R.A.P. Interview: Johnny George

Johnny George, Johnny George Communications, Fishers, Indiana

Johnny-George3By Jerry Vigil

You’ve been hearing Johnny George’s work on the RAP Cassettes and CDs for years. Back in 2006, after a long stint with Susquehanna in Indianapolis, Johnny made the leap to try and make it on his own. Today, Johnny George Communications is alive and well. Johnny’s guy-next-door voice has found a market, but that’s not the only thing that keeps his clients coming back. These days, there are tons of guys-next-door, and it takes a bit more than a USB mic and a laptop to rise above the present ocean of talent. Johnny shares some valuable lessons and advice about his recent journey in this month’s RAP Interview. Check out this month’s RAP CD for a montage of a few of Johnny’s current VO demos.

JV: How did you get your start in radio?
Johnny: I had a radio show on a college prep station in high school that I was on, WELL up in Glen Arbor, Michigan, and that’s where the bug really bit me. But I was already hooked into wanting to be on the radio from the time I was probably ten. My dad was an amateur ham and had a setup up in my grandmother’s attic, and that’s where I first got interested. And singing along with Roger W. Morgan, doing his weather when I was 13 and calling myself Mrs. Miller and getting away with it and reconnecting with him after all these years on Facebook has been a real treat.

Then I got involved with WNTS which was an AM station in Indianapolis, Indiana. That was Jeff Smulyan’s first radio station of Emmis. I worked in the production department as, for lack of a better term, an intern and was the production guy. Our afternoon guy was David Letterman. This was in 1974. He did “Neon Cornfield,” and he was a very peculiar man at that time. I only worked just that summer with him, but it was very interesting and it was very challenging because he would say, “Give me the sound of a chipmunk running across a laundry rope wire above a hammock with a guy sleeping.” What? And we had a ball trying to come up with these sounds.

That kind of spurred my interest into production, but I was like the typical guy; I wanted to be the star on the radio, get a lot of attention, people recognize me in public, that kind of a thing. And I think I got a little taste of it. I got into the disco business straight out of college. The same afternoon I came out of college I went into being a disco deejay, an entertainer, and was one of the first ones to mix music, per se, as opposed to a radio mix. Beat mixing is what I was doing, and I got inspired with that. I went on to do the first dance music show on WNAP in ’77 or ’78. Then music tastes started to change and they didn’t want to spend any money because we were asking for money, so I went to Kiss 99.

JV: You were asking for money for the dance show?
Johnny: Yeah. I was running a record pool and servicing the disc jockeys in the nightclubs in five states at that time. I had started that in ’78, and we wanted more than just publicity of the record pool and that’s how it started, and then when we started to ask for actual money and they got tight and said, “Well, we can’t afford to do that.” And I said, “Well, we can’t afford to do the show,” and they kind of let us go. It was more their decision than ours.

Sothen is was on to Kiss 99. I was following the God Squad on Sunday mornings, doing weekends as a part-timer, and that was one of Cecil Heftel’s stations. Then as the PD got fired, I got lost in the shuffle and stayed out of radio until ’81 when I got called in to WTLC, which was an Urban format at that time. I think it’s owned by Radio One now. Emmis owned it for a while and then it went over to Radio One, but that’s where I really started and that was when I first developed real production skills. They had guys that were kind of handed that duty. That was kind of the janitor’s job I guess, to take care of production. Back in those days, if you remember, the PD usually wore the hat as the Promotions Director, PD and production sometimes, and so I took that off someone else’s plate, put it on mine, enjoyed it and did it for about five years.

JV: Where’d you go from there?
Johnny: From there I went to ‘ZPL from ’86 to ’93, which was a hit station, Contemporary Hit Rock as we called it, CHR. I got fired on my 40th birthday when they were trying to eliminate some of the assets. They were treating them as liabilities because they wanted to get the price of the station down so they could sell it, and that gave me the opportunity to go to Sconnix, which was a small group of investors that owned WIBC and WNAP at the time, but WNAP had already changed call letters, format and everything by that point and it was WKLR, and WKLR was an oldies station. That seemed like something right up my alley considering the age I was, at that point turning 40. I worked with Dan Osborne who’s a great voice talent currently and is still there, along with a whole group of folks that were very, very talented.

We later switched WKLR over to WNAP because Emmis came in and bought the place and wanted to revive WIBC as the main news station again and bring it back to the status that it used to have, which had kind of dwindled over the years. So we brought back the old WNAP 93.1 and we just absolutely exploded onto the market. Chuck Riley was our voice, so I had to produce Chuck weekly. He’d go into Power 106 out in LA and Eric Edwards would do the session there. I’d pull it back on our line, throw it on DAT and then produce stuff and have it on the air that day. Immediacy of radio and ISDN lines were beautiful even back then, as we all know. That was a great time.

