Zeus, The Voice, Cheraw, South Carolina
By Jerry Vigil
Chances are, you’ve heard the voice of Zeus. Currently serving over 100 radio stations and television network affiliates, Zeus has carved a nice piece of the voiceover pie in a relatively short period of time. And if that sounds like a lot of stations to be dealing with regularly, you’re right. In fact, Zeus finally had to build a small studio at his vacation home to keep up with the demand. Now that’s a good thing. This month’s RAP Interview gets the inside story on this successful VO talent, who has firmly planted himself among radio’s top imaging VO talents. Zeus shares some of his tips to success while living the good life in a little town of 10,000 people. Some of his work is featured on this month’s RAP CD.
JV: Tell us how you got the bug to get into this business and where it all started.
Zeus: I was your typical radio gypsy. I got started at 18, worked as a part-timer at ‘BCY in Charlotte. That’s where “John Boy and Billy” started. John was doing mornings, and Billy was the Production Director. Bill started coming in to John’s studio in the mornings, and they started rapping, shooting the bull, and it exploded. They just had a natural click, but I think that was even before I got there as a part-timer. My first job was to run Casey Kasem and John Landers and push buttons, and I would “play radio” in audition while running the shows. We were a top 40 station and I would have everything from Joe Walsh and the James Gang to Black Sabbath going on in my own little rock and roll show on the audition channel.
Then I would go in the prod studio after I got off my shift and play, and I would submit stuff to Jack Daniel, who was my PD there. Jack’s been one of the few guys that I’ve ever known that’s been able to work his entire radio career in one market, which was Charlotte. He came up through the old Z100 ranks, which became The Fox, where Chris Corley got started, where I got started, and John Boy and Billy. I think Jack just heard something in me as a youngster, but at the same time, Jack was honest enough to say to me, “Man, this is Charlotte. You’re 18 years old. You’ve got to go to a small market and you’ve got to get your feet wet.” And that’s what I did, I went to a little 1,000 watt light bulb in Cheraw, South Carolina, a 1,000 watt day-timer, and I worked there for about two years.
After that my career exploded. I went to the little town of Sanford in North Carolina and spent about a year there, then I went to Raleigh, Charlotte, Augusta, Atlanta and just worked my way up.
JV: Were you doing on air and production during most of this time?
Zeus: At the time, yeah, but my last couple of stops were as an off-air Production Director or PD. My last stop was Myrtle Beach. I was running a station for Bob Chrysler, who used to be a consultant with Burkhart-Douglas; he was their main rock guy. I was PD. Actually, Bob kind of discovered Corley and I together. We both owe him our career, at least I feel like I do. Bob just heard the gift in us and said, “You kids can do much better than just being an afternoon jock.”
JV: And he was referring to the voice business?
Zeus: Yes. And Myrtle Beach was the smallest market I had worked in a while, but I got to learn a lot. I even got to learn a lot of stuff about budgets, which I had never done, which a lot of PDs in this day and time, especially if they work for Clear Channel, have to go through. It was a good learning experience.
I didn’t work as much in the business as a lot of guys. I got started at VOs rather young. I think I was 28 or 29 when I started doing VOs fulltime.
JV: So, you did radio for about ten years before you got out and started doing voiceover fulltime.
Zeus: Yes, and that was about 13 or 14 years ago.
JV: How did you break away from the fulltime radio gig? Had you already acquired an ample list of freelance clients?
Zeus: No. I was doing some local spots, but it was Brian Lee who helped me get really started. At the time, Brian owned Advantage Productions. Now, you hear him all over NBC, and we’re both rep’d by Atlas. But at the time, Brian produced my first demo, and he was very instrumental and very helpful in getting me going. He produced my first couple of demos, and from there I started marketing, and I got lucky. It just exploded. I was certainly lucky, but I also think I had a sound that at the time was unique. Now I wonder how unique that sound is anymore, but at the time — 12, 13 years ago — it was unique for the radio industry.
JV: How would you describe that style?
Zeus: Oh, that’s a hard question. I think sometimes it came across as mean. Now that I’m crossing over into network television stuff, I’m having to learn how to get out of that meanness – I hate to call it mean though. It’s more of just a growl. And I think at the same time you can have a smile with a growl. That’s hard to explain.
