Q It Up: Do You Have Enough Voice Talent at Your Radio Station? - Part 1

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95This month’s Q It Up question takes a look at the voice-talent pool in radio stations today, or lack thereof. We were pleased to get plenty of response from the RAP Network from all over the world, including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Ireland, and New Zealand; and we’ll offer the responses in two parts, with the rest in next month’s RAP.

Voice-talentQ It Up: Tell us about the voice talent bank at your radio station(s). Do you have enough voice talent at your disposal? Do you go outside the station(s) regularly for voice talent? Do you have a budget for hiring voice-over talent? Give us a brief rundown of how you manage the voice-over talent, or lack of, at your station(s). Any further comments on the subject are welcome. If you’re an independent producer, feel free to offer your thoughts on the subject as well.

Thomas Robinson [Tom33Robinson [at]netscape.net]: Our sales staff is under the impression that I have a huge waiting room with hundreds of people willing to provide (for free) any voice and/or dialect needed. The fact is, there are me, and a couple of on-air jocks. Also, there’s a computer-guy at our sister station who is a great voice talent that helps me out, but since he never gets any compensation for his efforts, he’s quickly losing interest. This is quite frustrating — especially when I think back a few years when ALL the full-time air talent contributed to the voice talent bank. Now I have to chase down people from the front desk and the promotions department to come in to read a few lines. Our budget (for production, anyway) is very limited, so I have even “paid” people with promo CDs.

How do I deal with this? First, I try to write copy that utilizes the talent that I DO have available. Last year, a client wanted a “good version” (rip-off) of the Budweiser lizards. We had a good “Frank” but no “Louie,” so the spot ended up sounding like crap. I also encourage the sales department to come up with SOMETHING (gift certificates, etc.) to compensate voice talent volunteers. I also request that they get copy in to me early so I have more time to find the right voice and/or voices.

But most of all, I just deal with it. I make the most of what’s available, and have learned to be more resourceful with what I have. I hope that last sentence didn’t make you puke.

Chris Cole [ChrisDJ598[at]aol.com], Infinity Broadcasting, Rochester, NY: For the most part, we delegate production and voice work to the on air personalities. Fortunately, we have a strong talent pool here. Infinity Broadcasting in Rochester has four stations under its roof, and each station has talented people. We are able to spread production around amongst the staff; everyone does their part to help, regardless of what station they work for here. It is sometimes difficult to keep the female voice requests spread out, having only four female personalities, but we manage. All of our voice talent comes from within, we really don’t have a budget for outside talent to come in to do voice work.

On occasion we have to go to a salesperson for a voice, and with the right amount of coaching we can usually pull it off. These are situations in which we only need a quick line or two and nothing too difficult. We actually have a handful of salespeople who can do character voices if we catch them at the right time.

It all depends on what we need done. Quite a few people here can be used as a voice in a spot, if we’re willing and able to spend time with them to get it right. We are always on the lookout for new voice talent to keep things fresh. Our group just hired a bunch of new people, and we already have found a few who can be worked with. Obviously, quality is the goal here too. If we do end up needing a different voice, we have to be willing to find the right person and work with them to get the read needed. There are a lot of talented people here, and we do our best to make sure we take advantage of that.

Hal Knapp [ZCobra[at]aol.com], Z-100 New York/HSK Productions: At Z-100, we’re a union shop, and AFTRA requests that we use all union talent on the air. The exception is, of course, callers, listeners, and client spot reads. There are two main commercial voices at the station, mine (male), and our midday jock Lisa Taylor (female). None of our other jocks voice any prerecorded commercials. This makes a clean line between spots and regular programming. We only use Lisa occasionally, as we need, for female reads as requested by the client or for specific spots. The daytime jocks do read live spots; and not having them on the regular commercials adds more value and credibility to the live reads.

