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Why All the Weird Names at NPR?
April 15, 2009 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Why do NPR reporters have such unusual names?

Inspired by this blog post, I started wondering about why NPR reporters and hosts seem to have such unusual names. Or are their names even that unusual? Is there something about the hiring process there that might lead to hiring people with uncommon names?
posted by empath to Media & Arts (70 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
It never occurred to me that NPR reporter names could even be considered weird. They sound perfectly normal to me, and simply reflect the multicultural background of many of the reporters.
posted by msali at 8:37 AM on April 15, 2009


Part of it is affluence. Many people can't afford to work in radio.
posted by Kirklander at 8:39 AM on April 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Complete speculation but, maybe a combo of:

1) they hire a lot of international correspondents
2) a focus on hiring minorities
and
3) people who go into traditional broadcast journalism are often encouraged to change their name to something "normal" and easily pronounceable, but maybe NPR is more willing to let people go by their monosyllabic birth name?
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:40 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm speculating, but an unusual name may make a good radio reporter more memorable, giving a slight but progressive slight boost to his or her career. If you're a producer looking for talent, perhaps you remember a good report by a "Carl Kassell" before remembering the equally good one by "John Smith". Also, it strikes me that the NPR reporter's names may not be uncommon so much as unusually euphonious.
posted by metaquarry at 8:40 AM on April 15, 2009


oops "polysyllabic"
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:40 AM on April 15, 2009


Half of the names cited in that blog post (Renee Montagne, Steve Inskeep, and Corey Flintoff) don't sound particularly unusual to me. Especially Steve Inskeep. I've met people with that last name; I don't think it's particularly uncommon.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:40 AM on April 15, 2009


I just don't see it.
posted by General Malaise at 8:41 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


David Folkenflick
Quinn Klinefelter
Aniban Basu
Sylvia Pagoli
Ira Flato
Kai Ryssdal
Garrison Keillor

These are not the kinds of names you see every day :)
posted by empath at 8:43 AM on April 15, 2009


I think that as far as the non-foreign names, it's some sort of confirmation bias going on. If you look at the list General Malaise posted, most of the names are pretty bland. Of course if you listen to NPR, the interesting names are going to stick out to you more so than "Tom Ashbrook," for example. The rest is because they hire people with foreign expertise as correspondents, and often that means people from that culture.
posted by fructose at 8:46 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


You may be noticing a crop of media people who are no longer expected to anglicize their names, which used to be common practice in America. A distant relative of mine--who is just is his early thirties--with a distinctively Lithuanian surname has dropped it in favor of his middle name, and he's a sports reporter. Heck, even MetaFilter's beloved Jon Stewart (né Leibowitz) succumbed to the pressure.

Also, Lakshmi Singh is very common for an Indian.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:46 AM on April 15, 2009


The list just seems to reflect a wide spectrum of backgrounds, with one or two stage names thrown in which make the list seem a little extra spicy.
posted by hermitosis at 8:47 AM on April 15, 2009


I've wondered that myself...although I will agree with DevilsAdvocate to say that Klinefelter and its variants are relatively common names in PA. There's even a Kleinfeltersville.
posted by cabingirl at 8:48 AM on April 15, 2009


My friend who works at NPR is named Robert Smith. You forget his name as soon as you hear/read it, but he works there and he's on the radio a lot. So, I think that is part of it. Additionally, if you work in radio or other media, it's good to have a name that sound unique, so if you had a more normal-sounding name, or a first name middle name where one was normallish and one was unique, you'd likely go with the more unique sounding one. I don't know the people in question, but I'm feeling that contributes to it.

And, as someone with a pretty unusual name, I'd also hazard a guess that people who come from families more likely to give unusual names (mine is Jessamyn Charity, lord help me) might also be the sorts of families that encourage other traits that might go along with broadcasting or media or general achievement. I'm sure there are equal corrolaries in the opposite direction, but it's something I've always idly wondered about.
posted by jessamyn at 8:49 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'd hardly call Garrison Keillor an NPR reporter.
posted by kingbenny at 8:49 AM on April 15, 2009


Kai Ryssdal is not, strictly speaking, an NPR reporter. He's an American Public Media reporter whose show frequently airs on stations ("public radio") which also tend to air a lot of NPR content. (Which is why he doesn't appear on General Malaise's list.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:50 AM on April 15, 2009


