Tackling racism in brands’ audio content

type - big idea
Big Idea
category - music
category - society
sector - diversity & inclusion
Steve Keller, sonic strategy director at Studio Resonate, says our racialised ears are creating whitewashed audio content – and it’s time for brands to listen

Let’s begin with a short introduction to your work as a sonic strategist. What does this involve?

My job is basically to blend a sound science with sound art in order to help our clients make sound decisions – understanding the power of sound to shape our perception and our behaviour, and to make it a really effective tool for marketers. You see, we spend a lot of time looking at brands visually and how they’re represented through copy, but when it comes to thinking about the voice that’s reading that copy, it's an afterthought.

We know from studying the science and psychology of sound that it is a very effective memory device, but it also has an impact on our perception and our behaviour. With sound being one of our main senses and affecting our perception of everything from flavour and nutritional value in food to healthcare outcomes. We’re bringing all these elements of science to bear in our work with brands.

What is situational listening and how is it changing the way people engage with audio content?

Let’s think about music. Today, all you need is access to the internet [to listen] and with mobile phones and with smart speakers you can live in a sound-on world. In the past, how we listened to music or audio content was intentional – you got an LP or CD out, you’d bring your friends over to listen. Now music is in the background; we think of it more in terms of the job it does for mood management. If there’s a particular way we want to feel, we'll have a playlist that we or an algorithm put together. For brands, then, it's about thinking about the new contexts in which you're reaching a listener and what may be happening there. How can you use music and sound as a touchpoint for consumers in a way that you couldn't use a visual or text to create an emotional connection?

Published by:

31 March 2021

Author: Kathryn Bishop

Image: ALL1 by Azekel in collaboration with Veronique Nyberg at MANE, global


The Six Dimensions of Sound by Studio Resonate

With a view to brands' audio content and marketing, you describe that most people’s ears have been racialised over time. What does this mean?

The Sonic Color Line, a book by Jennifer Lynn Stoever, traces the idea that we often think of race in terms of visual distinctions or perhaps language. But Jennifer is looking at a sonic framework, and the concept of the racialised ear – not just what we’re hearing, but how and why. Historically, when black voice talent came into radio, they were forced to either play racial stereotypes or to play against them, to sound like their white counterparts.

Today, there remains an issue when we think about the US and the sound of the American voice. For example, I looked at health-focused commercials during the pandemic and found that over 90% of the voices featured were white, even though a larger percentage of the black population were being affected by the virus. I don't expect voice diversity was something advertisers were even thinking about, but why are we choosing the voices that we choose?

You’ve written about sonic racism and the impact of brands' audio content failing to be inclusive or misattributing BIPOC voice talent. Are any brands addressing this yet?

Let me use Pandora as an example. We began looking at our voiceover talent and found there were a lot more white voices on the roster than black voices, so we have diversified it – we need to hear that diversity. But we also looked at how we were casting. Often, we’re tasked by clients to create and cast spots for advertising, yet in situations where we weren’t mandated by a brand, we found to our horror that over 90% of the time we were defaulting to casting white voices. So, we made a conscious decision to become more diverse, and in less than two months we had evened out the percentages with more black and Latinx voices.

‘I looked at health-focused commercials during the pandemic and found that over 90% of the voices featured were white’
Steve Keller, sonic strategy director, Studio Resonate

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