R.A.P. Interview: Jude Corbett

Jude Corbett, Voiceover Artist, Chicago, IL

1107-Jude-CorbettBy Jerry Vigil

Not too long ago, Jude Corbett was a production guy at a station in Terre Haute, Indiana, but paying “small market dues” wasn’t going to take him very long. Jude quickly raced up the market ranks through St. Louis and Chicago before landing in New York as K-Rock’s Creative Director. With exceptional writing and production skills on hand, it was Jude’s voicework that enabled him to finally take the “big leap” just a year ago, and he now works from home, delivering his voice to clients across the globe, for some 30 radio stations and numerous television clients, including HBO, CMT, CBS, Sears, Nickelodeon, The People’s Choice Awards, Miller Lite, VH1, TLC, and more. This month’s RAP Interview gets an encouraging story about transitioning from the radio production world to national voiceover. Be sure to check out the RAP CD for an awesome sampler of Jude’s production work over the years, as well as his voicework.

JV: Tell us how you got started in radio.
Jude: I went to school for it, graduated from a small liberal arts school outside of St. Louis called Lindenwood. I actually toured there my senior year in high school. I was writing for the newspaper, which had a communications career day, and that’s where I found out, “Wow, you can actually get a job in radio? That’s cool.” They had a great department, and I was fortunate enough to attend the school the following year.

After that, I did a couple of internships at KSHE when I was in school and got to learn a little bit more. I started out doing a promotions internship, and then ended up doing a production internship with Ed Brown. I was a huge listener of the station, and when I got to do the internship with Ed, it was like, “Wow, this guy’s the reason why I really enjoy listening to the station!” I really enjoyed the funny liners and stuff that he was writing, the promos and everything. So it was kind of an enlightening experience to be like, “Holy cow, this guy makes me laugh! That’s what he does! Maybe I can do that.”

After doing the internship and graduating, my first job was in Terre Haute, Indiana, working for a station that has since gone dark. I started out as an overnight DJ, and a few months after, a new Program Director was hired. He and the production guy didn’t get along, the production guy quit, and I showed up the next day in a suit and tie saying, “I think I can do production; can I sit in and do that while you find somebody for the job?”  I sold a couple spec spots, did a couple good promos, and they’re like, “Maybe you’re the guy for the job.”

From there, I went back to St. Louis and got a job working for the Point, KPNT, solely doing imaging. This was ’95. You had FMQB magazine releasing some CDs on a quarterly basis or a monthly basis, whatever it was, and I think John Frost kind of showed the rest of the alternative world an idea of what imaging could be. It seemed like there was a handful of stations that were actually hiring guys to just do imaging, and I happened to be one of them.

I wasn’t back in St. Louis very long. I’m not sure how it happened, but somebody had told Bill Gamble, who was at Q101 in Chicago about the work I was doing, and it was about eight months after I got there that he called and said, “I like what you’re doing, how about moving to Chicago?” So I said, “All right, yeah, that’d be great.” I can make it to the Big 3 in a shorter amount of time than the goal I had set for myself; that’s pretty cool. I mean, it was great to go to St. Louis and work with a really talented group of people — Jim McGuinn was the Program Director, Alex Luke was music director/afternoon guy. Alex is now working for Apple, running iTunes, basically. But it was great working with upper-level talent that really inspired me to do better things, and then to go to Chicago and deal with that fantastic company and the great people to work with. I just had a lot of fun and got encouraged even more to do crazy things.

JV: Was that your last radio job?
Jude: No, after that I had entertained going over and working at WLUP, the Loop, and I don’t remember exactly what happened. A buddy of mine got hired, Tim Virgin, who I’d worked with in St. Louis. He came up and got hired at the Loop to do nights and talked to me about how it was such a great environment and how great it was to work with some real legendary folks — Jonathan Brandmeier, Kevin Matthews…. In the production world, there’s Matt Bisbee, who was almost equally as important a personality as the morning show and afternoon show. I guess Danny Bonaduce had just left before I had gotten over there. But to have the experience to work with Matt and learn how to become a better writer, just by listening to his suggestions, listening to what he does and how he conceives ideas, was a huge learning experience.

