The Soundtrack of the Pandemic – Those Voices in My Head

By Reba Hull Campbell

Hearing someone’s voice encourages a connection that’s completely different than just exchanging a text, an email or even a handwritten letter. A voice is as distinctive to a person as his fingerprint or handwriting. The spoken word is intimate in a way the written word can never be. In today’s culture, technology often means we are losing the connection forged by voices.

Over these weeks of quarantine, I’ve thought a lot about the voices I’ve let into my head through earbuds. I’ve listened to lots more music, podcasts, audiobooks and radio shows than ever before. As the days droned on, I came to realize a large part of what drew me to various programs, hosts, singers or narrators wasn’t just the stories they were telling or the information they were imparting, but it was the voice itself.

There are four voices that I will always consider my “soundtrack of the pandemic” because they’ve been in my head through earbuds almost daily on  miles of walks or bike rides. These voices have engaged me for a variety of reasons – be it their cadence, their calm, their lilt, their earnestness or their authority. They are the voices of a singer, a radio host, a writer and a podcaster.

Mary Chapin Carpenter is a singer songwriter who has been one of my favorites since I first heard her play onstage at the Birchmere in Alexandria VA in the mid-80s. She’s a writer of beautiful ballads, soulful songs of loss and heartbreak, and funny lyrics about life’s quirks and turns. I’ve seen her perform in concert more times than I can remember in SC, NC and VA. During the quarantine, her somewhat weekly YouTube videos called “Songs from Home” have been a real high spot for me.

In each of the 20+ episodes to date, Mary Chapin sings a single song from her bright kitchen or her inviting screened porch. She usually tells a lovely story to go with it and gives deadpan commentary about the antics of her beautiful Golden Retriever, Angus, and his elderly sidekick, White Kitty, who apparently naps for a living.

While I’ve long loved her singing voice, I’ve recently found her spoken voice to be soothing, friendly and uplifting in its calm, matter of fact delivery. In each episode, Mary Chapin gives short (like two to three sentence) life lessons without being preachy, occasionally quotes a favorite author, and identifies with many of the fears and challenges we are all facing. Her clips end with the words “Stay Mighty” which has also become a hashtag for this series. I’ve bookmarked them all on YouTube and have listened to them all multiple times. Take a listen.

Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of NPR’s daily program called “On Point,” produced out of Boston. It airs on SC Public Radio daily at 10 a.m. Over the past 18 months, that mid-morning time slot is typically my dog walk hour. I was initially lured into this program primarily for the interesting content. The topics it covers are so diverse I can’t imagine how many researchers and fact checkers must be involved in each episode. Just during the quarantine weeks, Meghna has covered topics ranging from the pandemic effects on baseball and the postal service to art and inspectors general.

And while I always find the program’s subject matter interesting, it’s only been since the quarantine that I’ve also found the host’s voice so captivating. It may be because I got to meet her in person when “On Point” taped an episode at SC Public Radio back in the fall. Having a face and personality to put with the voice always makes me feel more connected to someone.

As many times as I’ve listened to “On Point,” I’m still not able to adequately pinpoint Meghna’s accent – she has one, yet she doesn’t. Lilting is too soft a description because her words are packed with such authority (after all, she has degrees in engineering and finance from, among other places, Harvard). Maybe that’s part of what keeps me listening.

Her voice is approachable and encourages confidence in what she’s saying. She poses questions to her guests with respect but sometimes a hint of challenge. Occasionally her personal opinion comes through but never in a negative or condescending way. Bottom line, her voice inspires trust and reliability. And if that’s not what I’m looking for in today’s media world, I don’t know what is. Listen to the latest “On Point” here.

Brene Brown is a writer, researcher and guru of all things that intrigue me about personal growth. She’s a Texan with a fierce Houston accent and a fondness for occasional, perfectly timed cuss words. I buy her books in hardback (always from an indy bookseller) and often get an Audible copy because I just love listening to her read the words she’s written.

Sometimes when an author reads his own words for an audiobook, the recording comes across as stilted or staged. Not with Brene. While her written words always pack a punch, those same words are even more forceful, funny and so full of wisdom when she reads them aloud. It feels like she’s sitting cross-legged across the screened porch just chatting about heavy topics like vulnerability, fear and perfection.

Just as the quarantine was kicking in, I came across Brene’s latest project, a podcast series called “Unlocking Us.“ I listened to the first episode while walking on the beach where I could give it my full attention (and please don’t fast forward past the amazing opening music). She started off discussing the FFTs (F***in’ First Time) and how that’s the common state where we all find ourselves right now when nothing feels ordinary anymore, and we’re collectively doing things for the first time.

This first episode was just Brene talking. Normally that format turns me off quickly. Not this time. It felt so much like listening to a friend talk into my earbuds that I was tempted to respond right back. In subsequent episodes, she’s tackled tough topics like grief and loneliness and interviewed some of my favorites like Sue Monk Kidd, Jen Hatmaker, Alicia Keyes and Glennon Doyle.

Anyone could speak the words Brene has written. But hearing her read her own books, do a podcast monologue or interview an equally esteemed writer in her warm, yet sometimes gritty, Texas accent normalizes a lot of the hard topics she writes and talks about. Even with these all-stars featured on the podcast, it’s still Brene’s voice that’s the star in my mind. Listen to “Unlocking Us” here.

Anne Smith is a Columbia native, Greenville-based mom, PR person and podcaster. I’ve known Anne since her junior PR days in Columbia. She’s got a voice that’s picture perfect for a podcaster who focuses on big real life struggles and small victories of real life people. The name for Anne’s project, “But Not All At Once” is spot-on given her current state in life. She’s mom to four children under ten, owns her own PR consulting business and has given in to the reality that maybe you can do everything, but “just not all at once.”

I’ve always loved the idea of podcasting as a simplified way to do something I’d always dreamed of –  my own radio show. So I was initially drawn to listening to Anne’s podcast thinking it would be instructive to see how an individual (rather than a commercial producer) pulls it off.

I wasn’t past the first episode with its chatty opening, catchy music and funny teases that I was listening for more than just technical insight. Anne’s Midlands-of-SC accent isn’t anything new to those of us who grew up in the south. But it’s her conversational style, her inflections and her gracious tone when she poses hard questions to people who have been through a lot that keep me coming back.

She’s equally comfortable interviewing a terminally ill friend about her faith as she is waxing on about the humorous complexities of Brexit. I’m guessing she loosely scripts her episodes, but the conversational tone of her voice is comforting, funny and just a little irreverent when it needs to be. Listen to Anne here.

After more than 35 years working in politics, communications, management, fundraising and government relations, Reba Campbell is a rookie retiree deciding what she wants to be when she grows up. Reba is passionate about travel, writing, learning to play the uke and keyboard, and staying connected with old friends. Reba can be reached at [email protected] or through her blog at http://randomconnectpoints.blogspot.com.