When I broke into sports talk radio at the age of 40, I had no idea I’d spend so much time worrying about the sound of my voice. After a career as a lawyer and as a writer for outlets like Sports Illustrated, the Cauldron, and the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye, I had long since learned to speak with confidence, and I knew my stuff. It hadn’t crossed my mind that my voice would hold me back.
Of course I knew I’d have to warm it up before shows, enunciate, and, like Veronica Corningstone—Ron Burgundy’s coanchor in the movie Anchorman—work on my nonregional diction. But I’d long since given up the put-on, little-girl voice so many of my friends and I used in our twenties. By 2014, I had finally managed to lose the vocal fry and uptalking that followed—though I arguably shouldn’t have had to do so. If you still roll your eyes at the way young women talk, you really should check out Amanda Montell’s book Wordslut, which explores how women use language (including all those “likes” and vocal fry), to build community and put their listeners at ease. Montell makes a great case for ending the policing of women’s voices, and reading it made me regret all the times I suggested that women should “sound more authoritative.” In other words, sound more like men.
But back to my voice. Deeper than some, sometimes a little scratchy, but rich and full, with a hint of West Side Chicago that I blame on my dad. When I started working in sports radio, I was comfortable just sounding like me. Speaking too quickly has always been a problem for me, and I still squeak a little when I get excited, but other than working on slowing down and enunciating, I was happy with how I sounded; I actually liked my voice.
But there was a significant group of people who did not like my talk radio voice and haven’t been shy about letting me know: male sports fans.
During my first few weeks on the air, I would spend my time between top- and bottom-of-the-hour scores and news updates watching the comments roll in to the station’s text line.
Sounds like my wife nagging me!
One brutally honest texter even wrote: I tune in to sports radio to get AWAY from women. Why do I have to listen to one telling me scores?
Whenever I hear men say something like this, and believe me, I’ve heard it quite a bit, I wonder what their relationships are like with the women in their lives. Because I’m guessing they’re not all that healthy. I’ve had plenty of days when I’m sick of men (and white men in particular), but I don’t take it out on Anderson Cooper just because he happens to be between me and the day’s news. I’m not sure where men got the idea that sports is solely their domain, but it’s as antiquated an idea as men going to college while women go to finishing school. We won the “should women do sports?” argument back in the 1970s: we’re here to stay. Get on board or get bent.
At first, I was devastated and became increasingly insecure about the way I sounded. I spent hours at home reading text out loud to myself, trying to sound like someone else. My voice role model was Sigourney Weaver, who has a voice so soothing and lovely she was chosen to narrate the original episodes of Planet Earth for Discovery Channel. Eventually, I got to a place where I could do a pretty good impression of her, as long as I was reading text that I didn’t care about. But as soon as I got back into the studio and the mic was on, I went right back to sounding like myself, no matter how much I concentrated on lowering my register or rounding out my vowels. (It’s easier to sound like Sigourney when reading about the mating habits of seals than speaking extemporaneously about why the Cubs need to move Javier Báez up in the batting order.)The excessive scrutiny—both from fans and from my own internal monologue—made me even more nervous for each and every update, which came through in my voice.
As my first year in radio went on, male listeners continued to complain about my voice, and I continued to go home each day and practice sounding like someone else. I tortured myself by relistening to my worst moments on the radio over and over again, beating myself up for sounding like, well, me. I had started to make stupid mistakes, mispronouncing names or inverting scores. The excessive scrutiny—both from fans and from my own internal monologue—made me even more nervous for each and every update, which came through in my voice.
I began dreading going to work. Who wants to go a place every day where you have to listen to strangers tell you how much you suck? And what if you start to believe it?
I tried to take the criticism constructively, but it was hard to figure out exactly what was so objectionable about my voice. According to my amateur vocal coaches on the text line and social media, it was simultaneously too high, too low, too shrill, too girly, too raspy, and, my favorite, “too sexy.”
Even when I asked men who complained about my voice on social media to pinpoint the problem, they could only describe it as “irritating” or “annoying.” They struggled to identify anything specific. The only time I got regular compliments on how I sounded was when I returned to work after a bout with bronchitis and sounded like a cross between Lauren Bacall and Kathleen Turner. But unfortunately, I recovered after a few days.
As one does these days, I looked to the internet for advice. Just what was it that I was doing that was alienating so many male listeners? What could I do to get out of my own head, shake off my nerves, and find a voice that people would want to hear?
