Joan Baker, Voice-over Actor/Coach, New York, NY
By Jerry Vigil
This month’s RAP Interview dips into the voice-over biz, and we chat with an amazing talent and voice-over coach, Joan Baker. Joan is the author of Secrets of Voice-Over Success, and has performed hundreds of promos and commercials for TV, film and radio throughout her highly regarded career. ABC News, American Express, HBO, The New York Times, Lens Express, Sony Music, JP Morgan Chase and Showtime represent a few of the clients who regularly call upon her unique sound. And Joan also has it going on live! This past December, she provided the live voice announcements for the “Museum of the Moving Image Salutes Will Smith” to be aired on Bravo TV.
Prior to authoring Secrets Of Voice-Over Success, Joan built a lucrative following among people (actors & corporate executives) seeking training in the art of voice-over acting. Nancy Grace and the late Johnnie Cochranare counted among her high profile students. Today she travels the country as a lecturer and seminar leader through a variety of arts institutions. She’s the creator of “Make Millions With Your Voice,” a very success seminar through the Learning Annex.
As if her VO acting and coaching career isn’t enough, in 2001 she co-founded and now oversees business development and public relations for Manhattan-based advertising firm Push Creative. And her contributions have not gone unnoticed. She won three PROMAX/BDA Awards for two TV campaigns she co-produced for SPIKE TV, a Gold Promax/BDA, two Excellence in Multi-Cultural Marketing Awards, and two Telly Awards for a series of spots she co-produced for Black History Month.
In honor of her late father, James P. Baker, who passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, Joan contributes all royalties from the sale of Secrets of Voice-Over Success to the Alzheimer’s Association.
If you’re thinking about venturing into the VO business on a large scale, or if you’re in it and want to push yourself further, this month’s interview is a must read. Be sure and check out Joan’s VO demo on this month’s RAP CD!
JV: Tell us how you got into the voice-over business.
Joan: I had no idea that voice-over was actually a career. I had been living in New York for about 10 years and had been pursuing a dance career, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. So I was kind of at a low point. I had just done this cable show — and this was before cable was cable — and I was on camera and doing a character that went into a nightclub and kind of gossiped about the different people in the nightclub life. And I did this in a character voice, so I guess I was already on the road to voice-over.
I happened to look at Backstage, which is an actor’s magazine and newspaper where you look for auditions, and there’s all kinds of ads. I spotted an ad for voice-over and it was taught by a woman named Joni Robbins. I thought, “You know, I’ve had goals my whole life. I think I want to do something where I don’t have to put a goal to it, and just have fun.” I was always someone that could do cartoon and character voices, and without really knowing what voice-over was or entailed, I took four lessons from Joni, who happened to be a teacher who had an active and successful career in voice-overs. Then we went to a recording studio, and I did almost a three minute demo at that time, and it was mostly all cartoon and character voices -- a couple of them were my regular voice.
After I did the demo, I started at the six top voice-over agencies in the city — and I happened to already know who the top people were since I was already pursuing trying to get an agent for other means. So the first day I went to six of the top agencies, and three of them wanted to sign me based on my tape. I was truly stunned because at that point I had not been very successful. Though I was an avid studier, I had never quite been successful in terms of making money in show business. So to me it was a real deep victory that to this day I will never forget.
I ended up signing with Don Buchwald and Associates at that time. The agent who I guess discovered me said, “We only take people at Don Buchwald and Associates that make six figures a year.” She said, “I can’t remember the last time we took on a newcomer, but I just have this feeling that you’re going to be very, very successful.” I had the feeling that she was someone that didn’t say that too lightly.
Deep in my heart it released the biggest smile because I had never heard that from anyone. If I was really in show business to get validation, I didn’t get it until that point. I’d always just had a belief in myself, but at the same time there was no guarantee whatsoever in any way, shape or form on any path, to make it. I was just truly, truly, deeply happy. It was like a healing moment. So from that point on, in a sense I kind of set out to not just be successful but to really do what I felt like I was meant to do, and that was to have a career in show business that had an impact. I got signed in 1981 on Valentine’s Day. Isn’t that special? From that point on I truly set out to make myself known, but known for my work as well as my personality.
