R.A.P. Interview: Bettye Pierce Zoller

Bettye Pierce Zoller, ZWL Publishing, Dallas, Texas

bettye-pierce-zoller-aug98by Jerry Vigil

In one form or another, every radio production person is involved in the voice-over business. Maybe the only voice work you do is tags and an occasional character on a commercial. Or perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a substantial income from voice work you do on the side. Whatever your involvement, using your voice for broadcast production is an art. To be good, you must know what you’re doing, and you must keep pace with the changing voice-over business.

Bettye Pierce Zoller is one of the finest voice-over talents you’ll ever hear on the radio. She’s also a voice-over coach, a singer, an actor, and co-owner of ZWL Publishing in Dallas, Texas. ZWL publishes audio books, and this month’s interview was sparked by the release of their latest audio book, Commercial$peak!, a 2-cassette treasure of information about the voice-over business presented by five of the industry’s foremost TV/Radio commercial voice talents, covering everything from tips and techniques, auditions, and interpretive copy delivery, to voice demos and promotional strategies. If you are presently doing voice-overs or plan to, Commercial$peak! is a must…and so is this month’s RAP Interview!

JV: Tell us about your background and how you got into the voice-over business?
Bettye: To my knowledge, I have never met anyone who set out to get into the voice-over business. With everyone I’ve met, it was an accidental path in life, and that certainly is the case with me. I was a child actress and singer assigned to MGM when I was five years old. I went to school on the lot, and got a taste of that old show business school out of MGM. Then my father decided it wasn’t the thing to do, and they pulled me out of MGM. He had a corporate job in the Midwest, and I went back to the Midwest and continued to be a child actress and singer.

I continued to study drama and voice, win contests, and appear in all sorts of musicals and theater productions, and was so talented that I went to the University of Missouri to start studying in my junior year in high school. I took theater, drama, singing, dancing, and all the things the university offered, then continued in my senior year and graduated. So when it came time to go to college full-time, I had already been in college part-time for two years as a Voice/Theater major. So I continued to study, and I really did shine. You could tell I was a seasoned performer, and why shouldn’t I be? I had been doing it since I was five. I was one of those professional kids like you see in the movies and on TV today.

By the time I got married, I had a Masters in Theater and Vocal Performance and Music History, and I was teaching at the University of Missouri—Arts courses: Introduction to the Arts, Voice, Piano—and still performing. I fell in love, got married, and went on the road. I was on the road for five and a half years playing fifty states and eventually worked my way up to being headliner. And like everybody else, I started out in smaller rooms, but eventually was opening act for Flip Wilson and Tony Bennett, appeared opposite Lorna Luft and Professor Backwards, and signed a contract with the Playboy Clubs and did twenty-three cities headlining in their Living Room Lounge. And at that time, that was a very desirable job. They hired the top performers.

JV: You were singing?
Bettye: Yes. I had my own show group. It was a jazz-based group very much like Manhattan Transfer, and it was a really great group. It was called Bettye Pierce and My Very Best Friends. I was working in Tulsa, Oklahoma at a hotel, and a gentleman in the audience came up to me afterwards and said, “Man, you really sang great. Have you ever thought of singing jingles?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, you know, Dallas is a big commercial recording center.” And I said, “No, I didn’t know that. I’ve never been to Dallas. My agents haven’t booked me down there, but that’s very interesting.” I didn’t think any more about it. I went on my way and continued to play on the road.

About three months later, my mother called me from Kansas City where they lived and where I kept an apartment and said that a producer from Dallas had called and wanted me to sing some jingles. I called him and it turned out he was one of the town’s leading producers. I flew down here, sang three or four jingles for him, looked around the recording studio and said, “Hey, this is pretty neat.” I went back home to Kansas City, closed up my apartment, gave part of my furniture to my mom and dad, put the rest in storage, and moved down here. I was sick of the road. It had been fun at first, but after five years, it was torture.

So I moved down here and did the old bit of going around, taking my demo tape, and shaking people’s hands and saying, “Hello I’ve done this. I’ve done that. I was signed at MGM when I was a child. I’ve opened for Tony Bennett, the Bee Gees,” and blah, blah, blah. And you know what they said? “So what? What jingles have you sung?” After climbing the ladder quite successfully, I was knocked back down to rung number one. I had not done studio work. So I clawed and fought my way through that deal, eventually did studio work, and sang jingles for about three years. My first jingle break was going on staff at the old Pams jingle company, and I was also on staff at TM Communications. I also sang for independent producers and made a lot of money.

