Revisiting the Mike Nichols Test

Today, the world learned of the passing of film and stage director Mike Nichols, known for many great things, among them his 1968 Best Director Oscar for “The Graduate.”  Mr. Nichols was also a radio personality – while in school at the University of Chicago in 1952, he became an announcer at WFMT, and was the first host and producer of the station’s Saturday night folk and comedy show “The Midnight Special,” which airs to this day.

One of the other radio legacies that Nichols left was his tongue-twisting test for would-be announcers, which evidently is still used.  I was reminded of this test today on Norman Lebrecht’s blog, and felt compelled to say a few things about it.  First, though, the test itself.  Make sure no one’s around while you try it:

The WFMT announcer’s lot is not a happy one. In addition to uttering the sibilant, mellifluous cadences of such cacophonous sounds as Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Carl Schuricht, Nicanor Zabaleta, Hans Knappertsbusch and the Hammerklavier Sonata, he must thread his vocal way through the complications of L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and other complicated nomenclature.

However, it must by no means be assumed that the ability to pronounce L’Orchestre de la Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris with fluidity and verve outweighs an ease, naturalness and friendliness of delivery when at the omnipresent microphone. For example, when delivering a diatribe concerning Claudia Muzio, Beniamino Gigli, Hetty Plumacher, Giacinto Prandelli, Hilde Rössel-Majdan and Lina Pagliughi, five out of six is good enough if the sixth one is mispronounced plausibly. Jessica Dragonette and Margaret Truman are taken for granted.

Poets, although not such a constant annoyance as polysyllabically named singers, creep in now and then. Of course Dylan Thomas and W.B. Yeats are no great worry. Composers occur almost incessantly, and they range all the way from Albeniz, Alfven and Auric through Wolf-Ferrari and Zeisl.

Let us reiterate that a warm, simple tone of voice is desirable, even when introducing the Bach Cantata “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis,” or Monteverdi’s opera “L’Incoronazione di Poppea.”

Such then, is the warp and woof of an announcer’s existence “in diesen heil’gen Hallen.”

Yikes.  I should point out that as I write this, my screen is lighting up with red underlines – including under the word “polysyllabically,” which offends the WordPress spell check machine as well as my eyes and ears.

This test brings to mind a recent argument I had with David Srebnik, classical music program director at SiriusXM.  He runs a Facebook page for classical music radio personnel to chat, and we had a friendly yet slightly testy exchange regarding the pronunciation of classical pianist (and Van Cliburn silver medalist) Beatrice Rana.  To summarize, he believed that classical announcers should anglicize Beatrice’s name and pronounce it “Be-a-triss,” whereas I believed that we should preserve the Italian pronunciation (“bay-uh-TREECH-ay”).  If you’d like, you can read the whole exchange here.

Despite my strong opinions on the pronunciation of Beatrice Rana’s name, I find the Mike Nichols test to be almost completely irrelevant.  If I were looking for potential talent, I would be more interested in finding someone who is passionate about classical  music, can tell a great story, and find unique ways to display their personality while drawing the listener in through compelling programming.  If they flub a few names along the way, so be it.  I would NOT be interested in someone who pronounces things perfectly but whose presentation is flat and stale.  And if an announcer scripts breaks as though he or she were reading a college essay, you can be sure that radios will click off far more than they’ll click on.

I would propose that instead of administering the Nichols Test, why not ask a prospective announcer to create an hour-long playlist and script it?  Ask them to find a way to tell a compelling story through the pieces and composers they choose, yet still make it accessible to those who may tune in halfway through.  As hosts, we’re not just voices that tell you what time it is and what you just heard and are about to hear, we’re storytellers.

Pronunciation and accuracy are important, of course.  But it’s just one small piece of the puzzle.  Listeners don’t want to feel like they’re guests in some exclusive club.  They expect a high level of knowledge but they also expect humility.  They don’t want someone to talk to them, but someone to talk with them. If announcers focus on making the personal connection first, a few mispronounced words should be forgiven.

About Joe Goetz

Joe Goetz is Music Director for WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana, and has eleven years of experience hosting and producing classical music programming for public radio. While completing his B.A. in Music at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, Joe worked part time as a classical music host at KCME 88.7 FM. Following graduation, he worked as a classical music host and producer at Vermont Public Radio, developing new and engaging programming in addition to programming and hosting a daily afternoon air shift. He is an accomplished pianist with several chamber music performances to his credit, an occasional choir singer, and an avid golfer. He lives with his wife, Meghann, their son William, daughter Allison, and cats Ollie and Blanche.

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Mike Nichols Test”

  1. It helps to remember that while Nichols was a classical music announcer when he wrote this, he was also producing The Midnight Special and was about to become one of the great comics of the 1950s and ’60s. To question the relevance of this is irrelevant. It’s satire and brilliant.

  2. Like the wind, who knows where the comedic spirit will next blow? Hopefully a little stronger in Bloomington (and, sad to say, hopefully through the Midnight Special studio where the tone has become just a little pedantic and much of the music hardly even workmanlike — but perhaps it is just a phase the folk music or folk music programming in Chicago is going through).

    Joe, your observations on the desirability of putting interested, and interesting, people on the air who are sufficiently informed about the music they present are very good, and I would not disagree with a single one. I’m sure that when you are in Chicago you listen to WFMT and would agree that the people we hear on air when we tune to that station fit the bill very nicely thank you very much (and in ways that are very different from one another). What WFMT can afford to do, because of its prominence, is select, from among the people who meet your qualifications, those who can also pass the Nichols/Robinson WFMT Program Announcers’ Interview Test.

    Classical music, of course, will survive the full spectrum of on air talent. I’m sure, looking at your very solid work history in the arts and media, that you would never permit a rookie announcer to be surprised by one of more of the names that are bound to appear on the play list you give to them, even if one or two are also found on the Nichols/Robinson test. And I hope that your playlists include an occasional name from the test. ;>

    Jim Collins


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