Also, while I was there, Jeff Smulyan was in the process of buying other properties around the country and around the world, and he sent me to China for a week because we were looking at some TV properties.  So Jim Duncan of Duncan’s American Radio, who happened to be the husband of our general manager at the time, Christine Woodward Duncan – it’s a big family around here! -- we went over to China for a week in Beijing and had the opportunity to look over this property. They wanted a couple million dollars in investment and we were looking at it. But it just wasn’t the right timing, so we came back and said nay and they said nay.

I was there from ’93 to ’97 and then the PD and I had a disagreement. We agreed to disagree and I left; Susquehanna welcomed me with open arms, and it was one of the finest broadcast groups I’ve ever worked for in my life.

Susquehanna at that time was Charlie Morgan and David Wood, and those two are now at Emmis through the reshuffle that’s taken place over this past year. Everyone was a pro there at Susquehanna. I mean everybody knew their thing and they only hired people that were basically A stars, the A group. We were very, very picky about hiring people in from outside. Most of our interns that went through the program were prepped to become parts of the group. It was just a wonderful, wonderful family, great people. Then when the upper echelon, the owners of Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, decided to sell the whole group for I think it was $1.2 billion, that’s when Cumulus got involved and formed Cumulus Media Partners, took it all over and did a lot of changes. A lot of people have left. My job of Creative Services Director was eliminated in May of 2006.

JV: So your days at the radio station were over and it was decision time. Obviously you chose to go it on your own. Were you ready?
Johnny: I had developed a “little” client list, the kind you get from osmosis through all your Production Director days. And I say “little” with quotes around it because of the fact that when you’re in radio, you can’t guarantee you can always be available to do something for somebody “right now” because your priority job is radio. I know how an awful lot of these guys must feel juggling that currently. Because a lot of the Production Directors around the country right now are wearing two and three hats and taking care of more than one or two stations, sometimes a cluster of five to seven, a lot of them have not been able to concentrate and focus on their main voice-over client list that they had on the side that was a nice hobby. For a lot of them it’s turned into a very scarce hobby because they just don’t have the time. So I have a lot of understanding and sympathy for all of them.

But I decided in May of 2006 it was time to jump off of that tree limb finally and go in full time. I had built a studio in my house after I left ‘ZPL in 1993 and spent a pretty penny putting together a really nice studio with just top of the line equipment. The majority of all that stuff is in a closet if anybody wants to buy any of the old outboard stuff. I’m on Pro Tools now with just a handful of plug-ins, as was related in the RAP Network Q It Up last month. I had decided at that point if I was going to do it I needed to do it right, and so I put a marketing plan together. I set goals. I set my studio up to be more productive than it had been.

I worked out of our house for a while. We moved out of that house in 2003, and we’re in a condo now. I went with a full-fledged studio here in our third bedroom. It’s much bigger and probably more luscious than it needs to be, and the next move will probably be a little more Spartan, but everything is set up to be able to be a lot more productive. I bought an ISDN box. I’ve reinvested in my mic collection. It’s dual screens all around, terabytes of storage and the whole nine yards. I’ve had plenty of time to put a full day’s work into developing my business through marketing and through my little blogging. I don’t do a lot of blogging but I do some on my website. Since then I’ve had my website redesigned twice. Everything just seems to click now, and, yeah, I too have had some very lean months. This past month was probably very lean, but I’ve been very fortunate and feel very blessed to have found some really good clients that believe in me, and I super-serve my clients the very best I can. That’s why I think they come back to me; I’m no superstar voice or anything, but I’m versatile and I look out for my clients and I do what it takes to keep their business.

JV: Sounds like you were gearing up for a possible break from radio long before 2006.
Johnny: I had looked at making the break leaving Emmis in ’97, and I actually interviewed with a production company. I interviewed with a concert company. I also had TV. I had looked into that and it all just came right back around to the persistence of David Wood at Susquehanna saying, “We’d really like to have you over here and we really think you can add a lot to our team.” They had such a good reputation, but I really didn’t know much about Country radio; and they had just launched a new Oldies station, Gold 104.5, and that was going to be my main baby. But they wanted to bring me in as Imaging Director, and there were never any Imaging Directors in ’97 in our market; and I was doing well pay-wise and when they offered me the job that they did with even more money, I went, “Gosh, I got a hard time turning that down.”

