Charles Nove, Managing Director, A1 VOX Ltd., London, U.K.
By Jerry Vigil
What is the voiceover business like in the UK? We attempt to get a glimpse of that in this month’s RAP Interview with Charles Nove, Managing Director at A1 Vox, a studio that focuses on the voiceover needs in the UK and abroad. Although we live and work in a worldwide marketplace, some things are still done differently in various parts of the globe, as we discover. Charles is a 30+ year veteran of radio and voiceover with an established studio in the heart of London, providing voice work for a number of clients around the world, as well as a studio for other voice talent to congregate in an informal setting, as they wait for the calls for VO to come in. If you’re a fan of BBC Radio news, you’ve probably heard Charles over the years, not to mention the many commercials he has voiced. Check out this month’s RAP CD for a sampling of some of Charles’s work, and read on for some interesting insights into the voiceover business in the United Kingdom.
JV: You started your career as a volunteer at something called “hospital radio” in Glasgow. Tell us about that.
Charles: Well, when I was a very small boy I decided that what I wanted to do for a living was to be on the radio. I decided that when I was 12 -- and obviously there wasn’t much opportunity for squeaky-voiced, 12-year-olds -- but I started sniffing around and working out how radio worked and what sort of people did radio work, and I found that one way in was volunteering for hospital radio. So when I was 16, that’s what I did.
JV: What is hospital radio exactly? This is something we don’t have in the States.
Charles: No, I don’t think it exists in the States. You’ve always been much bigger and more liberal than we have about small radio stations. The US has had campus radio stations and small town, mom and pop stations, which we never had here. What we did have here was a tier of small radio stations serving hospitals known therefore as hospital radio. They were all run by volunteers and there were hundreds. There still are hundreds of these stations around the UK.
They’re no longer the big players that they once were because we now have much more in the way of small local radio than we used to have back in the ‘70s, but back when I was doing this in the ‘70s, there was very little local radio. The market was mainly big national stations, so hospital radio was a very good place to get started.
JV: I take it these stations broadcast just to a hospital, to patients and such?
Charles: They were closed circuit stations covering either a single hospital or a group of hospitals.
JV: I’m guessing between the music there was probably a lot to say about medicine and care and that type thing, is that correct?
Charles: Not necessarily. I mean they aimed to be an entertainment station but focused on the needs of people in hospital. Like I said, there was a lot of this around in a time when there wasn’t much local radio. But nowadays, you’ve got more choice here, and so full-time broadcast stations can achieve that same sort of personal contact. But it was different back then.
JV: What was your next stop? Did you go from hospital radio right to your first paying radio gig?
Charles: Yes, I did. I left school just as I turned 18, and after the summer holidays I was very fortunate to get into paid employment with the BBC in Scotland, and that was me starting my broadcasting career.
JV: That’s seems kind of young to be landing a job with the BBC.
Charles: Yes, I was at the time. I was the youngest person the BBC had ever given a full-time presentation job to. BBC Scotland didn’t quite know what to do with someone my age. They had to ask head office in London if it was all right for me to be given this contract and to work the strange times of day that they required.
So I stayed there. I had a very happy time there from 1978 to 1981, and it was a great job because it allowed you to do a very wide range of things. One of the things that’s changed about the business over here is that it’s now very hard to be an all-around broadcaster because people tend to look for specialists. But back then you could be an all-around broadcaster, so in any given week I could be doing a full range of things from presenting top 40 pop music to reading the news to reading public service messages, like the results from the local fish markets in Scotland, to introducing concerts of classical music or indeed bagpipe music. You don’t get that range anywhere now I don’t think.
That was a great grounding, and then I was fortunate to be offered a job by BBC Radio 2 based in London in 1981, and I made the move to London then.
JV: And you’ve been there since then?
Charles: I’ve been in London since then, yes. And I’ve been associated with Radio 2 in one way or another for most of those years, though I have also gone off and done commercial radio work alongside that.
JV: You must have started doing some freelance work at some point here along the way. When did you realize that freelance was a way to go?
Charles: After I’d been on staff at Radio 2 for a while, it became increasingly apparent to me that there was a life outside those walls, and it was a life I wanted to enjoy because I’d always wanted to work in a wide range of parts of the business. But the BBC doesn’t like its staff people doing commercial work so that was one of the reasons why I left the staff back in 1989, so that I’d be able to do commercial work, but also carry on freelancing for the BBC. The BBC likes its staff people to be exclusive to the Beeb.