Most of the "weird" names are just ethnic. Lakshmi Singh, as noted above, it totally normal for an Indian. (I love it when she says her name with her lockjaw American accent, though -- that always makes me giggle). Sylvia Poggioli is a completely normal name for an Italian. Klinefelter? German and pretty common.
And, seriously, Steve Inskeep and Corey Flintoff?
posted by katemonster at 8:55 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


The blog is currently down, but Raymond Chen of Microsoft used to keep track of the odd names at NPR. Whether it's a majority or not, since I've been listening to NPR (mid 80s maybe-- god, am I that old and lame?) there have always been names that have caught my ear as being uncommon. To say it isn't so because one or two of the names empath listed don't seem strange to you is to miss the forest.
posted by yerfatma at 8:56 AM on April 15, 2009


I would agree that most, if not all of the names, are simply ethnic, but that still leaves the question, Does NPR hire an uncommonly high number of foreign reporters or do they just not insist on people changing their names to something more "listener-friendly"?
posted by yerfatma at 8:57 AM on April 15, 2009


Garrison Keillor is also American Public Media, not NPR.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:59 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


They have four Smiths! (Which would only be weird if they broke out with 'This Charming Man'.) Smith is not just unweird, it's so common that it's hardly a lastname at all, more kinda a placeholder waiting for the unoriginality to pass.
posted by Sova at 8:59 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Daniel Schorr's birth name was Tchornemoretz.

I think this is largely an artifact of hiring non-Anglos and decreased pressure for people to anglicize their names (though maybe there's also a corollary between parents choosing atypical names and backgrounds leading to journalism, as others have suggested.)
posted by Zed at 9:01 AM on April 15, 2009


These are not the kinds of names you see every day :)

Sorry to be pedantic, but two of those are spelled incorrectly: Ira Flatow and Sylvia Poggioli (who is an Italian reporter based in Rome.)

"Garrison Keillor" is a stage name. His real name is Gary Edward Keillor.
posted by zarq at 9:02 AM on April 15, 2009


I'm going to agree that there's a fair amount of confirmation bias going on, but folks who appear on NPR do certainly have some interesting names. Two local names I've enjoyed over the years are John Nowacki in CT and Charity Nebby in MI.
posted by Xalf at 9:05 AM on April 15, 2009


you'll note that each reporter signs off each report by stating their own name. They likely have had long practice at making it sound as distinct and mellifluous as possible. So if it's sticking out in your brain as unique, that's not likely due to the actual name, but just the sweet sticky intonation. like how for the past few days i've had the phrase "Neda Ulaby, NPR News" running through my head. Like water tripping down a series of rounded pebbles... so damn mellifluous.
When I interned there one of my colleagues would always answer the phone by saying "it's D–" D– being their first name, which kinda wierded me out, because, i realized, I don't particularly like saying my own name, or asserting my existence that way. But that's their audio business card, they've got to be highly proficient at it, as well as their reporting.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:11 AM on April 15, 2009


Here's a list of names from an email I happened to have open (table of contents of the latest issue of Current Biology); I started typing at the top but then got bored, but did not select the names in any way so this is unbiased:
Andreas Bartels
Andreas Hejnol
David Raulet
Florian Madespracher
Frank van Veen
Gary Litman
Hannah Robertson
John Bekkers
Ken-ichiro Ishida
Larry Dishaw
Michael Gross
Michael Webster
Nigel Williams
Ove Nilsson
Paolo Sassone-Corsi
Radhika Subramanian
Robert Haselkorn
Sarah Bourlat
Satoru Masubuchi
Susan Mango
Takuro Nakamaya
Tarun Kapoor
Tommaso Pizzari
The names look, to me, exactly as weird as in the npr.org list linked to by the good General above. That is, once you step outside of the commonest British names (my comfort zone) everyone starts sounding weird. They're a funny lot, foreigners.
I'm going to go along with the consensus here, that if if you recruit a multicultural staff and don't force them to Anglicise their names, you'll end up with a wonderfully interesting and diverse list of monikers.
posted by nowonmai at 9:22 AM on April 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Because "Soterios" sounds more edgy than "Dave". NPR is all about trying to be different just for the sake of being different. The bad, off-key music interludes. The irritating, unnecessary natural sound breaks. This isn't 1940. I don't really need to hear cows mooing on your piece about farming or beeping cash registers if you're doing a story about retail sales.

