R.A.P. Interview: Mike Carta

Mike Carta, Super Sweepers, Knoxville, Tennessee

1003-Mike-CartaBy Jerry Vigil

Mike Carta is one of radio’s veteran voice talents. He’s currently the imaging voice on over 50 radio stations and is heard to some degree on nearly 400 radio stations. He also does all the major NASCAR race promos, bumpers and intros for The Motor Racing Network (780 affiliates strong), and does the narrations for XM Satellite’s NASCAR Classics Races. You’ll also hear Mike on the intros and most of the promos for all the major Winston Cup and Busch Series tracks. It’s the classic story of a hot voice talent making the jump from radio into a successful voice-over/production business. In this month’s RAP Interview, Mike tells us how he made the transition and offers some great advice to anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps. Be sure to check out Mike’s demo on this month’s RAP CD.

JV: How did you get into radio?
Mike: After I finished up high school and did the service thing, I was a musician for quite a number of years. I played professionally and always wanted to be in the music business, and radio offered me an opportunity to play a lot of different music. I hung around radio stations and was familiar with them because I had played in several groups that had their own Saturday afternoon shows. I’d go in and set up and broadcast live and do what we were doing, and then I’d hang around the radio stations and saw what they were doing. I familiarized myself with a lot of local radio stations and would go in and talk to the personality or owner from time to time, and in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “one of these days….”

I had more “no’s” than anything else when I tried to get started in radio, and I think that probably helped the enthusiasm a little more. When I finally got started it was in the early ‘70s, and the guy that really turned me on to radio was Tom Adams, who founded the Electric Weenie. I used to listen to Tom Adams on WPDQ-AM in Jacksonville, and AM certainly was king back then. He had the morning show, and he had this incredible amount of talent. I used to love listening to his show, not for the wild zany one-liners but for the theater of the mind thing. One day in the middle of my deciding what I wanted to do next, I stopped by a remote that he was doing. He was very sincere, very honest, and kind of gave me a road map to get to my destination.

I took his advice about 6 months later and went to school, but not the Columbia School of Broadcasting because they told me I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. I went in and read the script — God knows what I sounded like; I had no damned idea where the sweet spot was on the microphone — and the guy said, “You know, there are other opportunities out there; I don’t think radio’s one of them for you kiddo.” So I went to a college that had an actual radio station — 10 watts, turntables, records. This was in Central Kentucky at Somerset College. I played around and while I was playing radio, some friends of mine were making an audition tape for me. They were just goofing around, and they threw it in the pile of tapes that was going to be sent out for this job at a local commercial station. I was just a freshman and the people whose tapes got sent out were supposed to be sophomores because they had a little more experience. Well they threw my tape in the batch anyway, and out of everybody there, I got hired at the local station to do a show. Then the part-time went into full-time, and I was going to school full-time and working at the radio station doing the evening shift. This was WSFC in Somerset, Kentucky.

JV: How long did you stay in radio?
Mike: I hung my headphones up August 31, 1992 after about 20 years in radio. And I think for 18 of those, I was either the morning guy or the Program Director or both. I’ve done mornings in Jacksonville, FL, Norfolk, VA, Austin, TX. I’m sure if I think real hard I’ll come up with a couple of others, but those are the more memorable markets.

JV: What was your specialty in mornings? Characters? Funny guy?
Mike: I just did off the wall stuff, theater of the mind stuff — always writing, always creating. I loved the production end of it. I did a couple of characters but they were very poor. They weren’t really good but they were the ones that could get away with a lot of stuff. I’d always play off my sidekick. I would get up in the morning like most morning guys do, would prep and go in and do my thing. But I would usually find that I had over-prepped and would just go with the flow of what was happening that day. I’d just read stuff off the wire; there was a lot of good stuff on the wire. And I’d usually get something coming in to work, or I’d overhear something somebody would say at the coffee shop where I’d stop and get my daily dose of caffeine. Then I’d go on to the radio station and play off of that.

JV: As Program Director for many of those 20 years in radio, how important was production in your style of programming?
Mike: Oh, extremely important because in order to set us apart we had to sound different than every other competitor in the market. So we had a more produced sound, lots of forward motion, a lot of elements. Radio in that time that I was programming kind of evolved in the general way things evolve. Sometimes there would be more production; sometimes there would be less. I found, in the later years, that less was a lot more because everybody was just totally mentally masturbating on how many effects you could have, how many flanges, how many different sounds, how many drops you could do. I have to tell you it wasn’t too long until everybody sounded the same.

