R.A.P. Interview: Steve Cook

Steve Cook, 5 Talents Audio/Audio Oven, Atlanta, GA

Steve-Cook-1

By Jerry Vigil

How long do you think it would take you to read the entire Bible, Old and New Testament, front to back? How long do you think it would take you to read it out loud, into a microphone, recording it for distribution? For Steve Cook, that was eleven weeks, at nineteen hours a day, recording the entire 1599 Geneva Bible for Tolle Lege Press. Steve’s interesting background travels through acting and radio, and lands him in Atlanta, doing some very interesting work. A professional actor/sound designer with over 25-years’ experience in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, Steve has appeared Off-Broadway with Esther Rolle in The Member of the Wedding, with Helen Mirren at the Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles in Woman in Mind, and on television in the daytime drama Days of our Lives. Currently, he tours live one-man stage adaptations of his Witness The Bible audio drama series, as well as a tribute to writer/comedian Lewis Grizzard. He’s voiced over 50 commercials and other projects for such clients as Ford, Home Depot, Delta, Gameworks, American Express, Circle K, Amtrak and Georgia Power. He handles imaging for several radio stations across the country. In 2008, he founded his own audiobook publishing company called Five Talents Audio, which creates live and recorded one-man dramatizations of the Bible for new and young believers. His latest release, Witness The Bible: Genesis to Jesus, is featured on radio stations nationwide and has just been named a permanent audio devotional resource on BibleGateway.com. This month’s RAP Interview gets just a part of Steve’s remarkable story. Be sure to visit his websites listed at the end of the interview for more, and check out this month’s RAP CD for a sample of Steve’s work.

JV: Tell us about your start in the business and some of the highlights along the way to where you are now.
Steve: Well first, thanks for the opportunity, Jerry. It’s great to be here doing this with you. I’ve been enjoying Radio And Production for many years, and I just wanted to say that so it didn’t get forgotten.

JV: Thank you, Steve.
Steve: I started in radio in ’93. My first gig was at a public station in Richmond, Kentucky, and I can’t even remember the calls at the moment. It’s the station at Eastern Kentucky University, a classical station that does football games on the weekends. I was just filling in, doing a gig on air here and there -- you know how you get going. I was also doing entries into their new Audio Vault system and doing an evening classical show called Evening Classics -- not too creative with the show names in public classical radio, but it really was a fun time. Good people got to learn the business in a pretty calm and unthreatening environment, unlike most radio stations. I learned a lot about classical music and developed a great love and appreciation for it, and that’s where my identification with radio started.

Prior to that, I graduated college in ’86 and spent six years in New York City trying to be an actor. My degree in college actually was technical theatre. I did lighting design and things like that, and I moved to New York just because I wanted to get out of my hometown and go search for excitement. I went there and found it of course but kind of got the acting bug after I was there for a few months. I was fortunate enough to get cast in an off Broadway play pretty quickly. That led to the union card and to jumping a few spaces pretty quickly out of the box. So I was being encouraged through some success although still struggling, but was able to make ends meet for a few years doing that.

JV: So you went from high school right into college and from college off to New York to do some acting.
Steve: Exactly. I did some summer stock in the summer of ’86, met some folks from New York and was off to New York and stayed in those friends’ houses -- you know how you do when you’re young and anything is possible. I stayed in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in a town I don’t know, basement apartment off East 26th street, the first of six places I lived in over six years in the New York City area. I did a few things, mostly shows you would have never heard of, but was able to build enough confidence in a couple of agencies to where they invited me to go to Los Angeles at the end of ’92. So I loaded up the car, drove to LA, and did that whole thing.

JV: More acting in LA?
Steve: Yes. This was in ’92, and if you ask me, this is kind of where the first brush with the divine took place. I was cast in a soap opera, Days of Our Lives, to do what’s called a day player, the introduction of this new character. What they do is they contract you for about six days to start out, to see how you test, and then they decide whether they’re going to go on with your character. Anyway, they put me in the show without actually putting me on tape for the producers. So what happened was, I got there the first day, I was doing my first scene with the lead character that I’m supposed to be the antagonist of, it turns out he’s a lot larger than me physically, and the producers didn’t buy that I was going to be able to subdue him physically later, which is what the storyline called for. They hadn’t seen me. Now they had and they didn’t buy it, so I’m out. They had to pay me for six days, but I was not on the show anymore.

