
Diversity is a word used so often–everyone knows it’s a social good but it has to be meaningful and re-centered on those who have been excluded and made invisible. I really like what Chanelle Adams wrote about her vision of diversity on college campuses in a 2016 article for Black Girl Dangerous and it applies to everywhere as well:
This ‘just add and stir’ model for instant-diversity is flawed…I want a diversity that does more than change the faces that surround us from white to Brown and Black, but also demands issues that affect our communities are brought to the forefront.
This is the difficult business of diversity–the nuts-and-bolts, granular level stuff. I don’t have the answers, but I can share my story and experiences as a disabled person and radio newbie.
Story of My Voice
In 2015, I started becoming interested in radio as a result of a community partnership I formed with StoryCorps focused on recording the stories of people with disabilities. I had concerns about people who would be excluded from participation due to the audist nature of oral histories. As I figured out ways to provide options and access for people who communicate visually or non-verbally, I thought more about the medium of radio and whether disabled lives, voices, and bodies are considered part of the public media landscape.
I have a neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy–this is a progressive condition where all the muscles in the body slowly weaken over time. My body’s changed over the 40-something years of my life: I transitioned from walking, to using a walker, to a manual wheelchair, electric wheelchair, customized wheelchair. Throughout this process, I learned to adjust. Over time I required more assistance, coming in the form of personal assistance, technology, or services.
Even with a healthy set of lungs, my lung function has steadily declined since I turned 18 because of my weakening diaphragm muscles that are responsible for the act of breathing. In fact, I had a medical crisis when I went into respiratory failure due to sleep apnea. My diaphragm needed support and that’s when I started using non-invasive ventilation. I became Darth Vader.
A Bi-Pap machine provides ventilatory support. That is, the Bi-Pap pushes breaths of air into a person’s lungs at a set rate and volume; these breaths enter the body through a tube and mask. It is a lifesaver and something I’ll use for the rest of my life. I’m now in a phase in my life where I use the Bi-Pap during the day. This started about two years ago and is now the norm. Using the Bi-Pap in the day meant a lot of changes and adjustment. I have a machine by my bed and one that I can carry on the back of my wheelchair. The one on my wheelchair has a battery–something that is invaluable and facilitates my ability to be in the community. As I attend meetings and gatherings, I noticed a difference in the way people related to me. I have to repeat myself because people can’t understand me. If a breath is coming in right in the middle of speech, I have to pause, leaving these unnatural and awkward speech patterns. When I talk too long when using my mask, I tend to salivate a lot and need to pause to swallow. This can be especially frustrating if I’m in public spaces trying to order something at a cafe or asking a question to someone at Trader Joe’s. I find myself having to suppress the feeling of being self-conscious and embarrassed at my vocal difference.
A big part of my identity, ego, and self-image is centered on my voice and writing. I had to confront my discomfort and accept my new sound and body that has become even more cyborg-like as time goes on. I had to regain my sense of pride and that only happens through practice, to paraphrase Laura Hershey’s poem, “You get proud by practicing” (March 1991).
Even with my politicized disability identity, I have to remind myself that the problem isn’t located in my body but society and my own internalized ableism. I also have to remember I am not alone and am part of a large community of disabled people with vocal differences. One particular community is Did I Stutter, an online project that challenges the assumptions behind stuttering. Their website states:
…we understand disability and stuttering not as an individual defect, but first and foremost as a social discrimination against certain forms of human speaking. Stuttering is only a problem—in fact is only abnormal—because our culture places so much value on efficiency and self-mastery. Stuttering breaks communication only because ableist notions have already decided how fast and smooth a person must speak to be heard and taken seriously. An arbitrary line has been drawn around “normal” speech, and that line is forcefully defended.
Radio, like any cultural institution, enforces normalcy. This normalcy is centered on the ability to hear and speak ‘well.’ With the exception of community radio that feature radio shows by disabled people (e.g., Pushing Limits on KPFA, Disability Matters on VoiceAmerica) and podcasts, you don’t hear a lot of people that sound different due to disability on public radio except for Diane Rehm. It’s time for people in radio to think critically about messages they are transmitting by excluding certain voices and lived experiences.
Symphonic Disabled Voices
On radio, I want to hear people who…
- repeat themselves
- pause when needing to breathe
- make noises when they talk
- salivate and drool
- communicate, enunciate, and pronounce differently
- use different speech patterns and rhythms
- use ventilators or other assistive technology
- use sign language interpreters or other people that facilitate speech
- use computer-generated speech
…I want to disrupt what’s thought of as the default public radio voice. I want to challenge listeners as they ride the subway, jog on their treadmills, driving on their commute. Even if the sounds and words we create might require greater concentration and attention.
