Every now and then, as a voice-over artist, I get that dreaded phone call from my agent, saying that station XXXX no longer requires my services. Usually, I react with an urbane “I understand,” even though there have been times when I really didn’t. What I’ve often wanted to say is, “What? Are you NUTS? They’re taking a pass on the best voice in the business?” Of course, while I might think so, clearly I might be wrong.
Usually, the reason for severance is about a change in format or a re-tooling of the station imaging. Many times a new PD has come on board and he/she has someone else who has done a great job for them at their previous station. They want to bring that VO talent onto the new (for them) station as a sort of lucky talisman. There are times though that it happens because the VO has drifted away from the read that got them hired in the first place. The talent has lost his or her way. What is key here, is your relationship with your VO talent and how important it is to keeping their reads on point.
Years ago, I sat on the other end of one of those calls as Z100 decided to change our female VO from Ann DeWig to Kelly Kelly Kelly. I didn’t make the call myself…that odious duty fell to my boss, (kudos to him for doing it directly), but I called Ann later and had a wonderful chat. If you’ve ever met or worked with Ann, I’m sure you know that she is genuinely one of the sweetest and most caring people in the world, let alone this business. Ann basically said, “No regrets.” She felt that her time voicing Z100 was enriching for her, and not just in the fiduciary sense. She said that we ‘pushed’ her to new heights of skill and ability and that since the time she started doing our VO, she really grew as a voiceover artist. Ann gave me a new sense of towering respect. Ann and I first met online at a site I was running that was all about radio production, back when she was imaging DC101 in Washington, DC. The site has long faded into memory, but our friendship has endured.
Ann pointed out that Kelly is ALSO an incredibly talented producer and VO artist. I counted Kelly as a very good friend as well, which made this entire experience feel a little weird. Kelly and I met several years ago in Los Angeles at a company programming seminar, the week before an R&R convention (remember those?), when we both worked for a company called AM/FM and she was the Creative Goddess at KDWB/Minneapolis.
Now, what I’m about to say might seem artificial, but I assure you it’s not. Our friendship made working with Ann an absolute dream. All I had to do was tell her, “I need Pink.” Ann would then shift gears and become the artist Pink. If you’ve ever seen Pink in an interview, you know that she has one of those incredibly sexy, almost ‘husky’ sounding voices that just oozes attitude. Angie Harmon (formerly of Law & Order and Rizzoli & Isles) has the same kind of voice. It’s almost a tomboyish sound that says, “I can kick your butt at anything you choose.” As soon as I said “Pink,” Ann had exactly the attitude I wanted.
Kelly has the same kind of delivery. You can hear it clearly in everything she does. When I called her to say, “Welcome aboard,” she was giggling like a school–girl. Oddly, she felt bad because she was also a very good friend of Ann. She was worried about calling Ann, but I assured her that Ann’s head was in a great place and not to worry at all. I suspect Kelly called her almost immediately after that.
OK, enough gossip. The essence of what I want to pass along to you is that short of voicing something yourself, the only sure-fire way to know that you’ll get what you really need is to communicate well with your VO talent. If he/she is living in Scottsdale or LA and you’re not, your VO sessions will either have to be done live via phone or you’ll have to accept whatever is posted, good, bad or indifferent. If you want to make sure that it’s always good, you must communicate well with the talent. Make sure they totally understand not only the content but also the intent of whatever you’re trying to say to your audience.
I remember working with the late Keith Eubanks and falling on the floor howling with laughter when he tried to pronounce some of the town names in New Jersey. How would you say Hopatcong, Hohokus or Paramus? Well, he didn’t have a clue either, until I started sending pronunciation guides. (hoe-PAT-kong, hoe-HOE-kuss and puh-RAM-us, by the way.) Ever since then, regardless of who the VO is, whenever there’s the slightest chance that a word or name can be mispronounced, I not only send a written guide, but I also attach an MP3 of the word pronounced the way the locals say it. Most of the world pronounces the word Piaget the same way the French do, pya-JAY. In New Jersey they say pee-AD-jit. Bogota becomes buh-GO-tuh. Go figure.
Keith and I became really good friends, in spite of my loading up some of his copy with hard to pronounce names. Whenever he would fly up for one our station concerts, he would always make it a point to stop by to say hello in my studio and we invariably ended up laughing with each other. When it came to doing the VO, he was always the consummate professional. The industry lost a truly kind and gentle man when he passed away. I still think of him often and smile.
Now I am on the other end of one such relationship with my simulcast stations in Mombassa and Nairobi. They’re English speaking stations (as many are in Kenya) but many of the place names and Deejay names are pure Swahili. Patrick Igunza and Tambua Mzito are not names most of us would come across in Dayton. Cynthia Mwangi very thoughtfully provides phonetic spellings. She tells me that my Swahili lessons are coming along nicely.
Aside from getting correct pronunciations, getting the right attitude and feel for the copy is terribly important. Have you ever played the game ‘telephone?’ One person whispers something in the ear of the person sitting next to them. That person then says what they heard to the next person and so on until everyone has heard the message. The last person to hear the message then says it out loud. I’ve YET to play the game once when the ‘end’ message was the same as the ‘beginning’ message. Usually, it bears no resemblance the original message at all. My point is your VO talent was probably not sitting in the room when the copy was written. How can he/she interpret the copy exactly as it was meant?
To make matters even more difficult, if the person writing the copy is not producing the promo or spot, you’ve just added another layer of potential communications error. You, as the producer, need to be a part of the process when the idea gets put down on paper. If you’re not the writer, that’s fine. Just make sure you and the writer have a nice conversation about what it means and likewise, you or the writer need to have the same conversation with the VO person. What’s obvious to one person isn’t always so obvious to the next.
Finally, one of the biggest benefits to both you, as the producer, and the VO talent is that they don’t have to do 40 takes to make sure they send the right VO and you don’t have to comb through 40 takes to find the right one. Everyone gets it right the first or second time. When I was the main VO at Kiss108/Boston, Jeff Berlin, their former Creative Services Director told me, “You’re getting it right on the first take almost every time. Just do it once and move on.” Now, I do that with everyone, with the understanding that they can ask for a re-cut any time I don’t get it right. So far, it’s never happened except when I mispronounce the name of a mall or something.
If your VO seems to be sliding away from the style you’ve established with him or her, don’t be shy about adding a quick line or two up top about how you want it read. Trust me, it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
I have a country station in Dallas that needs ‘loud and proud’ with a touch of growl. They recently hosted a broadcast to support a local children’s hospital, so their producer, Randy wrote, "Lose the growl and tone down the loud." That quick instruction at the top of the script allowed me to slide into the right mood and he wrote back with one word: PERFECT.
I have a rock station in Illinois where I have an excellent relationship with Zander and Kevin, the PD and producer. They always wants things speedy and low. I have so many clients who prefer a more buoyant, expressive read that I catch myself having to change gears back into the ‘rock’ mode. Every once in awhile, Zander has to remind me that his station plays rock. I always appreciate the gentle nudge, because I really don’t want to get one of those calls telling me that I’m a free agent again.