So I’m pretty down and out about it, but I had remembered that I was supposed to go see the doctor because I had a physical when I moved to LA, and they told me there was a problem in my neck and I should get it checked out when I had the chance. No sense of urgency, but when I had the chance. So now I had the chance, and I had the money, so I did. It turns out I had thyroid cancer.

This is when I was 28. The brush with the divine was that I was convinced that I had no insurance; I was SAG but I didn’t think I had enough money, enough gigs up to earn my insurance card. Lo and behold, when I called them up, I had just cleared the bar and had enough. It ended up costing $10,000 when all was said and done to get it all taken care of. But it was all taken care of, totally cured. That was ’92. But the thing was, it kind of turned my ship if you will, kind of tugged the rudder in a direction back towards God, but not directly, not immediately by any stretch.

I came back to Kentucky to have the surgery and convalesce with my family, and at that time had intended to pursue other careers. I took this gig at the radio station I mentioned earlier because it was an overnight gig and it allowed me to pursue other things in the day time. Now without making this interview take four hours, the other thing you need to know is that I grew up playing golf. I was actually pretty good at it. Beginning, I was like a two handicap and had thoughts of becoming a pro, and at this point I’m 28 and my world’s been shaken up pretty big. I’m at home and I’m feeling more confident, and reminiscing, and reflecting about the good days. So I start thinking seriously about becoming a pro. That’s the biggest reason I took the overnight radio gig, so I could make money and then practice in the daytime.

Well if you go back and look at the records of the weather in the winter of ’93 in Kentucky, it was the worst winter in the history of winters in Kentucky. It was like ice storm winter. So I had no chance to even think about practicing, and during that time the fire for golf went out, and the fire was rekindled to go back to acting. So I picked it up again and went back to LA. This took a couple of years for this to all mesh, and then I arrived back in LA for the second time in ’96. That’s when I met who would become my wife, Leigh. We began to date, and I started to become disenchanted, not with acting, but with the corporate world of acting that is Los Angeles. It’s all based on looks as you probably know, and very little is based on talent and hard work and things like that. For a few people it’s a linear progression, but for the most part it’s not. It’s frustrating that way, so I started to get back into radio because it provided me the opportunity to perform and also it was something I knew how to do, and it helped me to make ends meet.

I had by this time decided to ask Leigh to marry me and was trying to get my ducks in a row to get some financial stability. So I’m working like three jobs, delivering pizza in Beverly Hills and then working at Kiss FM with Rick Dees, Jeff Thomas and the whole gang, Mike Madrigal later.

JV: What were you doing at Kiss?
Steve: I joined on as a board op at $8.00 an hour. At that time it was Kiss FM but they had the AM little sister, XTRA Sports 1150 in Burbank, out of the same offices as Kiss. That was starting up and they were at that time completely syndicated mostly out of San Diego. They would run Mason and Ireland and whatever ESPN was offering. Anyway, I was a morning board op, and here’s Rick Dees doing his show with Ellen K two doors down. He would go back and forth to the bathroom, and he would always have to pass our little studio when I had my Bible and my breakfast, monitoring the board while Mason and Ireland did their thing in San Diego. And this one day he came in and just walked straight up to me. I didn’t even see him come in -- he actually kind of scared me -- and he says, “You’re much too talented to stay here” and walked right out. He had never said two words to me, nor should he have; he didn’t know me, and why should he?

JV: What was he basing his comment on?
Steve: Nothing? I don’t know. I never did find out. It was the only time he ever really talked to me, and it was the only thing he ever said to me. He may have been doing a little joke with himself, I don’t know, but certainly it stuck with me.

JV: Well, we can say one thing: he wasn’t wrong.
Steve: Well the way I look at things now, these things are orchestrated, and most definitely that moment was. At that point I decided two things: I wanted to continue to perform -- I felt like I still had the talent to do actings. But number two, to try to compete in the voice world, I needed more practical application in radio. I liked radio so I wanted to try and stay there and have staying power there.

