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Black Voices Matter
Steve Keller – Sonic Strategy Director, Studio Resonate, SXM MediaSteve Keller (SXM Media) looks at opportunities for sonic interventions: What are things in the world, in our culture, where sound can provide a positive solution? Sonic intervention, for the purposes of this research, starts with the concept of the color line, first addressed by W.E.B. Dubois in his 1903 collection of essays, “Soul of Black Folks.” For Dubois, the color line was the dividing line between Black and White individuals. A century later, SUNY Binghamton professor Jennifer Lynn Stoever defined the sonic color line as the hierarchical division between the whiteness and blackness of sounds that have been created and perpetuated by a dominant culture on the listening ear. Indeed, in the 1920s radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy with 40 million listeners, two white personalities performed racialized sonic tropes. Black radio performers were forced to play these stereotypes. Fast-forward to today, the sonic color line still cuts through our technology, our smart speakers, and often in the studio Black voiceover actors are asked to sound more “urban”. Yet the error rate in recognizing prompts from Black speakers is significantly higher than the rate for White speakers. All of the above is the background for Steve’s research in which he builds a business case for sonic diversity in radio, podcasts and other audio platforms. To the best of his knowledge, this is the first large-scale sonic diversity study of its kind: the impact of racialized listening on advertisement favorability and effectiveness. In two experiments (one a large field experiment, the other a quantitative experiment with panelists) researchers used three podcasts—Sway’s Interviews (interviews with black entertainers), Song Exploder (about deconstructing songs, a varied audience) and This American Life (predominantly white program and audience). The study used 20 voice actors divided evenly black/white/male/female, who were not coached, and who were paid as if they were working on a regular ad to provide a conversational read from the advertising scripts, for 60 sonic stimuli total. Partnering with Veritonic the researchers asked participants (4,000-plus sample size) questions about favorability and attributes in the ad, and intent to listen, and whether they thought the voiceover was “definitely,” “probably” or “not sure” either Caucasian or Black. A second experiment analyzed advertisement effectiveness: Would there be a rise in podcast listening as a result of the ads?
- Whereas White actors were consistently perceived as White, there was a lot of misattribution for Black voices. This is probably due to “sonic markers,” i.e., what we listen for. And the race of the listener influenced the perception of the race: Black listeners were much better able to correctly identify the race of the voice actor, although not always.
- Context matters: Misattribution occurred when there were other potential contextual cues, for example, Black voices were more often correctly identified when advertising for Sway’s Interviews than for This American Life.
- Black voice actors received higher aggregate scores, even from White panelists, even breaking down into categories of likeability, empowering, trustworthy or intent to listen to the podcast. Whereas Black respondents tend to rate ads higher when the voice actor is perceived to be Black, with White respondents there was little to no difference.
- Neither race nor gender had an impact of ad effectiveness, although in the second experiment there was a rise in podcast listening because of the ads. So, if we’re hearing more Black voices, we’re creating the ads that have the potential to be judged more favorably by Black audiences without necessarily any negative impact on the effectiveness for any consumer group.