Z-100’s commercial material is largely driven by agency spots and usually just require a tag or donut. However, we do fully produced local spots for colleges, clubs, record stores, and a few regional clients. When we have requests for 2 or more person dialog spots or something that might be inappropriate for a station voice to read, we turn to one of our barter services to meet our needs. This service uses actors that are well versed in voice-over. Actually, they’re better voice actors than “announcers.” I don’t think using jocks or receptionists to play “Hi John....Hi, Sue” works for Z-100. Our jocks are high profile personalities, and the listeners would pick out who they really are, which lessens the impact of the spot. And, as I stated before, we’re discouraged from using non-union talent (receptionists, whoever is in the hall) on the air.

The barter service isn’t set up as a regular voice bank. It’s a special arrangement we have with them and is only used on a special needs basis. We fax them the copy, and they send it by close of business by DGS. They have males, females, old, young, accents, etc.. We’re very happy with the arrangement.

We also shy away from having clients come in to do commercials. Usually, they agree to let us read it instead of them. It seems, in NY, that all the colleges need to have the Dean of Admissions voice the spot. We do that on a regular basis.

Libby York [mincedwords[at] earthlink.net], WKML, Fayetteville, NC: Wow! You mean it’s possible to bring in outside talent??? That would be nirvana (and I don’t mean the music group)!

Unfortunately, we absolutely don’t have the budget for it, so I’m limited to the voices on staff (which sometimes means grabbing salespeople – or transients off the street - to read a line or two)!

Very occasionally, the voice talent restriction can be a problem. For example, we do not have a gonads-of-steel, big, booming, male voice in house right now (Hey! I offered to get a sex change operation!) It forces us to get real creative with club spots, drag race spots, hard-core car spots, etc.. The solution has been to, over time, steer our clients away from that expectation. By doing a great job at what we ARE able to provide, we keep the customers happy and haven’t lost any business.

Donnie Marion [dmarion[at]104 krbe.com], 104 KRBE, Houston, Texas: I find that I’m short of voices when I need them. I’ve got plenty of announcers, but the morning show is off limits for just voice work because they’re all tied up with endorsements; they aren’t available to me for regular spots. I can still use the midday, afternoon, and night jocks though. I use the late night and overnight jocks often. I rely on them for a lot of voice work, not just tags, but voicing full :60s or :30s.

What I mean by “short on voices when I need them” is spots that require an actor. If I were able to use our big guns, it would be easier. What usually happens is, I wind up using office workers and others who have never had a desire to be on a commercial. This will add time to the coaching in the studio.

Since we have no budget for voice talent, I don’t go outside the station for voice talent. I use voices of the folks who are already employees, and I try to talk nice to them and help them act.

But if a client comes in for a session, they will often bring talent. Sometimes it’s a real voice actor with an agent and a demo reel. Sometimes it’s someone from the client’s office who has never had a desire to be on a commercial. I usually let the client coach the person, and sometimes I’ll offer a suggestion for a read. If it’s a regular client, I’m more comfortable doing that, and they seem to like my input.

Joel Moss [Jmoss 1027[at]aol.com]: I’ve been lucky to have had a budget for voice talent for years; early on, we decided it would be cool to have certain voices associated with specific imaging or projects. Back in the eighties, when MTV was using Vic Caroli, ‘EBN hired him to do the voice work for all our music imaging pieces. Expanding that concept, we continue to use specific voices for music imaging (Keith Eubanks, Chris Corley) as well as programming promos. John Wells has been our number one guy for basic station positioning for more than a decade, and is nearly as much a part of the heritage of the radio station as is the Frog (rribbbit). In addition, we’ve used some wonderful female voices including Kate West, and other great male voices for special projects like spoof spots or specific programs (heavy metal show Damnation Alley). Joe Cipriano (originally famous for the voice of the Fox comedy stuff, now also doing CBS TV), and Johnathan Cook (Fox and WB as well as movie trailers) are some of the voices we continue to use. When Penn Gillette was the voice of Comedy Central, he did a session for us on DAT following a Penn & Teller performance. We used that material for years, and again it was great spice for the sound of the station. And, with ISDN capability, I’ve often said it’s like having these guys on staff, in a studio down a very long hall.

