Explaining a unique and ubiquitous kind of stuttering on public radio?
July 24, 2008 12:36 PM   Subscribe

Is "NPR stutter" a collective affectation?

Public radio stutter? Yeah, for lack of a better name, that's what I'm calling it. Like today on Talk of the Nation, host Neil Conan and interview subject AO Scott from the NYT both did the NPR stutter a lot. I only hear this on public radio: not "um", not "uh", but "the...the...the...the something". And the stutter encompasses not just articles like "the", but real words too. I almost never hear this in real life, but on NPR, it's constant! In real life people just say "ah" and "uh" and "um". I also heard "uh" and "um" from AO Scott, so I'm guessing the NPR stutter isn't necessarily an attempt to avoid saying "uh" and "um" on the radio. Or is it? Could it be that simple?

The places where NPR stutter strikes also don't always make sense to me. I can see stuttering while you're searching for just the right word or trying to decide what you're about to say, but very often, the NPR stutterer comes out with the obvious next word or phrase, a word or phrase he or she just heard two seconds ago. For instance, in the aforelinked interview about superhero movies, a caller asked a question about Batman video games, and AO Scott's reply contained a phrase like this: "the first, first, first, first Batman video game". It seemed so unlikely to me that he would be struggling so mightily to pull the words "Batman video game" out of his mind. Isn't that the topic, and didn't he just hear that very phrase in the question he was answering?

I'm not trying to pick on people if this is a medical condition of some kind, I'm just honestly befuddled and curious. It seems like it's way more common on public radio than it has any right to be, which makes me think it's a collective affectation and not a speech disorder.

Can anyone explain what's going on with this ubiquitous stutter?
posted by evariste to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think it is just a type of verbal pause, like the other sounds you mention. Some people just repeat a particular word while they think. Perhaps people on NPR have been trained to avoid the other pause words, and instead do what you describe.
posted by procrastination at 12:41 PM on July 24, 2008

I think it's a way of holding the floor so you can keep talking while you think of the next thing to say. So it actually makes sense to do it in front of the obvious next word. Everyone knows what you're about to say next, so it's clear you're not done talking. You have the next obvious word queued up in your brain, so you won't forget it. And it is much better than pausing after the sentence, because that might allow someone else to jump in. Great question, btw. I know exactly what you mean.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:43 PM on July 24, 2008

I also think that perhaps NPR people are encouraged not to use placeholders like "um" and "ah". But they don't want to have gaps of silence so they just latch on to other words while they think.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:43 PM on July 24, 2008

I think there's a lot of stuff on the NPR voice, including on AskMe, though no one has ever described it to my complete satisfaction. Oddly, one of the past allegations has been that its broadcasts are edited to REMOVE stuttering.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 12:46 PM on July 24, 2008

Clyde Mnestra, interesting. One of my theories was that the stuttering was added in editing, either to fill dead air or to replace excised uhs and ums. I abandoned that theory when I realized that a lot of the shows were live.
posted by evariste at 1:21 PM on July 24, 2008

I think it's more of a Neal Conan thing than a general NPR thing. That's just how he talks, probably partly because he doesn't have a script and has to think about a whole bunch of things on the fly -- who the caller is, what they were trying to say in that 2 minute ramble, what's coming up in five minutes, etc. I never noticed the same thing with, say, Bob Edwards or any of the hosts of the big news programs like All Things Considered -- who, presumably, spend a lot more time using a script.
posted by dseaton at 1:30 PM on July 24, 2008

I think I remember Bob Edwards writing that EVERYTHING he said on air at NPR was scripted and that he didn't dare deviate from the copy. My guess is that anchors are advised to repeat the last phrase they've said if they lose their place in the script. (Just a WAG.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:32 PM on July 24, 2008

Interesting. I guess I've always been too distracted by the smug superiority I hear in Neil Conan's voice to notice the stutter. The hosts are doing more than just talking with their guests though. They're reading the names & summarized comments of screened callers in the queue, watching the clock & making sure the major issues get discussed in the time left, making sure guests get equal time & discussions don't get derailed, etc. All while following closely & commenting on everything the guests & callers say. And they've often got guests & callers who will talk over the hosts, not to mention jumping in if there's a pause. So the placeholders make sense to me.
posted by headnsouth at 1:37 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

dseaton, headnsouth: but in this particular case, while it was on Conan's program, it was the guest who was doing the NPR stutter the most. And I recall that many of Terry Gross's guests on Fresh Air also do the NPR stutter, which makes me think that either people are picking up "that's how you say Um on NPR" on their own and they adopt it to fit in, for the length of their interview, or else they're explicitly coached to do it and avoid Um and Uh.
posted by evariste at 1:52 PM on July 24, 2008