I think we were owned by AM/FM at the time, and they had sold the station to Bonneville, who then took me from the Loop over to WTMX, the Mix in Chicago, which is an incredibly strong Hot AC station that’s been very successful. I was doing imaging, and I think when I got to the Mix I was also doing commercial work for them, kind of overseeing the whole production department, working with salespeople and helping them with spec spots and stuff. That was actually the place that I had worked the longest. I was there for six years, and in 2003, I got the chance to achieve the final career goal of moving to New York and working at K-Rock as the Creative Director. My time in Chicago was pretty brief to go through three stations. I was only at Q101 for a year, went to the Loop and the Loop got sold three or four months after, and then it was the Mix from ’97 to 2003. Then I got introduced to the world of what I called bootcamp radio, working in New York and working at K-Rock, because the volume of work there was just insane. It was fun, though.

There was one more radio job left. After K-Rock I moved back home to St. Louis and went to work for a good friend of mine, Marty Linck, who was programming the River, WVRV, at the time. I was Creative Services Director again, imaging the station, and that was the last radio job.

JV: Writing is a key element in your imaging. Where did you begin learning about putting the emphasis on the writing? Is that something you just picked up early on from Ed Brown?
Jude: I actually remember being in grade school and being given creative writing tests or homework or whatever, and just really enjoyed it. And in high school, I enjoyed being part of the newspaper. And like I said, when you’re young and in school, you have no clue you can actually get a job and get paid to work in radio, or at least I didn’t. But yeah, listening to the quick little liners coming out of commercial breaks or whatever, that Ed was writing, always made me laugh. It was like, “Wow, that’s just funny.” Then it was a process in college of going through and learning the basics of copywriting and then actually being able to put it to the test. So I think there was probably a small amount of creativity always there, but until I was in radio, I never really had a great outlet to apply it to.

JV: What about the production side of what you did in radio? Was that as big a part as the creative, the writing side? Were you a big bells and whistles kind of guy, or were you more into the “let’s make somebody laugh” type of thing?
Jude: I guess in a perfect world, you do both. But I value writing more than the actual bells and whistles just because, from a listener stand point, you can break out every production trick in the world that you know, but as a listener, are they really going to go, “Wow, I love the stutter effect that he did there in that promo”? Or are they going to be like, “Wow, that was obnoxious.” Most likely, they’re going to say, “Wow, that was obnoxious.” But if you can tell them a joke or make them smile or make them laugh, then they’re most likely to continue listening to the rest of the message and hopefully remember the name of the station, which is the ultimate goal.

JV: Let’s talk about your voice. Were you the imaging voice for the stations you worked for from the outset, or did you gradually work into becoming an imaging voice?
Jude: When I got to St. Louis, Jim McGuinn was the voice of the station. I think in a perfect world for them, at the time, they would have loved to have afforded Keith Eubanks. I’m sure most people remember Keith being just something completely different for the time, and he really opened up such a genre for younger sounding voice people like myself, at least I think I sound kind of young — not the voice of God anyway.

Typically, you’ve got the big, booming, ballsy voice, and all of a sudden, here comes Keith Eubanks, completely the antithesis of that, and he did such a fantastic job and made such a huge impact as well. But like I said, we couldn’t afford it, so Jim McGuinn was actually the voice of the station. Jim left shortly after I had gotten there. He’d gotten hired to take over WDRE in Philadelphia and Long Island, and when he left, that was when I started doing voiceover work for the Point. That’s also when the freelance voiceover work started because Jim was given two stations to take over and needed someone that he knew and had worked with to do the imaging. So he hired me to do the voiceover work for both stations. I think that’s when he also hired Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols to do some voiceover work, which was definitely a different world of voiceover to image a radio station with. It was a lot of fun because you got this lunatic screaming like crazy and just ranting and basically being a stand-up comedian with sarcasm and snide remarks and anti-whatever, anti-cool, but it was interesting. So I guess I started doing imaging voice work back in the end of ’96.

JV: Were you just doing voiceover freelance or were you also doing some freelance production?
Jude: I did help out Jim when he took over WDRE and did production there. I also did some production for an alternative station in Pittsburgh that was being programmed by Phil Manning. He and Jim had been associates — and still are I imagine — and Phil heard the stuff I was doing in Philadelphia and said, “Wow, that sounds really cool. I’d like to have you do it for my station.” So I just kind of did a start-up production package for him and started doing voice work for him as well.

JV: How did you make the jump from radio VOs to the TV and the national stuff?
Jude: When I had started doing voiceover work, I’d gotten a handful of clients on my own, and it was right around that time that Marc Guss at William Morris was starting up a division that was dedicated to radio. A lot of times, you might hear a great voice that’s on TV, but that could be an actor who doesn’t really know how to deliver a radio type of line. I don’t know if that sounds weird to hear, but I think radio has its unique style and unique way of delivering the message. And I think it was a struggle for a lot of people to try and find those voices. There are a handful of agencies that do have a lot of radio talent, but I think Marc was really the first one to dedicate himself to it. When he started up, he asked me to join along, so I was like, “Heck yeah, that would be awesome.” From there I just kept asking him about doing commercial work and getting into TV promo stuff, and that’s how it started.

