Freedom Fries

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On 1/23/2015, as part of a This American Life show on "What happens when the Internet turns on you?", Ira Glass took up an issue we've devoted a few posts to ("545: If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS — Act Two, Freedom Fries").

Recently, This American Life has been getting a lot of hate mail about the young women on our staff — listeners complain about their "vocal fry." […]

What's striking in the dozens of emails about vocal fry that we've gotten here at our radio show is how vehement people are. These are some of the angriest emails we ever get. They call these women's voices unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying, difficult to pay attention, so severe as to cause discomfort, can't stand the pain, distractingly disgusting, could not get over how annoyed I was, I am so appalled, detracts from the credibility of the journalist, degrades the value of the reportage, it's a choice, very unprofessional.

Apparently vocal fry has taken over from uptalk and approximative like as the main way to complain about female voices on the air:

Stephanie Foo   Lately, in the past year and a half maybe, every time I get together with female radio producers, it's just like comparing war stories.  

Ira Glass  That's Stephanie Foo, one of the younger producers here on our show.  

Stephanie Foo  It's just listing off, oh, somebody said this about me, my voice this week. Somebody said I sound like a stoner 13-year-old. Somebody said that my voice sounds like driving on gravel. Somebody said they wanted to kill themselves hearing my voice.  

Ira Glass  Listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word like and about upspeak, which is when you put a question mark at the end of a sentence and talk like this. But we don't get many emails like that anymore. People who don't like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.

The program quotes me on the alleged novelty of the phenomenon:

The Today Show story and other stories treat vocal fry as if it's a new phenomenon, on the rise, a fad, an epidemic. But as a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Liberman, has pointed out, there is still no evidence of that, pro or con– no evidence that it is more common now than it's always been.

And it quotes Penny Eckert on a perceptual generation gap:

Ira Glass  A few years ago, a linguist named Penny Eckert from Stanford University heard a young woman on NPR and was surprised to hear somebody speaking in such a casual style with so much vocal fry about serious news. And she thought, well, she shouldn't be on NPR. She doesn't sound authoritative.  

Penny Eckert  When I played it for my students and asked them how they thought she sounded, they said she sounded great. And they thought she sounded authoritative. Then I knew that I was behind the curve.  

Ira Glass  So she did a little study– a preliminary study. She played clips of a Marketplace reporter named Sally Herships for 584 people, and she asked them to rate how authoritative the reporter sounded. The results, people under 40 heard it very differently than people over 40.  

Penny Eckert  The younger people found that quite authoritative, and the older people did not.  

Ira Glass  So if people are having a problem with these reporters on the radio, what it means is they're old.  

Penny Eckert  Yeah, I think old people tend to get cranky about this stuff anyway. But the media are just all over it. I mean, I'm constantly getting requests from media. And they want to talk about the crazy ways that young women are speaking. And the first thing they do is attribute it to young women, even though young men are doing it too. So it's a policing of young people, but I think most particularly young women.  

Ira Glass  She says the same thing happened with upspeak and with the word like. Reporters would call her about these things. They'd point to them as a problem with young women when young men do all that also.  

She says people get worked up about this stuff, but it's just part of life. As we age, we fall out of touch with how younger people speak. Her advice to everybody, including herself– get over it.

Some earlier LLOG posts relevant to this issue:

"Vocal fry: 'creeping in' or 'still here'?", 12/12/2011
"More on 'vocal fry'", 12/18/2011
"Sexy baby vocal virus", 8/15/2013
"Biology, sex, culture, and pitch", 8/16/2013
"New vocal fry culprit", 6/18/2014
"Vocal fry probably doesn't harm your career prospects", 6/7/2014
"Real fry", 6/19/2014

By the way, see the Wikipedia article for the background of the title's "freedom fries" joke.

And see also, "You want fries with that?"


  1. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    I wonder if the complaints about young women will increase to include young men when current 20-somethings age and become the "kids these days" cranks.

    Current older listeners who complain about young women's voices grew up on a heavy diet of male voices in the news and other authoritative positions — politicians, corporate CEOs, and so on. I would think their listening experience influenced their preferences.

