Diane Rehm and the Sound of Disability
by Bill Kirkpatrick — Denison University
November 30, 2010 – 00:00
National Public Radio correspondent Susan Stamberg once joked that she had "a face made for radio and a voice made for print." Despite her self-deprecation, Stamberg’s warm, low-pitched voice remains an undervalued national treasure, but aside from the golden baritone of the typical male deejay, what counts as a "voice made for radio"?
Jason Loviglio has considered the norms and assumptions about the appropriate "sound of gender" that makes Stamberg an interesting voice (1); what happens when we add disability into the mix? Thanks to scholars like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, we are developing theories for understanding how disability is looked at and made to look, but sound studies has been slower to analyze how disability is listened to and made to sound.
Radio routinely enforces a kind of "compulsory able-voicedness" on its speakers, but today’s clip features an anomaly: the quavering, halting, staggered voice of NPR talk-show host Diane Rehm. Ironically, Rehm has a face that network execs might deem "made for television," but her continued radio success is more curious: since 1998 she has suffered from spasmodic dysphonia, or involuntary muscle spasms of the vocal cords. Listeners hear her constant struggle to impose her will on her uncooperative body—the aural equivalent, appropriately enough to today’s clip, of watching a Parkinson’s sufferer like Michael J. Fox. Although public radio features several non-normative voices (e.g. Sarah Vowell), Rehm is nearly alone in the national media—TV or radio, public or commercial—in "sounding disabled."
Here we get a lesson in the politics of sounding disabled, as Rehm rebukes Rush Limbaugh’s mockery of Michael J. Fox’s disability. The visibility of disability mocks; the aurality of disability rebukes.
As constructed by the videomaker, we see Limbaugh’s mimicry of Fox’s symptoms but don’t hear his voice; the silencing of Limbaugh’s booming baritone by Rehm’s shaky alto inverts his attempt to politically silence Fox’s plea for stem-cell research. Her disabled voice powers her criticism: although many people called Limbaugh on his vileness, Rehm did so with a different credibility—the embodied authority of her broken voice. Sound thereby complicates the representation of disability, and disability complicates our understanding of radio sound.
(1). Jason Loviglio, "Sound Effects: Gender, Voice and the Cultural Work of NPR," Radio Journal – International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media 5, no. 2-3 (2007): 67-81.