Cripping the Instruments of Radio
How do we create inclusive radio environments where disabled people are presenting, producing, or in charge of programming and administration? First, you need to start with organizations that practice what they preach. Making Contact is committed to social justice and the amplification of marginalized voices and it is reflected in their support for first-time radio producers. Lateef McLeod, Making Contact’s first Community Storytelling Fellow, is a disabled person who uses an ACC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) device. Listening to his story and knowing that he produced this story was a revelation. These are the kinds of stories I want to hear and it encouraged me to apply for their 2015-16 fellowship.
How do disabled people take these instruments and make them ours by cripping them with our culture? When disabled people ‘crip’ a space, they are transforming a space with their presence, culture, bodies, and thoughts. I wasn’t sure how I would actually “do” radio, but I wanted to challenge myself and get uncomfortable. Creating a story that profiles the lives of disabled people from the San Francisco Bay Area offers a chance to try something new while covering a subject that is immensely important to me.
During my 10-week fellowship from February-April, here are some practical and real-world ways I cripped the instruments of radio:
- Use existing resources and infrastructure. One of my main concerns was the physical activity of recording interviews and sound. If you are a radio producer, just imagine if you need assistance every time you take your headphones on and off. I prepared early on and lined up interviews before my fellowship began and went to StoryCorps to record them. I used their free facilities that included a facilitator who monitored sound levels and operated the equipment so I was free to focus on the interview. Plus, I left with a high-quality audio file that I could use and edit for my radio project.
- Accessible and free tools. Before my fellowship, I used Audacity to edit oral histories for presentations. Audio editing programs that are open-source, free, and easy to use are critical in allowing all kinds of people to experiment and produce radio rather than professionals with the money and access to software/hardware.
- Flexible logistics. My mentor Laura Flynn met me at my home during our weekly meetings. I was very fortunate that she was willing to come to my home so I don’t have to schlep from San Francisco to Oakland, saving me time and energy. This was a huge benefit that made my participation possible.
- Asking for help. Many aspects of recording are physically difficult. Holding a recorder, especially close to a sound or person may be inaccessible for me as a wheelchair user with limited arm strength. The length of time holding a device up during a conversation is just too much for me. I asked Laura to come with me to two interviews so that she could help.
As I started recording ambi and interviews, I had family members help me in various ways–turned sounds on and off as I recorded them, insert ear buds so I could check the sound levels, took me to interviews and other small things that all add up. I usually have no problems using plugging a cord into a USB port, but I struggled to connect and upload audio files to my laptop by myself.
I’m used to asking for assistance with my daily activities but it’s a balancing act since I have a lot of other competing needs and responsibilities.
What can radio stations, media organizations, and newsrooms do?
The onus is on radio stations and organizations to adapt and be creative. Having people with disabilities behind the scenes and on air will bring valuable perspectives and expertise.
Letson’s manifesto outlined different ways organizations can become more diverse, starting with engagement:
Letting them know they are valued, letting them hear themselves in your local programming. It’s going into these communities physically — being a presence…What makes a station diverse is the work it puts into the community.
Radio can become more diverse and accessible–this can benefit their workforce and listenership. Here are some examples:
- Include people with disabilities as an underrepresented group when you recruit for applicants in any radio academies, workshops, internships or fellowships.
- Budget for accessibility so that shows can include transcripts for any audio clips posted online. Without text transcripts, radio excludes people who do not hear and people who process information better in text or visuals. Budgeting time and money for this is no small issue. One alternative that might serve as a model is the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund, an independent and impartial funding body that will provide grants to advance accessibility to broadcasting content in Canada.
- In your job postings, include a statement about a commitment on accessibility and accommodations in addition to the language on diversity.
- Feature stories about people with disabilities in your local area; commit to at least one story a month or a week or have a “beat” specifically on disability from a disabled person’s perspective.
- Sponsor projects, form partnerships, and get involved with disability organizations (e.g., Centers on Independent Living, employment advocacy organizations) as part of your diversity initiatives.
- Engage and recruit people with disabilities who already host shows on local community radio or podcasts.
Advocating for diversity is one thing but the implementation and intention behind it can be tricky and fraught with pitfalls. A diverse and a ‘disability-friendly’ workplace isn’t achieved by hiring a single person with a disability, much less several people with disabilities. In a 2013 journal article Jennifer Lisa Vest described her experiences in academia and cautioned:
Diversity is a word that does not offend, does not highlight inequality, does not refer to historical injustices, or point the finger or lay blame. Diversity has a certain neutrality about it that makes it palatable…Without explicit dialogue and action on ending oppression and privilege, diversity programs cannot change racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist beliefs and practices…
Action, dialogue, and community involvement are key to successful social change. My experience at Making Contact radio encompassed all three elements. Public radio is slowly becoming more diverse. The voices of disabled people and their stories should be an intrinsic part of that process.
Alice Wong is a 2015-16 Making Contact Community Storytelling Fellow. She is the Founder and Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. She’s also a contributor to The Nerds of Color and Model View Culture. Check out Alice’s story for Making Contact: “Choreography of Care.”