MicrophoneBy Tom Richards

“There’s one sure-fire way you know you’re getting blown out,” they’d told me. “The PD walks in with the Business Manager. He fires you, then she gives you your severance options.”

Like others at the station, I’d been expecting it. New format, new PD. He’d breezed in from the other coast about a month earlier, after the previous PD had nuked the entire air staff except for one. None of the rest of us who survived felt safe, and the new wonder kid did nothing to reassure us. At the end of each day, we’d look at each other and shrug. Looks like we’re still here…for now.

Still, there’s nothing that prepares you for the shock. So sure enough, when wonder boy walked in with the business manager, it was like a little death. “Aw, not now,” I thought, “I’m working on a verrrrry important spot!” But when he looked at me with his puppy-dog eyes and said, “we’re gonna have to let you go…no, there’s no other position for you with the company,” all I wanted was to get him out of there so I could finish my spot and go home. “Could I, uh, have a little time to myself?” It was the fastest way I could think of to get him the hell out of what had been, up until that moment, my studio.

You know all the emotions—shock, fear, anger, ultimately acceptance. After 25 years in radio, the last 22 in Philadelphia, I was a man without a radio station.

If it had happened years before, as it once or twice had, I would’ve been right on the phone, lining up my next gig. But this time it was different. Grinding out audio “product” intended to sell yet more “product” to an indifferent audience failed to thrill me as it once had. So, now I knew my opportunity had come, however backhanded, for me to change my life, take hold of my future, and become my own boss. I was becoming a freelance voice talent!

The idea wasn’t new, but the feeling sure was. “Hey, I’m free! I can do things my way, build my own client list, make my own hours! Hell, I don’t have to answer to anyone but the IRS!” Of course, it’s not that simple, and I knew it. But the point was that suddenly there was no one else to blame—not a bumbling PD; not a half-baked format; not an insufficient promotion budget; not know-nothing, do-nothing consultants…none of that. My success, or failure, would depend on no one but me. A liberating, terrifying thought.

And as I thought about all the things I’d have to do to make my nascent business work, something happened that I’d never even considered: I started seeing business through the eyes of the guy who actually has something to lose. What a difference! Suddenly the PD became a visionary; the format was maybe flawed, but good enough; the budget was the best we could do with what we had at the time; the consultants became brave, live-on-the-edge entrepreneurs, risking it all for big bucks and glory. It’s amazing how a change of perspective can totally transform your status quo—because now I’d be the one taking all the risks. Like if I’m too sick to work, the work doesn’t get done, and…gulp…I don’t make money! No one’s there to be my backup. It’s just me, up there on the tightrope…trying not to fall.

Taking Inventory

So, what happens once you get past the panic attack? The first order of business is to take inventory. Actually, I’d been running it in the back of my mind for years. Voice? Better than some, worse than others, but adequate at least. Business skills? The same. Assets? Respectfully-equipped home studio: fast-enough computer, audio software, decent sound card, and a borrowed AKG 414 mic. Enough to get me going. Capital? Hmmm, I’ll have to get back to you on that one! Intangibles? A 100% supportive, helpful working wife, three great kids excited at the thought of daddy actually being able to spend some time with them, and a newly-found faith that I hadn’t been put here to be mediocre. I was here to give everything I’ve got, and that the best way to achieve it was to do voiceovers—lots of voiceovers.

Setting Goals

So I took a deep breath and plunged in by setting a basic goal, a mission statement: to support my family and verily even amass wealth by providing outstanding voice services at a fair price to anyone who uses voice talent. But what does that exactly mean? Let’s take these a step at a time.

“Support my family” means at least matching my $60k salary from the radio station. My actual goal is far beyond that, but my immediate goal was to stop the hemorrhaging and replace the radio station income.

“Amass wealth” kinda speaks for itself, don’t it?

“Providing outstanding voice services” indicates a commitment to quality, judged less by me than by my customers. Word of mouth is powerful in our business, and if I make my customers happy, they’ll tend to use me again—maybe even tell their colleagues about me. But if I don’t make them happy, they’ll likely never use me again, and you can bet they’ll mention to whoever will listen what a rotten experience they had with this new voice guy. Well, maybe not, but would you want to take that chance? Better to under-promise and over-perform. After all, just think about when you’ve been on the receiving end of outstanding service; you appreciated the attentiveness, the skill, the effortless confidence in execution. Wouldn’t you want your customers to feel that way about you? Then make it so!

“At a fair price” requires that you do some homework and check out your newfound competition, the guys already supporting themselves doing voiceovers. There’s a “market rate” that you’ll most likely want to start at. Being new, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get above-market rates. But never start below market—your customers will try to nudge you there anyway. I once had a boss who signed on a new frequency in Portland, Maine, and out of the starting gate, his rates were as high as anybody in town. Sure, he had to adjust them once he got ratings, but the point is that just because he was the new kid in town, he wasn’t going to take a back seat to anyone, and buyers respected him for it.

So, while you’re researching the rates, put some thought into where to position yourself. What’s your strength, your “money read?” Is it big and ballsy, a “voice of God” type? Or maybe “warm & fuzzy?” That’s where I usually end up, that intimate, whispery, husky delivery I developed from working in AC (read: female-oriented) radio most of my career. You need a way to describe your delivery to those who haven’t yet heard your work. Put it in familiar terms: “I’m like a young Hal Douglas” or “lighter than James Earl Jones, deeper than Joe Cipriano.” Always put it in positive terms, and avoid bad-mouthing anybody.

