"The diction of the moderator should not sound like a 'valley girl.'"


From time to time, I get emails from radio listeners. Occasionally they're very, very negative. More frequently, they're complimentary. From time to time, they're critical, but thoughtful. A couple listeners have written to me about my manner of speach, and I thought I'd share one letter I got this morning, along with my response. I've left out the listener's last name in the interest of anonymity.

I’m a listener from New Jersey who catches you at least twice a month. I’m an old [63] fuddy duddy retired English and theater teacher who still enjoys new music and entertainment. What often bothers me and gets in the way of your programs is the language usage. For Blu to spout slang and “like” and “y’know” and other street language fillers is easy to forgive. He’s not a public speaker; and the poetry of his raps shows he can use the language. I’m not as forgiving of the documentary film producer/director/writer, but, again, he’s not in the busines of extemporaneous speech. However, my patience runs real thin when the interviewer/emcee uses the same diction as his subjects. Word choice and vocabulary should, of course, be appropriately casual and contemporary, but the diction of the moderator should not sound like a “valley girl.” You demean the generally high quality of your questions, analysis and guests.


Hi Guy --

Thanks for taking the time to write. It's always nice to hear from listeners, no matter what their age. You're hardly the only 60-something listening to the show -- I think the name throws people off :).

I'm surprised at your critique of my language usage. I don't know what qualifications to offer to counter it... I did get an 800 out of 800 on the verbal portion of my SATs back in high school, and I believe my mother is still tending a garden of medals from the Junior State of America and the Academic Decathalon. Perhaps those are more the qualifications of a nerd than anything else. I suppose my point is that I make my choices advisedly.

I think the difference is at least in part, generational. I might recommend Stanford linguist Geoff Nunberg's essay on the subject of "like," which is featured in one of his books (can't remember which one), and which he read on Fresh Air a few years ago. Geoff was a guest on The Sound of Young America four or five years
, and he was really wonderful.

Ultimately, I think my choices reflect the informal tone of the program. I could certainly be more formal -- I've had job interviews, too -- but the best answers come from guests who are comfortable speaking their minds, and I think an informal environment is more conducive to frankness. It's certainly more conducive to humor, which is typically the backbone of my show. That said -- I still don't think I sound like a Valley girl. I'm from San Francisco.

In any event, thank you for taking the time to write, and for your kind words about the content of the show. Thanks also for supporting WNYC. Without WNYC's brave support, I don't think I'd even be a professional broadcaster. WNYC produces some of the best shows in public radio, like On the Media and Radiolab, as well as some of the best local programming in the country, and I'm very proud to be a part
of it. You should be glad to support their wonderful efforts.


So... what do you think?


I think you just wanted to show off your decade-old SAT score in a public forum. Nerd.

I think that the criticism isn't anything to take seriously. I listened to the Blu show again and there are a few "um"s and "you know"s in your questions (see around 11:20), but nothing I find jarring for a professional interviewer, and I'm not particularly young (31). I'm reminded of a high school English teacher of mine who had a little placard that he held up whenever someone said "um" or "you know" when they spoke in class. It just became a running joke, because he started ignoring the substance of what people were saying and just focused on those two filler phrases. It's the verbal equivalent of being a grammar nazi who complains when people mix up "which" and "that".

"However, my patience runs real thin...""Real" is an adjective, not an adverb. I guess we all commit the occasional usage error. The funny thing is that I hear the same kind of language on "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered." It bothers me on those shows, but not on TSOYA. I suppose I expect a more formal tone from those shows than from a show "about things that are awesome."

Your shows are great and I would never complain, but since you're asking, sometimes your verbal ticks annoy me too. Not so much "like" and "y'know" as repeating words and phrases: "Your folks were were really y-young when you ah when you were born, um, and they, I know that they split up; how how old were you when they split up?" But at least you don't sound exactly like David Spade, which is more than I can say for a certain other maximumfun personality. (more annoying for the mental image it creates than the sound of the voice itself)

I think that was, like, a well reasoned and carefully considered response. Y'know?

Zeb... you're absolutely right about that vocal mannerism (starting questions and statements over halfway through). I've gotten really lazy about that.