Then one day I was on a jingle session, and a girl said, “Well, I’ve got to go. I’ve got another session.” And I said, “Oh, who are you singing for?” And she said, “I’m not singing. I’m doing a voice-over.” I said, “What’s that?” She looked at me like I was from another planet and said, “I’ll call you next week, and you can come over to my house and hear my demo.” I went over to her house. She played her voice-over demo for me, and it was just an epiphany. It was voice acting. And here I was, a consummate actress from childhood, signed to MGM, the whole bit. But I did not think about voice-overs. I suppose I heard them, but they were not in my consciousness. It’s just nuts when you look back on it.

I heard her tape once through and said, wait until I get in that market. I do characters, impressions, dialects, and languages. I can play old women and teenage girls. They taught us all that in acting school, all these voices, the wicked witch, cartoon voices, and so on. So I made a demo tape, and then I found out about Hugh Lampman who, strangely enough, is my business partner now and has been since 1994. My girlfriend said that he gave a class. It was quite long. You went one night a week for sixteen weeks. I enrolled, and when he heard me he said, “You’re good. Where did you come from? Hollywood?” I said, “Well, I come from all over, but I’ve been a singer. I am an actress, too, but I’ve never done a voice-over before.” And he said, “Well, you’re not going to have any problems.” So he helped me mold my demo, and  I credit Hugh with being my first voice-over teacher. Our paths didn’t cross again for about fifteen years, even though we were working professionals in the same town. And that’s how I got into voice-overs.

JV: How did you and Hugh finally end up as business partners in ZWL Publishing?
Bettye: In 1992 we started to write a book together, and two things usually happen when two people have a project that lasts that long. You either kill each other, or you go into business with each other. We did have some very animated fights over where the colon goes in the sentence, but we survived writing this book. It’s a textbook which now is distributed world-wide, and it’s called “Power Talk, Standard American English, Your Ladder to Success.” It is a book and three tapes that helps people speak English more fluently and clearly, and it’s also terrific for actors or broadcasters who have any kind of an accent. It’s just a perennial English program that’s never going to go out of date, and it will be good twenty years from now, thirty years from now. It teaches you to speak better.

So we did that, and by this time, I was well established in voice-overs. The jingle game in Dallas literally went west. More and more companies took their stuff to California. It’s a good thing I got into voice-overs because the jingle industry in this town isn’t one-eighth as strong as it was when I moved here. But the voice-over industry in Dallas remains strong, and in 1992, as I said, Hugh and I started writing this book. In 1994 we formed ZWL Publishing, Inc., an audio book company. And my goodness, aren’t audio books a logical extension of what Hugh and I do? It’s such a logical extension of our being old, proven audio producers, voice casters and voice-over talent. That’s what we do best is produce audio.

JV: Tell us about “Commercial$peak!.” How did this audio book come to be?
Bettye: Hugh and I wanted to do an audio book on doing voice-overs because we scoured the book stores for books in print and words on cassette dealing with the subject. We checked the library reference volumes that tell you what’s out there in the book world. There are a limited number of books on doing voice-overs but very few audiotape products. And isn’t that kind of odd to do a printed book on an audio medium? As Hugh is fond of saying, “You can read all the books on acting in all the libraries and book stores in the world, but if you’ve never seen a play, it’s not going to do you any good.” I think that’s just a great statement.

So we knew it had to be audio. Then, it was serendipity to hook up with Bob Magruder and Jerry Houston. We didn’t plan it. We didn’t write ourselves a note—must call them today about the book we want to do. They’re friends, and we just started talking to them about it one day, and they became very interested in the project. And, of course, Bob Magruder and Jerry Houston are legendary voice-over artists and producers, not only in this town, but worldwide. I don’t know if the people in this town know that, but they truly are the Charlton Hestons and the Jimmy Stewarts if you want to compare them to movie stars. They’re the biggest names in the business, and they live here. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody on either coast or anywhere else who doesn’t know the names Bob Magruder and Jerry Houston. I was so thrilled because you must understand that Hugh is their contemporary. They’re all about the same age, and they all started voice-overs long before I did. Anyway, they have this vast repository of knowledge and experiences of radio and voice-overs and announcing and producing. While they were doing that, I was teaching at the University of Missouri or on the road. So, nothing could be better than to have them join the book team because of their experience. That gave the book the depth it needed. There are a lot of people who teach voice-over in the United States, but you don’t get the chance very often to study with industry giants, and now you can by buying a book that costs $18.95. How much would it cost you to take a seminar from all these people?

