JV: It sounds like you do a lot of voice work every day. What do you do to keep your voice in shape and ready for the day?
Ken: Well actually, I’m suffering from some minor vocal chord stress due to the stress of the deadline-driven job we talked about and some poor voicing techniques in the past – I had tried to be the “monster truck” voice when I would read on some of the demos here, and that’s not a good idea. It caused me to suffer some mild vocal damage. The medical terms are laryngeal myasthenia, vocal fold edema and erythema. Basically my voice is fine in the morning, but by the mid-afternoon I get quite husky; the texture is gone. My vocal chords are stressing and basically not coming together to get a good vibration.
So I’m seeing a specialist in Dayton, Ohio. His name is Dr. Joseph Stimple at the Blaine Block Institute for voice analysis and rehabilitation. They looked at my vocal chords with a camera, they examined my history and my habits, and they interviewed me. The doctor determined that I needed some rehab, so I am currently doing a series of exercises, morning and night, that are strengthening my voice. They are basically stretching and contracting exercises by sustaining various musical notes with my voice. It sounds strange to do them — it bothers my kids at night when they’re trying to sleep — but I can already see the difference. He’s had me change my lifestyle to some degree. Part of my problem was dehydration; the voice needs to be hydrated to function well. And you can’t just drink water before you do a session. That won’t do it. Water doesn’t even touch your vocal chords; you’ve got to hydrate from within. So I gave up coffee and soda. The caffeine dehydrates you. I will have it on the weekends, but I’ve replaced it with water during the week. I learned that a lot of my allergy medications that I’ve taken in the past have not been helping me. Anything whose goal is to shrink tissue, like antihistamines or steroids, is necessary to alleviate nasal swelling; but they have the unfortunate side effect of also shrinking the vocal chords. So it causes them to not come together for a good vibration. Relaxation and de-stressing are also necessary for good vocal function. A simple act of stretching the neck and back muscles does wonders. I have to drive two hours to see this doctor. There’s not a voice specialist in every town. And if you don’t have one, there are some pretty good books out there that can teach you about vocal health. Anyway, my voice is getting better every day. As long as I continue my exercises, which I will do until the day I die, my voice is staying heartier into the late afternoon and evening. I’m very satisfied with it.
I mentioned my allergies, well about a year ago I was having difficulties with allergies as well as suffering from snoring and some mild sleep apnea. I had to sleep with a breathing machine called a CPAP. I decided to have surgery to help alleviate some of this because it was affecting my whole life, including my voice. I had a UPPP – short for something, don’t ask, it doesn’t matter. Basically it’s the removal of the uvula, the tonsils and part of my soft palate. At the same time I had septoplasty and turbinate surgery, which is essentially straightening out a crooked air passage in my nose and removing some nasal membranes and bone fragments that were causing some nasal blockage. It sounds like a big deal, and let me tell you, it was. I was warned that it was going to be painful, and he was not lying. It put me on my butt for over two weeks. The first seven days were excruciating pain. I was regretting every moment of having that surgery. Now, in retrospect of course, I’m glad I did it. I’m experiencing my first pollen season in my life with virtually no suffering. The apnea is gone and snoring is greatly reduced, which is good for my wife. It’s been extremely beneficial to my voice and mental state too, as you can imagine. I talk to a lot of people that have these symptoms, and they immediately want to go out and have the same thing done. I just tell them to check with their doctor and research it big-time. I did, and I came across a lot of people who’d had this done and didn’t get relief. So it’s not a sure thing. Just be smart. It’s major surgery. You have just got to be smart and do the research. In my case we had a happy ending.
JV: Sounds like you’ve become a bit of a student of the voice.