It didn’t take long before I realized I wasn’t alone in having men insult my voice. As I looked around, I began to notice that every time a woman was involved in a breakout role in broadcasting sports, men online would immediately start piling on complaints about the sound of her voice. Whether it was longtime sports reporter Erin Andrews on the sideline for FOX’s NFL coverage, Jessica Mendoza in the booth for Sunday Night Baseball, Beth Mowins doing play-by-play for Monday Night Football, or Doris Burke calling the NBA on ESPN, the nasty, unrelenting insults about their voices were the same as the texts about my voice. It didn’t matter that none of us sound even remotely alike.
It wasn’t that the women working in sports broadcasting have annoying voices. In fact, there are so many barriers for women getting into the upper echelon of sports broadcasting that no one with a truly terrible voice could come within shouting distance of a broadcast booth in her career. No, what men were complaining about was something much more intractable about our voices.
They were complaining that we sounded like women.
By now, I bet you can guess why men lose their shit when they hear a woman making sports words with her mouth. Sports media is one of the last remaining industries where men outnumber women significantly. In the workplace (and, not surprisingly on sports talk radio), men still think it’s acceptable to insult another man by comparing him to a woman, and where, for a certain generation of men, it’s still a surprise to see a woman pop up from time to time, even in very tiny numbers, even in a very limited number of roles.
Still, while women in sports media broadcasting are vastly outnumbered, our presence is hardly a new phenomenon. Suzyn Waldman has been doing color commentary for the New York Yankees on the radio since 2005. Michele Smith was in the TBS booth for an Atlanta Braves–Los Angeles Dodgers game back in 2012. The first woman to call an NFL game was Gayle Sierens, who did TV play-by-play for the Seattle Seahawk–Kansas City Chiefs game back in 1987. The next woman to walk through the door that Sierens kicked down? It was Beth Mowins, 30 years later.
For those counting at home, that was in 2017. How many other industries have three decades in between the first and second women to perform the same job? And yet the fact that women, for 30 years, simply did not call football games on national TV was simply accepted by athletes, fans, and broadcasters. In the year of our lord 2018, sports media continues to be one of the last holdout industries, a place where diversity is neither valued nor sought.
Sports media is one of the last remaining industries where men outnumber women significantly.
“I think it’s partially comfort,” Jessica Mendoza told me when I asked her about the criticism she’s received. Mendoza, a former Olympic softball player, had recently signed a multiyear deal with ESPN, making her the lone female color commentator on Sunday Night Baseball (until she was replaced heading into the 2020 season) alongside Alex Rodriguez, Matt Vasgersian, and Buster Olney. “I heard [legendary Dodgers announcer] Vin Scully forever because I grew up in LA, and there’s something to the sport that has a specific voice, and that’s across all sports. It has to be this deep, very manly voice, but also soft enough that it’s easy to listen,” she said.
“Having a female voice, being more high-pitched, it’s just harder to digest when [the fans] haven’t heard it a ton, I’m guessing,” Mendoza said. “But I’ve never heard a female voice and stopped and gone, ‘Ewww!’ For every man (and woman) who says, ‘I can’t handle a woman’s voice,’ there are men and women who stop and go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really freaking cool!’”
“I think the day when no one stops is the day we’re all looking for.”
Mowins said that she, too, is looking forward to the day when the sound of women’s voices is unremarkable and less important than how they cover a game.
“For some guys, for whatever reason, I think a lot has to do with whether or not you grew up with women in your life. You just don’t hear a woman’s voice. I used to hear a lot, ‘Well, it’s not authoritative.’ I just had to kind of win people over,” Mowins said. “‘Hey, give me a chance, listen to the content as much as the quality and the sound of it.’ And I have to try and win people over that way.”
If Hollywood had wanted to set the movie Anchorman in contemporary times, all they would have had to do to make it believable was place Veronica in a sports media outlet. And unfortunately for us Veronicas, the backlash doesn’t come just from the meatballs sitting on the couch at home furiously tapping into their smartphones. It also comes from within the industry.
Women in sports learn quickly that men will allow us into their little corner of the world as long as we play by their rules. The rules are extensive and constantly changing, but generally encompass being physically attractive, wearing what men think you should wear, sticking to the roles men think you should have (sideline reporter, panel “moderator,” social media expert). Roles that, you know, require women to regurgitate facts or repeat what a man has told them. Roles that don’t require any input from the women themselves. The unspoken rules mandate that women should never be the centerpiece of a sports broadcast, should not be outspoken or controversial in any way, should not be too big a part of the broadcast, and should not challenge the way things are and have always been. Abide by the rules and you can stay.
