3 Reasons to Watch Our 'Salton Sea' Video, and More on That Weirdo Old Accent

As for the Salton Sea clip, which has gone up today on the Atlantic's video channel:

1) It's interesting and visually arresting.

2) It is particularly interesting/alarming for me, because I could well have been in one of those shots from the Leave it to Beaver era. Several times in the late Fifties and early Sixties my dad would dragoon the rest of us for the broiling drive down through the desert to Salton City and neighboring developments, with the fantasy that it could be a "good investment" for the family to buy a lakeshore lot there. Thank goodness he never followed through. I will claim that the grade-school version of me is somewhere in shots from the video like the one below -- hey, that could be my sister eating watermelon -- and I defy anyone to disprove it.


Fortunately our Video Channel's Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg pronounces this the "glamorous" era for the Salton Sea. (Other pics here.)

3) The announcer's voice in the old footage shows post-World War II remnants of the striking pre-war "announcer voice," whose rise and amazing near-instantaneous disappearance I mentioned a few weeks ago. I am remiss in not sharing some of the very, very abundant flow of responses about why a style of speaking that dominated American public discourse -- newsreels, plays and movies, some politicians -- is so rarely encountered now. Here come the hypotheses:

Marlon Brando did it:

I'd say the answer to the question of why the transatlantic was no longer called, "standard American speech" is method acting. The schools stopped teaching people to speak as if it were a kind of singing. Movies after Brando, Natalie Wood and James Dean just sounded different. Liz Taylor was one of the few to go "method" and keep the old voice, party because she grew up in England.

Newscasters wanted to reach this new "natural tone." Newscaster accent under the influence of schools shifted to a central Indiana dialect which has an odd nasality that you can often hear.

If anything, the switch can be seen as the triumph of the hard Irish-style "r" which so many people tried to banish on both sides of the Atlantic.

Easy Rider did it:

The end of the Hollywood studio system took away the prescribed elocution classes contract players were required to attend, then the 1960's 'cinema verite' style fad that lasted into the 1970's reached for a gritty, ultra-reality style of film making. "Easy Rider" with a mid-atlantic accent?? The stuffy elocution no longer made sense to that fashion.

You can still hear this voice on stage in pieces written for that voice. Using today's contemporary speech pattern with the formal, florid dialogue sounds ludicrous. As an actor,I enjoy that form of speech. It really helps create an aura of "another time and place" for the actor AND the audience.

Arthur Godfrey did it:

Who dun it?   Arthur Godfrey! From Wikipedia:

"Recovering from a near-fatal automobile accident en route to a flying lesson in 1931 (by which time he was already an avid flyer), he decided to listen closely to the radio and realized that the stiff, formal style then used by announcers could not connect with the average radio listener; the announcers spoke in stentorian tones, as if giving a formal speech to a crowd and not communicating on a personal level. Godfrey vowed that when he returned to the airwaves he would affect a relaxed, informal style as if he were talking to just one person. He also used that style to do his own commercials and became a regional star." and

"Godfrey became nationally known in April 1945 when, as CBS's morning-radio man in Washington, he took the microphone for a live, firsthand account of President Roosevelt's funeral procession. The entire CBS network picked up the broadcast, later preserved in the Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly record series, I Can Hear it Now.

Unlike the tight-lipped news reporters and commentators of the day, who delivered breaking stories in an earnest, businesslike manner, Arthur Godfrey's tone was sympathetic and neighborly, lending immediacy and intimacy to his words. When describing new President Harry S. Truman's car in the procession, Godfrey fervently said, in a choked voice, "God bless him, President Truman." Godfrey broke down in tears and cued the listeners back to the studio. The entire nation was moved by his emotional outburst."

Old-style microphones did it (plus Edward R. Murrow):

I suspect there were two other contributors to the shift. One is that Edward R. Murrow (whose accent hails from Washington state, where he learned voice from a local) mostly picked untrained upper midwest voices. Soon everyone in the news business wanted to sound more or less like Uncle Walter [Cronkite, part of Murrow's team at CBS].

The other thing is that one might notice that nearly everyone in the early days has a voiced pitched in a particular register, a rather high and often somewhat forced sound. I'm guessing that part of the reason for that is that this is the register that the early radio broadcasts carried through the best; as the capabilities of the equipment improves, one starts to hear lower and more natural registers, although there is still a tendency to pick a slightly projecting tone. For instance, listen to Tom Brokaw in this retrospective (YouTube clip.)

In the second segment, you hear his real voice; in the first, his Announcer Voice (capitals and all). One may note that on old Today show broadcasts his voice is also more conversational and less projecting. Back in the oldest days one really did have to sort of shout at the microphone a bit, which also emphasized the high end of the voice. [JF note: From the world of radio, I know that these two registers still exist. You could overstate the difference as "AM Voice" vs "FM Voice." More later.]

Yes, it was the mikes:

My understanding (and my partner's, who was trained as an opera singer) is that it fell out of favor because microphone technology improved, making that stage accent irrelevant.

More on microphones:

If I may interject a history of technology moment here, the pronunciation may have had as much to do with microphone tolerances as it did with expectations about conformity or class. As I understand it, microphones did a poor job of recording certain sounds and sound combinations. Singers were frequently taught to move their head or body to accommodate. (Somehow I can't imagine Edward R. dancing in front of the microphone as he reported from London, and he certainly couldn't on TV.) A standardized pronunciation, along with an expected speaking pace , would increase listener comprehension.  By 1968, when we all wanted to do our own thing, recording devices had improved enough that the result wasn't a total disaster [at least acoustically].

WWII did it:

It was the war; that's the short answer I think. Interesting to a Canadian that in the thirties the infamous 'Canadian "eh" ' was common in the US but disappeared from the excited states during the war. Also the broadcaster accents as in Murrow and Paul Harvey eg. blended into an amorphous and new 'army or fighter pilot talk' of the Texas variety. From a philosophical point of view it was the end of 'talking down' to the great unwashed.

A few more after the jump.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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