So that was the ticket, and like I said, I didn’t have a goal because I was someone that had goals but they never seemed to materialize in the real world. I was someone that did my goals, did what I planned to do, but in the real world it never caught on fire. So I was truly frustrated by the time I got to Backstage and saw that ad. That’s why I said, “I’m not going to do anything with a goal now. I’m just going to enjoy learning this and see if I can get an agent to have interest in me.” I thought maybe I’d get sent out freelance, because that’s all I had known. I was so beyond getting a signed contract with an agent. Just to get out more was my goal, if I was to have one, and it went way beyond that.
So for the first 13 years I auditioned, I got jobs, and I really networked a lot. I made a lot of connections and I have a lot of relationships with people in the industry — and all kinds of people in the industry, not just a casting director or an agent. My goal was to really meet everyone — not that I would develop relationships with everyone, but I really wanted to meet people and enjoy them and work.
JV: Do you remember the first job you got, and that first BIG job?
Joan: Well, I remember the first job, which was different from the first big job. The first job I got was three months after I had signed with Don Buchwald. I got a job doing an industrial. This was kind of funny because I was kind of nervous and all, but I go there and I was like someone in a shopping mall. There was all this atmosphere around me while I’m speaking. You could hear people walking and people laughing in the background. So I was recording, and I guess it was no more than a paragraph. We recorded it 43 times. But I didn’t know anything; I wasn’t judging myself at all. I walked out of the booth and the guy was very nice. Also, he was directing me in many different ways, but at the same time, he was trying to get it right. So when I walked out of the booth and was talking to him I said, “You probably don’t even realize this but… you’re actually my first job.” He said, “No, I realized it.” But again, I wasn’t judging myself. I laughed with him. If anything I thanked him for taking the time.
I think my first big job was after that when I booked an Oil of Olay commercial. At the time I was working at a job where I arranged medical conferences with doctors. It was like four hours a day — a part time job so that it could leave me time to audition and book jobs and go to them and stuff. The agent that signed me called me up and told me, “Joan, you booked an Oil of Olay national commercial. It’s like one of the top things that you could book at this point in time.” And when you audition, if you book it, you go in afterwards and you do the session; but they said my audition was so good that they didn’t even need me to come in for the session. They paid my audition as the session fee.
JV: So what ran through your mind when you saw that first big check?
Joan: I called my agent and I asked if I could quit my job. She told me, “Actually, no.” She said, “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” which was great advice because you just normally think when you book a national commercial, that’s it. The commercial ran for two years, and I made a lot of money off that commercial and enjoyed it so much because I felt like finally in my life my talents were creating my own abundance and prosperity. I could pay my rent and pay my bills. I can’t even begin to tell you — I was beyond happy, beyond ecstatic, and truly grateful.
JV: You’ve been a voice coach for about 12 years now. What led you to that area of the business?
Joan: Actually my whole life people have told me, “You would make a really great teacher.” I didn’t even know what they were talking about to be honest. I had a hostess job at a restaurant, and I had been there for a long time. I arranged medical conferences with doctors in the day, and then in the evening I hosted at a restaurant a couple times a week. In between that I was doing voice-overs for a show that was on Fox — it was a talk show. I ended up doing these promos for six months because the show was a trial show, and it didn’t get picked up after that.
So I was making pretty good money, but I also thought I should keep my part time jobs because you never know. Anyway, I hated my job so much at the end of two years that I ended up getting fired. At first I was upset at my boss for a second, and then I realized he did me a favor because I truly didn’t like it anymore. It was a sports bar and it just got on your nerves after a while. Sometimes the people were rude. It was actually a great hot spot restaurant, but after a certain time in the evening it just got too crazy and I got harassed a lot and there was no protection.
