Thursday, 16 October 2014

The perfect voice, but with consequences

BBC Radio 4 slipped in a short news item this morning about a 39 year old radio DJ in Yorkshire, Stephanie Hirst, who came off the airwaves last June 'to focus on the process' - the 'process' being, of course, her MTF transition. A decision was made to cut her breakfast radio show without prior announcement. There is a suggestion that basic commercial interests drove this - the jittery feelings of advertisers obviously mattered to the company owning the radio station - and the report does say that no special programme to say au revoir to listeners was allowed. The story is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29639662.

Whatever the hard-headed commercial considerations in the background, I dare say a deal of some kind was done, and that Stephanie Hirst was not actually shoved out naked onto some cold back street in Hull (or wherever the studio was), with just her bus fare home. I haven't been able to find the BBC Radio 5 Live clip from last Saturday, in which she explained about her transition, but maybe you can. There are other online reports, with some pictures of an attractive woman clearly enjoying a wonderful sense of new-found freedom. Just search for 'Stephanie Hirst'. Apparently her former radio show fans are clamouring for her return.

A few things strike me.

First, I think this is a fair-enough 'celebrity' or at least 'entertainment industry' story, and I personally have no beef against the media for reporting it. Public figures must expect some coverage. And it could be that Ms Hirst wanted her story made public anyway, to prepare her listeners for something new to come.

Second, the various reports are not sensationalised. There has clearly been some growing-up in editorial circles, or at any rate the adoption of a stance that leans towards saying 'Now look at this, here's an amazing human-interest story, showing how someone can absolutely turn their life around - and good luck to her, don't you think?' Which is a vast improvement over the mocking and sneering look-at-the-freak bad taste of the past. A pity that the BBC's own report had to use the outmoded phrase 'sex change', but possibly they took 'expert advice', and were told that the sting had gone out of such words, that they had passed into the realm of 'harmless idiom'. If true, I wonder who those experts were?

Third, Ms Hirst is most certainly lively and agreeable, and definitely not a child, nor someone working in a sector where her transition might be an issue of concern, to parents perhaps. These things help a lot to make her story seem entirely positive and uncontroversial. The coverage is therefore upbeat and supportive. Well, if it accustoms the general public to the idea that there are many, many similar people in the population who need to be their true selves, and that it's normal for such a person to take time out to make the change, then that must assist all the 40-something trans people who feel trapped in the closet.

Fourth, and this is not so good for Ms Hirst personally, her voice will be a make-or-break issue. She looks fine. I wish I looked so good. But her voice? She will have to give it attention. She must have a brilliant voice for radio broadcasting. And yet, acquisition of such a voice could spell career death. Or at least she will have to begin again, reinvented. What I'm saying is this. On radio, a presenter's voice is terribly important. It's the link between the presenter and the listeners. Listeners become highly attuned to it, identify with the voice, and even imagine what sort of person the presenter really is from his or her voice. If they like it, they will like the presenter.

The audience does not want changes. I can't think offhand of any past radio presenter who survived a major modification of their voice through illness or surgery.

In this case it will be a major change through necessary voice training. To equip herself for ordinary living, to have vocal abilities that are absolutely right for the purposes of everyday life, Ms Hirst's voice will end up sounding very different from the old voice that her fans grew to recognise and love. The pitch, rhythm, cadences, vocabulary, and many other nuances will all have to be quite different. And she will end up sounding like another person. It won't be 'Hirsty' any more. You see the danger.

Most MTF trans people, based on the ones I personally know, never acquire a completely convincing and natural female-sounding voice. It may indeed be 'OK' or 'good enough to get by' or even 'really quite good'. That kind of ability is not uncommon. But I am speaking about 'a completely convincing and natural female-sounding voice' and I mean something in a different league. Not only a sustainable, tireless voice for all occasions, one that never wobbles or degenerates, but something that stands comparison to any girl or woman. I can (hand on heart) count on a couple of fingers the number of persons I've met in the last six years who have such a voice, who would without question be taken for ordinary women on the strength of their voice alone. Literally less than five, out of well over a hundred people. Call it two per cent. Not more. It's a rare and unusual skill.

Ms Hirst will surely be assiduous in acquiring a very good female voice. And it can be done. It costs money, and intense personal effort, but there is no ordinary male voicebox whose croaks and rasps can't be hugely modified through tuition and practice. And yet the more perfect she becomes, the harder it will be to recognise her established radio persona - with big, possibly negative, consequences for her career. How ironic.

1 comment:

  1. I cannot imagine a harder job than one where the voice goes through a microphone which always seems to be over analytical, can only wish her the best.

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