I get auditions from Atlas, and I’ll get the directions for the audition; they’ll list every adjective possible — and this doesn’t necessarily come from Atlas; this may come from whoever’s requesting the audition. But sometimes it can be, “We want a guy with a growl and yet, a smile, and warmth, and happiness….” Okay. You’ve sent my brain in five different directions. What do you want?
JV: Are you doing strictly voiceover work, or are you still doing some production?
Zeus: No, I’ve got some guys that I sub that stuff out to. I’m just doing the VOs.
JV: Do you have any favorite producers out there who are putting the final touches on your voice tracks?
Zeus: One would definitely be Bob Schmidt. He’s the Creative Director at my LA station, KLAC. Bob’s very creative, very smart, and I love Bob’s youth. He’s young. I keep telling him he’s 21, but I think he’s finally gotten to like 24 or 25. But he hears stuff that an old guy like me doesn’t hear anymore, and he brings a humorous aspect to it.
I’ve always loved stuff out of the box. One thing I’ve always heard from clients is — especially from some of my rock stations — “We wind up airing your outtakes more than the stuff we wrote because it’s funnier.” I had a kid in this one market who was listening to me on ‘ZZO in Allentown back in the early days of streaming. He said, “Man, I was listening to you on ‘ZZO in Allentown, how come I don’t get those funny outtakes from you like they get?” I said, “Well kiddo, all you ever write for me is, today’s killer classics or yesterday’s killer classics and tomorrow’s best new rock,” or whatever. “You give me the standard stuff. You give me no reason to go out of the box.” And he went, “Oh.” I said, “You’ve got to spark me. I’m sitting there reading for 20-something stations a day, and some days it’s hectic. So you’ve got to spark my imagination for me to go out of the box for you.”
JV: Your services include voiceover for imaging and you mentioned network television. What other areas have you gone into?
Zeus: I never thought my career would take this direction, but I’ve been doing some narration stuff. I’ve done several narrations for the Smithsonian Network. One of them you can see on my new website; it’s called Big Blue, which was about the big blue whale.
Sometimes as a voice guy you get niched — you get niched as a promo guy or a rock guy. Take a guy like John Willyard. John’s always been niched as a country guy, though he’s branched out recently. So you get niched in a format; however, a lot of us can go in a lot of different directions. But I think all of us have our separate expertise too.
JV: You got into voiceover fulltime right around the time of deregulation. How did this impact you? Obviously there were technical changes, but how did other things change for you?
Zeus: I got started toward the latter end of all that. When I first got started, we were still sending stuff out on 2-track reel. That’s right, and I had to buy one of the last dinosaur 2-tracks – which I wound up selling after it collected dust for a couple of years.
The conglomeration of radio has made things tougher, and I’ve taken some hits because of it. I’ve certainly felt the corporate budget cuts. But thankfully there’s been things on the other end; my TV affiliates and network stuff has picked up nicely.
JV: In the voiceover world where the guy-next-door voice has basically taken charge, there’s still a large call for the ballsy and/or gravelly announcer voice from decades ago. What’s your take on that? Is it the voice of authority that programmers are still looking for? Do you think listeners respond to that?
Zeus: I think it’s always going to be there. I think there’s always going to be a demand for a commanding voice. I hate to phrase it as the voice of God; maybe it’s almost the voice of dad. Like when my dad was pissed, when that left eyebrow went up, we knew he meant business. I think that comes across in a voice too, and I think it’s a way of establishing things.
One interesting thing that’s shown up in some research done by different agencies that I’ve been with, has been that females, no matter how sweet or how great they may sound, do not punch through the clutter when it comes to imaging. That showed in a couple of focus groups that I’ve been aware of. In one that was done several years ago, they pulled 100 people in from all walks of life, just off a random mailing list. They brought them into a rather nice restaurant, served them cocktails for anybody that wanted cocktails, served them lunch, and then they were played snippets from the agency’s demo list, very quick snippets. Then they were asked to jot down anything they could remember — and this was from like a two-minute sampling of all the talents. None of the females got hits, and three of the guys got hits, and that was it.
JV: Tell us about your studio setup. You have two studios now, so let’s start with the one in Cheraw.