But beyond the usual suspects, I’ve found the most fun, and some of the best results have come from discovering the hidden (and not so hidden) talent that reside and work on one of the three floors that Clear Channel occupies on Frog’s Mountain. I’m always listening for odd, unique, or just plain funny-sounding voices. We’ve actually turned one or our engineers into somewhat of a local icon as “Gary the Superfan,” whose rather high-pitched and deeply Kentucky-laced twang was hysterical on a rap promo he did based on the Slim Shady hit, “Hello...my name is....”. The promo was called “I’m Gary.” We’ve had elderly secretaries do shirt promos saying the most bizarre things, and our Accounts Department’s Helen Sammons has become famous as Helen Broadsmile, hawking garments as Ms. Helen Broadsmile “speaking for Citizens United for Decency,” an ongoing character who states rhetorically “...and we all know about sweat!!!” Helen has appeared in numerous promos for our annual Christmas sweat shirt campaign.

Again, the variety of voices only makes things that much more entertaining to listen to and often provides a great twist on a tired concept; like doing that Pregnant Bikini Contest promo for the tenth year, or coming up with interesting voices to suit the dialogue copy you’ve written for a traditional commercial client. Obviously, we do retainers and specific contracts for the imaging stuff, and rarely will use these sought after and expensive voices for spots; rather, we hold on to them for that unique individual signature we want to attach to a special event or program.

Don Elliot [voiceovers[at]earthlink.net], KFI/KOST, Los Angeles, CA: Our group shares talent between 2 stations by AFTRA agreement. It’s a blanket, not a per-use, built into the scale. If I do one commercial/promo that week or 1500 of them, the money is the same. Ditto for the jocks. MEGA employs at least 2 freelance voiceovers for their imaging. KFI uses an occasional freelancer. I can’t remember when the last one was.

At KIIS-FM, we basically “started” Ernie Anderson on a new wave of a fabulous liner biz. Chuck Riley at the time was doing Power 106, Mike Stuhl on The Wave. I had gone through getting Chuck and Mike all excited and approved for the use and was turned down by management because they were too expensive, and the idea was too different for the time, or so it seemed. In the delay of the decision, both of them went across town to Power and The Wave, respectively. So, I was stuck having to compete with my own idea, only with the challenge of bettering it, and to get the assurance that we wouldn’t sit on the solution so long that it would leave us too, and go to the competition. How do you compete with Stuhl, who was soft, and Riley, who is the ultimate promo voice? If I did another “announcer” style, we wouldn’t have had any identity or dominance on the dial. Yet, that’s what PDs at the time wanted—at least in the balls department—but that’s at the expense of the listener.

How did I outsmart ‘em and please both the PD and the listener? Ernie Anderson. He had the balls but the voiceover experience on how to use ‘em. The attitude that says, “we’re kidding” bigger than life and believable at the same time. Wow. They went for it, and Ernie counted those shekels all around the country after that. Obviously they had to pay higher than the scale of the original idea, ‘cause Ernie was getting $500 per liner minimum (because he could), as opposed to the $350 scale that everybody else charged.

The late Mark Denis was the signature voice (in-house) on the KFI IDs and developed imaging with Ray Avila and David G. Hall. These are legit true pro free-lancers and not jocks doing extra (non-agency) occasional radio gigs via the little box trade ads.

The jocks work best with proper copy deadlines so we can assign and rotate. Recently, we had a wonderful example of why. Two days in a row, late in the week, I had to voice everything that came in because of some unforeseeable circumstances with short manpower and late copy both happening at the same time. You should have heard me being triple-spotted. Of course, it was a blessing in disguise for ammo when I was able to ask folks to use their common sense to walk through what happens with proper notice. 

The biggest problem industry-wide seems to be that each salesperson thinks that they are the ONLY one with late copy, and that they should be an exception to all the rules and be “rewarded” extra production time BECAUSE they are late, and that all the other spots’ production time on the station should take a back seat to their own. I’ve noticed these same people in movie lines and on the freeway. Enough said. Most management that I know HATES disorganization like this. It costs them overtime, kills creative time, and thrills the other salespeople who ARE rule-abiders.

