This month’s Q It Up is part 2 of our question that takes a look at the voice-talent pool in radio stations today, or lack thereof.
Q 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.
Craig Jackman [craigj[at]canada.com], CHEZ-FM, Ottawa, Canada: We only go outside the station for “The Big Station Voice” these days. Even that is new for us though as we had our station voice on staff for the first 22 years of our existence. I’ve been very lucky in that there have been a lot of multi-talented staffers here that don’t mind doing the odd voice line. The trick is learning their limitations early, and working with them slowly to get the results you want. There are staffers who are pathetic, and there are those that freak out at the sight of a mic. You learn pretty quickly who you can count on, who has a range you can exploit, and who is a “one read only” person. The standard line I’ve used around here is that if you are in the building, you are a potential voice talent, and that includes visitors as well. With consolidation, there are now more stations in the same building, so there are more potential voice talents available to use.
There are times when no matter what we do, the voice just isn’t “right.” You know the voice you want but nobody can deliver it. In that case, we have to just swallow it and do the best we can. Remember knowing their limitations? Well you have to know your own as well. Maybe revisit the script and change a couple of lines to fit the available talent better. Play to your strengths! Maybe realize that you are a radio station and not an advertising agency, and while you can get some amazing results, you don’t hit a homer every time at bat. Do what you can do, then move on. Everybody has a bunch of stuff on the air that they’d like to change. Live with it.
In my 15 years of doing this for a living, I can say that the times I felt stuck on the voice have been rare. Sure, I’d love to be able to send scripts all over North America to find that magical read, but that isn’t going to happen. What I’ve done is found some magic just sitting here unused. While it may not be “perfect” on the spot I’m working on now, it may be “perfect” on the spot I work on next. Are you as good as the spot you just finished, or the one you will work on next?
James Stodd [James.Stodd[at]Red DragonFM.co.uk], Red Dragon FM, Cardiff, United Kingdom: We have quite a diverse approach to voice talent. I’m lucky in that our afternoon guy (and my second producer) has a great voice for promos, so he’s always available for general station promos at the drop of a hat. Promos for contests tend to be voiced by the specific jocks, bolstered by our in-house voice. When it comes to big campaigns—such as Birthday Bonanza or Party in the Park—we use our “station voice” who is used for big campaigns, idents, and sweepers.
The idea of how to find the right voice for a station is a diverse one, and the answer is different for every station. When we changed to our current voice 8 months ago, we were really highlighting the local Welsh pride of the country following the Rugby World Cup, so we decided to find a local voice. In the end we found an actor based in London who had only done big national commercials before. But with a bit of work, we’ve got something a bit different but distinctive. We have added to this by using a female voice within many of our sweepers and promos—again, not an off the peg voiceover, but a local actress who happened to have written in for a job. And again, with a bit of work, has taken to the job as a real natural. The lesson is sometimes not to be blinkered into finding and using what everyone else does. That way you can end up with something distinctive and different from the other guys.
Alastair Gray [al[at]retailaudio.com]: As an independent production facility for the radio industry in South Africa, we are faced with a serious challenge in the fact that we have 11 official languages. We produce programmes mainly in English, and use a bank of freelance voice artists as and when required. We regularly have clients who want affordable productions, and one way we save on their costs is by using presenters from the local radio stations, and also students from the local drama college. They have less attitude and ego, and what they may lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm. Occasionally they add to the creative side too, adding a fresh angle not thought of before. They are also available at the drop of a hat, as the money is great by student standards.
Most of our voice talent is on a freelance basis, as required, but several are on a longer term contract. There are set rates for standard reads, which the advertising industry adheres to, but many voice artists will negotiate a suitable fee for their work. We are currently investigating the potential for providing South African accents in the form of a voice bank over the Internet.
Shane [shanes[at]esatclear.ie], North West Radio, Ireland: I don’t think that any radio station has enough voice talent at their disposal. Here at North West Radio we have just hired 2 voices to be our station voices—one for imaging (jingles and stuff) and the other for promos—who do a session almost every week from Dublin. By the time you read this, we will have launched them (mid May). That at least has solved some of our problems, and we will hopefully begin to sound more consistent.
However, we never seem to have enough voice talent for commercials. They always come in when there’s nobody around to voice them and have to be on air straight away. We are in a different situation whereby our station is a sister station, and most of the jocks are based at our sister station where they are sending programmes all the time. And we can’t have more than 2-way traffic on the 256K line! But we do our best to survive with what we have.
We don’t pay our voice talent either. I know that there is plenty of talent out there, but just not enough cash.
As for managing the voice talent, it’s just a case of whoever happens to be around at the time. You get to a point where you’re sick of hearing your voice on so many commercials, and quite often I just refuse to do any voice-overs for this very reason. If I get sick of them, then the reps will get sick of them. Sooner or later the clients will get sick of hearing the same voice on all the commercials too and stop advertising. Then we don’t get paid and onwards into the downward spiral (worst case scenario, I know). My boss once told me that your voice is your asset, and if you abuse it, you or things around you, will suffer. Good advice I think! Keep up the good work everybody. I know it’s a struggle!