We were talking about who should write the forward, and Hugh said, “Well, I’ll call Dick Orkin.” I laughed and said, “Well, okay, call him.” How much would it cost to get a no? So Hugh calls me up a couple days later and says, “He says yes.” Now you know why he said yes…because he knows the strength of Bob Magruder and Jerry Houston. He didn’t know me, but Hugh Lampman has been on the SAG National Board for three decades, and he’s very big nationally. So he said yes, and that was the icing on the cake. The forward is by Dick Orkin. It’s about six or seven minutes long, and that in itself is a gold mine. If the whole book was just Dick Orkin, it would be great. But you get Dick Orkin, Bob Magruder, and Jerry Houston…the whole team, and it’s a gold mine of information and illustrations. Bob assembled some amazing demo tape examples of all sorts of reads—the half-voice read, the hard sell read, the reminiscent read where you’re remembering back in time, comedy, humor. We not only tell you how to do humor, we show you. We play stuff for you. We had a lot of other wonderful contributors. We had several people from radio stations, including Kevin McCarthy, Ron Chapman, and Craig St. James. They talk about radio, about sports announcing and making the transition to voice-overs, what’s the difference between a talk show and a DJ show, and all sorts of things. So there’s stuff on there not only for radio broadcasters who want to get into doing voice-overs, but there’s also fabulous information for radio station on-air staffers.

JV: One of the first things Commercial$peak! says a voice-over person should master is the “voiceprint.” What is this?
Bettye: Everybody has a natural voiceprint, and that is why when Aunt Harriet calls you on the phone, you immediately know it’s Aunt Harriet. You know from one word out of Aunt Harriet’s mouth who it is. Everyone has a natural voiceprint. A good way to test that is to ask someone in your family, when you’re not expecting them to do it, to say your name. When they do, you’ll turn around and say, “Yes. What? Did you call me?” The voice you respond in is your natural voiceprint, the voice you use when you’re not putting on, when you’re not thinking about it. It certainly isn’t that hand behind the ear radio voice.

It’s natural. It’s “real people.” As all people are well aware, we go through trends big time. Well, right now we’re in a real people period where the old time announcer voice like Carlton Bourne or Don Pardo or any of those other older folks, they don’t want that right now. Walter Cronkite—they don’t want that right now. Yet they’re the most beautiful, well-spoken, well-modulated, absolutely gorgeous voices anyone could ever hear. So I believe this is a phase that will pass. It’s quite interesting because I think it’s sociologically based. I think we’re in a period right now where everyone’s tired of hype and being lied to by our officials, the government, people who give guarantees on products, and everything else. Americans are in a period of wanting honesty, and they equate that with a natural voice somehow.

JV: Yes, the big resonant voice was used by everyone to display authority and therefore truth. I mean, if Walter Cronkite said it with that voice of his, it must be true. But don’t you think people will eventually catch on to this soft “natural” voice? Won’t they one day realize that it’s the same hype, only at a different pitch and volume?
Bettye: The interesting part of the real voice, the natural voiced radio voice-over person, is that they’re doing voice acting, but the public just doesn’t know it. They may have a natural voice, but there’s still a script, and they’re reading it. But the public doesn’t know that. I do seminars where people in the audience will ask me if I have to believe in everything I sell. That’s an interesting question if, let’s say, you were asked to do a voice-over for a political candidate you just hated. If you feared the man and really thought he would ruin your state or country, would you do a voice-over for him? Well, there are two sides to that coin. Number one, you’re supposed to be a “working professional.” That means you work for money. That means you’re a voice for hire, just like a gun for hire. That means you’re supposed to take the job and go announce it. But, on the other hand, personal conscience might dictate that you don’t want to announce for that particular political candidate, so it’s an interesting question.