Then I think in ’01 or ’02, I was promoted to Creative Services Director and in charge of imaging for all the stations and overseeing production. My production company at that time was just called Johnny George Voice-overs, and I had a deal set up with the station’s outside advertising company and was making money on that. So when they offered me the job, they said, “We’ll give you a bump in pay to make up for all that so you don’t have to worry about that and we’ll increase it to this,” again I went, “I can’t turn this down.” So I’ve been very, very fortunate, and the people around me have just been wonderful.

JV: So what were those first six months like out there on your own?
Johnny: Well, I have a CPA who keeps my nose to the grindstone and doesn’t allow me to BS him. He was setting goals and we were setting stages of income to make up for what I was making before. How soon is it going to be before you can hit this goal and how far before this goal? We had this all planned out, and after one year we were about five or six months ahead of the plan. So I was really pleased, but if you remember, the economy was still doing well at that point and the big blow didn’t come until a little bit after that. So my next projection came close fortunately due to a couple of big national things that I had done that kind of made up for the drop in the economy. I didn’t hit my ’09 target but was real close, and my ’10 is just a hair below, so I really have no complaints.

JV: What was the biggest challenge for you during those first couple of years?
Johnny: Trying to work it in such a way that I wasn’t underneath my wife’s feet. We also had a son in college at Ball State for architecture, and due to the fact that he had gotten into the program late he was in the whole program for almost nine years. It was very draining to our budget, but basically you do what you have to do, and he’s well worth it. In retrospect, now that he’s graduated this past May, it’s all for the good and I’m glad it happened the way it did. Things happen for a reason and I was able to cover it -- not to say that he doesn’t have plenty of college loans that he’ll be taking care of for years to come. But with my first four years of covering and the last couple of years, we made it through. My wife is disabled, so she’s not able to work, and so not getting in her way and she not in mine, that was probably one of our biggest struggles.

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JV: So how is business today for Johnny George Communications?
Johnny: Well, I’ve got a handful of clients that I work very regularly with; I would say maybe 20, 25. And then I’ve got several agents in the U.S., one in Canada, a pay-to-play…

JV: A “pay to play?”
Johnny: Voices.com. You pay a membership fee to get auditions from them. And the great thing about that.... I was just going over the numbers the other day, I would say I’ve been a member since 2004 and I think I’ve only gotten from them 11 jobs out of the thousands that I’ve auditioned for -- and I’m referring to specifically the first one. But almost every one of those, and some side ones that didn’t go through Voices.com that were outside auditions where they heard me there and then went around them and hired me on the outside, those have all become firm clients, and I think out of all of them I would probably say maybe two I’m no longer with. But all of the rest are still feeding me work on a regular basis.

JV: That doesn’t sound like a good deal for voices.com.
Johnny: It’s just that clients discover you on voices.com. Then they Google you and instead of going through them and having to pay a fee to them, they just go directly around it and basically go directly to you and bypass the agent end of it. I’m sure that’s done every day, so I’m not revealing any secret.

I’ve done a lot of ma and pop stuff through them, but I think I was also found on there to do Thomasville Furniture that I did for a year and a half which is national. There are a handful of clients that found me there and have continued to give me good business, and not just hundred dollar jobs but decent paying jobs. They discover you online and then they continue to use you.

I’m on the East Coast a lot with car dealerships and insurance companies and banks and credit unions, yet I don’t have anything running here in my own market. I’d probably say JD Byrider, which is a buy-here/pay-here car dealership that’s around the country, they are probably one of the only things that run in my central Indiana market, so I’m definitely not overexposed in my area here!

But I do a lot of stuff. I do a lot of work out of Denmark and out of Norway, and I’ve done several things in Dubai. I’m on the airport system in Bahrain, some military bases. I mean just strange things, translators in China that had nothing to do with my Emmis connections.

JV: So would you say that you’re finding plenty of work in the marketplace these days?
Johnny: Yes, but let me say this: I know because of the downsizing and consolidation, there’s so many people that are thinking, “Oh, what an easy thing to do. I’ll just go home and hook up my computer with a microphone and a decent soundcard and start doing voice-overs.” I can’t tell you how many people write and ask questions and say, “What does it take to get into the business and what do I need to do?”

I have two standard answers. If you really have the talent and you’re ready to jump in with both feet and you want to invest in yourself and in the industry itself, be prepared to starve for a little while, but you’ve got to put 110 percent in it to get it going. If you’re not willing to do that and you’re just looking to get a little job here and somebody’s answering service there, run as far away as you can and go get a job someplace else. This business doesn’t have time for you.

