When did radio announcers start talking like Ted Williams, the homeless man with a great voice?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 7 2011 5:59 PM

When Did Radio Announcers Start Talking in a Deep Voice?

It started with the FM dial. 

Golden Voiced" homeless man Ted Williams. Click image to expand.
Ted Williams

A homeless ex-radio announcer named Ted Williams appeared on Thursday's Today Show to show off his resonant voice. (He had been earlier discovered by a reporter in Columbus, Ohio.) While it doesn't look like Williams will go back to radio—he's been offered an announcing job for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and has already recorded a commercial for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese—it got the Explainer thinking: When did that kind of voice become the standard for radio?

It started with the FM dial. While a handful of announcers during the 1920s and 1930s sounded a bit like Williams, his sort of bass tones didn't become radio's gold standard for a few more decades. The announcer for the first radio program ever to be broadcast—a reading and violin recital of O Holy Night on Christmas Eve, 1906—had a rather undistinguished voice. In the early years, there wasn't so much interest in developing a special, on-air vocal style. The announcers of the first radio news program, broadcast on August 31, 1920, were enthusiastic and fast-paced, but didn't break past the alto, or mid-level, range. But with the rise of stereo FM broadcasts in the 1960s, radio personalities began to employ a new style. (Or maybe their old style could be heard in a new way.) The new technology allowed for broadcasts with less interference and more clarity, which served to enhance the sound of the human voice. Announcers now had a larger register to work in. Announcers on FM music stations also tried to distinguish themselves from the dry news broadcasters on AM stations.

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There were a few deep and syrupy voices on the radio before the 1960s. Old-time announcers like Westbrook Van Voohris and Don Pardo—who broke in during the 1930s—had elements of the modern, Williams-like baritone. Their voices became very popular, and the next generation of announcers tried to imitate their style.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Michele Hilmes, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, voiceover actor Harlan Hogan, radio historian Fred MacDonald, and radio historian Elizabeth McLeod.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.

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