    [(myl) But Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America" during the middle of the 20th century, exhibited creaky voice and vocal fry at the end of nearly every declarative sentence he ever spoke into a microphone. So the problem can't be that people aren't used to hearing creak and fry from authoritative voices. Perhaps it's a gender-reversal thing, like hair length or cussing, except for some reason people don't have a conscious "woman acting like a man" perception in this case, but just an "annoying female characteristic" reaction.]

  2. picklefactory said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 9:45 am

    I didn't realize there was a name for this until I read about it here a little while ago. And even then, I went around without recognizing it when I heard it for months and months. Just a few weeks ago I realized a co-worker was speaking this way. She's probably got a couple decades on Stephanie Foo. Indeed, reflecting some more, I recall a male friend way back in high school who stands out as having more vocal fry than anyone else I've ever heard. I don't recall anyone ever remarking on it.

    As usual, any old arrow in the quiver will do, as long as you aim it at a woman.

  3. Callum said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    I think there's room for having aesthetic opinions without them extending any further than that. Voices are highly variable things and people should be free to find some more appealing than others, so I would personally defend my own taste (or rather, my right to it), which is that I find 'vocal fry' quite annoying, but I recognise this as a personal neurosis and I wouldn't dream of saying that it has any bearing at all on a person's validity or professionalism.

    I do wonder, though, if there are any other demographic correlations with fry – in particular, whether or not it's most prominent in the U.S. I say this because I'm a young person rather than an old person with this curmudgeonly attitude, and I wonder if the reason for that is (partly) that I'm British. Less because of accent jingoism and more because I dislike cultural hegemony, I grow tired of hearing American pitch contours in mainstream media (just as I dislike too many southern English accents in parliament), and perhaps fry is also an American thing. Then again, maybe the stats say otherwise and I just dislike it because I don't find it pretty (I should say that I don't like my own voice either so it's not as though I want the world to sound like me!).

  4. Charles Broming said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    In households with infants, the most authoritative voice in the house can't even form words (that adults and children recognize, anyway)!

    What does "authoritative" sound like, anyway – Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer, Babwa Wawa, Ira Glass, Mitch McConnell? Please. How churlish can we get?

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 12:46 pm

    I have a 19-year-old granddaughter who could be the vocal fry poster child. For some reason, her voice drives my digital hearing aids (which cost much more than my first car) bonkers. If she talks steadily for more than a few seconds, the processor kicks in and about doubles the volume of the alto range of her voice. Very bizarre.

  6. Jim said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    "Somebody said that my voice sounds like driving on gravel. Somebody said they wanted to kill themselves hearing my voice."

    If I were her and someone said that to me, I would encourage them to do it. That was just cruel.

  7. cameron said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

    I wonder if Dan Lufkin's comment above is the key? Could it be people with hearing aids who find this phenomenon so annoying?

  8. hector said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    Vocal fry is something I hadn't even noticed until you pointed it out, and I find it utterly un-irritating. Mind you, I have an extremely "creaky" voice (something to do with the shape of my vocal chords), so maybe I've been irritating people for years, but being polite Canadians they've been keeping their mouths shut.

    Uptalk, on the other hand, still irritates me, but, being a polite Canadian, I wouldn't dream of complaining about it, much less writing borderline insane letters to radio stations.

  9. Jenné said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

    My boyfriend and I are avid podcast listeners, and we're constantly talking about the voices of hosts. We both find it difficult to listen to certain popular shows because of the unattractive voices. I'm not sure if I'm averse to vocal fry or just the way these people's (men and women) voices sound. I wish they would try to sound better.

    People presenting on TV wear makeup, and singers sing on key. For generations radio announcers have had great voices. Why should this new generation of NPR hosts be exempt from sounding their best on the radio?

    By the way, I'm a 28 year old woman from the south. My gripe with ugly voices has nothing to do with generational divide.

  10. Eli Brandt said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

    I'd love to hear from a hearing-aid expert what's going on with Dan Lufkin's observation.

    Does vocal fry tend to have lower RMS amplitude (over the whole period) than non-fry, because the glottal pulses are far apart? If so then a hearing aid might give it more gain than other speech… I need to dig out the effects pedals to try dynamics processing on fry.

  11. Lane said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 7:30 am

    Speaking of reporters, "like" and "get over it", Britt Peterson did a nice piece on "like" yesterday for the Boston Globe.

    Though to judge from the above, complaining about "like" is so ten years ago.

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