Dean James, Dean James Voiceovers, Dallas, TX
by Jerry Vigil
We’ve had plenty of interviews with voiceover actors who came from radio as a DJ or production person, but it’s not too often you run into a successful, major market programmer who transitions to voiceover. Dean James enjoyed a long run as a successful programmer in several markets and recently took on VO full time. What he thought might get him a few hundred dollars a month to start turned out to be a few thousand dollars a month in the early going and the growth has been straight up since. And he’s only been at it for one year. Dean shares some insights into his programming philosophy, including his take on the production department, and we pick his brain for some tips on how he’s been able to hit the ground running in a field that one might think is overrun with talent all fighting for the same work.
JV: What was your first job in the radio and how did you get it?
Dean: I was involved at a college radio station at the University of Lowell, which is now U Lowell Massachusetts. I was the Dean of Music -- how appropriate. I went to a movie with a friend of mine in Waltham, Massachusetts, and in the basement of the movie theater was a radio station. I said, "Gee, I should drop off a tape sometime." I came back a few days later and dropped off a tape, and I was bad enough to get a job at a small radio station outside of Boston. I produced Red Sox games at night, and I became production director, and then the “ass” program director, as my wife calls it, or the assistant program director, and then the program director. Then I just kind of moved on from there.
JV: Did you have your eyes set on programming at that point?
Dean: I was taking whatever the next job was. I wanted to be on the air and give that a shot. I picked up a job here, a job there, a part-time job at a Boston station, worked part-time at a Providence station. Then I got on as the production director with a two-hour shift later on in the evening. Then I also did a little bit of sales and was involved with pushing the Red Sox, but my main goal was to get on the air.
Then I became a morning guy in Boston for a while, then down to Miami. Also, while I was in Boston, I ended up being the program director of a country station, the first FM country station that had been in Boston for a while. I did that for a number of years and then went to Miami doing mornings, and then became a program director again, working for the same company I worked for in Boston and Kansas City. I did very well.
Then I came to Dallas and worked as a program director for nine years, but off the air. I enjoyed the programming side of it. I really was a radio guy. I enjoyed the country music we did, especially as the music got a little more modern. Back in the day, my mother listened to what used to be WCOP in town. They played all that gutbucket country, "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly". I never really liked that kind of country -- "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath," and all those weird titled songs from back in the day -- but I did appreciate the newer stuff.
But as much as I like country music, it was really about radio for me. It was about what radio was all about, trying to entertain. It was at a time when radio was looked at a bit differently. I really got into it and just had a ball with it. As much as I enjoyed the on-air side, the programming side seemed more interesting at the time, and I went in that direction. But it wasn't my goal to become a program director. I was just working my way up the ranks and took whatever direction was next.
JV: Your longest running programming position was at KSCS in Dallas, a very successful run, a very successful station. What were some of your programming tactics that you think helped keep that station on top?
Dean: We had a morning show that was just absolutely fantastic. I tried not to make them crazy, tried not to let the music get in the way of them, but, at the same time, not let them get in the way of the music -- just being respectful of both what they had to offer as well as how popular the music was at the time.
Country music was just huge back in the early '90s, getting into the mid-'90s. Even though it cooled off, the strength of the radio station was really good because we had really strong personalities, and we were able to make that transition. We were a full-service radio station. We had the local TV weather guy from WFAA on. We also had the NBC guys on, too. A gentleman that used to be a news anchor was doing our news in the morning. So we tried to be the go-to station. I didn't believe in, "Well, if they wanted to hear the news, they'll go to WBAP." I wanted them to stick with our station and use our station as the go-to station for everything, plus play country music. It worked. We had more number one books than any other radio station in Dallas through the '90s. So we had a pretty good run.
JV: Your last programming stop was also in Dallas at a couple of the Hispanic stations. Probably not too many programmers move from country to Latino formats, but you also had some great success there. What were some of the tricks you used there to put those stations well into the top five?
Dean: The company, Entravision, was great. Jeffrey Liberman was a great president of the company at the time and really a great listener. The programming people they had were great, as well as my general manager, Scott Savage, who was the general manager at Young Country back in the day -- we didn't work together, we worked against each other, but we had mutual respect for each other. He was just a great guy. We programmed with the same philosophy. Actually, it was more fun because it was like radio was 15 years ago or earlier, when it was really word of mouth. There were a lot of things you could do with a street presence and street marketing that really created word of mouth and really got the stations to blow up. It was sometimes kind of hard figuring out what exactly they were saying in Spanish, but I was able to work through it.