A few words on Directing Talent: We need to learn how to direct. (This ain’t a how-to; it’s a pitiful statement on the start of the fart.) The amusing (actually time-wasting and sickening) thing I see about “directing” talent is twofold: 1) The intimidation of the “director” (sometimes an engineer) to ask for what they want. For some reason, there is a fear of telling the talent (who is perhaps more experienced) what to do! What a catch 22! Break out of it guys. It’s your job! Most talent begs for direction. And if they can’t take direction, they can’t be defined as “talent.”

2) Scenario: Talent has delivered a performance. It’s not what the so-called director wants. Instead of directing, he says, “OK, give me another take.” Translation, (in the talent’s mind) is, “Do exactly what I just did. I blew it, or the mike popped, or something.” In reality, “director” is brain-locked for words to describe what he wants or too intimidated to ask for it, so he figures if he asks for take 2 and beyond (maybe even “pretending” that the mike popped), that he’ll get a better read. Welcome to the syndrome called, “locked in a loop.” Of course, if neither of them knows what they are doing, by sheer number of takes, one out of several is going to sound different enough to make a choice of the lesser of many evils.

The difficulty with in-house voices is that jocks, for the most part, are never trained at commercial voice work. They are trained instead to follow a format on the air, and perhaps develop personality. And the “catch-22” is, since they’ve made decent money all their careers, it’s hard to tell them how to do anything. After all, they’re successful at it—except for how to NOT sound like a jock when that’s called for.

And we wonder why agency copy usually contains the direction, “no disc-jockeys or announcer-types, please.” It’s gone a step further. For 18-34 demos, the direction on the majority of copy is: 1) YOUNG, 2) UNPROFESSIONAL, 3) ATTITUDE.

I didn’t write this to be argued with as an “opinion” thing. This is a report from the trenches. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Get better at your craft. Take acting/voice-coaching lessons. The piece of the pie is getting smaller. I have to laugh at the failure of the AFTRA-SAG merger when my vote was being solicited: I was told that we SAG members were threatened by the broadcasters who would have our jobs. Excuse me... the opposite is true. Look around you and see how many actors are on commercials? And, duh, name me just ONE, just ONE disc jockey on a national voiceover. Ha... (Yes, Casey made the jump, but no escapees for the list, please. So SAG, what was the REAL reason, boys? You certainly impressed me with your “truth” and inspired a lot of confidence for me to pull from next time you want our help).

If anyone’s interested, Julie Amato and I do a traveling road show on organization and directing talent and voiceover, etc. called, “Same Problems, Different Call-Letters". Info at voiceovers [at]earthlink.net.

Suzanne Richardson [srichardson[at] goldfm.com.au]: The Gold Coast Radio Centre is the hub of the R.G.Capital radio network in Australia. We have 22 stations, 9 of which we write and produce for from the Gold Coast using 4 commercial producers and 4 writers. We have a budget for professional voice talent. When we can, we use these voices for special projects. We have also introduced a roster system in which we utilize our on-station announcers. Each rostered time is mutually convenient for the producer and announcer, and it has proved very effective, decreasing “down time” in production by saving us from continually chasing talent. We also use the announcers from our stations around the country via ISDN, making it a same day return of voice-overs. Office staff eg: receptionist, traffic girls and even sales are used for bit parts, so chances are, if you’re walking past production, you will receive your 15 minutes of fame on the radio no matter who you are.

And one follow-up from last month’s Q It Up topic:

Jon Hogan [jhogan[at]Radioworks. co.nz], RadioWorks Network, New Zealand: I made a comment in Q It Up last month that I found e-mail to be a time saver, and yet in similar postings, it was decried as a time waster by others due to having to sort through to determine the wheat from the chaff.

As I don’t subscribe to mountains of “subscribe-able email,” I don’t have this problem. My email is direct to my desk for clients, reps, etc. to contact me in an instant.

Yes, I do find it annoying when email arrives and jumps over the top of the job I’m working on, but, generally, as it is important, and not time wasting “subscribe-able email,” it’s a good thing.

If you want to subscribe to subscribe-able email, and remain on-line for your clients, try running two email addresses. One for junk mail, one for the real stuff.

Part 2 Next Month!

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