And the other thing that many, many people in America don’t realize is that the people they hear and see doing commercials on radio and TV are actors. They think they are real people. I say to my audiences when I do speaking engagements and workshops, “Has it ever occurred to you how we got into that man’s bathroom, the man in the commercial who is sitting on the side of the tub only with a little towel around his waist? Have you ever questioned how the camera and the microphones and the lights got in his bathroom? Have you ever asked yourself how that woman in the commercial can cross Wall Street in New York at the height of rush hour without being killed? And how can we hear perfectly what she says with the din of New York traffic? Did it ever occur to you that she must have been miked with a boom mike? And who took her picture?” And  they’re just flabbergasted. I could hardly believe it, but it’s true. I know it seems naive to us, but that’s the suspension of belief that happens in theater or movies. Like in our heart of hearts when we watch a movie where people are killed, we know that the blood is catsup, and we know that the guy isn’t really going to die and later will prove it when we see him in another movie. But we cry when he dies because we believe he has died, although we know that it’s fake.

JV: You think this is a phase that will pass someday, the “real person” announcer. Where will it go next?
Bettye: I believe we’ll revert back to valuing actors.

JV: But that’s what we’re doing now. We have great actors behind the mikes. We’re just acting, but we’re acting out the real person rather than acting out the authoritative announcer.
Bettye: That’s right.

JV: It sounds like what we’ve done in the voice-over business is just come up to the level of the theater, where there are many roles, not just the role of “announcer.” And the theater has lasted forever. Maybe we’ve just arrived, and this is where it’s going to be from now on. What about humor? Where is that in commercials today?
Bettye: Have you noticed? There is the lack of comedy spots. Everything is deadly serious today, deadly serious. And with all of the affirmative action and such, it’s not cool to tell a joke anymore. Humor has died, and everybody is afraid to say everything in the workplace. I hope that all passes because I have always loved good jokes, and I love to laugh. I think as long as we make fun of ourselves and have a good laugh, it’s fun for everybody. I would like to see more comedy spots happen.

A friend of mine who teaches sociology in college has an interesting theory about radio talk shows, by the way. He says that he believes talk shows are popular today because people have stopped talking to each other in modern society. They’re isolated. They don’t talk like people used to in small towns or across the fence when people were home more.

JV: Well, it’s certainly a changing society.
Bettye: Definitely, and voice-overs mirror that change.

JV: You’ve done a lot of work as a voice-over coach. What are some of the most common problems that your students have to overcome?
Bettye: If they come from theater or stand-up comedy, having to lose the staginess, the theatrical mannerisms, and getting more “real people.” If they have a regional accent of some kind, they have to understand that they’re going to have to speak standard American English to work on a large scale. Otherwise, they’re only going to be hired when somebody wants a Brooklyn hood or a Texas cowboy. And a lot of them don’t like the fact that they’re going to have to do that, but it’s a fact of life. You must speak Broadcast Standard English, or Network Standard English. It’s called a lot of things, but you know what it is. It’s radiospeak.

JV: What about people who are former or present radio disk jockeys?
Bettye: Well, number one, they have all the advantages because they are already doing radio and audio, and they already have improved their voices. They have a good voice to work with. Now what you have to do is expand those voices, branch them out, make them more versatile. We teach them the various voicing techniques and give them some voice acting tips so they can sound different when they’re selling different types of products. It’s an expansion of their talents.

JV: For radio people who are taught to project their voices, learning the “half voice” we hear a lot about is probably pretty important.
Bettye: So is the sad voice, or the happy, elated voice of the person who has just won the lottery, or crying. Your wife just died. You know, you have to voice act.

JV: Are acting classes necessary to get to this level?
Bettye: No, because they concentrate too much on the body and the face. Voice acting classes are what you need, which only a voice actor can teach you, a broadcaster. Don’t get caught up in acting classes. It’s okay; it won’t hurt you. But it might make you too theatrical, too big for radio, and you’ll waste a lot of time on how you look when nobody in radio cares how you look. Hey, that’s the greatest thing of all, isn’t it? You can go to work in your bathrobe.