So I ended up getting fired. At that time I did not know what I was going to do, and I always felt like my money was going to start running out because the commercials could end and the show could end. I got a call from my acting school, and they asked me if I would be interesting in teaching a voice-over class in their acting curriculum. I had an acting class there, so they knew that I was doing voice-overs. They said, “There’s only about five students in the class, but would you like to do that?” I said, “Yeah,” because I felt like I had no choice at that moment. I felt like I should take it. Lo and behold I ended up loving it.
There I was, with those five students, and me teaching them what I was learning, as I was learning it. It’s not like I went in as this expert that has been in the business for 20 years -- I was actually actively creating my career, actively experiencing the highs and lows of auditioning a job, and I could go into the class and tell them what I had learned that week, what had happened that week, and it ended up being not just an incredible experience for them because they were getting a visceral experience of the industry, but also it ended up being a real learning tool for myself because I was able to be objective when something weird would happen at an audition. And maybe I felt like an idiot when I walked out, but when I’d go to my class and tell them about it, we could all laugh about it. We could all learn about it. I could learn about myself.
It ended up being the most incredible experience, and I realized how much I love to share. I also loved the fact that I could inspire people. That’s why I’ve continued teaching, and it’s been out of my choice to teach as opposed to a necessity. Though at times it definitely came in helpful, it was more because it really was something that rang true for me to do.
JV: What kind of students make the best voice-over artists these days? Is there a preferred type of voice?
Joan: When you say, “What kind of students,” I think of their attitudes as opposed to their voice because in voice-over today, any voice is marketable. And any of the top voice-over people will tell you that unless you have a serious regionalism or unless you have a serious mouth issue like a lisp or something that you need to overcome, which can totally be done, all of our voices are marketable. It really is in how you deliver the copy, how you make the words pop off the page, how you sift the message through you and your personality. That’s what makes an incredible voice-over artist. The voice is like tenth on the list.
JV: This is probably some of the stuff that you relate in your book The Secrets of Voice-Over Success.
JV: Tell us about the book. What can we find inside?
Joan: Because I interviewed some of the most legendary people in the industry today as well as some of the top working talent, I think when people read the book they’re able to see where they fit into the industry, because when you’re reading peoples’ stories, the questions behind the narrative of the stories are, what were peoples’ fears, what did they have to overcome, what were their victories, how did they become successful, how did they develop relationships with their agents that propelled them into a career, how they broke in.
It’s literally all the ingredients that one goes through to create a successful career for themselves. So when people read it, you really get a visceral experience of the voice-over industry that has been a mystery for decades. You kind of get where you would fit in, as well as a guide as to what you need to do to get training, where to go for training and how to do a demo tape… the basics. You definitely get, like a magnet to shavings, what you need to do. And you see how you fit in — and I mean like a thumbprint, not like robots where you get a set of instructions like, “First do this, then do this, now do this…,” because everyone is very different and everyone in the book is different. Everyone that comes to voice-overs… we all come from different areas. So any one person can read the book and resonate with any one story, two stories, three stories or as a whole. It’s very uplifting and very encouraging, as well as very candid and truthful.
JV: You interviewed nearly 20 major VO stars in the industry. What common thread did you find amongst them, industry related and non-industry related?
Joan: The common threads I got were that we all learned that this is a business. Voice-over truly is a business, and you truly have to be a one-man or one-woman show to make it in voice-over. You really have to know how to market yourself. You really have to be willing to go out on a limb and take risks to get what you want. Whether it’s get a job immediately or get the job eventually, you really have to go out on a limb. It really takes something to be a voice-over performer — in terms of really putting yourself out there, in takes something internally. All of these people did that, all of them. Whether they knew that’s what they were doing, or didn’t get that they knew that’s what they were doing, we all ended up doing that to an extraordinary degree.
JV: “Going out on a limb” can conjure up fears of failure. How should one approach those fears?
Joan: By doing a makeover in your mind about what constitutes failure. See, the thing is you are going to go out there and get “rejected” many, many, many, many, many, many times. But if you really look at it, and you keep going through the experience, you actually start to realize there really isn’t any such thing as rejection. Not everyone is suited for the job. It’s like when you go and choose a nice suit. You’re not rejecting the other suits. You’re choosing one in that moment in time that works for you, but you’re not rejecting the other ones. It’s like you end up doing a 360 degree flip in your mind about what is so common jargon and commonly said like it’s accepted, that that ends up really not being true at all. It’s like carrying around a lie, and you realize that the lie is a lie and you don’t have to carry it around anymore. When you talk to everyone in that book, they have the most amazing attitude about “rejection” — the most amazing.
