Commencement Address

“Learning to Sound Like Yourself”
Robert Smith ’89

Reed College, May 14, 2012

Smith photo

Thank you President Diver. And thank you, class of 2012, for inviting me.

Because I have been dreaming about this day for 23 years. Well, to be more accurate, the dream is about my own graduation. I have it about once a month—the same dream, the same horrible, terrifying dream.

In this nightmare—oh, you’re going to have it—it’s graduation day. I look just like you: out on the lawn, in a robe, a little hung-over. And I’m with all my friends. I look out and my parents are waving. I can see them.

And then it hits me.

I signed up for a course and I never went to it.

In the nightmare, it’s always some weird class like “Prose Sytlistics.” And I’m thinking, why did I sign up for prose stylistics? Who is the professor? Why didn’t I go? And, wait a minute . . . do I have enough credits to graduate?

At this point in the dream, I usually pull myself awake. And I lie there in my bed in Brooklyn, New York, saying in my head: Did I graduate from Reed? I did. Didn’t I? I did. I did graduate. It’s sort of the Reedie version of “there’s no place like home.” You should probably mount your diploma next to your bed. I’m just saying.

Speaking of people not graduating, before I came up here the registrar handed me a long list of names. Apparently a lot of you didn’t return books to the library. Let’s see, there are about 200 names, here.

There. Now you have something to dream about for the next 20 years.

It’s amazing to see you all out there. I talk on the radio for a living but I don’t normally get to see my audience. I don’t know if you know how radio works—I don’t know how radio works, the technical part—but we are in tiny, windowless rooms, usually all by ourselves. Imagining the audience—and you’re all much younger than I typically imagine the NPR audience. It’s often recorded late at night, or early in the morning. Which may explain why NPR can sound so MELLOW at times. It’s like broadcasting from the womb.

That’s not how I try to sound. Just like in every job, there is the danger of all sounding the same. I fight against this every day. My goal when I do a report is to sound like a regular person, like when I’m sitting with my friends at the Yukon Tavern, excited to tell you something. And although this sounds like the world’s easiest thing, in fact this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And the most rewarding. Figuring out how, on the radio, to actually sound like myself.

I want to talk about this today and this is crucial especially for Reed College students. We’ve all been lucky to go to a school that accepted us as we were. That encouraged us to be who we wanted to be. But I’m going to warn you—and you may suspect this—this is a little harder to do when you are out in the world. For instance, at NPR, when I started reporting, you would rarely say the word “I” on the air. You would do this little thing, you would say, “this reporter” asked the mayor a question. “This reporter” was amazed at the answer. Part of it was NPR style at the time. But part it was also a fear.

When you go to work, you will find there are so many other voices that can drown out your own. There are people who have been doing it longer than you. There is the strong institutional voice of the company or organization that says to do it how we’ve always done it. And there is the voice inside your head, the loudest voice, saying, keep quiet, get along, sound like everybody else.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Ten years after “this reporter” did this and “this reporter” did that, I was doing an NPR report from my shower. I was naked on the air for a report on the history of Dr. Bronner’s soap. And if you listen to this report, you can actually hear me squeal a bit when the minty soap hits the sensitive bits. Now, that’s a report that screams out to the world, “I’m a Reedie.”

I’m not saying you should find a way to be naked in your work. Although this being Portland and given that it could be a valid career choice, I’m not judging. I’m just saying, you need to find a way to show a little bit of skin. Find a way to get yourself, your personality, into the work you do. To look at your work and your career and be able to say at the end of the day, this is something only I can do. But I’ll tell you, it took me a long time—25 years—to figure this out, and I had to go through three phases.

One, before I could sound like myself, I had to listen to myself.

This is the obligatory dream section of the graduation speech. So if you need to visit the bathroom . . . But I’m not going to tell you to go live your dreams. Someone said that to me and I thought, “I don’t have a dream.” Or, technically, I had so many, it was like not having a dream.

In fact, I’m going to apologize. This whole “dream myth” has been propagated by news reporters like me. Because we love telling this story, we love the dream. Whenever you write a profile of some person who is a success or who is going to jail, you always start at the end and follow the line back so it looks like it all makes sense. You sit someone down and you ask, “When did you first dream of being an opera singer (or a Nobel–prize winning economist, or the worst inside trader of all time)?”
Then you ask, “What obstacles did you have to overcome? How did you triumph?” Reporters are no different from every storyteller through time. We want to tell and hear the hero’s journey. The epic myth.

You know what never makes it into the hero’s journey? All the dreams that didn’t work out. There’s just not time. You never hear the part of the legend where the hero just wanted to chill for the summer, hang out in Portland, and figure some stuff out. Get his head straight. That happens, but every storyteller edits that out.

And it’s easy to make this mistake with your own life. This leaves out some important information. Yes, I started in radio here at Reed College at KRRC (all internet now, which isn’t that different from before), and my story looks like a straight line from here to NPR. The problem is, radio wasn’t my dream. I wasn’t even good at it. I did a mix show with a friend, a mix of do-wop and rap. It was excruciating. If the tapes got out it would be the end of my career. My dream at the time was to be a doctor. But my dream met organic chemistry. Twice. “He went to organic chemistry. He failed. He tried again. He failed again.” Then I was going to be a neuroscientist. Couldn’t get my act together. 

But I should have known this was not my path. On the plane to come here for today, I reread my thesis for the first time in 23 years. I wrote about rat psychology. And rereading it was so sad. There was not a single line in my thesis that I could recognize as my own. It could have been written by anyone. No joy, no discovery. I’m going to read you one line. You’ll have to forgive me as there’s a word here I don’t know how to pronounce—I don’t know what it means, either:

“The level of behavior deviation from the median appears to reach an asymptote.”