JV: When you say commercial work, you mean voicing commercials?
Charles: Voicing commercials and also working for commercial radio stations.
JV: Do you remember your first freelance commercial gig?
Charles: The very first commercial job I got was the day after I left the staff at BBC, and it was at the commercial radio station called Metro Radio in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England. It was a voiceover session doing commercials for them. In those days, before ISDN came along, we had a thriving business in this country driving round the country visiting local radio stations and recording commercials.
JV: Over the last 10 to 15 years here in the US, the voice actor became the trend in the advertising arena as opposed to announcers. When this happened, the voiceover market here in the US just became flooded with voices since everybody it seemed had that guy and girl next-door voice. Did this same thing happen in the UK?
Charles: We’ve certainly had the trend for the voices that sound like real people here both in radio and television commercials. Though there is still a call for the old announcer voices. I think all the production companies in the UK have at some point experimented with using real, real people and then they discovered quite how long you take to produce your campaign when you’re trying to use people who aren’t in some way professional at this business. So I think we’ve come back around for the most part to a realization that using professional voice actors is the way forward.
JV: Did you start off with an agent early on? Do you have an agent? Are agents pretty much the norm for anyone in the VO business in the UK?
Charles: I did start with an agent and changed agents a few times over the years. I’m currently between agents. Certainly here, I would say the big market voiceover work still goes almost exclusively via agents. Most television commercials, most national radio commercials will go via agents. But there is a fairly thriving layer of voiceover work underneath that which is largely brokered directly between the talent and the production. And the brutal fact for people looking for their first agent is that it’s very difficult to find one who wants to take you on. Most of the decent agents are fully committed to their existing roster of talent.
JV: So if a person is going to break into the voiceover business in the UK their best bet is probably to do it without an agent?
Charles: Yes, at least start that way. And I think the thing that holds true for trying to get into the books of an agent anywhere in the world is your first mission is to convince the agent that you’re bringing something to their table that they haven’t already got.
JV: How did A1 Vox come to be?
Charles: Well, it has its roots back in the year when ISDN arrived in the UK and started to change the way that voiceovers worked. Instead of driving round the country heading for different radio stations to voice sessions, suddenly this new technology came along -- I suppose it was about 15 years ago now -- which enabled one to set up at home or set up somewhere centrally and do the work remotely.
Now, I saw the potential of it. I think I was the fifth voice in the UK to get his own ISDN equipment. But I never wanted to set up at home. I always kind of liked the idea of going out to work, and then coming home from work. And also, with small children in the house at the time, my domestic circumstances didn’t suit setting up a studio at home.
So after a bit of looking around and thinking about it, I rented some space in a basement underneath an art gallery in London and set up this little studio. It really was intended just to be a studio for me to do my freelance voiceover work, and I sat there in glorious isolation doing a few sessions on the ISDN.
Then one day I got a call from a female voiceover who was looking to do some work on ISDN but didn’t have equipment of her own, and she wondered if maybe she could come and use mine. So she came along and we discovered we got on well and that was fine. So quite quickly the productivity of my little studio doubled because there was this lady and me voicing away down there. She would help me answer the phone and look after the paperwork and so on, and then somebody else came along and said, “Can I use your facilities as well?”
So gradually we had a little pool of us down in that room in the basement, and that was really the root of A1 Vox. It didn’t have the name at that point, but it was this little pool of people coming in and we would send a fax out to various radio stations and production companies saying who would be in on what day. We did our voicing work and they paid me a commission for use of the facilities, and we got on very well.
That was going very well, but eventually we had to move out of there. We’d outgrown the space and the landlord wanted to double the rent and so on. The final straw actually was that in the next door part of this art gallery building, somebody set up a sculptor’s workshop, so hammering of chisels on stone started causing us severe noise trouble.
So we had to move out and I had to decide – I had to consider, do I give this up and go do something else or do I turn this into an actual business. I decided after a short amount of thought, about five minutes, that business was the way to go and set about finding commercial premises in a suitable area of London and that was it. Ten years ago A1 Vox was born, and that’s where we are now.
JV: What services does A1 Vox provide now?
Charles: Well, we’re a strange mixture. Our bread and butter income is from providing studio facilities for people who need studio facilities to record voiceovers or anything else that involves the spoken word. But sitting alongside our studio facilities we have this team of voiceover artists who are all experienced audio actors and are versatile and sit here waiting for jobs to come in.