So in the next studio, not Dees’ studio but the one between us, was a beautiful guy, what a great guy; his name is Tony Sanchez and he was the Production Director there at Kiss FM. Not the imaging guy obviously, he was the regular guy, and he taught me on his own time how to use SAWplus 32, which is what he was using at the time. He mentored me through learning that program and encouraged me and gave me tips and pointers. He’s was one of those people that everybody has that was just incredible and didn’t have to be. That’s just the kind of guy he was.

So I was armed with that. Then Kiss, which was Jacor at the time, acquired and flipped a station in Santa Monica. I had been bringing samples to this guy named Bo, an FM guy who came over to start XTRA Sports 1150. I’m doing dubbing and whatever gopher stuff that an $8.00 an hour board op does. But I’m in the auxiliary studio making stuff when I can, trying to get people to hear whatever I can, playing it for Jeff Thomas when I can, and he’s encouraging me. He’s a sweet and gracious guy too, as was Madrigal later on. I used to sit at his feet when he was at his Orban 7000 with his big old archive of DAT tapes with all his drops and everything else. He just would go crazy and he’d love for me to just sit there at his feet and ask him stupid questions. All these guys were just great to me.

Anyway, I finally got Mike Thompson to listen after he came in there, which would have been in ’98. He and I are great friends. I just finished a tour with him at KSPN in Los Angeles. We still work together all the time… I still call him boss. He had enough confidence in me to recommend me for the job in Santa Monica, which was a triple-A station, no sports, totally like the opposite side of the coin. So I went over there as Production Director, no imaging -- they did that out of Boulder -- but learned what it was to be in a position of authority in production. And with $40,000 a year I thought that was like King Lear you know; I was like, man I’ve hit it. It was great fun, Nicole Sandler was the Music Director, and then Keith Cunningham came in later on as Program Director. He was a good, good friend, an honest critic of my work -- very nice guy. Nicole Sandler’s pretty well known out there; she’s in that community.

They had these studio C events where artists come in and do acoustic versions of their songs. I got to meet people -- Sheryl Crow and Sting and whoever else. It was just a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, nobody was listening. The station was flipped. I was there until 2000.

By then, my wife and I had kind of stagnated in LA. She had been an actress too -- that’s how we met -- but she was getting disenchanted with that. She had started working at an Intel place doing corporate types of jobs and enjoying that. We were moving out of the acting world. Both of our parents are here in Atlanta, and it wears on you after a while being that far away, so we decided to start making plans to come back, back here to Atlanta or the east somewhere, closer to the folks. We started thinking about starting a family and all that. So I got on All Access and started searching for sports stations and whatever, anything in the Atlanta area. And lo and behold, there was 680 The Fan in 2000 starting up again as a sports station in Atlanta with the PD being none other than Mike Thompson. I had sent an inquiry with a resume and a tape and all that. I got a response back that said, “Laddie, come on, let’s get going.” That’s what he calls everybody, laddie. He’s an Irish guy.

So that was another divine appointment in my opinion, that Mike was there after having left XTRA, which I was unaware of. I had disconnected from that world so much. So he was there at 680, and I came and joined up and we got that thing going. He stayed about as long as Mike stays anywhere, three years. I stayed there for six years. I was doing the imaging. I was what they called the Creative Production Director.

JV: So this your first major imaging gig, right?
Steve: Exactly. We did everything there out of the same room and they still do. Boy, that was school for me; that was my grad school. I learned about how to deal with everybody in the station and every problem I think, and every success. That’s where I was when 9/11 happened. I can even remember how the place smelled, and the lighting, just a pure golden morning sunlight when word came through the studio.

JV: Where to next?
Steve: Fast forward to 2006. I left to start my own audio production company called Audio Adrenaline at the time. The name was like a half tribute to the band which had broken up at that point, a Christian rock band. They’ve gotten back together, and I got a C and D from their lawyer. It was all very up and up. That’s when the name changed to Audio Oven.