Yeah, I wrote that. Asymptote. If I had been listening to myself, I would have known that this didn’t sound like me. I need to get moving on this very un-heroic journey.

Two, before I could sound like myself, I had to listen to others

After graduation, I was waiting tables Huber’s, the Spanish coffee place downtown. And almost on a whim, I walked into the community radio station KBOO and said I’d like to volunteer. I didn’t have dreams. I just wanted to volunteer. They started me off on the most nascent of radio tasks: editing tape. This is what changed my life, the most mundane of tasks.

They sat me down at an old reel-to-reel tape recorder—if you haven’t seen these things they are about the size of this podium with dinner-plate sized reels of quarter inch audio tape on them—and they handed me a razor blade and a white grease pencil and said, “Start cutting.” Literally, cutting the tape with a razor blade into little bits and then reassembling the bits with adhesive. They would give me a five-, six-, seven-minute story and say, we need you to get a minute out, two minutes out, three minutes out. 

You start with the “ums” and the “ahs.” Then maybe a few breathes and long pauses. I could have filled a bucket with little bits of tape that said “you know” and “like.” Then you cut whole sentences, then you cut scenes, then you cut people. People will disappear from the news story. The deputy mayor? Gone.   

All those years of sitting in a conference at Reed wishing you could edit other people. All those moments when you’re sitting there thinking, “snip,” “snip.” This is the craft I was learning.

All the people I know who have found their voices started out with a very mundane talk like this, the basics of a craft. It helps to stop all that thinking and to start doing something.

You start to figure it out, the basics of a craft. I was doing it because I thought it was fun. But with each edit I was learning the architecture of storytelling. 
What you can cut out, what is important and what is not important, and what are the load-bearing walls of each piece—you leave those, cut the windows, take down the walls between the kitchen and the living room.

Only one problem. When I made it on the air, I sounded like a robot. I had learned the craft, but I was too scared to deviate from the rules. I was still editing myself. There was one more step.

Three, before I could sound like myself, I had to sound like someone else.

I’m going to get in trouble for this. I know, for your whole life, people have said, “Be yourself.” I’m telling you: not yet. 

The road to myself involved some incredibly bad imitations. I wish I could play you some of my early radio work, but graduation speeches aren’t really multimedia yet. Maybe I can give you a taste of what I sounded like.

First time on the air,  “This is the KBOO evening news. I’m Robert Smith.”

I’ve listened back. I think I was trying to do a vaguely British accent. I had listened to too much BBC, you know, and what they call the three-level delivery. Except that I was doing one level and I’m not British. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I was 22. I was scared. 

But you know what, as embarrassing as it was, I needed to feel like I knew what I was doing. I needed to imitate the best. I went through many different phases. There was a time when I would record radio that I liked onto a cassette, and I would write out the words, just to feel what it was like to have the words come out of me.

My first paying gig was in Salt Lake City. Before I went into the job interview, I taped the news director on the air—I basically memorized his style. Let’s see if I can do this one—he did everything in one breath:

“It’s All Things Considered on FM90. I’m Robert Smith [breath intake].”

You hear the breath? That’s his breath. I loved that breath.

If I admired someone, I would incorporate a little of their style. I had my deadpan Ira Glass “This American Life” moments. I had my boisterous Robert Krulwich swagger moments. If they ever heard me on local radio doing this and recognized themselves, they were kind enough not to point it out when I got to national. 

But once again, this was exactly what I needed. I thought I was learning radio, but what I was learning was confidence. Day by day, bad imitation by bad imitation, I was learning that I could do this. And then one day, you’re looking at your work and you’re thinking, should I try this or this? This? And then, you just make the scariest decision of all. You have the confidence to say, you know what? I’m going to do it the way I think it should sound. I’m going to do it like me.

I can remember it vividly, the first time I was truly myself on the air. It was a very hard-hitting piece on the trend of deep frying turkeys for thanksgiving. There was a lot of news about the dangers and so forth. But it’s so good! I ate it on the air. I vividly described each detail—getting the sounds of the oil, describing the taste of the bird. I was so excited about this topic and you could tell on the air. I’m an excitable guy, and that should come through on the air.

But after I recorded it, it scared me so much I sent a note to the producer: “I went a little over the top here. I can retrack.” But turns out for them, it sounded like someone who trusted himself enough to say, “I like this, you will like this, too.” Ten years of talking on radio, and finally I could recognize me on the air.

This is a great moment. And I wish it for all of you. 

The feeling that no one else could have done this thing the way I did it. I’m not saying better, I’m not saying worse, I’m saying you. Perhaps you’ve already tasted a little bit of it in your thesis, and if so, you’re probably already hooked. It’s the best feeling in the world.

One of the real joys of my life has been watching most of the friends I graduated with come to this place. They have their own crafts and professions. They wear clothes to work. They’ve found their own ways to gain confidence from mundane tasks. They have their own people to imitate—the best doctors, the best lawyers. Some much quicker than me. Some are still looking. This is not easy work. 

This is the one part of the hero’s journey that is true to life. Heroes always returns home. They return to the place they started. They’ve changed, but they’re still themselves.

President Diver mentioned the Odyssey in his remarks. I had to look it up. Odysseus takes 10 years to get back home. And when he does, he’s disguised as a beggar. No one recognizes him, except his old nurse. As she starts to wash his feet, she says, you resemble my old master. I recognize your figure. I recognize your voice.

The hero returns, and the hero sounds like himself.

Reed College class of 2012, I’ll be listening for you.


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