JV: Enter theater of the mind?
Mike: Yeah. Enter theater of the mind. Less is more. Sometimes you have to add a little bit of zap to it, but production and the quality of the production on the radio station was a very big part of things when I programmed.

JV: Which format was your mainstay?
Mike: The format that I worked the most in I would say is country music.

JV: How did you get into the voice-over business?
Mike: I always had people asking me to do stuff for them. It started back when a client needed to do a spot and they would request me. Then the General Manager said, “You’ve got a pretty good voice, why don’t you do these liners…” and stuff like that. After a while, I was doing a lot of this stuff for some of the stations, and I didn’t really like it because at the time it sounded like I was everywhere doing everything. And it’s not really a cool thing if you’re doing a show and then you’re doing the imaging and doing spots too. I mean how much can they take? But I had friends in the radio business that would call me and say, “Hey, I need this done; could you do it for me?” Oh what the heck. Why not? You know, give me a T-shirt.

And then at a point in time a little voice inside me said, you know radio has been very, very good to me and I feel this change coming, this consolidation, this change that’s in the wind. I need to be doing something else. So I started gradually building a client base – commercials and imaging — and when it got to the point where I felt comfortable making that jump, I went ahead and jumped.

JV: Did you already have a studio built?
Mike: Oh hell, I didn’t have anything. But I did really fast. I bought the SuperTracks studio from Ron Rose in Amarillo. He used to produce a lot of effects and stuff. He ran an ad, and I saw it and thought well, if I stay at a radio station and I start doing all this production in addition to doing my PD-ing, sooner or later I’m going to have to give up something, and chances are they’re going to tell me to get my hairy ass out of here; I’m using too much of their studio space. So I went to the general manager and I said, “Here’s my proposal. Do you have a space downstairs, just a small little closet? Cut me a deal on moving some equipment in there, and I’ll cut you a deal on doing the imaging for the station.” I was already doing that anyway. So he said okay, and I went out and bought the equipment, put it in down there, and started doing the voiceover thing.

There was a lot of analog stuff. There were two 8-tracks, ¾-inch I believe. They were the Teacs with complimentary dbx. I bought a couple of mixing boards and a whole lot of stuff. I trucked that in, unloaded it, and the GM and the station loved it because if they had any extra production, I’d do it.

Then about 6 months later I moved into a 1,000 sq. ft. studio space and built another studio. I had two producers and two sales reps at that point, one was for commercials and one was for the imaging thing.

JV: So there you were laying voice tracks while a couple of producers were taking care of the production for you, and a couple of sales reps bringing the business in!
Mike: They weren’t full-time producers, they were interns from the University of Texas, but I was paying them to come in. And they wanted to learn the business. Fortunately after maybe 15 interviews I landed on two good people that were just absolutely perfect — same work ethics, attitudes, the whole bit.

JV: Sounds like you were money smart from the beginning.
Mike: I applied all the business things that I learned from my general managers and sales managers, plus having to keep track of everything in promotion budgets and marketing budgets and such. I kind of had a taste for that from the very beginning and treated the business as a business and not a hobby. I think the key is having your own set-up because someone can come in and throw a wrench in the whole deal if you’re using the radio station’s facilities, even if you have it in writing and have an agreement and it’s in your contract. That doesn’t mean diddly. Somebody can come in and say this is no more. You’re out. We’re going in another direction. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I want to be able to be the rudder of the ship.

JV: When you broke away from radio you hired several people and leased some space and put this studio together, which is not a cheap way to get started. You must have built up a fairly large clientele prior to breaking away from the radio station. Did you build that clientele through any marketing beyond word of mouth?
Mike: The first year that I started my business I was still working at the station and I advertised. The timing was pretty good. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened to be that way. I had quite a few commercial clients and the radio clients started coming on and I started advertising. But I also shopped very shrewdly for studio space. And people that would come in and produce were interns. And the person that came in that would sell and send out the demos and CDs and stuff, they were on commission. You collected and got paid on what was collected. And they were attending school part-time too, so it wasn’t like I had a retirement fund for them and insurance and all that. It was a fun little family.

