In Depth: The Voice of God – Why it Still Serves a Purpose
I noted last weekend in the comments on one thread I noted that I’d been mulling doing a post about the “voice of God” factor and, after some encouragement to do so, here it comes.
I’m old school. I’m a big believer and supporter of the Voice of God factor in TV news. For the uninitiated, the term “voice of God” is a somewhat ethereal term that has subjective aspects to it. Loosely defined it’s widely held to refer to news anchors who the viewer trusts with near implicity in times of big news cycles as if they’re getting the news straight from God.
For me personally, the definition is far more specific. It refers to news anchors who enunciate their words and carry themselves on the air in such a manner as to project a mastery or command of the story with such authority that it resonates through the TV screen directly to you (in a symbolic sense of course) and you come away from the TV thinking to yourself, “Damn. They’re good.”
In truth, no anchor truly has a complete mastery or command of the story in all details. But then that’s the whole point. That voice of God lulls you into thinking they do, or at the very least convinces you they have more than a superficial knowledge of the subject at hand. And those with that talent are self-aware of their limitations. They won’t put themselves in a position where they’re caught flat footed or out of their depth. If they don’t know something, they’ll admit as much up front, rather than allow the viewer to discover that on their own, thus destroying the connection between viewer and anchor. Better to admit your shortcomings and maintain the relationship as an honest broker than try to skate by and hope the viewer doesn’t catch on that you really don’t know much about what you’re talking about.
But the voice of God for me is more than just projecting authority of subject matter. It’s also about storytelling. Many anchors can report a news item on the air as reflected by the copy. Far less can tell a story in a manner suitable for that story using the chraracteristics of the voice of God; pitch perfect word accentuation, pregnant pauses at the right spots, customized tone/emotion for each sentence, a vocal delivery one could associate with the news radio format where voice is everything, little yet significant gestures or motions (Walter Cronkite removing his glasses as he announced the death of Kennedy), or even having it in them the instinct to make a necessary emotional outburst that resonates with the viewer (the late Frank Reynolds turning to his ABC staff and pounding the desk with his fist while complaining “C’mon, let’s get it nailed down!” when rumors swirled that Reagan had died from his wounds after being shot). Your basic anchor may have command of one, two, or there of these traits but voice of God anchors have them all nailed cold.
Given the above, one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the voice of God is a journalistic parlor trick meant to fool the viewer but it’s really not. It’s all about establishing a special connection with the viewer, that trust thing, which is key to any successful relationship between anchor and viewer. But what separates the run of the mill anchor from the voice of God anchor is they know instinctively when to hit these marks, especially during breaking news stories when everything is in a state of flux and they still look smooth navigating through it all. Voice of God anchors don’t talk at you, they talk to you. They guide you through a story, holding your hand. You have entrusted them with the news and they in turn make you feel like it is their personal responsibility that you get that news. They take on a role of news viewer advocate. If an interviewee is getting technical in an explanation and talking over your head, they won’t hesitate to interrupt and ask that the interviewee explain to the viewer what he’s talking about. It germinates out of a dedication to a dead serious approach to news. It’s not something that can be easily taught and harder still to master. From my experience the number of people out there who have mastered the voice of God on the national network level is a small one.
In days gone by the voice of God club consisted of a very small membership. You had Huntley/Brinkley, Cronkite, and Reasoner. Later as the old guard passed into retirement or moved on, the next generation of Brokaw, Reynolds, Rather, Jennings, MacNeil/Lehrer, Bernard Shaw, and I’ll toss in John Chancelor as well.
The point when that second generation moved out of the anchor chair is when people started trying to shovel dirt on the voice’s grave, proclaiming that the era of the voice of God was over, that it was an antiquated concept, and viewers wanted something different now. But from my perspective that prognostication amounted to little more than self-serving bluster. The networks continue to keep voice of God anchors on their roster. I could name names, was going to name names, but decided against it. It’s not really ICN territory to pit anchors against one another and putting out a list is bound to do just that because I’m creating tiers and essentially ranking talent. There are plenty of other sites out there better suited for that purpose. So I choose to keep my list to myself…unless one of them gets removed from the chair and then I protest by saying how good they were.
Because when there’s a serious big news event breaking, the viewers instinctively start searching for that voice of God. They’re not interested in whimsy or twaddle. They’re not interested in hyperbole. They’re not interested in rambling in lieu of something concise to say. They want the facts and they want to feel secure that they’re getting their news from someone who appears to be on top of things. They crave that reassurance. Networks know this. You’ll see them juggle lineups on the fly to put their Voice people on in a crisis. And that’s why, despite the claims that the era of the Voice of God is dead, it’s still very much alive and well and serving a purpose.