JV: I saw on your site some other voice talents that you’re featuring, so I take it that you provide some sort of service other than your own voice?
Johnny: Yes. I had several clients that all hit kind of at once. I was doing some e-learning jobs and they wanted to expand and said, “I need another female to do this and I need two females for that. I need another guy for this.” I need this; I need that. I said, “My goodness!” Again, you’ve got to do your homework, and because of the fact that so many of us network so closely with each other, you find out who the good people are and who is at the same standard you are. I don’t want somebody that’s going to say, “Oh, gosh, I can’t do that today. Maybe next week.”  I don’t have time for that, so I find people that are really dedicated and believe in the system the same way I do, and those are the people that are on my site. I don’t need a whole bunch. And I’m certainly not going to lead them to believe that I’m going to give them all the work and they can just sit back and wait for me to call because it just doesn’t work that way. So all those people on there are very talented people and just think the same way I do.

JV: No production services, just voiceover?
Johnny: I’m primary voice only even though I do produce. I produce a TV station out in Montana and do some work for a couple of clients where I give them the full bit with music and sound effects and all, but I just don’t promote that because I really don’t have the time for that.

JV: No writing either?
Johnny: I’ve got a blog on my website that takes care of that urge for me. I hope your readers will feel free to go through it and agree or disagree with anything they see on there. I’d love to get it going a little bit more and inspire me to write more. That’s where I enjoy writing because I can just write. I don’t find the time to do it though because I’m just not challenged as much, and that’s why I have to get out of my house ever so often and go out to lunch and talk with guys in my own market and do whatever I can to keep myself alive because you can really become a hermit sitting at home. I get up every morning at 7-something and read the paper, watch the news, drink my coffee, completely shower and dress, and I go upstairs into my studio and, boom, it’s a regular day. I’ve none of this sitting at home in slippers and a robe.

JV: You mentioned agents, that you have several in the U.S. and one in Canada, and that’s pretty much the norm anymore for voice-over talent, to get nonexclusive deals with agents in various areas. Are these agents key for your business, or do they bring in only a small portion of your work?
Johnny: I would say probably 30 percent of my business is from those agents, and the other 70 percent is definitely through my own beating the bushes and marketing.

 

JV: You have one of those great, friendly, honest voices. It’s easy to see how it’s been marketable, especially in the past 10, 20 years. Has your voice been an easy thing for you to cultivate? Did you do it on your own or have you done the voice coach thing?
Johnny: I have done the voice coach thing. I’ve worked with Maurice Tobias and I’ve worked with Nancy Wolfson, two of the best people on this planet. I’ve had the ability to work with Dick Orkin before who’s another genius. But Nancy most likely would probably be my highest crown because she doesn’t put up with any BS. She tells you what you need to hear and how you need to do it and is very focused. I had taken the typical broadcast production technology in college. When I got out of college I still wanted to further that, so I went ahead and took voice acting and speech and some other classes like that locally here at Butler -- that school people finally have heard about now.

And besides that training… my old quote used to be, “I’m waiting for all the big balls guys to die.” Well – may Don rest in peace. The guy-next-door sound started to become quietly more prevalent in the background in the ’80s and ’90s and really didn’t boom until the 2000 time, and now everywhere you see, “No ballsy announcers, guy next door, real, natural.” They’re all asking for that. But I do a lot of dialogue things that my agents get me and a lot of naturally speaking and friendly things for a lot of narrative work for a lot of pretty big companies that just want a guy-next-door sound.

JV: The ballsy announcer was big because he had the voice of authority – what he said, you had to believe. But apparently, we stopped believing him. Now it’s the guy and girl next door because advertisers want the listener to relate to this person, so they’ll believe whatever this guy says. When the audience figures this one out, there’ll probably be another shift. Do you see something out there in the voice-over business that is kind of scratching the surface of this, a change to something new?
Johnny: Well, I’m finding an awful lot that the description of the voice is changing little by little. The big ballsy guy is still there to a certain extent because it adds contrast. The guy next door -- everything’s perfect in his world and it can be perfect with you, too -- is still being sought after; but you’ll notice that the term has almost changed more to conversational and natural as opposed to “be the happy Bob next door.” You have to hear it to understand it, I think, the difference between somebody saying, “Well, here. Buy a pound and a half of choice hamburger here at Kroger for just $1.98 a pound,” compared to the guy that doesn’t sound like he’s trying to be your friend but just being straight ahead without making it sappy, without sounding too concerned or way too compassionate, just straight ahead. There’s a lot of call for that.