Michael McGurk [mmcgurk[at] earthlink.net], KARA/KRTY/KLIV, San Jose, CA: Voice talent bank?!? At a radio station? Does that include the girls in traffic and the salespeople? The short answers to the questions are: “Don’t have one,” “Barely,” “They won’t pay for it,” and “No.” There was a time when we used to go to the local Repertory groups in town and could get folks to work for restaurant trade. Now they want scale. I run a one-man department for three stations—an AC, a Country and a news station—and they won’t let the news people do commercials. So, what I try to do is have the AC jocks do spots for the Country and vice-versa, and we all pitch in on the News station. Of course, since most copy doesn’t come in until late afternoon to start the next day, most of the staff has left. We do draw the line on jocks doing “character spots” on their own stations though. I’m sorry, but Jim the Morning Guy is still Jim the Morning Guy even if he is called Biff in the spot. If a client insists, we make them provide talent. Usually it’s their kid or wife, they’re terrible, we re-write, and one of the jocks does a straight read. We do have a gem of a lady in our AC traffic department, and we have done some very nice things with her. I also try to turn on clients to one of the many “mom and pop” agencies we have in town. This gets me in good with the agency (and maybe gets me some free-lance down the road), and lets the client find out just how much is involved, time wise and money wise, in turning out “five character, 12 sound effect, three music bed, humorous Super Saturday Closeout mini dramas with an 800 number and URL” spots. Actually, I love doing stuff like that, but with consolidation, budget cuts, and the fact that half the jocks don’t even live in the same time zone, it is a challenge. Every now and then, a salesperson actually makes deadline and we can play. That’s really very wonderful.
Greg Williams [frithfamily[at] tnknowms1.iol24.com], TurtleDove Productions, Knoxville, TN: While Production Director for several top stations in my career, I frequently found myself saturating the stations’ signals with “The Greg Williams Show.” It seemed I always found myself cutting the bulk of the spots, mainly from the “I’d rather do it myself” mentality. But it was the truth! Admit it: jocks hate doing spots! And the ones who do get into it, then get a bulk of the voice-overs themselves. More so than not, I cringed when I heard a jock slap together a spot, just to get the thing out of the way. And when I had 5 stations under my responsibility, I couldn’t personally engineer all the spots, so delegation was the rule of the day.
Now, with the luxury of engineering all the spots for a single station or two under my authority, I could pull from whoever I felt vocally adequate, and then mold and direct them into outstanding productions.
And I NEVER had the opportunity to hire an outside voice talent, unless the clients brought one in themselves.
Darren Marlar [darren[at]marlar house.com], Marlar House Productions/KCWJ: At KCWJ, we only have about five of us running the entire place, so even if I wanted to use their voices, it’d be hard to find time to get them into the studio. Fortunately, I do several character voices, so I can get away with using just myself quite a bit of the time. However, you can only use a certain character voice a certain number of times before people realize it’s you. Something you might want to look into is “voice swapping” or “voice trading.” I have a friend in Birmingham that has the same problem regarding the number of available voices as I do. He also knows other stations with the same problem. So one solution is to “trade voices” with another radio station that is not in your market. If they do a spot for you, you agree to do a spot for them. And now with MP3 technology, you don’t even have to pay postage to send the finished product (or just the dry voice) from station to station. It can all be done easily, quickly, and cheaply. That is likely the route we will take in the very near future.
Shawn Kelly [shawnkelly_98[at] yahoo.com]: You can never have enough voice talent. So it’s always scarce no matter which market or group you’re in. I have found the best ways to battle this lack of talent monster is to hold monthly auditions. I have the local theater groups and schools put up a notice of when I will have the auditions. I block out a few hours over a couple of days and have people come in and read a variety of scripts. And when it comes time to call up the ones who pass the audition, more than likely, they will do it for free because it looks good on their resume. I also use salespeople a lot. If you coach them instead of doing a “one take Charlie,” you will have better luck. Remember, when a jock finishes their backsell, and the next thing you hear is them on a spot, it sounds bad. Use whomever you can. Always be in “audition mode.” Good luck!
Todd Richmond [ToddWMPI[at] aol.com], WMPI-FM, Scottsburg, IN: Fortunately, I still have a few different voices at my disposal inside the station. I believe we are the only commercial FM station inside the Louisville Metro market that is still live and local 24/7, so I have all the air talent for voice work along with other staff members who, when pressed with bribery, are more than willing to help with voice work. Sometimes, however, it does become necessary to look outside the station for voices. For instance, I have an order in my box even as I write this letter for a spot in which the client wants kids to read the copy. This may cost someone a few ice cream sundaes—heck, I may even give some of those sundaes to the kids.
I also have other friends inside the business, but outside the building, who occasionally help me with specialized voice work. Frequently, especially on the more humorous spots, I call my friend Jack Lucas, whose repertoire of voices far outclasses mine (he has 3, and they all sound just like him).