Some people have likened the green room with the voice talent sitting in it, to a cab office at the train station. I don’t know if you have those over there but over here if you arrive at a suburban railway station there’s almost always a grubby little office next to it full of grumpy-looking taxi drivers waiting for jobs to come in. And that’s a bit like what it is here.
JV: So your talent comes and hangs out at the studio waiting for the work to come in! I don’t believe I’ve heard of anything like that here in the States. I think we just get a call and go to a studio around here. Your way sounds a bit more social, with a green room and some coffee and tea brewing…
Charles: Yes, that’s it. It’s very nice, very friendly and very crowded.
JV: So A1 Vox is mainly a studio for voiceover work.
Charles: Yes. And the voiceover work is not always performed by members of our team. People very often bring their own voice in. There’s no problem about that. They’re welcome to use whatever voice talent they like, but we do have our regular team hanging around as well.
JV: You are certainly very familiar with microphones after three decades of using them. What are your favorite microphones?
Charles: There’s a general bias here in favor of the Neumann U87. That’s really the benchmark voiceover mic. Here at A1 we’ve stopped using the 87, and I changed the main mics in the main studio for Microtech Gefell M930s, which I’m very fond of. They’re lovely, clean mics. Very low self-noise. A nice crisp sound about them. And they’re also a very handy size – I know it’s a peculiar criteria for a mic but it’s great in many cases not to have something too bulky sitting in front of the talent. And in our other smaller booth I use a Blue Dragonfly, which I’m very fond of as well.
JV: Are you particular about what preamps you send the mics into?
Charles: I’m not especially particular. All the studios here have the Focusrite Platinum series. I like the sound they make, and they keep on working.
JV: Is most of your work in the UK, or are you doing some international work as well?
Charles: We do quite a bit of international. As I look at the board today, we’ve done Germany this morning, we’re doing Amsterdam this afternoon, I did a session for Dubai earlier on, and we’ve got a session for Northern Ireland coming up any time now. So we do get around. And we do quite a bit of American stuff as well. One of the things we’ve done quite of bit of is providing facilities for NPR stations doing interviews with London-based academics or composers, musicians or whatever. We put them in the studio here and they interview them over the ISDN.
JV: Are American voices in any kind of demand over there?
Charles: They are. They’re not in peak demand in much the same way I guess as Brit voices in the States, but there’s a demand. And there are some resident American voice artists here who certainly get quite a bit of work. But there are also some artists based in the States who have regular linkups with over here. I think there’s still quite a bit of traffic for American imaging voices here, but I wouldn’t say they’re in the mainstream for commercials.
JV: It’s interesting that American voices would be used on imaging over there because I’ve often thought British voices imaging American stations sounded good but never considered the reverse.
Charles: Yeah, probably for the same reason. It stands out a bit from what’s around it and that’s not a bad thing for imaging.
JV: What differences have you noticed in the way the voiceover business is run in the UK versus the US?
Charles: One of the key differences in the day-to-day running of the way the voiceover business works over here -- and it’s one of the things that voices over here find a bit of a shock when they pitch for work in the States -- is the whole auditions system over there because as far as I’ve picked it up in the States, you audition for everything. Here auditioning is really quite rare. The only things you really get asked to audition for here are really big national campaigns or things like computer games, with very specific acting required. For the rest, you tend to be cast here on the strength of your reputation and your demo. It’s really quite rare to be asked to audition for something.
JV: Why would you suppose it’s this way?
Charles: I don’t know. I suppose it’s just the way it’s grown up here. Maybe it has its roots in the fact that if you look back for 30 years or so, there was quite a small circuit of people in this country doing voiceovers. It was really quite a small business. So I guess everybody knew, if you wanted a big powerful read, then you wanted voice “X” and that was it. Maybe that habit has just struck and has stayed despite the numbers mushrooming. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
JV: I would venture to say, that here in the US, the agencies and the clients know that they have the power because they have the money, and with that power they can make the voiceover talent jump through hoops to please the client, one of those hoops being a “custom read” of the client’s commercial. How nice. Perhaps the talent is more respected in the UK. Seems like asking people to audition day after day after day for things when only rarely does one of them come through, that’s asking a bit much.
Charles: Yeah. It may also be driven by the expectation. In many cases here, if you are asked to audition for something you’ll be paid to do so. They wouldn’t call it an audition. They’ll call it a test. But getting paid to come in to do a test is not unknown here, and that may have the effect of concentrating the mind because if you’re going to pay six people to come in for a test, that’s one thing, but you’re not going to pay 600 and wait and see what you get.
