They were never going to like my voice. I knew that from the moment I agreed to fill-in host a live, midday talk show on North Carolina Public Radio in 2017. While I do have a college degree, I am neither white nor over the age of 55 — the main defining characteristics of our station’s core audience. I also do not sound like the NPR voices they grew up listening to, which irritates some listeners.
During my first summer of guest-hosting, our inbox was peppered with emails critiquing my voice. One came in with the subject line “Other Fish to Fry.” It read: “I’m afraid I’ll give today’s program a miss. Vocal fry is just too hard to listen to, sounding like the person is on the verge of death, and I feel fatigued and down after listening for a while.” Another suggested “a few sessions with a speech coach” and pined for “robust sounds that were once the standard in broadcasting.” A listener commented, “One would think these jobs are highly competitive,” and, “What happened? [to what was once the standard in broadcasting].”
But even if they didn’t like how I spoke, I believed I could win some hearts, minds and ears with what I talked about. So, two years into guest-hosting, I decided to try an experiment ― for one month, my producers and I would create a new series around topics I rarely heard on public radio: sex, relationships and personal health. Not only did we dive into conversations about the science of orgasm and female pleasure, fertility and intimacy and aging, but we went beyond featuring the typical voices you might expect on an NPR station to create space for more intimate, personal stories. We called the series “Embodied.”
“Embodied” content was natural for me. It was stuff I talked about all the time with my friends. And I figured if a 30-year-old, bespectacled mixed-race Indian woman was being given a shot at taking the helm of a flagship talk show, I was going to bring myself to the job in more ways than one. Consider it a bit of personal justice for being subjected to a steady stream of gendered criticism, which had made it difficult for me to find and own my voice as a host. Starting “Embodied” became an exercise in transformation. I set out to give myself permission to sound like myself on the air (quirky laugh and all) and to tackle topics the more “traditional” public radio listener may think are unusual for the platform or irrelevant to their life experience.
Hosting these taboo conversations on a midday live talk show introduced a whole slew of challenges and new kinds of critiques. Some vocal members of our audience wrote in with big concerns that topics like body hair and sexual pleasure are obscene. Others shared reflections that our content choices are irrelevant to the news and trends of the day, and it is irresponsible and unprofessional for us to give these topics time and attention. One Twitter commenter has stated multiple times: “If you are going to continue to take the show in a direction other than reporting on North Carolina, please take it to a podcast and leave the 12 o’clock hour for LOCAL NEWS.”
We did “take it to a podcast” a few months ago when we launched a new version of “Embodied” for our on-demand audience. But the radio series persists. Luckily, my station managers have heard enough positive feedback that they have been willing to take the risk and let me continue the “Embodied” series beyond the first month of experimentation.
In May of this year, we did an hour-long show about the porn industry. We featured a North Carolina artist working on a virtual exhibit that aims to normalize people’s varied sexual fantasies; a queer adult filmmaker who lets participants guide much of the erotic content they film; and the co-founder of a new audio erotica app.
Before the show even hit the airwaves, we began to hear from listeners concerned that the topic was “inappropriate for the middle of the day.” While we still got some notes of concern and disapproval after the show aired, there were also responses like this one from a therapist: “I’m sure that today’s show resonated with many people, and that many of those folks might still be embarrassed to write or call in with their support. But on behalf of myself and so many of the clients I work with to disentangle their sexuality from their experiences of shame, THANK YOU.”
I have no desire to throw the listeners who do not like my content under the bus, nor do I aspire to change anyone’s mind about pornography or sexuality. But what I wish they could hear is this: The reason I want to have conversations about these topics in the middle of the day on live public radio is not to be salacious. It is because I firmly believe that the longer that we keep conversations about sex, relationships and health in the realm of “not for public discourse,” the longer we’ll stay locked into singular narratives that keep us from really knowing ourselves and each other more deeply. If we can recognize that humans are sexual creatures who are wired to have desire and seek pleasure, we can have meaningful dialogue that could serve to integrate aspects of our identity without contributing to the harm of other people.
The fact that the topics on “Embodied” are making people uncomfortable is precisely the point. If we put subjects like porn and sex into a bucket of things that are too “explicit” to talk about, we cut ourselves off from nuanced conversations about fundamental aspects of our humanity. When a public radio show chooses to talk about this stuff on its airwaves, even at noon, it creates space to validate significant parts of the human experience that shape how people think about their race, identity and connections to one another. In a recent back-and-forth with the same frequent Twitter commenter about a show on sex and dating for folks with physical disabilities, they continued to assert that we should move the content out of the noon hour but also stated: “That was an AMAZING story, and I seriously learned so much.”
Since I started the “Embodied” series, many people have told me that I’m brave for having these conversations on the radio. But honestly, having the conversations is the easy part. I feel most myself when I’m in the hosting chair, following my curiosity, and listening deeply to a guest. Talking openly about these topics helps me move me through my own insecurities and shame spirals. It’s being a younger woman on the radio in a public-facing role that feels brave to me more often than not. It can mean pushing back against criticisms that how I talk or what I talk about aren’t worthy of airtime and putting up safeguards against people on the internet who are fixated on trolling me. But I am compelled to do this work because I know that as I make the effort to more fully be myself on the airwaves, I can invite my guests and listeners to do the same.
Anita Rao is an award-winning public radio journalist for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC and host of the podcast “Embodied,” which explores impolite conversations, intimate connections and important self-discoveries about sex, relationships and personal health. For more from Rao, follow her on Twitter at @anisrao.
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