Zeus: Yes, the first one is at our little house in Cheraw. As far as I know, I’ve got the only ISDN line in town. Cheraw is a little town of about 10,000 people. It’s tiny, but a great town. I don’t have to fight traffic, and there are a lot of great guys at the country club that like to play golf and play poker — a nice lifestyle.
My studio is built adjacent to our garage. It’s a big room, probably about 12 by 24. I’ve got a La-Z-Boy out there, and a little refrigerator, and a wide screen TV. It’s my doghouse. I’ve got all my guitars out there, my drum machines and my other toys.
JV: But it’s primarily used for doing voiceovers, correct?
Zeus: Oh, yeah. Nobody’s hiring me to play a guitar. As far as VO equipment goes, I’m on Sennheiser 416 shotgun mics, in both studios. Most voice guys, from what I can tell, after the Neumann’s and everything else, have gone to those because they’re so quite. You can gate them and they pick up every bit of your voice, but they really don’t pick up much else. You don’t hear much room noise. I can sit there in my Cheraw studio and leave the outside door open; birds will be chirping in the background and clients don’t hear that stuff.
JV: And you’ve got the Sennheiser going into what?
Zeus: A Symetrix 528.
JV: Do you come out of the 528 right into your computer, or do you send it through a mixer and do some other stuff with it?
Zeus: It goes through a board, but then it goes directly into an MP3 program where I don’t have to convert it. It’s called Audio Record Wizard. It’s very inexpensive, but you don’t have to mess with file conversions if you’re going to MP3. It records automatically into an MP3, and you can choose your bit parameters and all that.
JV: Do you do much, or any tweaking with the 528 before you go into this MP3 recorder, maybe some EQ?
Zeus: None. I set my buttons years ago and I’ve left them alone. It gets maybe a little bit of compression, but what I try to send to clients is audio that’s as fat, and as dense, and as clean as it can be. And then they can do what they want to do with it. I’ve had a lot of clients from large to small markets tell me that my stuff is easier to get to print than most other voice guys they’ve ever dealt with — because it’s clean, and it’s fat, and it’s dense.
JV: That’s the way TV people like it too.
Zeus: Yeah, even the WWE has asked me to turn off any processing because they just want to get it totally clean so they can then do what they want to do with it.
JV: Do you have a sound booth or do you just have a nicely soundproofed area?
Zeus: The big studio at the house is complete Auralex. There’s carpet on the floor, but all the walls are Auralex and the ceiling is Auralex.
JV: And then you recently put together a little recording setup at your beach house. Is that pretty much a mirror in terms of equipment?
Zeus: Yes it is. Other than downsized, it’s identical — same mic, same processor, everything. This studio is actually the walk-in closet of our master bedroom, which is about eight by ten feet or something like that. It’s plenty. I hear some guys talk about the booth they go in and the booths they keep in their home studios, and I would almost be claustrophobic in something that small. The couple of times I’ve been up in New York and been at Atlas and had to read stuff in their booth, it’s literally like walking into a phone booth. I almost was uncomfortable because it was so tiny. Maybe I have a touch of claustrophobia.
JV: This room in your beach house was put together pretty recently. Are you spending a lot of time at your beach house these days, or is the demand for your work just gotten to the point where you can’t get away without having a studio around?
Zeus: Both. We are spending a lot of time here, but it got to the point where if we wanted to do anything more than a Saturday or Sunday, I had to have a studio. So now I can work at both places.
JV: And I hear you have a boat, too! Planning on a laptop studio on the boat anytime soon?
Zeus: No, no. If I can’t get away on the boat, I can’t get away.
JV: What’s a typical day like for you?
Zeus: I tell you, in this business, you never know about the average day. One day can be balls to the wall, one day you can be just slammed, and then one day you can sit around twiddling your thumbs. You never know. If you get into this business, you have to be on call, you have to be available, especially once you get into doing TV affiliates and all that stuff because your contracts require you to be around during sweeps. You have to be available, and that’s one thing your clients depend on. I think that’s one thing that’s been responsible in part for my longevity — my clients never have to wait for stuff. I’ve heard horror stories about other voice guys whose clients waited days or even two or three weeks to get stuff back. I usually turn stuff around in the same day, worse case, the next day. But you never know from day to day how busy it’s going to be.