Interesting. If anything, I think there are times when you try too hard to sound formal on the TSOYA. Namely, the canned reintroductions that you sometimes edit into the live interview segments after coming back from a break.I find it jarring because I get the vibe that you're trying to be Mr. Professional Radio during those pre-recorded bits, and then you cut back to the interviews in which you have a much more casual, relaxed delivery. I think some consistency there would be nice, as I otherwise agree with your thoughts on keeping the tone of the show more informal.Having said that, I think we all recognize that you do a fantastic job overall and have a program that is much more listenable than a lot of other public radio fare.

I listen to The Sound of Young America to be informed, not entertained.

I listen to The Sound of Young America to be infotained. And Jesse does a hell of a job.

Jesse, maybe my response is colored by the fact that I'm more interested and entertained by "personalities" that I find interesting and fascinating (which is why I gravitate so strongly to TSOYA and JJGo), but to this guy I say "big deal". It's awesome that he's 60+ and listening and caring about your show. Really. But please, don't let nitpickers like this drag you down. For me, it's the reason I like Letterman. And Conan. And Colbert. And Stewart. And on and on to countless others who you could pick apart on any number of minutiae. You are an entertainer, and someone who delivers cultural and social comment and perspective through your extremely consistent show. I am constantly impressed with your sheer output. I know that schedule has to be taxing no matter how much you self-deprecate. Keep it up, and don't listen to nitpickers.

This guy's letter disturbs me a lot, and Jesse is showing some considerable tact in his public answer.If you loved everything about a show except the host, what would possess you to think that you could change the host's habits? Don't you think that the host's personality and habits are what makes him/her the best possible host -- indeed, the only possible host-- for the show? Why wouldn't the rest of the show change, not for the better, if the host made some artificial effort to hew to an arbitrary and unnatural standard that I can guarantee this douchebag letter writer doesn't keep up in his own life?!?!?In short, if grammar and rhetoric is so important to this guy, why doesn't he make a significant cash contribution to underwrite an editor?Jesse, speak however you like. I'll be listening.

Hey Jesse, I agree with Adam. It did seem like a gratuitous score drop. Then again, having gotten an 800 verbal myself, I can relate to the urge. Ahhhh that felt good. Anyway, thanks for continuing to be my role model. -Another Jesse

In my own radio show, which I also podcast, I used to edit out every "um," "uh," and anything else I didn't like the sound of. But over the last four or five years, I've learned to do it less, and to ignore it more when I do. It's still something that I struggle with (who wants to sound like they don't belong on the radio?), but I'm much happier not nitpicking myself, and I have less need to after every year of being on the air.I've actually read a linguist's paper (though I couldn't find it now to link to it) that said that filler words actually increase our comprehension of what someone is saying. It can signal to the listener that a broad or complex concept or idea is to follow, or the the speaker is choosing just the right word. People with larger vocabularies often need to think longer about their word choice.I think Guy's comments are generationally-based, and this, after all, isn't The Sound of Old America. And besides, Terri Gross, who is, like, pretty much my hero, is, like "um," "uh," and "like," like, all the time.

"I listen to The Sound of Young America to be informed, not entertained."You can't possibly be serious. The only information I expect from this show is where to find more entertainment. And by the way... Tess Viglund on last week's "Marketplace Money" actually asked a caller "How's it hangin?" I had no idea that question actually referred to surfing.

I guess I should explain that I was making a reference to somethin' said on JJGO. Sheez.

Your show has helped me through many hours of paperwork drudgery at work, and I think that, overall,your choice of words is of high caliber. I usually make a distinction between writing and speaking. Writing has the luxury of being edited numerous times, but speaking extemporaneously often means changing direction mid-sentence, which occasionally results in a minor verbal bobble.

Jesse:I am a big TSOYA fan. I think that, with the possible exceptions of Terry Gross and Elvis Mitchell, you are the best interviewer working today. Your questions are consistently interesting and insightful, and the rapport you build with each subject is remarkable. I somewhat agree with Dave Cusick's comment that, "ums," and, "ahs," can indicate that the speaker is thinking through what they are saying rather than just blurting it out. I appreciate knowing that an interviewer is carefully considering his or her question and they aren't all typed out on index cards.I wonder sometimes if some of your mannerisms bother people because they can come off as affectations. When I first started listening, I thought some of them were. (Referring to everything as a "thing," as in, "Is that a thing?" or "If that a thing." Or overpronouncing words so as to sound excessively nerdy. Et cetera.) I no longer think of these mannerisms that way, but some may.Anyway, those are my thoughts. Keep up the great work.