Ken: Yes, especially since I started seeing Dr. Stimple. I’ve got a long way to go and a lot to learn. It’s very fascinating to see how complex and nuanced vocal function really is. Again I highly recommend that any serious voice talent learn as much as they can about their vocal instrument. I’m currently reading a book called Make Your Voice Heard: An Actor’s Guide to Dramatic Range Through Vocal Training by Chuck Jones. You probably know this, but many people may not know that the personality of your voice has less to do with your vocal chords than you think. Vocal chords by themselves only create a buzzing sound, kind of like a kazoo. It’s the resonance of your body that creates the richness and the texture. Vocal chords, as my doctor told me, are like the strings on a violin, and your body is like the wooden frame of the violin. The best parts of the sound are created the way that the strings or the chords resonate throughout the resonating chamber. Of course the most used resonating chambers in our body are the stomach, the chest, the throat, and the nasal cavity. It’s truly fascinating when you start understanding why and how your voice works; it definitely affects your approach. I just recommend that people study as much as they possibly can.
JV: When did Clear Channel buy TourDesign, and what’s it like working for Clear Channel in this non-radio environment?
Ken: They bought it almost the day after I started working here. It was like the next week or so, and that’s going to be about six years ago. Both TourDesign and Clear Channel are great to work for, and I’m really not just saying that. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. My boss is John Shults, the COO, and Fergy, she’s the President. They are extraordinarily competent and extremely driven. The team we have is excellent; it’s truly a joy to work here. You read and hear a lot about Clear Channel. They pretty much leave us alone as long as we’re making money. We’re kind of independent, so it’s actually been quite a pleasure. I hope this is the last real job I ever have.
JV: Less is more — are you making lots of 30-second concert spots?
Ken: Yes, as a matter of fact, we have been doing that more and more lately. There’s been some resistance from some of the management teams. A lot of the artists, for one reason or another, don’t want to make available 30-second spots, but slowly but surely they’re all coming around. So, yes, typically when we do a demo, we’ll do a 60 and a 30 now.
JV: What are you learning about making 30-second concert spots?
Ken: On a large scale, we’ve done 30-second spots before in the past. When we build a TV concert spot, it’s 30 seconds. And many times, to be efficient -- it doesn’t always work -- but many times the audio for the 30-second radio spot is the same audio as the TV spot. Again we’re talking concert spots, so as long as you have time to get a good efficient creative message across up front, it’s basically music hooks and call-to-action information.
JV: What’s down the road for you in the next 5 to 10 years. Do you plan to go out on your own someday?
Ken: Sure. And I’m getting there slowly but surely. My goal is to have the power to live wherever I want to live at any moment. I want to have a studio on the beach in Grand Cayman. As far as what I’ll do, I’m not going to limit myself on the possibilities. I think that I will have a degree of success in radio imaging. I’ve done a good bit of that in the past, and I do a few stations now. I’m getting ready for a big push to get more stations. I love doing radio imaging, creating it and voicing it. It’s some of the most creative stuff I’ve ever done, and I think most production guys in radio these days, that’s what they like doing. I hope to do a lot of that. It’s also obviously a good way to be self-sufficient. Most of the radio stuff is monthly retainers. A lot of the complaints I hear from freelance guys is the lean times that they have to live through waiting for the next big gig. With radio imaging, you could build a pretty good monthly base. If you get ten or 100 stations, then you’ve got a steady monthly income.
So my goal is to build that up, the radio imaging side of things and hopefully continue to get some of the big commercial clients as well. I did a cool video game for Red Baron Pizza not too long ago. They actually ship it out inside the frozen pizza boxes – three million of them – which is kind of cool. I’ve been doing a few video games. I do narrations and lots of things, but I think probably where my bread and butter is going to be might just be radio imaging.
And as far as going out on my own, I won’t actually be on my own; I have a great business partner. My wife Patti has been the inspiration of my career and the joy of my life. Not only does she take care of all our bookkeeping and other aspects of our freelance business like creative concepts, she is also my biggest fan. I talk to so many radio guys with failed marriages because their wives felt like radio widows. Patti endured all the late nights and long weekends and Christmases when I had to work. She endured all the relocations even though we kept moving further and further away from her family and friends. She had a great spirit and attitude through it all. I am truly lucky. She understands what is needed for us to succeed. She had incredible patience while we climbed toward the top. After 17 years of marriage, I have stopped introducing her as my “first wife.” I’m pretty sure she will be my only wife — by far the biggest influence in my career and my life. By the way, we are also the very proud parents of two boys, John and Ben who are both in high school now — fortunately, both smarter than their dad. They are great kids.