JV: What’s the story on talent agents these days? Are they a must if you want to make some good money? Are there more good agents to choose from?
Joan: I think it depends on what market you’re in because L.A. has an enormous amount of talent agencies, and New York has a lot, too. But there’s a finite number in terms of top talent agencies that get the pick of the crop jobs that would make you enough money to have a career. There’s tons of agencies, but the kind of money you might make wouldn’t necessarily lead to a career, but when you go with the top talent agencies, that’s when you really have a shot at making a career because the kind of jobs you would get would make you the kind of money that you could eventually let go of whatever your day job is and do what you love to do, whether it’s voice-over, or maybe you want to create a production company, or whatever it may be.
So I think if you really want to have a career in voice-over, you will eventually need to be with a top talent agency. There’s just no question about it, but it’s really who ends up believing in you for whatever reason, or your chemistry ends up being a chemistry that’s dynamic — it creates an impact for you and for them. That’s not going to be everyone, but eventually that will come along. When it does, do not ignore it.
JV: What about someone just breaking into the VO business. Should they go out and look for one of these top agents right off the bat?
Joan: Well, if you’re coming from a smaller market -- let’s just say you live in Connecticut or you live in Massachusetts or you live in areas where the market’s smaller -- I would say really get invested in the market that you’re in and work as much as you can in that market, so that when you go to a bigger market like Los Angeles or New York, which are the top two markets in the United States, you will understand how to approach a top agency. You will have work under your belt, so that you can feel competent when you go in there that you know what you’re doing.
The problem is that when people don’t have any experience -- in voice-over you could actually have no experience and get jobs — they go to a top talent agency and they don’t know how to act; they don’t know how to behave; they’re so insecure and so scared that somehow people are going to find out whatever, like whatever that fear is, that they end up sabotaging themselves.
So, a first impression is a lasting impression. That’s why I say take your time a bit and learn the business, learn the industry, learn the craft as well as your voice beforehand. There’s plenty of work you can do before you get a top talent agent. But then when you get to the top talent agency stage, you will be ready so you won’t sabotage the moment when you’re talking to these agents, so that you have something to talk about, so that they can see that you understand the industry. The only reason why I’m saying that is so that you are not intimidated by the experience because that’s what going to sabotage it, not the fact that you don’t know anything.
JV: Radio is still filled with people cursed with that radio voice, and you work with people from radio in your coaching business. What’s key in getting out of that radio sound?
Joan: It’s more a major concern for radio people than any other type of voice person that breaks into voice-over. It’s because there seems to be this kind of pattern that’s etched into a radio person’s voice when they’re delivering on radio on a radio station. This is the key: in voice-over, you are actually speaking to one person. So when you’re reading copy, you’re going to focus on one person — and not just any non-descript person, but a person that you know in your life, somebody you already have a relationship with. That is going to assist you coming out of that vocal habit that sounds like it’s more detached. You want to sound like you’re attached. Radio people tend to have that quality where they don’t sound like they’re attached to what they’re saying. They don’t sound like they’re relating to a human. That’s why when you go into voice-over, you have to really be specific when you’re reading copy, and it should be directed to someone that you know in your life, that you already have a relationship to that is relevant to what the copy is dictating.
Also, it’s not just talking to one person. The thing about voice-over is it’s the art of subtlety; it’s the art of nuance. In radio, I think the tendency is everything kind of sounds the same, sifting through that one quality in the voice. The quality of the voice is amazing, but it doesn’t have inflections necessarily, and it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from the heart. In voice-over you have to sound like you’re thinking and feeling and expressing in that moment at that time, so that it ends up sounding spontaneous, but really coming from your heart or your thoughts.
