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.”