One need look no further than former FOX Sports Radio host Mike North, and Atlanta sports radio host Mike Bell, who felt the need to weigh in on Jessica Mendoza’s first appearance on Sunday Night Baseball—and the first time any woman had taken that seat on the show. Bell, who, like many men working in sports, has a Twitter avatar in which he resembles a thumb, tweeted out: “yes tell us Tits McGhee when you’re up there hitting the softball you see a lot of 95 mile an hour cutters?”
Mike North, who once worked at my old radio station and is best known for calling a Korean Cubs pitcher “a Chinaman” and the fact that he was a hot dog vendor before landing his own radio show (tell me again how women aren’t qualified to talk about sports?), said on FOX Sports Radio, “ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza is the worst. If she were a man, she’d already be fired by now.” FOX Sports Radio pushed out North’s comment via tweet, then deleted the tweet quickly after the righteous backlash bubbled up. In case you’re wondering, North looks exactly like you think he would.
In an interview with ABC News, Mendoza said she had no doubt that Bell—an adult male who wears a sports jersey to work at a desk—had come after her because she was a woman. Bell was ultimately suspended. He later apologized for his flaming-hot take, and Mendoza graciously accepted.
North, too, quickly walked back his comments in the manner he’s become accustomed to.
After Beth Mowins’s debut on Monday Night Football was subjected to the same complaints about the sound of her voice, veteran NFL reporter Andrea Kremer told me she wasn’t surprised about the backlash these women received.
“I have no doubt that ‘hating the sound of her voice’ is code for ‘I hate that there was a woman announcing football,’” Kremer said. “Remember, as women in high-profile sports broadcasting jobs, we get criticized from head (and hair!) to toe. We are in a most subjective business, but the haters are always going to find something they don’t like about us because they don’t want us there.”
Feminist author and Fulbright Scholar Rebecca Martínez, who teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri, calls bullshit on the idea that dragging women’s voices isn’t rooted in misogyny: “The negative online reaction to Mowins’s play-by-play calling football games is steeped in sexism,” she said. “The comments, mostly from men, have focused on her voice being annoying to the point of not wanting to listen to her. They’ll focus on the naturally higher pitch of women’s voices and ‘shrillness,’ all the while claiming their critiques of higher pitch have nothing to do with sexism. Women who have high visibility, particularly in settings that are traditionally male, will experience backlash.”
All this probably sounds familiar to any woman who works or even just spends time in male-dominated spaces. Following Mowins’s Monday Night Football debut, I wrote a piece on women in sports broadcasting and the criticism their voices get for the New York Times. I filed the piece and promptly forgot about it until it ran as the main story on the front page of the sports section a few days later. I was thrilled it resonated with so many women, but the real shock came later that night, when a friend texted me. She was at an event at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and Hillary Clinton mentioned my piece in her speech!
Apparently, Hills was used to having her voice criticized, too.
I’ve talked to a lot of women over the years about why it’s so difficult for more of us to get into the broadcasting booth. It’s not a question of talent or even merit. We’ve seen a number of sons and grandsons of famous broadcasters rocket right to the top of the profession with relatively little experience. FOX Sports broadcaster Joe Buck, son of the legendary St. Louis Cardinals announcer Joe Buck, even called his autobiography Lucky Bastard as a direct reference to his heir apparent status.
We all get by now that it isn’t really about any objective quality of voice, either. I mean, there are men infamous for terrible broadcasting voices. Howard Cosell, one of the most famous and successful sportscasters of all time, was imitated not for his breadth of knowledge or wonderful content but for his truly terrible voice.
And it’s not a function of personal experience on the field or the court. Some of our most cherished broadcasters, men like Vin Scully, Harry Caray, Bob Costas, and Al Michaels never played the sports they called, even at the college level.
Rather, what seems to be stopping women cold from getting into the broadcast booth is the men doing the hiring, plain and simple. With few exceptions, those who have the power to put more women onto national broadcasts are men. And almost always older white men. While I was in environments with a lot of diversity in my time as a lawyer, actual, meaningful diversity doesn’t seem to be a major concern to many sports media outlets.
Think of the teams you see on national sports broadcasts: Largely a white man doing play-by-play, perhaps a man of color doing commentary (usually if he was a former athlete), and the women are relegated to the sidelines or back in the studio. It’s a formula that has served sports media well: any deviation from the formula is a risk, and when one’s job is to maximize the amount of money coming in, risk is, literally, a four-letter word.
As one coworker told me, “Bosses hire what they know. And what white male bosses know is white males.”
Excepted from Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America. Used with the permission of the publisher, Dutton, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Julie DiCaro.