RICHMOND — If you’re a public radio listener, you’ve been hearing an unlikely Cinderella story lately and probably didn’t realize it.
A new voice popped up after Thanksgiving on the underwriter spots — those promos for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or Pajamagrams. It’s a man’s voice, joining Jessica Hansen, who’s had the solo gig for about two years.
The new voice belongs to Chioke I’Anson, 37. He’s a philosophy-quoting, motorcycle-loving, African American-studies instructor from Virginia Commonwealth University. And he’s still a little stunned at how he got what amounts to one of the highest-profile jobs in all of radio.
Rewind about a year, and I’Anson is sitting in a bar in Richmond with a friend, Kelly Jones. She has an idea for a podcast, she says. Yeah, sure, I’Anson says; we should do that sometime.
He had done radio before, but the on-air stuff was mostly behind him. He did some production work for a local public radio show in Richmond, but otherwise, he’d gotten his PhD, he was teaching, and now and then he’d present papers on motorcycles and philosophy (he can explain why German philosophy shreds the idea that motorcycling without safety gear represents personal freedom).
But Jones was persistent, and she put together a proposal, and they immediately had some success. The podcast network Radiotopia picked their project as one of 10 semifinalists in a national call-out for new ideas.
The concept is clever. Called “Do Over,” the still-unreleased podcast will feature I’Anson and Jones talking to guests about what life would be like if they could go back to one crucial moment and do things differently. Armed with the Radiotopia win, they applied for a workshop at NPR for aspiring podcasters. It was a chance to share ideas, get a little training, see how it’s done in the big leagues. They got in.
At the end of the summertime NPR workshop, each team was supposed to make a presentation. NPR staffers had been rounded up to watch — among them, Israel Smith, who was only vaguely familiar with what was going on. But when I’Anson got to the microphone, he snapped to attention.
“As soon as he opened his mouth,” Smith recalled, “I was dumbstruck by the quality and the richness and the presence in his voice. I literally started bouncing up and down in my chair.”
This is the public radio equivalent of a Hollywood producer finding his next big star at the soda fountain: Smith is senior director of promotion and audience development, and happened to be kicking around the idea of bringing in a second person to help handle the increasing demand for voice-over talent. Even though they don’t get named on-air, the underwriter voices are among the most widely heard on NPR, reaching 30 million listeners week in and week out.
A couple of years ago, when NPR decided to find a new voice to replace the man who had done the underwriter spots for three decades, more than 400 people from all over the country sent in audition tapes. But this time, once Smith heard I’Anson speak, he didn’t look further. “As soon as he was done, I ran up to him and just said, ‘Give me your contact info.’ And he looked at me like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ”
I’Anson was thrilled by the attention, but didn’t let himself believe it was serious.
“It was a few months later, really, before he said, ‘Hey, I got this job for you,’ ” I’Anson said. “I didn’t really think that much about it because . . . it’s best to just kind of go about your life.”
Getting the job was both a big change and no change at all. “I went from just being a guy with a microphone to being on every NPR station in America,” he said. At the same time, it didn’t disrupt his academic career. He spends every weekday morning recording spots for NPR, then spends the afternoon in class.
And while he hasn’t yet started getting voice-recognized in public, he’s a celebrity to his friends. “Those Pajamagram things ran a lot leading up to Christmas, and I would get text messages from my friends just straight picking on me,” he said. “ ‘Hey man, do you have some pajamas I can get?’ or ‘I’m thinking of getting some pajamas for my cat.’ ”
Because he seems to be on a roll, the good news didn’t end there. NPR chose “Do Over” along with two other podcasts to get $10,000 grants, some professional advice and consideration for NPR sponsorship. Meanwhile, I’Anson is planning a spring semester class called “Podcasting While Black,” drawing on the oratorical lessons of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and others to arm the next generation with the tools for this new medium.
“It’s an exciting time,” I’Anson said. “It’s kind of a merger of all the things I’ve ever been interested in. If I also got to teach a motorcycling class, we’d achieve full unity.”