May 7th, 2005


Sweet silence

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me I had a voice for radio, I’d have about twelve bucks by now. Mine’s a deep voice, resonant with the slightest bit of gravel to lend it character. There is a hefty authority to it, too, practiced from years of posturing on the telephone. It’s only when I hear myself on voicemail or a videotape that I cringe with embarrassment because, to me, I sound like Richard Simmons sweating out an oldie.

I’ve resisted the microphone for years, but Gretchen, who organizes the hundreds of vocals and narrations for our networks, needed someone to play a translator for Osama bin Laden in an upcoming documentary for one of our digital networks that’s partnered with a newspaper which only prints all the news that’s fit. She asked if I would do it, and in a moment of puffed confidence, I agreed.

I studied the copy. There were unpronounceable names and places, words culled from his many videos when he was at the top of the charts, and my brow furrowed. How could I possibly read bin Laden’s whispered bombast without my tongue tripping over the dialogue? His voice is thin, mumbled, forcing the listener to lean in to hear his words. It always seemed an affection to me, the same as Michael Jackson, or Jackie O.

When I arrived at the studio, my palms were sweating, the Xeroxed copy already weathered and damp in my hands. The director seemed a patient woman, or at least I prayed she was. She handed me new pages explaining that someone had already done bin Laden. I looked at the new copy. It was for the voice of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the chief leiutenant of al-Queda, and a fews lines from bin Laden’s cook.


A cook? I wasn’t even going to be the star! I wanted to diva stomp out of there, but it was really more from fear than insult. I stepped into the small booth, walled in gray textured fabric. I slid on the headphones, and for a moment, that silence lent serenity and calm. I felt cocooned, and I wanted to curl up and spend the night.

The director’s voice boomed through the headphones, shaking me out of my happy place, and I started to tremble. She asked me to read the first paragraph. I breezed through the alliteration of Sudanese society, but jumbled the Salafists. I finished Ayman after only eighteen takes. I couldn't tell if there were rolling eyes on the other side of the thick glass as the director asked me again and again for another read. The cook's lines were mercifully few, and the director asked if I could change the register of my voice to something in a higher range. I was acting.

The session was over. The director thanked me, said I had a great voice. I wanted to go back into that studio, though. I didn’t want to read anymore. I just missed the booth, the peace of having all of the noise of the whole world blocked out with nothing more than my heartbeat to keep me company.