JV: Did you start out doing audio books?
Steve: No. It was interesting how that kind of got kick started -- and I should also mention that after I left 680 they were a client of Audio Adrenaline for about a year. I continued to do their imaging for them after I left. But the thing that kind of kick started the audio books was a contact that was given me by David Dickey, the president of 680, who had a project that he needed a producer for and someone to cast it and do the whole nine yards. That ended up being me. So we contracted that deal, and it ended up being a third of our entire year’s income for that first year in ’07. Again, it was just a great godsend.

JV: Was the other two thirds commercial and imaging work or were you doing other audio books?
Steve: One of the other thirds ended up being reading the Bible, which is another little vignette. A good buddy of mine and I had a nice chat a couple of weeks after I left 680. He asked me the question that your good friends ask: if money was no object and you could do whatever you wanted to do, what would it be? I told him at that time that I would like to dramatize the whole Bible. I said it would take five years to do it, but that’s what would be the ultimate for me. That’s what would make me worry about what I would do after that.

Later in that year of ’07, I got the call from a local publisher to read the whole Bible, not to dramatize it but just to read it. So it wasn’t exactly what I had said that day, but it definitely drew me closer to the Word and it gave me even more excitement about doing it. And at the same time, it provided a third of our nut for that year.

Steve-Cook-3JV: So you read the entire Bible into a microphone?
Steve: Uh-huh.

JV: And this was just a straight read, no sound effects and/or music?
Steve: No, this was not dramatized with the sound effects and the music. It’s just the voice, and the story of that is that I did that in 11 weeks. I just opened up my Cool Edit, got on my AT 4033, and spoke it in my closet for 19 hours a day for 11 weeks.

JV: The New Testament and the Old Testament?
Steve: Everything. Genesis to Revelation.

JV: In a closet!
Steve: In a closet. When I started, I didn’t have the digs that I have now. It was upstairs in a closet. It was pretty well proofed. It was sound proofed except if there was a lot of rain or if an airplane went over; then you had to stop. It was not the optimum studio. I had clients come over and they were sweet and understanding, but it was not something that you would want to have Delta Airlines come over and look at. Today, anybody is welcome anytime. But then, no. So it was fine for that project. It was nice and clean and I didn’t really have to do any kind of filtering or anything.

So we did that, and I’m telling you… they talk about going into your prayer closet with the Bible… That’s what that was man, that was a very religious time in many ways and physically taxing. I developed some physical problems that I had never had before. And my daughter was conceived during that time, so it was just an amazingly intense time in every way.

JV: I can’t even imagine 11 weeks of this. And it’s not like you’re just reading it out loud like you’re reading a story to a kid; you’re doing professional voiceover work here.
Steve: Yeah, and this is the Bible, this is the Geneva Bible, this is King James language, okay? And you know, listening back to it, I’ve got to say -- and any of us do this no matter if it’s three weeks ago or three years ago -- we look back and we go, oh that’s not what I should have done. But I have something that I call the 85 percent rule. If you get to a point with whatever you’re doing, whether it’s because of a deadline or just because you don’t have any other ideas for it or whatever, chances are when you get to 85 percent and you’re still not satisfied you need to back away because you’re probably never going to get that 15, and later on it’s going to be 75 when you thought it was 85. So I don’t beat myself up about it. I just think, okay, next time I read that passage for whatever reason, then I’ll know. It’s just a progression we all have. But I’m proud of the project. I still listen back to it from time to time, and for the actual vocal quality and just the general presentation, I’m proud of that.

JV: Where can one get this?
Steve: It’s on Amazon, it’s on my website at 5TalentsAudio.com, and it’s on the publisher’s website at TolleLegePress.com.

JV: Which introduces your other website/company, 5TalentsAudio.com, in addition to AudioOven.com. How did 5 Talents Audio come about?
Steve: At this time the Bible was just a voice job for Audio Adrenaline. But I guess looking back, it’s the first project of 5 Talents Audio. We incorporated FTA, 5 Talents Audio, in 2008, and the first official production of that company was A Christmas Carol. Even though we own the ISBN number for that, that was distributed and produced by American Vision and Tolle Lege Press together as a kind of a follow up to the Bible. But that was the first dramatized feature production; that’s like three CDs. It’s got the whole works, 32 voices, sound effects, music, beautiful box, beautiful cover design, just the full backing of Tolle Lege, and that was released at Christmas ’08.