JV: Well, that’s very interesting and I hope that doesn’t change over there in the UK.
Charles: So do I. I think it’s one of the things that worries me slightly about some of the website operations. I’m not criticizing them. They’re doing a fine job and they know what they’re trying to do. But they are built around encouraging mass auditions. And in a sense, I think that feeds the clients’ expectation that they will be able to have hundreds to pick and choose from. I suspect in reality, in many cases, they listen to about the first five or six in the pile and then get fed up. I know I would.
JV: Yes. I think that that happens quite a bit. They get 100 auditions, listen to the first five or ten and say, this one will do.
Charles: Well, it’s never a bad thing in any business to try and put yourself in the client’s shoes, and I’m a big fan of the saying, before you judge them, walk a mile in their shoes. And then if everything else goes wrong you’re a mile away and you’ve got their shoes. But it’s true though. You have to understand how people use the product or what people are doing with what you’ve done. If the result of them expressing a desire for someone to do their job is that they receive 300 auditions, 150 of which are completely unsuitable and 150 of which are quite possible, then they’re not going to make their way very far down the pile I suspect.
JV: What are some of the main challenges of running your studio?
Charles: The main challenge that everyone’s facing right now, and I’m sure it’s the same over there, is that with the economic downturn as it is, prices of things like electricity keep rocketing upwards and the clients’ budgets don’t get any bigger. So we’re definitely being financially squeezed. I look at the energy bills from running the air-conditioning and that sort of essential equipment and it’s pretty well doubled across the last two years. And we certainly can’t put our prices up at that sort of rate. I think that’s our main challenge is just trying to stay afloat.
And certainly, where we are in London, rents have gone up. Landlords’ ambitions for rent remain quite high, and they drive us quite hard, certainly here in Soho, right in the middle of the west end of London. Certainly here, a number of facility houses have gone to the wall in the last couple of years. They’ve just been driven out by the costs.
JV: You’re a bit more diversified that most our readers might think. You’ve partnered with four fellow broadcasters and own a bus company. Tell us a little about that.
Charles: Yes, that’s a small but flourishing business. We have a couple of the classic London double-decker bus models, and we have the vehicles out for special occasion transport, mainly weddings -- taking wedding parties between venues. It’s a good, fun business.
JV: And do you jump in the driver’s seat from time to time?
Charles: I certainly do. Yes. I have a license to drive any bus, any size.
JV: What do you enjoy most about the work you’re doing at the studio?
Charles: Well, I love doing the voice work. I really enjoy that and find it very satisfying. I like that I get to do a range of voiceover work. I like to do character stuff as well as straight announcer stuff.
And I’ve always enjoyed audio engineering, so I get to do that as well because I built the studios here and I’m still likely to get called upon if something breaks down or whatever. So I still get in there with the toolkit if something needs repairing. I enjoy that range of stuff.
And I still do some radio work at the moment. My radio work is reading the news on the breakfast show on BBC Radio 2, which is the most listened to show in the UK, most listened to station in the UK, and the most listened to breakfast show by quite a long way. So it’s nice to be on there in the mornings broadcasting to a large audience. I don’t do every week though. I do a week of that about once every three weeks.
JV: Outside of your bus company, any other ways you’re broadening your horizons?
Charles: Well, another thing we do here is we do run training courses for people who are wanting to get started in the voiceover business. We have a sister company called Vox Training which does that. But we’re very, very careful – we aim to be always truthful with people including telling them if this isn’t the job for them and they really should go be a car park attendant... if that is the truth. And we try and be very realistic with them. We tell them everything about how the business works, how competitive it is, how tough it is and how much leg work you have to do personally to get yourself into the stream of possible business. So we try and teach people to do it properly, explain to them how much work is required and not give them any false hopes. And if they make it through that, then they’ve probably got something going for them.
JV: To what would you most contribute your success in the VO business specifically and then in business in general?
Charles: In business generally, such success that I’ve had is about sticking with it and keeping on the way. There are advantages to having been around quite a long time in this game in that maybe people have a reasonable awareness of who you are. Though that can also be a handicap because occasionally people have you pigeonholed as the newsreader and assume you can’t maybe do a comedy part or some character part. So I’m always trying to find ways of reminding people that I can do quite a range of things. Actually, that’s probably the answer to both questions really.