JV: If you had the chance to do it all over again, would you do anything differently with regards to how you got out of radio and into the voiceover business?
Mike: I don’t think so. I think you have to have a road map to know how to get to your destination. Most everybody knows where Memphis is, or they should, but you need a road map to know how to get there. And it needs to be a good road map to know how to get to the shortcuts and the detours, and that’s simply building a business plan, goals. I would say obtainable, reasonable goals set in 3 months, 6 months, a year, 3 years and 5 years. You have to answer the question, how am I going to get to each one of those goals? Do I have to send out 150 demos or 300 demos? Do I have to call 150 people or 300 people? Consider every single step. Positive thinking. Positive affirmation. Visualize yourself in that position and get a lot of opinions and a lot of advice from different people that will take the time to talk to you. Try to surround yourself with as much information as you can. One of the things I did early on was I got every bit of information that I could get on all the other people out there that were doing what I wanted to do. I actually called them and talked to them. I got their rate sheets, their demos, their direct mail pieces, anything at all and analyzed each one of them in between sessions and proposals I was sending out. And I thought, wow this is great stuff. How can I present myself? I haven’t got diddly squat. How am I going to do that? And you find the answer.

JV: Did you go to any seminars or read books to help you along?
Mike: I didn’t really go to any of the seminars. On my website I’ve got a list of books, and those are just a few that helped me. I’ve always looked for reference points. There are a lot of good books out there, a lot of self-help books that can get you where you want to go. One book that’s a really good one is Self Promotion for the Creative Person. If somebody can pick up that book and not get anything out of it reading the first 15 pages, consider something else. It’s a great book, and I think it would help anybody.

JV: With over 50 stations plus your commercial clients, you must stay pretty busy. What’s a typical day like?
Mike: Well let’s see, I’ve got my log here. On Thursday I did 8 commercials and 8 voiceover sessions for stations. But again, I’ve got associate producers that help. I have one associate producer in each time zone. All the commercial production I do here. I like to keep the variety in the production sound. If I do it all, it’s going to get stale like it would for anyone else, even if you try to stay on the curve. So I’ve got a production team that I rotate. One producer gets so many, and the next one will get so many. So one station may get something from producer A one month or one week, and the next week get it from producer C. So the stuff sounds different; it sounds fresh. It doesn’t sound the same.

JV: Are you one of those guys that are up at 7 and still in the studio at 11:00 at night?
Mike: Only if I want to. I do spend a lot of time at it because it’s here at the house. An outside studio would be nice, but why? Technology today has made it very nice for people to do your stuff in the home if you’ve got room for it, and why not? I spend more time with family. I’ve got kids in school, and I get to see them off in the morning and see them when they come home in the afternoon and yell at them to shut up because I’m cutting a voiceover.

JV: Tell us about your current studio.
Mike: I’ve got pictures on the website for anyone that wants to take a look and it also lists some of the equipment. My house has a walk-out basement, and I redid that. When I bought the house, part of it was already finished and set up where I could put a studio in one part of the room. I just recently redid the other unfinished part of the basement. So I went from 200+ sq. ft. to 600+ sq. ft. I’ve got all my production area up in the big part of the room, and I have the WhisperRoom, which is the voiceover room, in the same room along with a workout area so if I get a little bored I can curl or bench press or whatever I want to do. It has a private entrance, and I’ve got my little sign out front for the agencies when they come by to pick up stuff.

JV: You’ve got one of the classic ballsy type voices that were so popular back when you started in radio. How do you explain your continuing success through this period of people now wanting the guy next door to do their spots and imaging?
Mike: I can’t explain. I mean today and yesterday I must have gotten 8 different auditions from a couple of agencies that I do stuff for. I get the gigs that normally don’t call for the guy next door — the narration part of something, or some of the PSA type deliveries, I don’t know what type delivery it really is, they just say do the Mike Carta commercial delivery. Do you want it over the top retail? How do you want it? Soft and silky? Okay. You got it. There is a lot of work for the guy next door, and I can almost do that but not quite.

JV: Did you use a voice coach or do some voiceover training of any kind? Do you still do anything like that?
Mike: I actually taught voice and diction at one time or another. It was strange. I’m in the studio and here comes this guy that’s the manager or the vice president of a finishing school, Patricia Stevens Finishing School. I’m sitting in the production studio, and he comes running in and says, “Do you know anything at all about speech or anything?” I said, “Well, a little bit.” He said, “Well here. Here are some manuals. Here’s a book.” He didn’t have an instructor for the class. “Come on down to the room and teach this class for me.” So I did, but so far as me having any formal training, not really — just listening and observing.

