It’s a question that every voice nerd asks themselves sooner or later. Just what is that old time radio accent? Why did they talk in that bizarre voice?
You know the one. It still comes up even today, and it’s not even always a parody.
It usually is a parody, though. Or a way to evoke the newsmen of a bygone age.
Why did they all talk the same? Were they all from the same place?
Why don’t they talk like that anymore?
Did their mystical land of prolonged vowels and over-pronounced T’s and S’s sink beneath the sea, like a prim and proper Atlantis?
It turns out, it doesn’t take much to find the answer this age-old question. This way of speaking is called a Mid-Atlantic Accent, and it’s, well, fake. The name might be a clue. After all, there is no “mid-Atlantic”, unless that prim and proper Atlantis actually does exist.
History of the Mid-Atlantic Accent
According to research (ok, Wikipedia) the accent was a conscious affectation of wealthy Americans in the late 1800s through World War II. The Mid-Atlantic voice was something like America’s version of Received Pronunciation, which is better known to most readers as “upper crust English accent”.
Received Pronunciation is the way Imperial officers speak in Star Wars. It’s the way the nobility speaks. And in the old days of the United States, the Mid-Atlantic Accent was how people spoke if they wished to convey a similarly high place in society.
Many politicians, “pillars of society” and “captains of industry” spoke in Mid-Atlantic, including the Roosevelts, Jackie Kennedy, and the Vanderbilts. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision they were making, but rather a product of their upbringing.
It was an accent for the upper class. People from the same city (most often New York or Boston) might speak in a completely different style, simply because their friends and family weren’t using a Mid-Atlantic accent.
How the Mid-Atlantic Accent Took Over Media
There are a couple of solid reasons why the Mid-Atlantic voice became so prominent in movies, radio, and television.
First and foremost, actors and celebrities frequently do wish to be thought of as sophisticated, wealthy, and powerful. This is a truth that may come as a surprise to absolutely no one, and in the old days, the way one spoke was a strong indicator of one’s station in life.
Therefore, the accent was affected by actors high and low, and was even written of in the classic actors’ textbook Speak with Distinction, written by Edith Skinner in 1942.
Secondly, and perhaps more practically, the voice carries well. It’s easy to understand with its very precise pronunciations.
This was a helpful quality for stage productions in the days before microphones and speakers. The voice naturally projects when speaking this way, and actors learned to rely on it to be heard all the way across a performance hall.
It was even more important in the early days of film and radio. Sound mixing was, to put it lightly, less advanced than today. “Nonexistent” might be a better way to put it.
Therefore, anything performers could do to make their voices clear and distinct gave audiences that much more of a chance to actually hear and understand them. Behind all that scratchiness and tininess, with hardly a speck of bass to be found, speaking in a loud voice with plenty of enunciation was just about the most important skill an announcer could have.
These days, of course, technology does all that for us. There’s no need to speak a certain way in order to be understood on a recording, which gives voice actors and other performers a much wider latitude to create memorable characters.
That means the “old time radio accent” has become just another tool on the belt of the typical voice actor. Every fan of animation hears it now and again. We hope we’ve helped answer the question of just why that is.