I also say if you observe people in conversation — see how their body is and how it relates to what they’re saying, their physicality, how they physical-ize what they’re saying, see how their thought process is and their facial expressions — that’s something that you also bring into the booth when you’re delivering copy.
I’m going to say this, too. Most copy is written very announcer-ish, but it’s our job as a voice-over performer to turn those words into a human being having an experience. But most of the copy -- I’d say 95% of copy — is not written conversational. It’s written very announcer-like. We have to make it sound like our own.
JV: And the task there is to talk to one person?
Joan: Talk to one person. If the script is written in such a way that you can talk to your best friend, then you are going to put your best friend on the page. After so many years it’s like that kind of dissipates; it’s not something I end up saying in my head in a booth — “I’m going to talk to my best friend” — but certainly I did when I was learning the most, really trying to get the skill under my belt. This is how teachers teach as well. You talk to one person. You make it very specific and intimate. You don’t need a lot of volume in front of the microphone. As a matter of fact, that’s also part of the radio announcer voice -- when you add a lot of volume it actually takes away the nuance and subtleties of the voice and the richness of a voice in a conversation.
JV: What obstacles seem to be the ones that keep most people from doing well in the voice-over business?
Joan: Their own obstacles. It’s not about obstacles outside. It’s all obstacles inside. Most people have a really deep preconceived notion of how the business is, and they set up their own barrier against that. So they’ve already shot themselves in the foot before they’ve even done anything. I’ve been teaching for 12 years now. It has been maybe 1% of the people I’ve worked with — and it’s probably been hundreds — that is open minded, that understands that they’re new to this and that they’re just going to take what they’re getting in class and as best they can apply it and be playful. Most people walk in and they already have this tight notion about voice-overs and about voice-over people and about there’s only the few that do the jobs. It really isn’t true. There are many people that do jobs. It’s not just the small group. Now maybe the small group has been doing it for years and they work consistently, but I know many people in voice-over. So people have this really tight preconceived notion about the industry as well as talent agents, then they react to those notions like it’s true, and they already walk in at a deficit. That’s how people hold themselves back, not any other way.
JV: You’ve had some celebrities as students, including Nancy Grace and the late Johnny Cochran. As you watched them after their training with you, what are some of the things that you taught them that you were able to see manifest itself in their work?
Joan: With Nancy Grace, I worked a little bit on her voice in general because at the time she had a thick Southern accent. I was hired to work with her on that a bit and I did, but I also thought that part of her charm was that accent. But perhaps lessened a bit, more people could understand her because she has a lot of energy. She was an incredible student by the way.
Johnny’s vocal pattern was that he was a very fast talker. For a courtroom that’s fine, but in a television scenario, that might not work. I worked with him on promoting his show. He was on camera promoting his show, and I promoted it voice-over wise. He knew nothing about television. Most people think, “Oh, well if you’re a lawyer in a courtroom why couldn’t you be on television?” It’s a whole different medium. I worked with him for almost three years, partly because he really understood the value of education. He made himself putty in my hands. There was absolutely no ego. To me he was one of the best students I ever worked with because there was no resistance on his part to learn and to eat up everything I had to teach him, which was new to his ears and a whole different world.
At the time when he had his show, people at Court TV would say to me throughout the time I worked with him how incredible he was, how flexible he was, how much he understood what he was doing and how much more confident he was in what he was doing, not this person walking down the street or being a lawyer, but I mean in terms of reading copy.
I used to get tapes from ABC News and we’d analyze Barbara Walters. I had tapes of Barbara Walters reading her promotion copy for 20/20. A lot of stars do their own on-air promotion. Sometimes they do it voice-over, like Oprah does her own promos. I was able to get tapes from ABC and analyze what they were doing when they were promoting their show, and I’d work on it with Johnny but through his personality. I’m very personality oriented, and I’m not like a cookie cutter. I really love people’s personalities, so I like sifting the work through their personalities. And whatever tension is holding them back, I work with those tensions as well so that they can become more relaxed with their tension as opposed to stifling it or stuffing it down like it’s not there.