JV: What are some of the bigger challenges that you face on a regular basis?
Zeus: As long as I’ve been at this, my biggest challenge is flipping that radio face to the TV face. That’s my biggest challenge and that’s a hard thing to do. It makes all the difference in the read.
JV: Who are some of the voiceover people that you admired as you were honing your skills?
Zeus: Joe Kelly, first off. And Joe and I have become tremendous friends since those days. Of course, La Fontaine. Certainly, and probably first and foremost, Ernie Anderson. But then again, those are all the big voice guys.
JV: Have you pursued any voice coaching or classes to help keep your skills sharp?
Zeus: Probably not as much as I should have in the last year or so. I did do some coaching sessions with Don Morrow. Don came up through the acting ranks. I bet you he’s probably in his early 80’s now, but the guy goes to the Y every day and works out. Last picture I saw of Don, he looked like a spring chicken. But he came up through the acting ranks, did a bunch of off Broadway and Broadway, everything from extras in movies to all kinds of stuff, but also did a bunch of VOs.
Don tells a story about being up for the gig that Ed McMahon got, and he kept telling his agent, “Get me a game show.” This was back in the ‘50s, “Get me a game show. Game shows are big right now. Get me a game show.” So his agent was searching around for a game show and all of a sudden his agent called him and said, “Man, it’s not a game show, but it’s a new talk show going to come on at night and they want a sidekick. They’ve already picked their host, but they want a sidekick.” Don said, “No, I told you I don’t want that stuff; I want a game show.” He wanted to be Bob Barker. He met Ed McMahon in a restaurant in LA several years later and Ed said, “Don, I can’t thank you enough for turning that gig down.”
Very interesting old fellow, and I did do some coaching sessions with him. I was paying for like an hour, and I think two and a half hours went by. We were on the Zephyr when Don was coaching me, and he was just so into it and so loving it. You know, it’s the passion for what you do.
And if I could advise anybody out there aspiring to do anything, no matter what it is, voiceovers or anything else in this business, you’ve got to have a passion for it. You’ve got to love it — whether you’re going to make $20,000 a year or $20 million — or you’re not going to be worth a damn.
JV: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about being in business for yourself?
Zeus: Treat your clients — whether it’s Monroe, Louisiana or Los Angeles, California — the same way. Treat people like you want to be treated. Take care of your clients. Appreciate the fact that they’re paying you, that they’re giving you a livelihood, and then, do the best you can to give them the best you can everyday.
JV: You recently rebuilt your website at zeusthevoice.com, is that correct?
Zeus: Yes. We’ve added some of the newer stuff I’ve done, some of the Fox stuff, and some of the video’s that have not been available before. But basically it’s just a new fresh look. I’m still the same old Zeus.
JV: What advice would you offer anyone wanting to follow your footsteps in the voiceover business?
Zeus: It ain’t easy. I see guys pop up on All Access, and R&R with new ads every month, and a good half of them run ads for two or three months and they disappear because they spent their wad and they didn’t get hired. It’s not easy. And forget the voice. It’s not about the voice. That’s why you hear so many other voices out there that are not the big deep voice. You have to immerse yourself in the copy and believe what you’re reading. You also have to be enough of an actor to read just about anything. There’s animation stuff on my website. I’ve done a bunch of Xbox stuff, and I’ve gotten hired for some narrations. I never thought my career would go that way. So be ready for what they throw at you. If you ever get rep’d by an agent, they’re going to throw auditions at you that you will look at and go, “Oh, man, I’m not going to get hired for this.” But you never know. I never thought Smithsonian Network would pick me up. I’m used to reading deep dark classic rock and roll reads. Smithsonian is a totally different animal.
JV: Are you having fun? Are you doing what you want to be doing?
Zeus: I love it. The day that you stop enjoying what you’re doing is the day you might as well pack it in. I love it, and what I love is to get something new that I’ve never done before. That’s the biggest thing because some days you’ve read so many news/talk liners or so many classic rock station liners… you’ve read it all and you go through the motions. But then when you get that audition in, or you get something new that somebody threw at you, even one of your old clients that sent you something that you never thought they would throw at you — and it will happen once in a while. That’s the fun part. That’s really the fun part.