by Ed Thompson
Lately, I’ve been hearing voices. Keith David for AT&T and the US Navy, James Earl Jones for Verizon, Peri Gilpen for Wells Fargo, and Gene Hackman for Lowe’s. Wait a minute. They’re all actors. Where are the radio people? How come these companies are using big-time Hollywood actors instead of real radio announcers with real radio voices? Because real radio announcers with real radio voices don’t sound…real.
Ouch! That’s gotta hurt.
Truth is often like that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to the radio and cringed whenever I heard a puker. (Yes, that is the technical term.) But when I listen to Gene Hackman tell me how low the prices on lawn mowers are at Lowe’s, I listen carefully because he’s talking to me, one on one. Talking. Not announcing. Aye, there’s the rub.
It’s something I recognized when I began to specialize in production. I always believed that an “announcer voice” is useless in the production room. So, without any prompting from anyone other than listening to the voice-over artists I admired so much, I began to try and slip out of that safe little announcer box and try to become a voice-actor. I had some success. Though I was mostly just a human Myna bird, copying styles, inflections, and the like, I stood out more from the other announcers who, like me, had two-hours of production after their air shift. Clients began to ask specifically for me to voice their ads. It was a nice ego boost and it set the stage for the rest of my career. But, after twenty years I find myself asking, “Is that all there is?”
But, one morning last March, I had a recording session with an outside voice talent who told me how he does voice-overs for cartoons. I was impressed, because I’ve always had this dream of doing a “Calvin & Hobbes” animated special and being the voice of Hobbes. He put me in touch with a local theater group, which holds regular acting and voice-over classes. I called, got signed up, and then had my professional world turned upside down.
I was introduced to Pam Carter, a stockbroker turned talent agent, turned actress, turned voice-over artist, turned director. She has a voice that would make Kathleen Turner’s “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way,” line sound like an estrogenic Peter Brady and a passion for her craft that makes Rush Limbaugh’s love of conservatism seem like nothing more than a schoolyard crush. Her credits consist of numerous radio and TV voice-overs and cartoons including the animated series Street Sharks, the latest incarnation of The Archies on Nickelodeon, and the upcoming Liberty Kids for PBS starring Walter Cronkite. (All of which were recorded at Warehouse Studios in Omaha, Nebraska. No kidding.)
The class was made up of ten men and women, only three of whom had any radio experience. The rest, including a 13-year old 7th grader, were all aspiring or working actors and over the course of the next six weeks, I found myself feeling like everything I had done over the last twenty years no longer applied. We’d read from actual radio commercial scripts, and when I delivered what I believed was a killer take, Pam would explain how I sounded too “announcery.” And I must admit, in spite of years trying to be un-announcery, when I listened to the actors deliver the same lines, she was right. The actors seemed to have a more sincere delivery that we radio guys just couldn’t seem to grasp.
I had one particular script that gave me nothing but trouble. For some reason I just couldn’t wrap my brain around a transition from one line to the next. It got so bad I actually said that I could not climb out of my safe little radio box. But, Pam would have none of that. She said that even though I was successful in my little box, there were lots of other nice boxes out there and all I had to do was try and climb into one. Next time through the script, I nailed it!
After the classes were completed, I talked to Pam and asked for an honest evaluation of where I’m good, where I’m okay, and where I need work. She says I have an instant grasp of the copy and immediately know what to do with it. I have a sense of which words and phrases to emphasize or not. But, I need to work on making the words, conversational. She believes, “Men and women in radio…have a kind of a pat read that sounds like you’re reading copy very nicely but, it’s as an announcer. It’s not as intimate.”
What?! Not as intimate?! What are you talking about, lady? I work in radio! It’s the most intimate medium. Even though there’s a listening audience of thousands, I talk to each of those thousands one on one! It’s what I do, damn it!
Or do I?
I went back and listened to some of my work before the class and compared it to things I’ve done since, and the difference is apparent. Subtly so, but it’s there. I’ve listened to others too. The spots that are “read” by announcers seem to sound like well read bedtime stories. The spots that are “performed” by actors feel more like a one-on-one conversation. Now if radio is the intimate medium, I had better be doing everything in my power to exploit that intimacy.
Are there acting classes in my future? You’d better believe it. A friend of mine once said that if you’re green you’re growing. But, if you’re ripe, you’re rotten. (I’m not kidding. He actually said that.) What he meant was, if I think that I know all there is to know about what I do, I’m done. But, if I can remain teachable and open to the possibility that I could learn something more, I’ve got a shot at making myself, and our industry, better than it was when I go into it.