Liberal bias (kidding). My guess would be that it is a placeholder that the NPR people are trained to use and that it gets unconsciously picked up by people who tend to do interviews with them a lot (I'm guessing AO Scott probably talks with NPR quite a bit).
posted by mattholomew at 1:56 PM on July 24, 2008

Ira Glass does this too. It always seemed like a bit of an affectation to me, albeit a charming one.
posted by lunasol at 1:57 PM on July 24, 2008

I heard somewhere that hosts are encouraged to repeat the last word they said if they lose their place because it's easier to edit the extra words out than to fix up the tape if a host breaks rhythm. Of course, from your observations, it doesn't sound like these redundancies are being edited out.
posted by dreamphone at 2:02 PM on July 24, 2008

As a person on the radio, I can say that it's a function of trying to think of what you're going to say. Especially live, as in the case of Talk of the Nation. In some cases, people go back and start over, because when it's not live, you can edit out the pause.
posted by YoungAmerican at 2:06 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I go with affectation. This is like yelling "ouch" when you hurt yourself. People don't really do that.
posted by Brian James at 2:11 PM on July 24, 2008

People don't really do that.

I don't stutter much, but when I do, it's like like like it's like, when I do, it's like it's like this. It's not like th-th-th-th-that. It's usually because I'm speaking too quickly, or I've out-thought my speaking. I've gotten past the next word or phrase--as obvious as it might be--and onto something else, so I've got to mentally backtrack to find my place. If I were being more careful with my speech, but still getting ahead of myself, I might repeat a single single single single word before I went on to finish the thought.
posted by uncleozzy at 2:23 PM on July 24, 2008

I do this naturally. Probably because when I was young I said "um" constantly to the point where I had to consciously stop. The... the... the... replacement was the occasional full-word stutter like this. Also, it sounds a lot smarter than "uhhhhhhhh." I think some people just talk this way, or have trained themselves to in order to replace more embarrassing forms of stuttering.
posted by cmoj at 2:31 PM on July 24, 2008

On the rare occasions that I don't just pause while thinking of what to say next, I have a tendency to do this. In my defense, it's not an affectation; I'm just bothered by "um" almost as much as I'm bothered by "well, I was, like this...and he was, like that". I would much rather hear the NPR stutter (great name for it, by the way) on the radio than "uh, um".
posted by JaredSeth at 2:32 PM on July 24, 2008

Or, on (lack of) preview, what cmoj said.
posted by JaredSeth at 2:33 PM on July 24, 2008

uncleozzy, cmoj, JaredSeth:

You have probably simply picked up that habit from listening to NPR. Switch to Rush for a while and watch yourself become a butterfly. A less stuttering, more vitriolic, butterfly.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:37 PM on July 24, 2008

This is pure speculation, but could it be a technique to help prevent dead air? In face to face conversation, it's fine to take a pause -- "the first, uh (3 seconds of silence) Batman video game" -- but on live radio, that much silence can send listeners to the tuning dial.

Also, I heard that interview and I can believe that, in this case, all the stuttering was simply because the first caller's question threw them off their game. It's worth a listen -- it goes from about 6:03 to 8:49, and you can hear Neil Conan and A.O. Scott giggling incredulously in the background.
posted by ourobouros at 2:38 PM on July 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Clyde, I'm not sure where I picked up the habit, as I don't know that I've ever been a big radio listener. Probably as a result of not driving. Do people actually listen to the radio at home?
posted by JaredSeth at 2:47 PM on July 24, 2008

I think selfmedicating hit it. This is what talky talkersons will do when they don't want to yield the conversation. Ira Glass even does it when he's doing a monologue (go figure). It's an annoying affectation both on NPR and in real life.
posted by quarterframer at 2:58 PM on July 24, 2008

I'm a post-production editor for an NPR program.

Yes, we definitely take out the stutters and other verbal tics. It makes the speaker sound more coherent and (more importantly) shaves off precious, precious seconds to adhere to the broadcast clock. If it sounds unnatural, we leave them in where the flow demands - people sound too robotic if you take this to extremes.

For shows which don't employ their own editing staff, Language Removal Services does this on a third-party basis as well. They also have a very amusing set of collages of famous people's "air stutter" with all the surrounding verbal content edited out.