So, yeah- it's all about trying to be cool (which makes them look so uncool).
posted by Zambrano at 9:24 AM on April 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


My ears perk up a lot more when I hear "Doualy Xaykaothao" than when I hear "Bob Edwards."
posted by infinitewindow at 9:27 AM on April 15, 2009


As long as we all agree that MEEshell Norris, with that whopping emphasis on the MEE, is legitimately odd. It doesn't even sound aux Francais, just... weird.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:34 AM on April 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


Scott Simon
Leeann Hanson
Michelle Norris
Chris Arnold
Melissa Block
John Burnett
Neal Conan

Those crazy NPR kids!
posted by bluedaisy at 9:35 AM on April 15, 2009


Zambrano: "Because "Soterios" sounds more edgy than "Dave"."

So you think Soterios was hired because he was named Soterios?

(I just wanted to say Soterios. Soterios Johnson. Soterios Johnson. I'm Soterios Johnson.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:40 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


So you think Soterios was hired because he was named Soterios?

I was listening half-asleep one day and and I thought the name was "Satyriasis Johnson".
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:49 AM on April 15, 2009


Here in austin we have a weekly short program by Cecilia Nasti (pronounced Nasty) which sometimes makes me chuckle.

But really sometimes it's the ads that make me laugh. They used to call out "Cornfairy International" all the time (yes I know it's Ferry but come on CORN FAIRY)
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:56 AM on April 15, 2009


this morning,
Weekend Edition tweeted
: what's your NPR Name?
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:56 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mandaleep Del Barco and Quetzal Levine are my personal favorites for the clash of ethnicities. No idea whether those are their given names though.
posted by electroboy at 9:56 AM on April 15, 2009


That link of NPR staffers lists over 400 people. If they were all blandly anglo, that would be bizarre.

Nthing that it's a combination of relatively recent reduction in pressure to change one's name to something "understandable" + a greater commitment to diversity + mellifluous sign-offs + confirmation bias.

Because "Soterios" sounds more edgy than "Dave".

Um, isn't Soterios Johnson his real name?
posted by desuetude at 10:00 AM on April 15, 2009


I worked for public radio as a producer and on-air host. Does John Parman sound quirky to you? I don't think that anyone in public radio got there because of their names. More often their success (or relative success) is based more on their background work experience than any other single thing. Remember, behind every great correspondent are a legion of interns named Rob and Tanya who will never work at NPR again.
posted by parmanparman at 10:02 AM on April 15, 2009


Because "Soterios" sounds more edgy than "Dave". NPR is all about trying to be different just for the sake of being different.

That's ridiculous. Are you suggesting that Soterios Johnson adopted "Soterios" as a stage name? Or that he was hired because he had a relatively unusual first name?

What about Melissa Block, Ira Glass, Robert Siegel, Terry Gross, Michele Norris, Michele Martin, Scott Simon, Liane Hanson, Diane Roberts, Tim Brookes?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:03 AM on April 15, 2009


Our local Fox affiliate's newscasts can be accused of many things, but hip and ironic are not among them. Reporters and anchors include:

# Joe Fonzi
# Mark Ibáñez
# Fred Inglis
# Gasia Mikaelian (she's an anchor, even!)
# Sal Castaneda
# Rosy Chu
# Kraig Debro
# John Fowler
# Robert Handa
# Craig Heaps
# Renee Kemp
# Jana Katsuyama
# Lloyd LaCuesta
# Amber Lee
# Bob MacKenzie
# Mike Mibach
# Maureen Naylor
# Rob Roth
# John Sasaki
# Randy Shandobil
# Tom Vacar
posted by rtha at 10:10 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


The bad, off-key music interludes. The irritating, unnecessary natural sound breaks. This isn't 1940. I don't really need to hear cows mooing on your piece about farming or beeping cash registers if you're doing a story about retail sales.

Thank you for that. I have about a 1 hour time limit for NPR, for just those reasons you listed.

So you think Soterios was hired because he was named Soterios?

I would think that he became Soterios after he started getting hired.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:13 AM on April 15, 2009


i don't get unusual/wierd, just that there are a lot of cool names at npr. always liked butler cain who's with alabama public radio (a great npr affiliate btw). thought that'd be a great name for a band. current fav is sylvia poggioli though.
posted by iboxifoo at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2009


Ketzel is her real name AFAIK.
posted by catlet at 10:19 AM on April 15, 2009


Don't forget Opheibia Quist-Arcton, who reports from Africa. (And thank you, infinitewindow; I had absolutely no idea how to spell that one.)
posted by matildaben at 10:33 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


What about Melissa Block, Ira Glass, Robert Siegel, Terry Gross, Michele Norris, Michele Martin, Scott Simon, Liane Hanson, Diane Roberts, Tim Brookes?