After that I did one more with Tolle Lege, and by this point Audio Oven, Audio Adrenaline was doing pretty well, but it’s up and down, especially since ’08 with the economy. We had several core clients who provided a large share of our income on retainer, and those have been harder to hold, much more transient in nature because big ticket accounts are holding it closer to their vests. It’s harder to get them; it’s hard to keep them. So that upheaval in addition to just my heart moving more towards 5 Talents has caused more energy to be put into the production of the audio books, specifically the scriptural audio books.

JV: And that is pretty much what 5 Talents Audio is about, right?
Steve: Yes, and in ‘09, I decided that the main mission of that company was for ministry to children, preteens in particular. My son will be six in January, and I realized that there’s a dearth, quite a dearth of Biblical resources for kids once they pass the children’s Bible phase where it’s just pictures and general stories. From there to the adult Bible there’s really not a whole lot that they can latch on to and continue to study and meditate on. So dramatizing for use in the car and at bedtime and things like that, I thought and think that is of great use -- it can be if done well.

So that’s where I felt I was led to emphasize, and our first effort in that direction is a series called “Witness The Bible.” The first installment is kind of an overview of the series called Witness the Bible, Genesis to Jesus. It starts with the Creation, goes through the fall, the flood, the story of Ruth, David and Goliath, Jonah, and then the story of the Birth of Christ. And the idea is to make it real for the kids, so that they can really latch on to these stories that they’ve read and said and sung in children’s church, to make them know that they are real accounts and to let the real writing of them in the Bible use its power to move in their spirit. And also to show that these are real people that are listed in the Bible from one to another. You can actually go into the Bible and it tells you who was born after Adam and after Seth and after Enoch, all the way up to Noah. And then from Noah it gives you every name from Noah to Abraham. These were real grandfathers and fathers, and it’s not just a floating story over here and a floating story over there. It’s real and there’s no other holy book that does that. They need to understand that, at least understand it so that they can say, “hmm… that’s a pretty good case,” and be armed with that when the world crashes in later.

So that to me is what we’re doing, and we’re trying to figure out the best way to do it. And like anything else, it is a process and a tweaking process to try to get the right message and right approach and feel. There are so many extra Biblical or paraphrased type resources for preteens that we are differentiated already by sticking just to the Word. But that also presents the challenges because it is a different language, different messaging than the two second attention span stuff that they’re normally exposed to.

JV: Well, given that you are the kind of guy that will spend 19 hours a day for 11 weeks in a closet reading the Bible, New and Old Testament front to back into a recorder, I’m wondering how much of what you do, you do on your own. Obviously you do some casting for some of the dramatizations – even though you do many voices yourself -- but are you getting the audio and the video and producing all this stuff yourself?
Steve: I for the most part prefer to work alone. It’s not that I don’t like working with other folks; I guess it’s just that I feel I can more easily achieve what it is that I’m trying to achieve usually. And if I don’t, I do work with other folks. I’m planning to do the story of Ester, and if you’re doing a queen and she’s got this majorly dramatic part to play, then it’s necessary to employ some outside folks. Fortunately in the last year or so I’ve been able to meet with some folks that I trust to do that, that really understand, that are believers that understand what I’m trying to do. So I don’t at all dread working with these people that I found, and I look forward to that. I just have to get to it. I still do the Audio Oven work and I still work with the radio stations. It’s mostly Salem Stations right now. There’s a cluster in Portland, Maine and a couple here and there. I just did a launch for WINA in Charlottesville. It’s still fun, and it’s still the most consistent work there is, but it’s still work for hire. When I think about providing long term for my family, publishing is, you have to admit, much more of an attractive option if you can just hit on a product that people will respond to. Then you can create that passive type income source. Whereas with radio, if I don’t work I, don’t get paid. And that’s a noble thing; I don’t say that it’s bad. I enjoy it and I’m proud of it. But in terms of a long term plan, publishing is what I’d like to move toward for that reason as well, and to create products of use to people.