JV: Do you do anything to keep your voice in shape during the day?
Mike: Every day I do exercises. There are exercises you do to warm up every single day. If somebody wants me to do an America South spot or a Southwest Airlines spot or a Chili’s spot or whatever, and I know that’s coming up and it’s on my desk to do, I’ll do that probably the second thing in the morning and I won’t do any kind of warm-up. For the radio stuff I do a lot of warm-ups. You do your ah’s, your e’s, your o’s and that whole list of enunciation things that one would do. Something like, “eat each green pea. Aim straight at a game. Ed set get ready. Is it in Italy? I’m tired, I’ve tried my kite. Oaks grow slowly,” stuff like that. Then you pick up the pace. You do the vowels and consonants and the numbers.

JV: What are the upsides and the downsides of your business?
Mike: Well there are a lot of them, and you get out of it what you put into it, honest to goodness. But in all the years that I’ve been doing this, there is only twice that I’ve ever lost my temper and gave somebody a good butt whipping, and those people know who they are and they subscribe to your magazine. On the upside, what I really enjoy most is doing a good job, amazing the clients, giving them more than what they expect. I just love helping people. I guess I’m a little altruistic.

JV: What do you think of this giant pool of voice-over talent we know have and the fact that many of them are lowering rates just to get the business?
Mike: One of the main things that people need to be aware of is rate integrity. If there is one thing that hurts the voiceover business the most, it’s not having good rate integrity, not charging what you’re worth. If someone goes out there and says they’ll do unlimited voice tracks for $25 or $50 a month, why charge? Give it away. You’re already doing that. Rate integrity is at the top of my list for anybody starting in this business. Know what you’re worth, know what people are charging, and don’t give this stuff away.

Rate integrity is probably my biggest bitch about people that are starting off in the business. They should really know what other people are charging and put a value on their services rather than just say, “Gee, I don’t know, $25, $50.” Because when you try to raise your rates, and you will have to, they’re going to drop you like a hot potato. You’ve been giving them the best deal of a lifetime. And they will look for the next guy that will do it for $50. And if you cut your rates, you’re going to have somebody think to themselves, “Gosh, it really wasn’t worth that to begin with.”

JV: Well let’s see if we can help the person starting their business and suggest what they should charge. For unlimited voiceovers, let’s say in a medium market, how does $400 a month sound?
Mike: Well I don’t do unlimited. I put a little stopper on there because I learned the hard way — unlimited means somebody is going to be unlimited. You might say, “an unlimited but reasonable amount mutually agreed upon by both parties.” But in a medium market, dry voice, some people could probably charge that much. I’m not saying that I would. I would certainly limit the pages in a market this size, but that’s just me. And I think there are people out there doing it for less. I’d say somebody’s going to do an unlimited amount for that size market for $200. People need to ask what they’ve spent in the past. Do they have any idea what kind of budget they’ve got? Is this their first time? What do they expect from the voiceover? If they can’t give you the answers, you’re talking to the wrong person. There are different price ranges, different scenarios. It’s kind of a hard call, you have to take it one station at a time, but rate integrity needs to be in place.

And on the subject of integrity, I think it’s important that you never tread on a copyright. You never tread on intellectual property. Take it from me, I learned the hard way. I had a producer that used a couple of things that he shouldn’t have used and almost got us in a big bunch of trouble. So if you’re going to use something, make sure you own it and that you can use it and that you’re not going to be stepping on anybody’s toes.

JV: How about a final tip for those hoping to be a fortunate as you?
Mike: Dazzle the client. Exceed your expectations. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun along the way. Get a road map. Set your goals and make them obtainable. Concentrate on what you’re hired to do, what you’re the best at. Understand what your weaknesses are, concentrate on your strengths, and just be kind. I think that you get out of it what you put into it. If you really love the business and love what you’re doing, do it. And you can’t base success on the number of clients you have, the type of equipment you have, what your gross is, what your net is and all of that. You really have to base success on how much free time you have. It’s all about free time. If you have a lot of free time, you are a wealthy son of a bitch.

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