JV: Well, they must have liked you over there in TV-land because you’re doing a lot. I noticed on your website of lot of work for HBO.
Jude: I’ve done HBO for about six or seven years, kind of off and on. That’s been a lot of fun — super nice folks, a very laid back mentality and very good copywriting. It’s really been a fun time. The first big thing that I did was for the X-Games. I was the voice for the X-Games on ESPN and ABC for four years, from 2000 to 2003, and actually traveled to the event for the winter and summer games, for the first two years anyway, and was working on-site. I was completely blown away by the difference in what it takes to put on something like this, from a radio perspective compared to the television thing. It’s very similar to how a radio station would put on one of their summer festivals or summer concerts but magnified by 20 times because you have 500 freelance independent contractors all running around, all just as crazy as the music director and promotion directors are at the station concerts. But it was a good experience. It was fun and really cool. That was actually good exposure for me in terms of being a writer in radio, to watch what they do, how much they focus on just one line for a little bump that’s going to run one time. It was good exposure to watch someone else write.

JV: I take it you’ve had a home studio for some time. What are you working with now?
Jude: To handle the acoustics for the voice work, I have the VocalBooth — vocalbooth.com is their website. It’s just a little four by four box; I wouldn’t call it a room. I put some shelves in there to actually hold the mixing board. I just have a little Mackie, whatever the littlest Mackie is. I’ve got the Symetrix 528E processor on a Neumann TLM-103. There’s ISDN and the Zephyr Extreme, which is rarely used anymore thanks to the miracle of FTP and stuff.

JV: Are you doing most of your voice work just phone patch and mp3?
Jude: You know, it’s rare to even do a phone patch. For the most part, people are just sending their copy by email. And since this is my nine to five job, it’s a matter of a couple hours turning things around for folks. If it takes two hours, that’s an incredibly long time for me. Then I post it up on the FTP site and always send an email back saying “Audio’s posting now, if you need to hear it, if you want me to try it any other way, please just let me know.”

I know the frustration as a producer, what it’s like waiting on someone else to turn copy around for you. Then also, if you’ve got to go back because somebody said something wrong or your voice guy pronounced something wrong or didn’t deliver it quite the way you heard it in your head, then my thought is that you shouldn’t have to live with it just because that’s what I did, or wait 24 hours for some guy to turn it around. I’ve talked to a couple of new clients lately that have talked about waiting multiple days to get copy back. Is their voice guy that busy? I don’t know.

JV: You mentioned the Symetrix 528 online with the mic; do you just use it very subtly or do you process your voice a fair amount before you send it out?
Jude: No, I have very, very little on the mic. The TLM is so bassy just by itself that I need to put something on it just to brighten it up a little bit. In terms of compression and expanding and all that stuff, if anything, I find that producers, be it radio or TV or whoever, really are limited by what they can do in terms of effecting your voice how they want to effect it, if you’ve got whatever it is in your head that you think sounds great applied to the voice already. A lot of times, especially with TV, they’ll ask right away, “Just turn it all off and we’ll deal with it on our own.”

JV: So a typical day for you is nine to five, hanging around the computer watching for emails and stepping in and out of the VocalBooth. Does that sound about right?
Jude: Watching emails, playing chess with my son who’s driving me crazy.

JV: Who’s winning?
Jude: I have a three and a five year old, and I hate to admit that my five year old actually did beat me once. But I wasn’t looking, it was a busy day. I had a headache, you know, things were going wrong. But yeah, the day pretty much starts around eight, checking the email, seeing what’s there, then going down at nine o’clock or so and going to work. At the end of the day, I will walk away at five o’clock, but I don’t shut it down because I’ve got clients in Hawaii and Alaska, and who knows if they’re going to have some kind of last minute thing. So I’ll usually keep going down into the studio until about 7:30 or eight before I actually say, “Okay, goodnight.”

JV: Sounds pretty relaxed.
Jude: It can be. I think I’m driving my wife a little crazy, but we’re learning how to deal with it. The kids are both in school, so we get some good quiet time, at least Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s fun. It’s nice to be home, and I feel guilty about talking about it with folks that are working nine to five because I’m lucky to be here. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do it, then I see friends on the weekend and they’re telling me to go to hell because I don’t have a real job.

