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When This Guy Talks, NPR Listens

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008

David Candow, the man who makes National Public Radio sound like National Public Radio, has a simple piece of advice for anyone who wants to get in front of a microphone: Try to sound like . . . you.

Don't try to imitate the worldly sophistication of NPR icon Robert Siegel, or the next-door-neighbor chumminess of NPR's Susan Stamberg. And forget about trying to echo the likes of quirky hipster host Ira Glass. Because you'll probably fail. But you can be the "best prepared you," he says.

Of course, as Candow well knows, "you" still needs some work. Sounding natural and easygoing on the air can take years of practice. It's like Fred Astaire's dance moves or the "perfect" golf swing -- they seem effortless, if you forget all the effort that went into making it seem that way.

This is where Candow comes in. The Canadian-born consultant is one of the most sought-after vocal training specialists in the English-speaking world, a kind of Henry Higgins to broadcasting's Eliza Doolittles. Over the past two decades, Candow, 68, has coached hundreds of broadcasters on how to write for, and speak on, the air.

Candow's most prominent client is NPR, with which he started working in 1995. Almost all of NPR's most prominent voices have been through Candow's training sessions, and some several times. His knack for bringing out the most emotive, evocative and distinctive qualities in NPR's journalists has earned him guru status around the network's Washington headquarters and an affectionate nickname: "the Host Whisperer."

Candow usually begins his work not by lecturing but by listening. He pays close attention not just to what his students say, but to nonverbal cues like pitch, pace, volume, rhythm. All of it makes an impression. A little bend in a word here, a pause mid-sentence, even standing or sitting can affect the way someone sounds, he says.

Candow gives a crude demonstration. Turning to his interviewer, he asks, "How are you today?" His tone is flat and affectless. The question falls dead almost as soon as it leaves his lips.

"How are you today?" he says next. The emphasized word pumps concern and sympathy into the question.

"How are you today?" he says. Now his tone is insinuating.

It sounds a bit like acting, but that's the wrong idea. Candow says acting is when you pretend to be someone else; his goal is to make you a better you. "You have to own it. You've got to make it your own," he says repeatedly.

Candow counsels his clients to write for the ear, not the page. Too often, he says, his clients respect the written word at the expense of the way real humans talk. He hates it, for example, when he hears a host or forecaster tease a weather report by saying, "You're going to get two inches of the white stuff tonight."

" 'White stuff'?" he sputters. "It's snow ! And 'you're going to get'? Where does the weatherman live? He's going to get it, too."

So, he advises using words common in conversation, and keeping the sentences short and declarative. His rule of thumb: Scripts should have no more than one thought per sentence, and no more than one sentence per line. Compound sentences are "too hard on the ear."

One more thing to remember: In radio, "the big adjective is a verb."

A verb is an adjective?

What he means is that a single punchy verb can describe someone better than a string of flowery adjectives. For example, Candow recalls a radio story about a 105-year-old woman named Alice. The reporter told her listeners that upon their first encounter, Alice "flits" into the room. "Flits!" repeats Candow. That one verb is "more powerful than any description I can make up."

During a recent two-day training session at NPR headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue NW near the Washington Convention Center, Candow's lessons began to hit home for Ari Shapiro, a reporter and substitute host on such programs as "Morning Edition" and "Talk of the Nation." After taking Candow's counsel, Shapiro struck the word "blaze" from a script he'd written, substituting the word "fire." Another reference to "numerous residents" became "a lot of people in town."

Shapiro, 29, says he also took to heart Candow's advice about imagining that he's speaking to a trusted and respected friend on the air, rather than an audience of millions. He's practiced this technique by taping a smiley face to the back of a chair and talking to it. The exercise encourages what Candow calls a "mouth edit." The idea, says Shapiro, is that "if you say the words differently than you've written them, you should consider changing the script."

Per Candow's suggestion, Shapiro has also made a subtle change in the way he records a story. Now, he says, instead of beginning a recording with a traditional countdown ("3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . "), he puts himself into a more conversational frame by saying, "Now I'm going to tell you a story."

"I'm getting it," says Shapiro, "but I'm not there yet."

Scott Simon, the host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday," says some of his fellow radio veterans were initially resistant to having their well-honed deliveries critiqued by the likes of Candow. "The reaction is, 'Wait one damn minute. I've been doing this for a certain period of time and what could a guy like this show me,' " Simon says, adding that as an NPR host for decades, "I can't say I was immune from those immediate reactions myself."

But after a few sessions, "I was transformed. He's just totally sensible." Simon won't disclose Candow's specific advice, but he says he has absorbed one particular tip: Simon now moves his eyes several words ahead when he reads a script on the air, looking up and away from the page before he hits the end of a sentence. This enables him to absorb the words, making him sound more conversational "and less like you're announcing."

Candow spent the bulk of his career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. away from the microphone, working primarily as a program producer. He later became the CBC's principal vocal coach and trainer, a job that provided the foundation for his current incarnation as a globe-trotting consultant.

Candow's own voice doesn't exactly suggest the makings of a radio superstar. It's a high and reedy thing, and he has a tendency to speak quickly, which causes his words to bump against each other like rush-hour fender benders.

Then there's that thing that the mainstream radio industry would never tolerate: an accent.

Candow grew up in a paper-mill town called Corner Brook in Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost province. The region was settled and colonized by the British, but had some French influences as well. Later, it was home to waves of Irish immigrants. You hear all of this in Candow's voice. He sounds almost Irish, until you also start hearing the blunt, working-class Canadian accent, with its elongated and flattened o's, and d's that stand in for "th" ("dare" for "there").

Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president of news, says the network keeps going back to Candow in part because it's aware of its own stereotype -- the cooing, lulling cadences parodied by Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon in a running "Saturday Night Live" bit about a mock NPR cooking show called "Delicious Dish."

"You don't want everyone to sound alike," Weiss says. "We know from 'Saturday Night Live' that there's an iconic public radio sound, but one of the reasons people remember us is because we do have so many distinctive voices." She notes the elaborate Italian rendering that veteran NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli gives her name. "It's authentic. Her voice means something to you."

Candow calls NPR's sound "intelligent." He doesn't buy the parody. He says NPR hosts and reporters sound laid-back only in comparison with commercial radio stations, whose personalities tend to speak at greater volume and with more "hype."

The challenge for NPR, acknowledges Weiss, is to balance style and substance. "The dirty little secret is that we can do a completely responsible story and it can be the most boring thing in the world," she says. "So how we deliver the story to our audience is hugely important. If I haven't engaged you, I may lose you."

Candow asserts that "the school of beautiful voices is dead." Technology killed the old-time radio star; back when, radio voices had to be deep and rich to cut through static and road noise. But not anymore. Now cars are quieter, and most car radios produce CD-quality sound. Ergo, radio can tolerate a wider range of voices. "I welcome it," says the Host Whisperer. "One of the most compelling sounds for the human ear is the sound of another human voice. Now we can hear a fuller range of voices. The orchestra is now complete."

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