Why Do NPR Reporters Have Such Great Names?

Radio figures Ira Glass, Sylvia Poggioli, Neda Ulaby, and others have inspired restaurants, pets' names, license plates, and songs.
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NPR staffer Susan Stamberg in her office in 1979 (Barry Thumma/Reuters)

What makes NPR reporters' names so particularly mellifluous? There's that pleasing alliteration -- Allison Aubrey, Louisa Lim, Carl Kassell, Susan Stamberg. And it's hard to match those mouth-filling double-barrelled names. Think Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Chana Joffe-Walt, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Dina Temple-Raston, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. According to one study, women in the arts and entertainment are more likely to keep their names; the authors hypothesized that their maiden names had already become "akin to a 'brand'." All the same, reporter "Nell Boyce" lacks the snazzy ring of Nell Greenfieldboyce, her married name mash-up.

Of course, hearing a string of uniformly, gorgeously unusual names one after the other can have a different effect. Greg Studley, a stand-up comedian and screenwriter ("so you know, bartender," he says) listens to a lot of NPR. One day last December, he just couldn't listen to the news anymore; the journalists' sign-offs at the end of each piece had begun to take over. At first, he was just distracted -- "huh, that's a unique name," he thought -- but then it became the "elephant in the room" of his NPR experience. Finally, he wrote a song about it. "We didn't start the pledge drive," he sings. "There's a cash uptic when host names are ridic."

Studley isn't the only one to use the names for creative inspiration, as evidenced by the abundance of NPR namesakes. A turtle named Ira Glass lives in Queens, and somewhere out there roams a chihuahua named Mandalit. Kai Ryssdal had, at one point, a namesake goat. "Friendly Kai Ryssdal has turned into super obnoxious Kai Ryssdal," his owner wrote on her blog, so she had him butchered and ate him. A man was once sitting in a Missouri theater next to a woman named Korva Coleman, and he thought she was the NPR reporter. But she wasn't. She had just changed her name to Korva Coleman because she thought it sounded cool.

But perhaps no reporter's name is more beloved than Sylvia Poggioli, NPR's Italian correspondent. Sylvia has had a cow in Cambodia named after her, and a restaurant in Salem, Oregon. "Every time Sylvia says her name," the restaurateur said, "I envision Italy, I see and smell good food."

Others just like that cozy round way she pronounces her name. "I whisper it along with her when I am in the car -- Sil-vyah Poh-zjoly, Rome," a commentator wrote on a "Best Name Ever" thread. Italian Americans write in to say that hearing Sylvia pronounce her name correctly inspired them to do the same. But could even Sylvia's name be improved? "Sylvia Poggioli and Jim Zarroli have always had our admiration as first-rate news reporters" a listener once wrote into Saturday Edition. "We feel that the two should get married so that she could be Sylvia Poggioli-Zarroli." But what if, the presenter wondered, he wanted to be Jim Zarroli-Poggioli?

Of course, NPR's seemingly exotic names reflect the sweep of NPR's international coverage and America's own diversity. Yuki Noguchi isn't an unusual name for a Japanese woman, and Doualy Xaykaothao might be a perfectly boring name for a Lao-Hmong-American. Neda Ulaby's first name means "dew" and is fairly common in Syria. ("It's also the name of the heroine of an opera called Pagliacci who is literally killed by a clown," she told me over email.) Lakshmi Singh's Carribbean father is probably the reason why she pronounces her name LAK-shmee and not LUK-shmee, as South Asian friends like to tell her it should be pronounced.

Some names are just family names. You can blame Michele Norris's father for the heavy stress on her first name's first syllable; she honors him by insisting everyone pronounce the name the same way he did (MEE-shell). Cokie Roberts's full name is actually Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Roberts. Cokie was just easier for her brother to pronounce.

Korva Coleman's name is actually a twist on an elderly relative's name, Cora. But "in some Slavic languages and possibly Hebrew," Ms. Coleman explained in an email, "my name apparently means 'slut.' Once, I was on the table during my first pregnancy being examined by a new OB/GYN. At the damnedest moment you can think of, he raised his head and remarked, 'I don't know if you know this Ms. Coleman, but your first name . . .' 'I KNOW what it means!' I shouted, scaring the poor guy half to death."

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Deirdre Mask is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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