JV: What trends have you noticed recently in the VO business?
Jude: It’s weird, when you get auditions, especially in the commercial world, a mainstay for direction is they’ll give you a personality example, a celebrity example to follow. They always say, “Be cool” — which, hello, that’s what you should be anyway, right? They say, be cool. They always want “non-announcery.” And it’s amazing, the frequency of references to Denis Leary. “We want you to sound… we want you to feel like Denis Leary.” I’m like, Cindy Crawford Denis Leary from MTV 20 years ago, or the hallucinating, Jesus loving firefighter on Rescue Me? Which one is it? And I don’t know if there’s really much of a difference there.

We talked about Keith Eubanks earlier; certainly, in the radio world, he opened up the voiceover business to a lot of younger sounding guys, or perhaps not so much younger sounding but rather not the big booming voice of God types.

In terms of TV, there’s been that desire for the young, natural, youthful sounding guys. I don’t know how much of an impact it’s actually having on society, if there’s an overall huge bearing on society — “Wow, I really like the young, natural, youthful sounding guys!” — but you do hear them on all the car commercials and beer commercials. I guess beer commercials are opening up a little bit more and more. But you’ve still got the movie trailer guys, Chris Corley and Howard Parker and Don LaFontaine obviously, who seems kind of in and out lately.

JV: Do you miss the radio environment?
Jude: It’s definitely interesting to be working out of the house and not having social interactions on a daily basis or having that extra social interaction. I will still hear new music and be like, “Boy, I bet that’s fun to work with. I bet that’s fun to produce,” or maybe it’s a station contest or weekend giveaway or something I’ll hear. I miss it a little bit, but I hope that what I’m doing now can continue. But if I go back to radio, I know that I’m going to have fun doing it. I actually try not to think about going back. I hope this stays the way it is and moves on to bigger and better things for me in the same type of direction. And I don’t mean to sound negative in any way, shape, or form, about working in radio, but this was an opportunity for me, and I’m fortunate enough to be given the chance to try it. It’s been a year of being fulltime independent, and I’ve learned a little bit here and there and am thankful for it all. I’m having a good time being at home.

JV: Did you ever imagine that you were going to be successful enough in the VO business to leave radio and do this on your own?
Jude: I never imagined that I would go as far as I did in radio. I mean, it was a huge passion of mine, being a listener as a kid in grade school or junior high, and just being fascinated by all the stations and what they did. And to have set a goal in college to hopefully be back in a market like St. Louis within five years and maybe make it to the major markets in ten years, and then to meet those goals as quickly as I did is much more than I ever would have expected. I’m certainly glad that it happened because there’s nothing more rewarding than to set a goal and achieve it. One thing that I’ve neglected is to continue to set five and ten year goals for myself because I have no idea exactly what that would be. I mean, anybody can say, “I have a goal, I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 40.” But to actually achieve it, that’s a challenge. Or “I want to be the voice of NBC.” You’ve got a long way to go before you can do that; you can’t just make that happen. You have to have the ability to be there, and you have to have the right people to continue. I believe in being in the right place at the right time, too; there’s a lot to be said for that.

JV: Setting goals, right place at the right time, would you say these are a couple of the keys to your success?
Jude: Definitely right place at the right time in terms of getting started in voiceover work. Jim McGuinn was leaving St. Louis to go to Philadelphia, and he needed somebody to do production for him. I happened to be the guy that he had just most recently worked with. So it was definitely right place at the right time to get the start.

JV: What tips would you offer radio people looking to move into the VO business such as you did?
Jude: I think anybody can do it. For one thing, you don’t have to be intimidated by someone who’s got a deeper, richer voice than you do because it’s really about how you’re saying things and not just what you’re saying. If at all possible, if you can do an acting class, I think that kind of helps you learn a little bit more about things that you can do, how to control your voice, how to use your voice, how to use your emotions behind the words. Maybe it sounds a little too much for delivering a line like “the number one hit music station,” but still, there is some acting when you say a line like that.

To get started, find somebody that you like, that’s doing voiceover work, and try to emulate them a little bit. That’s one thing I was taught in college, especially about doing TV news — watch what the local anchors are doing and when you’re doing it, just pantomime them, pretend that you’re that person, read the news as they would, do their style until you develop a style that is your own. Don’t go and rip off exactly what some guy is doing, but try to take something and make it you.

And I absolutely encourage people to network. Ask everybody you can about what you want to pursue, whether it’s voiceover work or production. That’s the biggest thing, creating that network. I might be overstepping my bounds, but I think for the most part, voiceover people are very generous and would be eager to give support, give advice and suggestions. And I certainly welcome anyone’s correspondence.

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