Rodero, E. (2012). A comparative analysis of speech rate and perception in radio bulletins. Text & Talk, 32 (3), pp. 391–411.
Speech rate is one of the most important elements in a news presentation, especially on radio, a sound medium. Accordingly, this study seeks to compare broadcasters’ speech rate and the number of pauses in 40 news bulletins from the BBC (United Kingdom), Radio France (France), RAI (Italy) and RNE (Spain). Most authors addressing the medium of radio recommend a speech rate of between 160 and 180 wpm. If this rate is considered, only one radio station, BBC, would be within the suitable limits. Instead, higher speeds and fewer pauses have been identified in the RAI and RNE bulletins. The second part of this study attempts to analyse whether perception in the news can be affected by different speech rates. The findings indicate that the extent to which the individuals surveyed experience subjective assessment varies according to the speech rate.
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Significance of the project
Radio expresses words through voices: voices dissolve into the air because radio language is evanescent. Sounds primarily exist in time. Whatever information the listener has missed or could not understand cannot be re-read. As Laurence Gilliam of BBC Radio states, radio is the art of communicating meaning at first hearing. Even though new technologies, and most notably the Internet, make it possible to re-play a radio programme, few people actually take the trouble to listen again to an extract when they have experienced problems of comprehension. If it is necessary for the listener to understand the message upon the first hearing, whereby the voice is the principal element, it is possible to conclude that appropriate use of voice and style is essential in the radio communication process. If we consider that a key goal of radio communication is for the listener to understand the news, it is clear that the results of this study have significant repercussions in the field of teaching and research into media studies, and specifically, on the radio.
Goals of the Project
This research is designed with a twofold aim. Firstly, it seeks to determine and compare broadcasters’ rate of speech and the number of pauses made in 40 news bulletins from the BBC (United Kingdom), Radio France, RAI (Italy) and RNE (Spain). The objective is to assess whether they unfold at suitable levels. Secondly, the aim is to analyse whether subjective assessment in the news can be affected by different speech rates.
After analyzing these elements, only one radio station, BBC, would be within the suitable limits, with 167 wpm, although RF, with 189 wpm, would be close to the recommendable rate, as per the findings of the mentioned authors. Considering the results of Pellegrino’s study (2011), in which French is the second fastest language of those analyzed in this study, it may be concluded that it is not an excessive speed. In fact, the results of the study of perception show that natives of these two languages did not experience comprehension difficulties when they listened to them. Nevertheless, RAI and RNE have very high-speed rates, with 192 and 210 wpm respectively, especially RNE, surpassing 200 wpm. Some Spanish investigations confirm these values and they locate the RNE speed rate between 210 and 230 wpm, in accordance with the findings of Rodero (2007). This speed rate is considered as excessive for a media like radio, although Spanish and Italian listeners are accustomed to a faster speech. In fact, the results of this study of perception clearly show that there is an imbalance between the expected speech rate in radio news with regard to the speed of the spoken language and the speed which actually occurs in practice. This poses a very real problem which the radio industry would do well to address. This cannot be forgotten: if the broadcaster wants to be truly effective in communicating news on radio, he has to use a slower speed rate, similar to that on RF and especially that on BBC.
Along with speech, the other aspect to consider in this study is the number of pauses. The pauses analyzed in this study were few in number, less than the in 12.2 words/pause established by Grosjean and Collins (1979) in professional speech. Instead, the pauses were briefer in terms of length than 270 ms and than in spontaneous speech (about 416 ms), in accord with the findings described in Campione and Veronis (2002) and in Kendall (2009). RAI and RNE obtained the worst results, affirming the studies conducted by Grosjean and Collins (1979) and Megyesi and Gustafson-Capková (2001). Also, when a broadcaster maintains a high speech rate, he also makes fewer pauses per minute.
Likewise, these pauses have been motivated by the need to breathe; therefore, the pauses have not been strategically determined silences or ones having a certain rhetorical function. The broadcasters analyzed have not used pauses in a strategic way, for example, to highlight a particular idea or piece of data and distinguish it from secondary information. The pauses in this study have merely been those necessary for syntactical segmentation and, in particular, for the presenter to catch breath. Thus, all pauses in this study have been vocal noises: mainly inhalations. It is advisable for broadcasters to breathe correctly in order to avoid these frustrating noises, especially when it comes to gasping. They are recommended to inhale in shallow draughts. In this study, this recommendation can be applied to all radio stations.
Finally, the conclusion to be drawn from this first research is that the BBC has the radio station with the most appropriate general speech rate, allowing for a better understanding on the part of listeners not only on account of the fact that the speech rate adopted is within recommended values, but also because the BBC had more, longer pauses per minute. As a result, BBC information can be considered formally better structured, as it is shown in Figure 6. By combining deliberate pace with pauses, BBC provides access to fresh data in a better way, ensuring that the listener does not perceive problems of comprehension. After the BBC, RF is the network that obtains the best results. The speech rate adopted is a little higher though it improves with the number of pauses and the length thereof. Accordingly, the message conveyed is not perceived as being too fast and the listener does not perceive difficulties of comprehension
Nevertheless, the other two radio stations – RAI and RNE – have higher values than their English and French counterparts, especially in the case of Spain. Firstly, RAI broadcasters pronounce 192 wpm with few and shorter pauses per minute, meaning that the message is perceived as more accelerated. Secondly, the values for RNE are also somewhat negative. The speech rate of this latter network is the highest found in this study: 210 wpm, a pace at which the listener claims to perceive difficulties of comprehension. Similarly, it is the radio station on which fewer pauses with a shorter length are made per minute. It is important not to overlook the fact that, if the broadcaster wants to be truly effective in communicating news on radio, he must use a moderate speech rate, similar to that used on RF and especially that of the BBC. This is an aspect that should be reviewed, as indeed the data from the second part of this study confirms.
The results of the second part of this study back the findings of previous research in which a relationship has been established between the speech rate of delivery and the level of perception when applied to radio news, as is the case we are dealing with. As several authors have ascertained (Meyerson, 1974; Goldhaber, 1974; Hudson et al., 2005; Goldstein, 1940; Lawton, 1930; Borden, 1927; Lumley, 1933; LaBarbera and MacLachlan, 1979; Nelson, 1948), the data illustrates that subjective assessment on the part of the individuals surveyed matches the findings obtained when it comes to understand. Bulletins perceived as having a normal pace (BBC and RF) and considered as easier to understand were recalled to the greatest extent. However, those that were perceived as swifter (RAI and RNE) were assessed as difficult to understand.