So I would say with both of them that ease, relaxation, a more clean focus, as well as learning things vocally, created a confidence that came forward. They were already stars, but we created a confidence in what they were doing.
JV: Describe the perfect VO demo.
Joan: A little more than a minute. Snippets of your regular speaking voice, and snippets of different spots that showcase your different points of view, your different moods in terms of reading the copy. And as long as you get the product in, each spot needs to only be eight to 10 seconds, maybe 12 seconds. That’s it, in a little over a minute, but get the diversity in. One spot might be very upbeat. The next spot might be very sensual. The next spot might be like you’re talking to your girlfriend — very candid, very natural. You showcase your different points of view because that’s the thing about copy —what you’re bringing is a point of view or moods or intentions on how to deliver the message. So you create a diverse eight seconds and then the next spot is a completely different eight seconds of you, and then a completely different 10 seconds of you, for a little over a minute. That’s the cream of the crop.
JV: What trends have you noticed in the VO business over the last five years or so?
Joan: So much has changed in terms of technologies, like MP3-ing your demo to an agent as opposed to sending it in the mail. Things have gotten much more technology driven. It really suits the voice-over industry too. Now people can have their studios in their home, or like me, I have it in my office because I don’t really work from my home. I have a boutique advertising agency with my husband, and it’s not convenient for me to go home, so I have a studio at our office. So, of anything that can change and has changed the industry of voice-over, it’s definitely technology.
JV: Are you a geek when it comes to processing and microphones and things like that, or do you let somebody else pretty much set that up for you?
Joan: I am not a geek. I wish I was a geek, and probably as time goes on I will become more and more of the geek, but I really truly love sound engineers. They’re like when you go to a good dentist or a good surgeon. To me they’re like the plastic surgeons of voice-over. I completely trust sound engineers and I respect them, so I’d like to let them do what they need to do, and I meld myself with that.
JV: Where can one get your book?
Joan: You can go to Sentient Publications.com. You can also go to Amazon.com. You can also go to BarnesandNoble.com or most any book store near you. With some independent ones, you might have to order it, so then it might be easier to go to Amazon, but they’re in all the large bookstore chains.
Also, the proceeds from Secrets of Voice-Over Success go to the Alzheimer’s Association. My father has a family fund now on the Alzheimers.org site. It’s under Family Fund and it’s the James P. Baker Fund, if anyone would like to check it out, but all the proceeds do go to Alzheimer’s.
JV: You do seminars too, don’t you?
Joan: I do. I’m going to be doing a Learning Annex seminar called “Make Millions With Your Voice.” This seminar has two parts. In the first part, I interview a top voice-over agent, casting director, and producers, and I ask them candid questions like how do I pursue you, what should I put on a tape, literally all the questions that everyone wants to know but they don’t really know to ask. So the first part is with the top professionals in the industry. The second part is with all the people in my book. There’s a Learning Annex that I’ll be doing in Los Angeles, February 20th which is a Tuesday, from a quarter to 7:00 to 9:30. If you want to get more information, you’d have to call the Learning Annex in Los Angeles or go on the website, which is easier. I’m also doing one in New York on March 27th — different panel but same protocol. I’ve been doing it now for two years and they’ve been extremely successful and very informative and inspiring.
JV: Any parting thoughts on voice-over for our readers?
Joan: First, I would say in voice-over you really need an objective ear. It’s really hard to go in and pick up copy and read it and critique it when it’s just you, even if you have sound equipment because it’s still you. I would say to work with a coach, and to work with a coach that already has a career in the industry because there are so many changes that happen with the trends in voice-over — like how to read copy — and they’re subtle and they’re small, and sometimes they’re not, but the thing is, that will make a difference on your reel when an agent hears it. They’ll know when a read is dated and when one is current. So I say, call any voice-over agency in your area, I mean the top ones, and just ask who they would recommend as a coach. That is the key. You don’t really want to work with someone that’s maybe outside of the business but they do it for a living, because they’re going to miss the trends. You really want to work with a coach that is already active in voice-over. And you’re going to work with them on what is called the “No Read Read” or “Conversational” because that is across the board and where it’s at.