Johnny-George-Studio1

JV: Back to your studio for a second, what are some of your favorite mics to work with?
Johnny: I originally was using my AKG 414 which I really liked, and it was kind to my voice because I have a lot more midrange in my voice -- and it’s changing little by little right now probably from yelling at a neighbor’s dog. From the AKG I went to the RØDE NT2-A which I love. It’s just a great general mic and you just can’t beat it for the dollar. And I’m now onto what a lot of people haven’t heard of, the Bock Audio 195, and I love it. It is a fine mic that just brings the whole presence of my particular vocal chords out, and I’m not using any tricks. I’m not EQ-ing. I run it through a Presonus 2 Pre, and that is the only piece of outboard equipment I have. I put very light limiting on it, and I use a gate, all Wave plug-ins, and that’s it.

I don’t fake any of the stuff anymore because too many of them don’t want it because they’re producing me from Fishers, Indiana and another guy from Denver, Colorado and a gal from Virginia Beach, and we all need to sound as close to each other as we possibly can. That’s another reason why a lot of the radio voice-over guys have a problem, because with a lot of that stuff, you’re not allowed to get to the bypass switch, so a lot of it is processed and that can really cause troubles from the engineering side on the post-production end.

But my Bock, I really, really like. It’s my mike of choice right now. My RØDE is sitting over here in the box covered up in plastic. The only reason I sold the AKG was because my studio engineer that helped me put this all together offered me a price for it that I couldn’t turn down. I had my 414 kind of tuned with my outboard equipment so that it really had a real big punch and that really nice ’80s compressed, wonderful, cut-through-everything sound, but people don’t want that nowadays.

Plus, it’s easier when you go back and do a pickup to try and sound like yourself. I have so many different levels of ways that I use my voice that I have to go back and listen to myself again and go, “Okay, was I smiling? Did I have it tuned up a little bit? Was I off mic? Was I on mic? Was I up here or was my register down here?” I’m so versatile in my delivery that I have to figure out who the hell I am first; I almost have to give each delivery a name each time I do something. It kind of goes back to the old Pat Farley suggestion of when you’re doing character voices: figure out who the foundation voice is before you build it, and that’s ingenious.

JV: What would you say have been some of the key elements to your success with Johnny George Communications in the past four years?
Johnny: Being client driven. I think there are some of my clients out there that probably think I’m not the best voice on the planet, but they can always depend on me and that I deliver a good product. And if they ever need something down the road or if there’s something that they need to get done quickly, I’m there. I can be Johnny-on-the-spot and I can take the worry off of their plate and put it on mine.

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JV: Any other advice you’d offer radio production types who want to do the same thing you did and make the break?
Johnny: If you’re a good producer and you have a decent voice, there is, I think, a huge need for people putting together all of the voice-over work from the guys that don’t either have the time for it or just plain aren’t interested in doing it. There are an awful lot of talented people that have had to leave cluster stations where they’ve had to do Country and Urban and CHR and AC; they’re so damn versatile in their production and they’ve got all the right tools to do it. There’s a market out there for you; go for it. Don’t jump into the voiceover realm; my God, there’s 40,000 people in LA alone that are voice-over people. You just don’t need that kind of competition to try and start now. You’re a little late if you’re trying to get into this business right now. There’s still always room for great talent, but don’t miss that.

Second, be ready to invest. You’ve got to. You just can’t do it with a little USB mic and a decent soundcard. It just doesn’t work. You’re up against people that really have some fine equipment, and your stuff’s going to sound bad. If you want to jump into it and start doing auditions, don’t start doing auditions until you’ve got your studio ready so you can deliver the product immediately. I remember when I put the studio together in 1993. I spent almost 25 grand doing that. And God bless family loans. I was able to pay that back and be in the plus column within 11 months. I was very proud of myself, and that’s doing radio at the same time.

I just think there are an awful lot of people that don’t realize the investment of time and heart and soul into this right now. It’s just not an easy thing to get into. There are too many people out there. There’s going to be the guys that are going to be willing to do the $50 and $60 jobs. I won’t lie to you. I do some people where I do a whole bunch of stuff and I’m getting 40 bucks a pop, but I may do five or six of them in one setting, so it doesn’t seem like I’m low-balling myself.

But you need to be able to go out into the market and be able to feel what’s happening with that particular client, nurture it properly, don’t turn people away. I can’t tell you how many people that I’ve worked with that have been at this agency and I’ve treated them well; they’ve left and they’ve started their own company because they think they can build a better mousetrap, and they’ve come right back around and said, “Hey, just opened up shop. How you doing? Can you help me?” Boom. Now I’ve got two clients.

So it definitely pays to really do your homework, and client-driven service is always going to be it. 

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