Jack Steele [jack.steele[at]cumulusb .com], Cumulus, Montgomery, AL: This is a great topic. I am the Production Director for 7 properties owned by Cumulus. When I took the job about two years ago, I knew it would be a challenge, and it is everyday. We have 4 FMs and 3 AMs. The FMs have jocks on staff, and the AMs have a few morning on air talents. I have at my disposal a talent bank of some good voices for this market size and level. I have older 40-plus male and female voices for projects as well as younger 21-plus male and female voices for other projects. We have a rock, CHR, Country and an A/C station. All have two or three good voices for spots. The problem on utilizing the voices is when the spots come down from sales and traffic/continuity. If it’s 3:30 in the afternoon, you can’t get the ballzy morning guy on the country station to cut anything until the next morning. Timing becomes a problem sometimes.
Egos of the jocks also [hinder things] from time to time. You KNOW how on air deejays can be!!! We use about 12 different voices on projects and 5 or 6 more on others for tags or something. The hard thing I had to get away from was just going down the hall and saying, “Hey, can you do the voice? I’ll engineer it for you.” We have SAW plus, the original Orban, and another Audicy in our three prod. studios. The SAW is NOT yet operational, but it’s being wired as of my writing.
My problem is that the EGO inside you wants to voice everything yourself. Or, from time to time, I’ll find myself thinking, I know how it should sound so, I’ll do it myself. Taking “ME” or my voice off all the spots is a problem I deal with all the time. In meetings with my O.M. he’ll make mention of this from time to time. “I heard 3 spots in a spot set and all were you.”
I am trying to get to the point where I’ll voice a few each week to maintain practice, and then get the jocks to do the majority. It’s hard though. We also have three different digital on-air operating systems on the stations. They’re NOT networked—Digilink, Maestro, and the oldest version of B.E.’s Audio Vault.
Every day is an adventure. I think we’re doing well though. We billed about 6 million last year as a cluster, and we own about 40-plus percent of the revenue in the market. And we’re in the top five in billing and gross in the company. So far so good.
The on-air talent here is my talent bank of voices. We cross use the jocks from the different stations on spots. Sometimes a consultant or PD will want you to use only their jocks on spots, but my thing is it’s gotta get done, and I don’t mind having a 23 year old female on a spot on the country station where the median age is 44. If the spot sounds good, great. It works. Same for the 40+ female on the CHR station. If the piece sounds or comes together good, then let it be.
In conclusion, I wish I had the budget for using outside talent. There is in our market reach several nationally used voices. I just don’t have a budget for voices. However, I do have some very talented people here when utilized.
Richard Stroobant [bigdick[at]cjay 92.com], CJAY/CKMX, Calgary, AB, Canada: We are one FM and one AM station with 8 jocks total. We have a traffic girl and a copywriter who voice as well as both producers. The PD and GM even do some, and we get other office staff to be the “man on the street voices.” I wish we had a couple of more announcers to give us more flexibility, and like most stations, we are missing that one person who can do a bunch of different voices. We had a promo guy who was really good, but he left, and we sure miss him now. We never have budget to have outside talent voice. But some clients have arrangements with freelancers to come in and voice their spots, and some clients even do their own spots (GAWD I HATE THAT). As for managing the voice talent pool, we just try to stay on top of how much each guy is doing and not overload one so you don’t hear him back to back in stop sets.
Rob Vavrek [rvavrek[at]bear.fm], The BEAR/CFRN, Edmonton, AB, Canada: ENOUGH VOICE TALENT....HA HA HA HAAAAAAA! You can never, ever have enough voice talent, and especially in these days of consolidation, the voice talent at arms length is becoming increasingly SLIM! I pretty much use everyone at the station (even the receptionist if I think she’ll work). We are actually very lucky to have an extremely talented Creative Director who can do multiple character voices and do them well! Almost everyone can do a few character voices of some sort, but not everyone can do them REALLY GOOD!
For the typical announcer type stuff, all we have is our on-air staff for the most part. This usually results in the mid-day and evening announcers being loaded up with the majority of spots, and once in a while I’ll use some of the sales staff (former on-air staff) if they are available.
I’d love to go for outside talent—I guess some stations have done this with very good results—but so far it’s a no-go here. We do have a promo voice from a sister station in the chain, as well as an image voice from out of the country. Thank goodness for these guys. Since we are so heavily imaged and promoed, it frees up our on-air talent for only voicing spots!
If anyone has a fool-proof method of getting management to go for the outside talent thing, LET ME KNOW!
Bob O’Connor [bobo[at]sonic.net]: Voice talent is being stretched to include receptionists, secretaries, salespeople and wandering troubadours. We have a small monthly budget, about $200. We are supposed to spend it only on females. We have two jocks who can’t write or produce themselves, but they can stutter enough for me to edit, and I can edit anything. Another jock is also Ops Mgr and chief light bulb changer and doesn’t have much of a prod load. We have a freelancer for four hours a week who consistently writes too long and then complains about the length of the spot he has written. I produce everything except for what the light bulb changer can do. Can anyone say “adult education” classes? Have a great day!