I hear all these names in my head with a wonderful baritone radio voice. Perhaps some of the great voices NPR has hired really helps to stick these names in your head and adds to the confirmation bias.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:39 AM on April 15, 2009


Yes! Thank you! Each time I hear her reporting I think to myself that I should look her up to see how she spells her name, but I'm usually in the car, and have forgotten to look it up by the time I get home.
posted by rtha at 10:39 AM on April 15, 2009


The Light Fantastic: "I would think that he became Soterios after he started getting hired."

He became Soterios when his parents named him that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:40 AM on April 15, 2009


So if it's sticking out in your brain as unique, that's not likely due to the actual name, but just the sweet sticky intonation.

That's what I was about to say. There's nothing particularly unusual about being named "Melissa Block" or "Robert Seigel" but if you hear those people saying their names over and over again in one particular way it starts to get in your head.
posted by lemuria at 10:47 AM on April 15, 2009


He became Soterios when his parents named him that.

Yes, exactly. Soterios isn't an unusual Greek first name at all.

Sure, in 1950, he probably would have changed his first name to "Steve" for radio, but this is 2009.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:57 AM on April 15, 2009


And it's Mandalit del Barco.
posted by plastic_animals at 11:02 AM on April 15, 2009


Almost _nothing_ makes me prouder to be an American than when I hear the panopoly of NPR names come spilling out of my radio. It reminds me how far we have come, and that, if you are good enough, your name/background doesn't matter.
posted by eaglehound at 11:09 AM on April 15, 2009


Mandaleep Del Barco and Quetzal Levine are my personal favorites for the clash of ethnicities.

It's Mandalit Del Barco (no particular clash of ethnicities there, unless you think Catalan and Spanish are tremendously clashing) and Ketzel Levine (again, no clash of ethnicities--"Ketzel" is a fairly common German-Jewish last name).

Quetzal Levine sounds like a Donald Westlake character, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:28 AM on April 15, 2009


Hmm... that makes it all less interesting. I always imagined Indian/Mexican and Mexican Indian/Jewish. Lame.
posted by electroboy at 12:04 PM on April 15, 2009


I'm not so sure it's because of multiculturalism. Public radio is ultimately media, an industry which isn't exactly populated with the middle-class, who often tend to have less than unique names.

The noted list doesn't seem so much cultured as it does especially polished—names that instantaneously, if not obviously, convey the fact that a person's parents, or that person him- or herself, was invested in having a unique and memorable name, which is importantish in media.
posted by trotter at 12:12 PM on April 15, 2009


# Gasia Mikaelian (she's an anchor, even!)

OK, I'll bite. How does she pronounce it?

Gassy-ah?
Gahssy-ah?
Gazee-ah?
Gaja?
Gahzee-ah?
Fred?

My kingdom for an accent mark!


I'm guessing "Mick-alien" for her last name....
posted by zarq at 12:59 PM on April 15, 2009


GAHsee-ah MickahAYlee-un. The ess is somewhere between a soft ess and a zee, sort of.
posted by rtha at 1:11 PM on April 15, 2009


I'll throw in my two cents here. Nothing gives you an appreciation of the variety of names in the US like teaching at a large urban university. These lists only look weird to me because there aren't more names that strike me as "non-anglo" from that perspective.

((I nearly hit the floor looking at a semester I had once that had four Smith's in it, I thought there was a mistake.))
posted by strixus at 1:12 PM on April 15, 2009


My favorites are Joanne Slow-Burner, Sylvia Patchouli, Diwali Sy Kow-Tow and Lynn Eerie.
posted by univac at 2:18 PM on April 15, 2009


My friend who works at NPR is named Robert Smith. You forget his name as soon as you hear/read it

It might be a common name, but when I hear it, I imagine a strange-looking guy.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 2:42 PM on April 15, 2009


Whenever I hear Robert Smith reporting on super-important things, I always say "I met him at Jessamyn's back when he was just a local NPR guy!"
posted by matildaben at 2:47 PM on April 15, 2009


Steve Inskeep is a bit weird to me. I hear it as Stephen Skeep, which is what I thought his name was.
posted by magikker at 2:58 PM on April 15, 2009


Steve Inskeep always baffled me. I thought it was Steve Itzstein, or maybe Steve Insky, or maybe he was known by his nickname, Stevinsky.
posted by univac at 3:19 PM on April 15, 2009


When Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson signed off and says her name, she says in a way that makes her seem like she's either apathetic or bored of her name - it's probably a pronunciation thing or perhaps her accent, but it always sticks out to me.
posted by bigmusic at 3:24 PM on April 15, 2009


I'm a national public radio host (though not a National Public Radio host), and my name is Jesse Thorn.

