Sabrina Farhi, the new, merely mortal voice of NPR

Sabrina Farhi. (via sabrinafarhi.com)
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Nicole Levy

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NPR’s new announcer, who makes her on-air and digital debut this November, can deliver the words “This is NPR” with gravitas and edit them in Pro Tools, too.

Sabrina Farhi, 33, who clocked in for the first time at NPR’s D.C. headquarters this Monday, will record, edit, and produce the media juggernaut’s future funding credits. Her jack-of-all-trades position streamlines what had been for NPR a piecemeal system of processing corporate sponsorship requests.

As NPR’s director of programming Israel "Izzi" Smith explains, the organization had for decades a trio of part-time contractors recording announcements like “Support for NPR comes from…” Frank Tavares, whose voice has become synonymous with the NPR brand, worked from his home studio in Connecticut — but only on those days his neighbor wasn’t mowing the lawn.

“There were a lot of operational wrinkles,” Smith said of NPR’s old division of labor. Farhi’s job is to smooth them out with the audio production skills she learned as a graduate student of media studies at the New School in New York City.

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She joins NPR after “a downturn in corporate sponsorship in 2012,” as an annual Pew Research Center report on the state of American news notes, “forced NPR’s budget to take a hit for the year, marking the fifth straight year that the organization ran a budget deficit.”

Rocky finances notwithstanding, the nonprofit corporation drew 429 applicants for the announcer spot it started publicizing in May.

“In the job description, I actually wrote, ‘We are not looking for the voice of God,'” Smith recalled. (In his opinion, the voice of radio has become more familiar, or less oratorical, since Ira Glass introduced the weekly hour-long program “This American Life” to the air in 1995.) Smith wanted to hire someone whose voice was, he said, “conversational and authentic, and, thinking as a radio programmer, would sound right and comfortable next to wide variety of programs. Sabrina hits the sweet spot on all those things. You can hear her voice near Robert Siegel,” host of the evening news broadcast “All Things Considered,” “and it sounds perfectly great. You can hear her voice near Peter Sagal,” host of the weekend game show “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” “and it sounds perfectly right.”

Smith may gush about the warmth and accessible quality of Farhi’s voice, but she describes her instrument — which can be heard in national campaigns for TIAA-Cref and Bioré Skincare — more modestly: “I think my background has given me a very middle-of-the-road, nondescript accent … I don’t sound like most native New Yorkers.” (Some NPR listeners, tuning into the sneak-preview recording posted on npr.org last week, have bemoaned “the gravelly sound in her voice—better known as vocal fry,” as one commenter wrote.) Hearing Farhi speak, you certainly wouldn’t guess that French was her first language.

Born in New York City, Farhi grew up listening to NPR on the radio at home and in the car; she graduated, years later, to streaming shows online and downloading podcasts. Vying for her favorite radio programs are NPR’s “Radiolab” and Public Radio International’s “This American Life”: “I think what I love in particular about those shows and the cultural programming is that it piques my curiosity in a way I never imagined,” she said.

She definitely didn’t imagine becoming the new voice of NPR before a job posting appeared in her Feedly reader. In the npr.org recording Farhi says, “I wanted to be an actress when I grew up, and, ‘All Things Considered,’ this is a dream career I never thought of as a kid.”