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.

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.”

We can’t see NPR reporters, so we have to picture them. And because they are with us in our most private moments—alone in the car, half-asleep in bed—we start to think we know them. Jonathan Coulton wrote a song called “Dance Soterios, Dance” about WNYC’s Soterios Johnson. “NPR is my alarm, so I’m pretty familiar with old SJ,” Coulton has explained. “I got to thinking: This guy’s so smooth, so polished, he’s got to have some kind of a crazy secret life in which he goes to raves and lets it all hang out.” Renee Montagne—with perhaps the most queenly of all NPR names—has said people always expect her to be taller and blonder.

And some listeners feel they know the reporters a little too intimately. A few years ago, a pair of hardcore NPR listeners invited Neda Ulaby to their wedding, sending along a picture of their car’s license plate, which reads “OOLABEE.” “Apparently they’d developed the creepy habit of referring to each other as ‘my little Ulaby.’ So I became a mating call,” she explained.

So: Is an unusual name a blessing or a curse? Ophira Eisenberg was once introduced at a party as Oprah Something-Jewish. Guy Raz used to think his name was “too ethnic.” In Moroccan Arabic, Quil Lawrence’s first name is not far off the colloquial word for “drunkard.” At the same time, many reporters recognize the benefits of an unusual name. Lawrence first went by his given name—David Aquila Lawrence—until a friend told him to switch to his nickname Quil because it “sticks in the ear.”

But what if your parents didn't bless you with an NPR name? You could, of course, make up your own—novelist Liana Maeby suggests sticking your middle initial in your first name, and adding it to the smallest foreign place you’ve ever visited. (Her NPR name is Liarna Kassel.) But can you still make it in the radio business with a plain name? Robert Smith of Planet Money told me by email that the only reason to change his name “would be so that I could be more famous. You would remember it better if I ended by reports with, ‘I’m Mobius Tutti.’” But at the same time, he says, “I’m in this business to tell other people’s stories, and not to promote myself or my own name. Being a Robert Smith is always a good reminder that you aren’t that different than the people you cover.”

And really, are NPR names so different from yours and mine? “It’s simply that you don’t hear the staff at Kinko’s saying their names over and over again, out loud,” Smith says. “Kinko’s was founded by Paul Orfalea. If he had said, ‘Paul Orfalea, NPR News, Los Angeles,’ you'd think, what a perfect NPR name.”

Ulaby agrees. “Tell me the names of your co-workers,” she says to people who bring up NPR's unusual names. “After four or five names, they usually get my point. NPR names are not so weird.” As further evidence, Ulaby points out the bylines in newspapers. “No one ever says, ‘Oh, New York Times reporters have such ... unusual names,’” she says, pointing to front page reporters like Douglas Quenqua and Simon Romero.

Then Ms. Ulaby starts to get personal. “And, um, The Atlantic’s masthead?” she asks. “Alexis Madrigal, Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, and Geoffrey Gagnon? Not to mention the incomparable Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg. I don’t know who she is but she deserves her own public radio show.”

“We live in the era of President Barack Obama,” Ulaby adds. “Welcome to the new American nomenclature.”