Reporters names are more important signifiers for you when you can't see their faces. Radio reporters know how to use their voices effectively. Lots of NPR's reporters are overseas, and NPR has a commendably diverse staff, who haven't changed their name to "Stormy Mountains" or whatever.

That's it.
posted by YoungAmerican at 3:25 PM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hmmm, the people I've known who are on-air on public radio/NPR have some of the squarest names I know: Robert Smith, Liz Jones and Jessica Jones.

I grew up listening to NPR. I have memories of All Things Considered from the early 70s. They've always had their share of "weird" names. Given the times the network started in it isn't too surprising that they largely avoided the homogenization of ethnic names that has long been common in US mass media.
posted by Good Brain at 6:07 PM on April 15, 2009


> These are not the kinds of names you see every day :)

They're similar to names I see everyday. They are not similar to names I often see on television or in the movies. Have to side with the people here who are guessing that NPR talent are less inclined to change their name to something snappy and memorable.
posted by ardgedee at 6:47 PM on April 15, 2009


I think it's that, unlike a lot of the reporters and talent who come up in the small midwest flyover markets, there's never been a moronic news director who's made the successful case to them that "you should call yourself Chip. People like a guy named Chip."
posted by rileyray3000 at 6:48 PM on April 15, 2009


My thought: they're not any weirder than a list of names you could generate from your local large corporation, faculty at a university, students at a city school, etc. The reason their names stand out to us is that we hear them spoken aloud regularly. Reporters sign off with their names, and anchors pass off to them by using their names. They take on a rhythm and musicality and we become interested in the way some of them sound.

Compare this to normal life, where we don't often hear long lists of names spoken aloud in a single day. The last times I can remember that being a thing were in high school, where lists of sports team members or prize winners would occasionally be called over the PA, and when I had a job at a summer camp that entailed making various assignments to groups for 100 or so kids every two weeks. I noticed the same phenomenon in both instances - because you're speaking/hearing the names aloud, some of them jump out with a unique feel and musicality. In fact, at the camp job, a co-worker and I would sometimes amuse one another just repeating some of the niftier names over and over. I can still remember a lot of them.

*from a longtime fan of the name Opheibia Quist-Arcton
posted by Miko at 7:44 PM on April 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


The more I think about it the more 'average' NPR names I remember: Jack Spear, Paul Brown, etc.

And then there's Libby Lewis. The only reason I remember her name at all was the sheer hilarity, a couple of years ago, of NPR assigning someone named Libby Lewis to cover the Lewis Libby trial....
posted by sesquipedalia at 9:46 PM on April 15, 2009


Well, I think one thing (at least for me) that makes these names sound especially quirky is that as I read each one, I hear the speaker's voice in my head. This is Ira Flato...Hi, Kai Ryssdal...This is Terry Gross and I'm here with...I'm Michele Norris...That same intonation, pitch, timing, said the same way, every time, without fail, all serving to create a personal brand, which becomes the signature of a much larger one...
posted by iamkimiam at 12:15 AM on April 16, 2009


To elaborate on what other people have suggested: many conventionally famous people - the celebrities you hear about day - have had their names changed/anglicized to sound 'better', 'simpler', and not too 'ethnic'*. Here is a list of names pulled, in order, from the front page of people.com

Tori Spelling
Dean McDermott
Elton John
Andy Roddick
Brooklyn Decker
Heidi Klum
Sandra Cantu
Gwyneth Paltrow
Ryan Seacrest
David Cook
Zac Efron
Liam Neeson
Mel Gibson
Scott Peterson
Lindsay Lohan
Patti Scialfa
Bruce Springsteen
Drew Barrymore
Tina Fey

To me, this list sounds a lot more white-bread than nowonmai's author list above - and I think it's because people change their names.

*I hate the word 'ethnic' and think it should be banned from most of its current uses. You think a person's name is ethnic? You think a type of food is ethnic? ALL names and foods are ethnic! Things that are familiar to you don't magically lose their ethnicity!
posted by medusa at 4:33 PM on April 16, 2009


Thank you, rtha :)
posted by zarq at 9:33 AM on May 28, 2009


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