By Dave Foxx
As a young jock in Washington, DC, I remember the day my then wife decided to take off with the kids and all the contents of our house while I was on the air. I didn’t get a “see ya” or even a “you suck.” When I got home, all I had to my name was a big empty house with a big fat mortgage and a car with another 2 years of payments due. I knew things weren’t good, but I thought we could get things right again. Over the next six months, I was frantic, trying to locate my family, but her folks wouldn’t even talk to me and her friends were just as much in the dark. Pretty awful, huh?
Professionally, I was on top of the world. I was the absolute king of my daypart in the number 6 market, while personally I was a total wreck. I believe the operative phrase in this case is, “The show must go on.” Every day for six months, I was Mister Joy and Sunshine to my audience, but once the afternoon jock took over, I was in my own special hell. (Honest, I’m really not trying to garner any sympathy here. I am WAY over it now. I’ve been very happily married for almost 30 years, just… not to her.)
At the end of those six months, she was broke, hungry and wanted to move to the West coast, so she finally got in touch to ask for money. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as angry as I did that day and for several months after. And yet, I was STILL on the radio, every Monday through Saturday at 10am, pumping out sunshine and unicorns for the listeners of DC, Maryland and Virginia.
Just a few weeks ago, an ISIS-sworn lone gunman walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando, gunned down 49 patrons and then became the 50th person to die on the scene when police finally ended it. Whatever your politics or belief system is, this is just horrific. There is no sane explanation of an event like this for any rational being. But the absolutely no-holds-barred vitriol that exploded all over social media, while perhaps somewhat understandable, is just as awful in my view. One person I previously admired for his common sense attitude on life spewed some of the worst, most hateful garbage I’ve ever read on social media, and that’s saying a lot. Exactly how does that help?
So my question to you is, how do you cope with all the angst, hatred and sometimes violent attitude surrounding you when you’re asked to write or produce something that is full of fun and the love of life? Several times in my life that little broadcasting reality made me feel like a total hypocrite, when I worked my magic for a commercial client or radio station. I have no doubt you’ve felt the same.
This is just a fact of life for all of us. We have to display feelings of love and understanding when we’re not personally feeling them. We have to sound excited over a product that in reality we think is inane or even harmful. We have to sound happy when we clearly are not. If you’ve ever been sick while on the air, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You dose up on decongestant and cough suppressant, take a few deep breaths before you crack the mic and then give everything you’ve got for the next 15-seconds, only to collapse into a pile of blubbering ooze once the mic is off.
Fact is, you’re being a method actor.
My mother was an actress of minor note back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The two of us worked on a few productions on the local stage several times. I was always on the tech side with lighting, set construction and sound, while she was on the boards, as they say. We did a production of A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee once that posed the opposite problem for her.
Mom was about as full of light and life as a person could get. She always had a kind word, a smile or laugh that endeared her to everyone who knew her. But Albee is probably one of the darkest playwrights (possibly excluding Tennessee Williams) who ever lived. A Delicate Balance was one of his darkest works. She played the part of the alcoholic mother of an incredibly dysfunctional family. Suicide, infidelity and back-stabbing of the worst kind ruled that Albee household. She was simply stunning. The critics had nothing but absolute praise for her performance as Agnes, the role Glen Close played in last year’s Broadway revival of this Pulitzer Prize winning drama.
Being a method actress, she basically had to “become” Agnes over the weeks leading up to opening night and through the run. Our house was not a fun place to be for a long time. It took another six weeks after the close of the play for things to get back on an even keel. Since her performance time was so much longer than 15-seconds (2+ hours) it took a lot longer for her to get “in character” and she ended up taking a lot of it home, but the principle is the same.
After the events in Florida happened, for a couple of days, nearly every script I got from one of my domestic radio stations was about Orlando. For my foreign clients scattered across the globe, Orlando was a short news item and their copy was all light and sunshine. One minute I was trying to sound comforting and reassuring, the next I was hawking a new contest with a fabulous cash prize. I had to sound exactly right for both. It was hard. As a writer, I know that transitioning from sad to happy is a LOT easier than vice versa, so I lined up each client accordingly. By the time I had waded through all the sad, gloomy stuff, it was such a joy to say something happy, I think I might have gone a little over the top.
What started this whole line of thought for me was a bit of advice I gave to a young woman I’ve known for several years, who sent me a new VO demo this morning with a request for a critique. I wrote:
Your commercial reads on this are terrific. When you’re sharing ‘tips’ on makeup or features on a cell, you sound happy, delighted to be telling your friends about it and generally trustworthy. A good casting director would do well to put you in a part of the girlfriend, sister or even officemate who wants to share a secret.
The promo read simply doesn’t work. It sounds contrived. From a purely technical perspective, you keep coming to the same pitch at the end of every sentence or thought which kills your credibility. It makes you ‘sound’ like an announcer, which is the last thing you want. A good promo read is still very conversational which, given the way most writers construct promos (badly), is really hard to pull off… even for me. Until you get a really solid grip on commercial work, I would highly recommend you stay away from promos, except perhaps as a “spice” voice, very lightly sprinkled into someone else’s read.
That might sound a bit harsh, so let me explain a bit. A really well written promo is a dialogue between the announcer and the listener. The listener’s part is mute of course, but the announcer’s part needs to sound like a very engaged friend of the listener. Most of the time, copy you read for a local station is all hype and no sincere. Listen to the booth work on NBC, CBS or ABC to hear what it should sound like. After you do, go back and listen to what you’ve done and I think you’ll hear a wide gulf between the two. If you really want to pursue promo work, I suggest you listen to Ann DeWig She is the main female VO for Lite-FM in New York. You can also hear her on A&E, NBC, MTV, Oxygen and about a thousand others. Just click on her name here and you’ll access a TON of her work. (And yet, it’s such a small percentage! LOL) Everything she does is a dialogue.
Actually, that’s why I like your commercial work so much. It’s very MUCH a dialogue between you and the listener. That is the golden key to successful VO.
Whether you’re writing or producing, voicing or directing, you need to “become” that friend or colleague who has some sound advice about the product or service you’re selling. You need to be a method actor. Regardless of what is going on in the world or in your immediate life, you are NOT the person you were when you came into work. You need to become Joe Sincere or Jill Your Best Friend. Before you start doing whatever you’re going to do, sit a while and think about that person. Think about how he or she can best relate to your USP. Then, when you’ve finished with your work, go back to that personal heaven or hell where you normally reside.
The late Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright on the long-running western Bonanza and the lead role in Trapper John, MD in the early ‘80s, was quoted by his Trapper John, MD cast mate Gregory Harrison as offering this advice, "Greg, the key to good acting is sincerity. And once you've learned to fake that, you've got it made.” Well put, Parnell… well put.
My sound this month on the RAP Soundstage is a ton of fun from last year when Z100 wanted to promote their Instagram feed, going into the Grammies. I’m sure you see the link… at least superficially.
Dave welcomes your correspondence at