A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why don't newscasters ever cough on the air?

October 28, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

Why don't you ever see newscasters cough or sneeze or get choked up? Do they have to take some class on how to stop yourself from doing those things on the air?

JKFabian replies:

You want to know why I love being the youngest of eight children? Besides the fact that as a kid I was loaded with Christmas presents? The sibs are a font of knowledge in so many interesting subjects. Have a question for a nun? Ask my Sister-sister Annie. For a priest? Ask John. We know you've always wanted to know how to make a suit of armor. Joe will get back to you on that. But it was brother Dick Fabian, no stranger to microphones or cameras, to whom I appealed with your inquiry. Here is what he said:

"Well, Stacy, newscasters have been known to cough or get chocked up once in a while … but they have a clever way of hiding it … they go to a commercial … and during the couple of minutes of somebody selling you something, they clear their throats and cough and sneeze … and then the floor director at the TV station yells 'standby' and there they are, back on the screen as calm and cough-free as can be.

"Actually, in the old days of radio, the announcers or deejays had a 'cough' button in front of them. They would talk into the microphone and if they had to cough or whatever, they would hit the button that would shut down the mike for a few seconds while they let loose with upper bodily functions.

"But this is today and we're talking TV. A professional announcer has had training with his or her voice and they learn to talk from deep inside their tummies while you probably talk more from your throat and that tends to 'choke' you up more than those who talk from deeper down. They learn this trick of the trade early and not only sound more resonant but have the advantage of the vocal cords getting a clearer passage on the voices way up to the mouth and out to you. Most announcers also avoid eating certain foods before they go on the air ... a peanut butter sandwich or a pretzel is the voice's enemy when you want to talk for a period of time.

"But with all of that, they do choke up once in a while. I'm surprised you've never seen or heard it. One other hiding factor is that most announcers aren't on for any real length of time. In a newscast, they usually are introducing a story for 20 or 30 seconds and then sent it to a reporter on the scene with all the details. The reporter has been waiting for the cue to go on the air and while waiting is clearing the throat for that part of the newscast.... It goes back to the announcer with more story 'lead-ins,' and then of course to the commercials … lots of time for throat clearing and looking flawless when they are back on the air. Hope this helps … cough, cough … I gotta go."

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