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.
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.
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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.