JV: I’m guessing the many voices you do yourself on these dramatizations is helped a great deal by your many years of acting. Would you say so?
Steve: Yeah. I started acting professionally actually when I was eight. We were doing outdoor dramas in our home town, the little town of Berea, Kentucky, and we used to have an outdoor drama there in the summer. New York actors would come through and directors and big time people. It was Disneyland for an eight year old with these crazy people running around. The bug I guess probably bit early.

I’m really not much of an audiophile; I’m more of an actor who knows how to use the necessary equipment to get the job done. But I have to keep the stats in front of me. Somebody calls me up and says what kind of mics do you have in your studio? I have to keep all that stuff at my fingertips because it’s not how my brain works. I’m thinking more about characters and actions, and how to make a dramatic scene come alive. What sound needs to be here or there. If something flies apart, I’ve got to call my network of real professionals to tell me how to fix it.

JV: You’re doing more and more video I would guess.
Steve: I’d like to. I think it’s where everything is going ultimately. Any of us who have been in the audio only business need to move towards it, kind of start to embrace it more and try to figure out what we need in order to make ourselves marketable -- at least to just be able to introduce ourselves to the markets. I have produced audio for TV for years, and it’s not really anything that requires any new equipment for me. It’s just tapping into the market to know who to talk to about becoming a partner for video. But yeah, in that process I have learned more -- in the process of presenting and producing my own video for promotional purposes. I have become more familiar with editing and programs like Windows Movie Maker, which is great for making little titles and other things, but I don’t have a plan to expand into a video production house at this point. It’s more about just entering into the market itself to be available as an audio resource for that.

JV: Well, it doesn’t take an expensive video editing studio to turn stuff out that will be effective and look good enough. YouTube pretty much proves that.
Steve: Yeah, YouTube is interesting. Sometimes it’s better to have a kind of vérité approach and not be so polished. Lots of times these days, that’s what resonates. I think you just have to have passion mostly, and have a real heart for what you’re doing and not be trying to snow people. If you really have passion for what it is that you’re doing, then technical issues are largely overlooked for the most part.

JV: What else have you been up to?
Steve: Well I’ve started doing dramatized industrial audio books, and that is to say that this is a sales book. It teaches people. It’s how to be better salespeople, but it’s put in a context of a dramatized story of a guy who has a mentor and he meets with him and they talk about these things, these techniques that they’re needing to use. Then he goes home and talks to his wife about it, has some non-direct dialog about it. It’s just a different approach and it’s had a pretty interesting response from the marketplace. It’s like role playing but with a whole book. I’ve been able to do a couple of those in the last couple of years. That’s something that I think we’re doing here that isn’t being done a lot across the country right now.

JV: What advice would you offer readers who would like to find success being their own boss?
Steve: I think the thing you have to remember is, like we were talking about a second ago, there’s no substitute for passion. Kids that come up to me who are actors -- young kids, 12, 13 -- asking me about acting, I always ask them the same question first, and that is, if you could never be famous being an actor, would you still do it? If they can honestly answer yes to that question, then they are in the best position that they can be. That’s a noble thing to pursue something for which you know there is no other calling for your life. You are very special and very blessed to be in that position.

I guess that’s what I would say to one who is thinking of diversifying; and that there are plenty of resources online to help you, support you, in an effort to get into the voiceover business, for example. There’s something that I just became involved with from Audible.com. If you’re talking about producing audio books, they have a website called ACX.com. Simply put, it is Audible getting out in front of the independent producer market and creating a clearing house database of independent producers who can put up their sample demos – and narrators, I’m up there as both -- and people with projects come there. This is Audible so it’s marketed. They know about it and they come here and they sample people they think would be right and offer the job to whoever sounds the best. This is just one opportunity. There’s Voices123 and other things that provide support and structure for doing it, but again, you’ve got to have it in your gut. You’ve got to have passion. You’ve got to think about this stuff and develop a strategy based on your individual giftedness. If you’re me, you get on your knees and you pray about it every day. God, am I using the gifts that you gave me the way you want me to? And if you start there and get that answered, then everything else is also there. But you’ve got to be motivated to make the decisions to make it happen.

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