Now, some of my students have studied with me to do voice-overs, but have ended up taking a radio station staff job. Craig St. James is one. Another one is Dan Bates of WRR. I got him started. He hadn’t done radio or anything before, and I encouraged him. The voice was there, but he just had never done anything in the field.

JV: A lot of the commercials that radio people end up voicing are too often these commercials that contain laundry lists. It’s wonderful when you have great copy to practice voice acting with, but many times these people are just given price/item lists and revisions of the client’s print ad. What can the VO talents do with their read to help make those ads better?
Bettye: Realize that the laundry list, the garbage, we call it, is the most important thing to the client. Pretend that you are the owner of the business, and that will give you a perspective on how much you care about selling this product or service. Pretend that you own the business. And also realize that probably only about two scripts out of ten are good. The rest are real selling scripts. It’s a challenge to do the best you can with them. Romance them.

JV: Is being in radio still a bad mark on a VO talent who’s looking for work?
Bettye: If you come from on-air, you’d better have a killer demo tape, and it had better not be a radio laundry list spots type of demo tape where it’s mostly the same voice on all spots. First impressions do count, and you’ll never live that down. “Oh, he’s Mr. Radio DJ. We don’t need that.” The best advice I can give people in radio is wherever you are in whatever town, let somebody help you make a voice-over demo that shows extreme versatility and a knowledge of what’s happening in the industry today. You’d better not sound like Mr. Radio.

JV: What’s a person going to pay these days to have someone help them produce a demo?
Bettye: There are people in Los Angeles who charge $2,500 to meet with you once, and then you pay your own studio bill and pay them a couple of hundred an hour to produce you. That’s the top end. I personally don’t think it’s worth it. You’re fortunate when you can study with someone outside of New York or LA because you won’t have to pay those prices, and you’ll probably get just as good, if not better instruction at a lesser price. On the east and west coasts, you’re going to pay a high ticket. Inside of the east and west coasts, you won’t have to spend as much, and the average demo usually costs people about three fifty to five hundred dollars to produce.

JV: And what are the best ways to promote yourself once you have that demo in your hand?
Bettye: You have to realize that your agent is basically a person who answers the phone when it rings. They sometimes promote. They are not a personal manager, nor should they be. You must promote yourself. You must get your tape in the hands of the advertising agency creatives who cast voices, and then they’ll call your agent and ask for you. You must do mass mailings of your demo tape, and I suggest having an agent in more than one city. I have agents in Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City.

JV: Are agents necessary if you’re going to promote yourself?
Bettye: Oh, agents are necessary. The ad agencies don’t call you direct. They’re used to going through agents. It’s an agent’s game. You have to have an agent for voice-overs.

JV: Will agents represent people if they know they’re in radio?
Bettye: Oh, yeah. They love it.

JV: What are some things to look for in an agent?
Bettye: A track record, longevity. Ask whom else they have signed. Ask to listen to the agency’s reel so you can hear some of the people on it and within that talent agency. If they are of any size at all, there are three to ten agents in it. You should meet all of the agents who work for the agency and see if you click with them and if they seem to have a personal interest in you and also that they like you. If you’re abrasive from the start, look out.

JV: I’ve heard there are only a few VO talents doing the majority of the work in any given market. Do you see this as true?
Bettye: There are more than people think. I hear that all the time, and in a city of any size such as Dallas or Houston, there are at least two hundred men and a hundred and fifty women who are doing voice-overs. In a town the size of Dallas I would say there are five hundred people doing voice-overs, and that’s pretty good for a town this size. My New York actor friends estimate there are five thousand people doing voice-overs there. So you see, the market is there. Even in a small town it won’t be three or four, it will be at least fifteen or twenty. Also, towns get their talents from other places. You don’t have to live there any more because of ISDN lines. You do voice patch. So you can work for people in New Orleans or anywhere by phone.

JV: Something that came as a surprise on the “Commercial$peak!” tape was how serious the telephone messaging business is. It’s much more than just an “on hold” announcement service anymore.
Bettye: Telephone messaging is a burgeoning industry, and it’s only going to get bigger. I was reading an article just last night about telephony systems that people produce for large companies. There is a whole industry that has grown up manufacturing sophisticated telephone systems for large companies such as Gateway Computer where you can hear descriptions of their products. You can even hear recorded tech help. If you’re asking a question about getting your modem to operate, press one, and then you choose from a menu of various modem problems. Then you hear fifteen recorded announcements on various problems with a modem. Let me give you another example. The Butterball Turkey people have recorded announcements on correct ways to clean and prepare turkeys. Another example—a rice manufacturer has a telephone line where people can call and hear hundreds of recipes to prepare using rice. Look at all the uses.

