R.A.P. Interview: Susan Berkley

JV: Have you helped many radio people get rid of their announcer voice?
Susan: Quite a few. I think in almost every class that I teach there are one or two radio people in there trying to do that, and I’m pleased that I’ve been working with some people who have been at a very high level and have wanted to enhance it even more. I think that is the attitude that makes the difference between somebody doing the odd voiceover here and there and bitching and moaning and complaining all the time, and somebody who really can count on a steady stream of income from voiceover.

JV: What about marketing?
Susan: I give voiceover boot camps three times a year in New York City. I invite talent agents, I invite producers, I invite voice talent that have been successful in New York, and I get a lot of radio people coming to those. I just released a 10-CD compilation of last year’s boot camp where I go into great detail on how to market yourself for voiceover.

Here’s what I discovered in starting my own business. I didn’t try to look to other voice talents to learn how to market myself. I looked to other successful business people – entrepreneurs, people who have built their businesses in areas totally different from voiceover because business is business, whether you’re selling a widget or you’re selling your voice. There are some things that work across the board for other businesses that I think voice talent can apply to their own business as well. I think the big problem with most voice talent when they try to market themselves is that they think there are all these people out there just waiting to hear about them and their wonderful voice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I think the number one secret to marketing yourself well is building relationships with people, because in all these years in the business, I like to think it’s all about the best person getting the job, but it ain’t. And I’m not saying it’s about who you know because that’s not true either, because for some people that’s a cop out. They go, “I don’t know anybody so I’m just not going to make it; I don’t have the right connections.” It’s not that. You need to learn how to make good relationships with people. You need to learn how to be an incredible salesperson — a good talent, of course, but more than that, a great salesperson. And what that means is learning how to take a sincere interest in the people who are hiring you.

Having been a radio personality myself and working with a lot of them over the years, when you’re in show business — and radio is show business even at the very small level – I think it’s so easy for it to be all about us and our wonderful voice. We’re so used to getting a lot of attention when we’re on the air, being famous even in our own local markets. But that’s the worst way to market yourself. Fame does sell, but you really have to learn how to make it all about the producer, the casting director, even the talent agency — people who are working with you and hiring you. Then your business will thrive.

JV: For our readers, the radio types, we’ve always heard that acting classes are the first order of business when prepping ourselves for the voiceover biz. What other tips can you offer?
Susan: The number one thing is stop listening to yourself. All voiceovers are a dialog. Good voiceover is a dialog with an unseen other. Just like good radio works that way as well. You really need to enhance your ability to visualize the person that you’re talking to, to the point where you can actually hear their response to you. It’s like as I’m reading a line of the spot, I need to imagine what that imaginary other is saying back to me and have every line that I’m reading be in response to what they’re probably saying to me.

So it’s not about making my voice sound as good as possible. It’s about really communicating the message to that other person. And I’m not even thinking about my voice. The voice should always follow your inner intention, your motivation. Otherwise it screams “I’m announcing!” I’m not announcing. I’m trying to connect with you and listen. And to do that I need to really look at this copy as the copywriter intended. Who is this audience? What do they care? What’s the purpose of this product? What am I trying to get them to do as a result of listening to me? And if I can change their mindset from having it all be about me and my beautiful dulcet tones, and having it be more about them, suddenly the spot comes alive.

JV: How does this apply to copy that consists of two characters as opposed to a single voiceover?
Susan: When you’re doing characters, that’s even better because it takes the pressure off of you. It’s even doubly not about you. You’re somebody else altogether. So those are almost easier to do in a sense. The problem with characters is to stay in character and committing to that character. It’s a specialized area of voiceover that everybody should try to develop even if you’re not planning on doing it because it really helps to expand your range and get you out of your own head. The biggest problem learning and emerging voice talent has is their own inner demons, being so horribly focused on themselves and trying to direct themselves and perform at that same time. You cannot be both director and performer. There have been countless, horrific movies where the actors tried to direct themselves. It just does not work. You have to learn how to step out of yourself and communicate with the listener.

JV: Should radio people use their current position to jump-start their voiceover career? Is it okay to say “I’m in radio” to a talent agent or producer or casting director?
Susan: Milk your position in radio for all it’s worth. That helped me when I was on the Stern show. People will take calls from people they know. A big challenge all of us have is getting people to take our calls, getting people to listen to our tapes. We really have to think outside the box, and everything helps. You should be using the Internet. You should be sending emails to people. But you also need to be sending things in the mail, and you need to be making tons of phone calls. Tons. And meet people.

As to whether it’s okay to say you’re in radio, yes and no. In a major market it could be a kiss of death depending on the agents that you work with because there’s still such a stigma, and they’re so terrified of somebody being an announcer. They want actors. That’s what radio people need to understand; they want actors. But if you’ve proven yourself as an actor and they also know that you do some radio and they can hear you on the morning show or whatever, then that’s cool. I think maybe for morning people it’s less of a stigma because on a morning show they want you to be a personality anyway. But if you’re working at a tightly formatted station where basically everything you read is a liner and you barely say two words that are your own, then that can be a problem. But there’s plenty of work in non-broadcast where if you’re a smooth reader and if you can sound corporate and get through highly technical copy and you’re fast in the studio, man, you’ve got it made. You really do.

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