Thursday 17 August 2017

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Uniquely-gifted voice artist Peter Dickson and I ended up chatting about changing vocal styles when we met to record his edition of the Conversations series

As soon as he mentioned BBC Home Service stentorian newsreaders like Brian Perkins or Peter Donaldson, I could hear those influences in his own voice work. There is little doubt in my mind that their DNA exists in his own vocal range, and as he gets psyched up to assume the character of the X Factor voice, it does appear to me to be reminiscent of how Peter Donaldson might have sounded when shouting on the touchlines .

As we went on to agree, there is something of our radio heroes in all of us. Like a mongrel dog, we merrily assume all manner of genetic make-up from the voices which inspired us. We naturally season it with something of ourselves and create the person we are on-air. And, as those genes are passed down again, so the style of on-air presentation across the country evolves.

In this country, we did not really experience too much of the ‘bossjock’ radio sound of 1950s/60s US radio, with its booming, slick voices – a presentation style which is almost more about the sound and energy than it is about the words.  But many early music radio presenters liked that sound from what they’d heard on recordings, or indeed on Radio Luxembourg from the likes of Bob Stewart (often cited as an influence in my Conversations). Maybe this is why early music radio disc jockeys were often accused of faking mid-Atlantic accents.

In the 60s, Tony Blackburn arrived with an interesting style, influenced, he says, by the likes of Pete Murray, but a touch of US influence in there too, perhaps owing in part to his love for American music. But this was still, overall, a very English sound, characterised by the smile in the voice. It wasn’t 'received pronunciation', but you knew he’d been to a decent school. 

Was it his real voice? It certainly is now. Like many of us of that generation, as time marches on, the real voice and the on-air voice fuse.

Then - in the 80s - demo tapes all started to sound like Steve Wright.

The United Biscuits network was an early berth for manypresenters who were to turn up in the first wave of UK commercial radio. The UBN sound manifested itself in the slickness of the approach and also the residual ‘sssshhhh’ at the end of words by the likes of Graham Dene and Roger Scott - and the many, in time, influenced by them.

The BBC Reithian sound remained for years, and news and programmes right up until the '70s often bear that hallmark. One by one, those presenters have been replaced by those who still have the Radio 4 air of authority, but sound very less plummy.  Sarah Montague on the Today programme these days is different from Margaret Howard or Sue MacGregor.  Side by side on Woman’s Hour, Jenni Murray is certainly a tad more 'proper' than the truly brilliant, heir to the throne, Jane Garvey.  

One thing’s  for sure, never again will our news delivery sound like the fascinating speedy, high pitched and clipped delivery of the Pathe newsreels.

Even where the individuals remain, their delivery changes during their career, as has society around them. Just as the Queen's cut-glass voice has changed hugely from her first radio appearances to the more conversational speeches these days, John Humphrys careful early efforts at a very proper BBC sound has evolved into a much more authentic listen. 'Received Pronunciation' speakers now are said to account for less than 2% of English speakers, and that's become the case on British radio.

Authenticity is now key in radio. Energetic music radio now does not boast the deep ‘radio voices’ of yesteryear - and the US influence has waned. Delivery now is more real, albeit often shouting at the level they would in a busy club.  Regional accents have now been rehabilitated, and class impacts less.  Away from fast music radio, neither Jonathan Ross or Chris Evans could be said to have the 'classic radio voice'.

Radio now hears ‘real’ voices - and that's probably a good thing for such a personal medium. The natural changes in delivery which are evident in British society generally are aired too: the 'uptalk' at the end of sentences; 'vocal fry'; and, notably, CapiTULL now has the ‘T’ it never had for its first thirty years.

Grab one of my books:

Radiomoments: 50 years of radio - life on the inside
How to Make Great Radio - Tips and techniques for today's presenters and producers

1 comment:

  1. As you say there were some amazingly powerful news presenters too. Who could forget WILLIAM HARDCASTLE on the early WORLD AT ONE's on R4? What a standard setter.

    When it comes to music presentation though, yes there are some great presenters but sadly very few who have real passion for their music. In Britain the list is somewhat short but some champions are still out there - Walker, Blackburn, Harris. Roger Scott was a presenter's presenter but memories are deserved for the voices of New York's WNEW in the seventies and eighties with the likes of Scott Muni and Carol Miller. Music loving and could sell it through and through.

    Graham H.


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