I almost never hear this in real life

Balderdash. Everybody talks like this to some extent. You're just not concentrating on their voice in an airtight studio environment in the same way.
posted by mykescipark at 3:00 PM on July 24, 2008 [11 favorites]

I marked as "best answers":

-selfmedicating, who made two important points. One that it's a way of holding the floor while you think but would like to finish saying your piece, when there are multiple people competing to speak (as opposed to just stalling while you think), and also, selfmedicating had a plausible explanation for why stutter before an obvious word: the obvious word is safely in hand; what you're stuttering for is what comes after.

-YoungAmerican and mykescipark because they actually work in radio and had reasonable explanations

-uncleozzy, cmoj, and JaredSeth, whose answers provided disproof by counterexample for my notion that people don't actually do this in real life.

Thanks to everyone!
posted by evariste at 3:12 PM on July 24, 2008

Ira Glass does this too. It always seemed like a bit of an affectation to me, albeit a charming one.

This American Life producer Alex Blumberg does this as well, and sounds so much like Glass that I sometimes forget who I'm listening to. (I guess since this is about NPR, I should say "... to whom I am listening.") Terry Gross does this as well.

Like any group, there are certain idiosyncrasies and affectations that develop among peers. (See the SNL Schwetty Balls sketch for more NPR affectations.) The cadence of radio "Morning Zoo" shows, or Top 40 DJs, or television reporters all to bear a similarities to the others in their field. See also: fundamentalists, priests, comedians, etc. All these people listen to each other and pick up inflections and cadences either subconsciously or maybe even deliberately.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 4:00 PM on July 24, 2008

JaredSeth: the NPR stutter (great name for it, by the way)

Oxford comma, meet NPR stutter! Looks like I coined it, too. Cool. I didn't realize what a good name it was until you said that. I was torn between calliing it a "public radio stutter" and an "NPR stutter", but in this light, the latter is obviously better.
posted by evariste at 5:57 PM on July 24, 2008

This is definitely not just an NPR thing. I've seen speakers doing this on C-SPAN fairly regularly, especially politicians.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:10 PM on July 24, 2008

's not a radio thing, it's a politics thing.

NPR, from what I'm given to understand, edits the hell out of pre-recorded items so it's probably not likely you'd hear this on anything that's not live.

Radio guests in a debate-like setting, in particular, are loath -- whether by instinct, practice or training -- to volunteer an opportunity for someone to cut them off. 'Uhhh' is a green light. This tick is a defence mechanism against interruption.

Pols (and NGO spokespeople and whatnot) often undergo media training - this is probably in most of those training sessions. You don't, as a candidate especially, want to go on air and make any noise which sounds like "duuuuurrrr". The 'stutter' is something which can be baked into your habits of speech and has at least the two advantages I just outlined.
posted by genghis at 8:42 PM on July 24, 2008

The other NPR sort of affectation, used by almost every sort of academic bloviator on their air, is that sort of ruminating, meaningless wordwaster "sort of." To be fair to NPR, though, I hear this from people in real life a lot. It seems to be limited to, but mandatory for, everyone with any kind of postgraduate credential.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:05 AM on July 25, 2008

whoops, quick rethink -- take back the "mandatory for" part.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:06 AM on July 25, 2008

Looks like I coined it, too.

That's how I'll be referring to it from now on as well. And upon reading some of the other replies, I have to admit I probably also do it when I have a point to make and want to finish it before being cut off, particularly when I'm talking with people who have a tendency to derail a conversation and go off on tangents.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:21 AM on July 25, 2008

Someone mentioned Rush as a non-stuttering alternative broadcaster, but I was actually just chuckling at how Rush and Lewis Black have their own very similar version of, UHBLIBLITTYBLUH, stuttering. You know -- how they make that little, UHBLOOBLITTYBLAH, bewildered PLEAHBITTYPLEAH Porky-Pig lip-flapping excercise? Cracks me up.

Sometimes I think it's a placeholder and sometimes it's an intentional comedic tool.

(I suppose some would argue that either individual is an intentional comedic tool.)
posted by Tubes at 7:45 AM on July 25, 2008

Clyde: I did this before I listened much to NPR. And come to think of it, I think my grandfather did it. I don't rule out the possibility that the desire to continue uninterrupted plays into it.
posted by cmoj at 2:25 PM on July 25, 2008

stupidsexyFlanders: yes! You are so right, I've noticed the frequent resort to the phrase "sort of" all the time. Usually said so quickly that it's a single word.
posted by evariste at 4:19 PM on July 25, 2008

Clyde Mnestra -- that's one of the cleverest nicknames I've seen on MeFi. Takes me back to my high school Greek classes (no kidding!)
posted by wordwhiz at 5:35 PM on July 25, 2008

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