And finally, you’re marketing “to anyone who uses voice talent.” Who are these people, and how do I most effectively reach them? Start by rounding up the usual suspects: recording studios, ad agencies, talent agencies, casting directors, anyone who selects voice talent or who influences that decision. This will be a never-ending process as you make new contacts and sometimes lose others.

The All-important DEMO!

You’re foraging for work, and one of the primary ways of finding it is sending around your demo CD. As a RAP reader, let’s presume you’ve got the talent and the means to produce your own demo, either taking bits from work you’ve already done or custom-producing pieces yourself. If you don’t, find a reputable studio with an engineer with a good ear who’ll produce it for you. Either way, you’ve got to highlight your voice skills to your greatest advantage. Always lead with your money read; you can never be sure they’ll find it if it’s buried deeper. If you’re not sure what your money read is, play your demo for both trusted business-savvy advisors and civilians—people who aren’t experts, but who know what they like when they hear it. They can give you a perspective you never considered.

And don’t ignore the obvious. For years I resisted the “warm & fuzzy” label. I wanted to be an all-round great announcer with a bunch of styles, not just a one-trick pony. But consider this: the greatest voiceover guys are known primarily for one sound, a sound that nobody else has. You have a sound like that. What you have to do to be successful is to develop it so it becomes as distinct as your signature. That’s where a voice coach can really help. Marla Kirban in NYC is tops. Marice Tobias in LA also has a great reputation. Voicebank.net showcases some of the country’s top VO talent. Listen and see where you fit in! And while you’re at it, click Splat Imaging (www.splatimaging.com/home.htm) and check out my demo!

Keep your demo moving, with plenty of contrast. Providing quick cuts cues the listener that you’re not going to bore him, and he learns that if he doesn’t like one read, there’ll be a different one coming very soon. Include just enough to illustrate the effect or emotion you’re going for—empathy, joy, excitement, power…whatever ya got!

Here’s a great reality check: Dan O’Day and Dick Orkin’s International Radio and Creative Summit (http://danoday.com/summit.shtml). For a reasonable fee, you can spend a couple of days in Los Angeles with some top VO and creative talent and get your money’s worth by asking them your deepest, toughest questions. But be prepared; they’ll be brutally honest. If you can’t weasel your boss into sending you, send yourself. I did a few years ago and came back with the resounding feeling that this is where I belong.

Another opportunity to rub elbows with those whose attention you’re trying to get is Actors Connection in New York (http://actorsconnection.com/seminars.html), where every weeknight there’s an opportunity for a brief one-on-one with some of the top VO agents in the East. Most of Actors Connection’s offerings target actors and on-camera talent, but they also provide agents and casting directors who specialize in voiceovers. Book their seminars and bring plenty of demos and a commercial script that you really kick ass on. Talent has actually been booked from these sessions!

Workin’ the Phones

When trolling for work, consider the telephone as you would an audition. Whenever you talk to someone new, they’re making judgments on you based almost entirely on your voice. So, don’t hold back! A top voice talent who does lots of VO business in New York tells me he prospects much of his own work, even though he’s represented by a top agency. “I think the voiceover demo’s overrated. Sure, I have one, but I find that most of my jobs come from working the phones. If I make X number of calls, I know I’m going to get Y amount of work.”

Making cold calls can be difficult, but unless you have new customers throwing large sums of money at you, you’d better learn. One way is to check out your local Chamber of Commerce. They love to help new small business. See what they’ve got for you. You don’t necessarily have to join, and chances are they’re giving a seminar that could help broaden your business skills and give you an advantage. Or—dare I say it—ask someone from your sales staff. Yup. Those very people who make you grind your teeth in your sleep can actually give you some pointers in getting though to the decision-maker. There has to be at least one member of your sakes staff who you can take into your confidence over lunch or a beer after work. Find out their process for developing new business. How they get past the receptionist (and how to make him/her your ally). When it’s time to cut bait and move on. How to probe for hidden objections. Like it or not, all that sales stuff you used to turn your nose up at becomes verrrrrrrrry interesting.

To Web or Not to Web?

Lots of voice talent have built beautiful, costly web sites with demos and pictures and references and their personal history and philosophy. So far, I’ve chosen not to. Why? I haven’t yet found anyone who’s actually making money through his or her web site. It’s not an expense I can afford right now.

Where to Now?

That’s up to me…and you too. Some weeks my phone rings and I work. It makes me feel good. Other weeks it doesn’t ring so much. Then I don’t feel so good. I’ve decided it’s better to feel good than not, so I’m doing the things that make my phone ring and grow my business. When I’m not actually doing voiceovers, I’m doing things that help me continue to do voiceovers. I take every opportunity to reach more producers—get them my demo, tell them what I’ve been doing lately, see what might be on their radar screen that I could help with. There are dead ends, hot leads that turn cold, and sometimes just plain indifference. But there’s nothing like hearing the phone ring the day after the audition and the voice saying, “they want to book you for this Thursday. Are you available?” You bet your ass I am!