JV: So there’s just a ton of work out there.
Bettye: Yeah, customer service, information, etc.. The U.S. government is a market unto itself with recorded announcements. The IRS, the Department of Agriculture, all those government bureaus are using telephone messaging.

JV: Getting VO work in this area, how is it different from getting work in the commercial end?
Bettye: They don’t go through an agent. You have to go to the companies who do the telephone messaging. You can look in your phone book for companies who do that, and then get your demo tape to them.

JV: What kinds of rates are people getting for this type of work?
Bettye: They pay by the hour, and the hourly rates, depending on whether you are in a small or a big town, range from fifty to three hundred and fifty an hour. There are no residuals. Once you do it, you don’t get paid again.

JV: There must be a special kind of delivery for this type of voice-over.
Bettye: Yes, it has to be friendly and real person and very articulate and easy to understand and non-threatening. I did an interesting series of recorded announcements for a telephone company, and the announcements consisted of telling people they had failed a certain test. These were people who drove trucks, repaired phone lines, did all sorts of things in this huge telephone company, and they had to periodically pass certain tests to keep their jobs. Here’s most of what I said in these announcements: “You have failed to pass the last test. Please see your supervisor for further instructions.” I had to do it in a completely non-threatening, non-judgmental voice, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

JV: Can readers find ZWL Publishing on the Internet?
Bettye: Yes. In fact we just put up a Web sight. It’s at www.zwlpub.com, and our e-mail is zwlpub@aol.com. On our Web site you can hear our demos if you have RealAudio. You can hear a sample of “Commercial$peak!,” and you can find out how to study with us on the Web. There’s also information about our mail-in audio tape study classes. We’ve been asked for years and years by radio folks, “How can I study with you?” And I’d say, “Unless you come to Dallas, I really don’t know.” It was real difficult, but now it isn’t because of the Web.

JV: Commercial$peak! is not the only audio book ZWL Publishing has. Are there some others that ZWL offers that might pertain to or help people in radio?
Bettye: Yes. We have an audio book called “Speaking Effective English,” forward written and read by the TV film star, Ed Asner. It was number six in the nation earlier this summer, and it’s an excellent audio book. I also think “Power Talk, Standard American English, A Letter to Success” is important because that teaches broadcast English.

JV: I saw another one on your list, “WomanSpeak.” What’s that about?
Bettye: “WomanSpeak” is a wonderful audio book for women and men in the corporate world who need to learn negotiation skills, speak better in public, learn how to lead meetings, moderate panels, get along with the boss, ask for a raise—all those sorts of things.

JV: And another one that caught my eye was “How To Get What You Want On The Telephone.”
Bettye: Ah, yes. That’s a good little 1-hour program, and it’s only $9.95. It’s a gold mine of information on how to get through call screeners, gatekeepers, hit your target, make your point, and nail the sale.

JV: Give us a free sample. How do you get through call screeners?
Bettye: Make the call screener or the gatekeeper your friend. When you call repeatedly for Mr. Big, and she keeps you from him, you are going to talk to her more than once. As you talk to her, make her your friend. There are many occasions when the gatekeeper is the one who sees that you finally get through to Mr. Big just because she likes you.

JV: I’ll try that. One last one here for the folks reading this at their production room desk right now. When they put this down and sit behind the microphone to voice their next spot or promo, what one thing can they do without any further training to make that next commercial or promo a little bit better?
Bettye: Put a face on your listener. Who are you talking to? Why is this important to them? Who are they? Why do they care? Pretend you’re the business owner, and this is the most important thing to you in the world. Your life savings is in this company.

JV: Well congratulations on a very successful career and on Commercial-$peak!. It is a tool that was long overdue, and one that will give anybody who uses his or her voice in this business a super-charged shot in the arm.
Bettye: We’re real proud of having done it, and we realize that someday there must be a “Commercial$peak! II.”

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