Point/Counterpoint/Counterpoint: Final Thoughts on the Great Zoller/Pellegrini Debate

By John Pellegrini

Well, as I said when I started and finished these articles [January/February '99 RAP], I knew I was going to leave things out that others would determine to be vital. I’d like to thank Ms. Pierce-Zoller for her input [March '99 RAP]. However, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m making things up, either.

Some of my information came courtesy of Kirk Johnson, President and Owner of Studio One, one of the major Chicago voice-over studios. Kirk is also one of the acknowledged national leaders in voice-over coaching (he’s the coach I referred to in the articles). I also spoke with several voice-over talent agents, a free-lance adviser at AFTRA in Chicago, and a Creative Director at one of the major advertising agencies here in town. I omitted their names, and continue to do so, because they asked me to.

Obviously, these people are very pro-Chicago, just like New York and LA people would be regarding their home bases. However, if they tell me that the majority of the advertising voice-over auditions take place here in Chicago, as opposed to other cities where their agencies have offices, I have no reason to doubt them, since they are the ones who hold the auditions. My AFTRA contact backs up this statement.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used 80% as my figure, since people always doubt statistics. I should have simply said that the overwhelming majority of people who try to get work in voice-over from the big agencies (and by that I mean, the ones who spend millions of dollars per year), won’t get much work, if any, because many of them don’t bother with proper voice-over coaching, education, or representation. My intention was to underscore the high level of improbability that lack of training will lead to success.

I didn’t mention anything about voice work for Internet, cable TV, interactive phone, websites, or even “The White Zone Is For Loading And Unloading Only” functions, because no one had asked me about them. I figured that would be covered by their voice-over coach, or talent agent, or not.

Also, yes, you can use ISDN from any market to do voice-over. But, you have to be established with the people who are going to hire you before you can have that luxury. You can’t just call up a Creative Director at Foote, Cone, and Belding, or Leo Burnett, from your radio station in Goat Boil, Montana, and expect to be hired on the spot. All Creative Directors, as well as talent agents, demand to see, in person, the new talent they work with before they hire them. You still need to be where the action is in order to get started.

Incidentally, I don’t know of any major agency that would allow creative to be produced without the Creative Director’s hands-on input, in the studio of their own choosing, in the city where they live. Creative Directors in the big agencies are fanatical obsessives regarding their spots, and they would never allow anyone to “call in the read” from out in the vast hinterlands, unless they trust that person implicitly. An established, personal rapport is usually necessary for that to happen. Plus, many times, the clients are also in attendance during the sessions, and they demand to meet the talent, too. They’re not about to give five or ten or a hundred grand to a disembodied voice on an ISDN box, no matter how digitally impressive it may sound. They want real humans in front of them. I’ve been on a couple of voice-over gigs where the agency flew me into another state for the read. It happens often.

Since there are very few voice-over coaches out in Rural America (where the majority of the people who called me for advice on this are located), and since Chicago is where I’ve been told the majority of the commercial voice-over work is cast, I came to the, possibly too easy, conclusion that it would be a good idea for anyone interested in getting this kind of work to come here. How silly of me. I can point to numerous examples of people who have done just that, including Kirk Johnson himself, and are very successful.

Ms. Pierce-Zoller seems to think it horrific that I suggest in order to get voice-work, you should move to Chicago, or another major market and study with a voice-over coach. Why? Exactly how else can someone do so? Would she be willing to leave Dallas and go teach someone who works at a radio station in Minot, North Dakota? What about a radio production person in Bangor, Maine, or Tupelo, Mississippi? How is that person supposed to get voice-over coaching from Kirk Johnson in Chicago, or Bettye Pierce-Zoller in Dallas? People move to other cities to go to college every day.  Actors move to Hollywood or New York or even Chicago to further their acting careers every day. Isn’t that what this is all about?

You certainly can get voice-over work in any market you choose, but if your goal is to become the next voice of Miller Lite, or Quaker Oats, or Revlon (which is what people had been asking me about), you certainly should be somewhere within physical audition range of their agencies. Somehow, I can’t envision Ken Nordine being as successful as he his, had he lived in Nome, Alaska, and never left town. (By the way, I have no idea where he’s from, although he lives in Chicago now. I just cite this for purpose of example.) Granted, there is no “LAND OF OZ” for voice-over, the one magical place where all your dreams can come true. But you can certainly weigh your chances in different markets based on how much money is spent by the major agencies on hiring talent (especially new talent) in each market. From what I’ve been told, Chicago is where more major voice-over auditions are held than any other city. Yes, it does take talent and persistence and all that other great stuff, but the real trick to getting voice-work is, you have to be where the work is.

One further correction: AFTRA and SAG have not merged. I didn’t even know that the vote had not officially been taken until my ballot arrived in the mail. I joined AFTRA in March of 1997 and didn’t know anything about the merger, except that they were using letterhead with their logos combined, which lead me to believe it was already a done deal. I didn’t have any need to find out about SAG, since I’m not a movie star. AFTRA members voted in favor of the merger, but SAG turned it down. How this will affect the union in the future is anyone’s guess. As long as my AFTRA insurance still pays my doctor bills, I’m happy.

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