One of the stations was a Spanglish station, so they were speaking English and a little bit of Spanish. As a matter of fact, when I first went there it was a dance station. It got a great buzz. It was a niche format, and there was a lot of street talk about it. We did club events. These jocks would come in from Germany and places like that, and at 2:00 in the morning there'd be people jumping around like lunatics, looking up at this guy just mixing records. It was great and really catchy. But we were able to make a little more noise when we changed the station to Casa 106.7. That station did pretty well.
JV: What was your philosophy with regards to production on your stations?
Dean: I always felt that branding and imaging were extremely important. I'm not sure I ever really had the opportunity to spend as much money as I wanted to on that. There was a time, when we first got into the business as programmers -- and I know that Ron Chapman was one of those guys at KVIL, if he didn't like the commercial that was on the air and thought it took away from the programming, they'd boot it. "Sorry. That commercial is too loud," or, "It doesn't mix," or, "It's not us." Obviously, as the business changed, and especially after deregulation, we were a little bit more beholden to make sure that we had that billing, and we were obviously more forgiving.
If there was a cutback to be made, really, it was probably in the production department. A jock would come in, prepare for their show, and then knock out commercials, and there wasn't a lot of creativity. I always believed that the commercials were just as important as the music because it's either a turnoff or it's interesting. I would have to think that it would also help sales if the stuff was more creative.
And the same thing on the imaging side. As a country station, we didn't get too far out with the imaging, but I always thought the branding was extremely important. We had some interesting voice people through the years. Joe Cipriano did work for us as a station voice for a while. Doug Jeffers, who was the Miller High Life guy, did some voice work for us over the years. So I always thought that that branding and imaging were extremely important. It didn't need to sound like there were spaceships and Star Wars fights in the background, it didn't need to be too busy, but I always thought it was an important part of what the branding of the radio station really was.
JV: You took a break from radio and ran a very successful photography franchise for several years, before leaving that and getting into voiceover. Did you find yourself using some things that you learned in radio in this unrelated industry?
Dean: Yes. One was from the street marketing side of radio. It was almost like hiring a promotions staff. We used to do event photography, so it was a lot of people going in different directions and trying to do customer service, take a lot of pictures. It was an interesting thing. We did e-mail marketing and things like that, that were behind the scenes, what turned out to be social media, I guess. It wasn't social media back then, but we applied some of those street marketing tactics, promotion cards and that type of stuff. At the Hispanic stations, the street marketing was really important. So it was more like managing a promotions department once I got into the photography business.
JV: What made you decide to put that behind and chase voiceover?
Dean: When I left the Hispanic station, they had sold it. I had some opportunities to leave the market, but I had kids who were doing extremely well here. We loved where we lived and I just didn't want to play the WKRP in Cincinnati thing, moving up and down the dial. That's what got me into the franchise deal. I was doing some consulting, but that dried up in 2008 quickly. So I did the photography thing but never really wanted to do that full-time. That was supposed to be something that was going to pay for college and my daughter's wedding, and I ended up living off of it for a while.
I really missed being in the business, but I just didn't want to play the game of moving around. I still have a 15-year-old that's just getting into high school, and like I said, we're in a good community and we're real happy about that. So I thought about the voiceover thing, which is really where I started. When I was doing the morning show in Boston, I was also the voice guy for the CBS affiliate there, WNEV TV. So I had dipped my toe in the world of voiceover, and I did all right as an air personality. So I thought, "Why not give it a shot?"
I got some advice from some folks who had been doing it that I'd worked with in the past, and it's been a very good move for me. I wish I had done it years ago. I don't need an office. I get to work out of my home. I'm my own boss. If something goes wrong, the only person I can blame is me – but I still find somebody else to blame for it. J
JV: One thing you said before the interview that caught my ear was that when you got into it, you thought you'd make a few hundred dollars a month to start, and to your surprise, you started out making a few thousand a month.
Dean: I was absolutely shocked. I mean the first two months I did nothing. But I just stuck with it because I was still doing the photography business at the time. I learned more about the tech side and got my so-called studio squared away. Then the jobs just started coming in. A lot of it had to do with marketing and perseverance, of which I had a lot of when I first got into it and still do now.
It's really amazing when you look at it. A lot of the folks that talk about the business in general think that it's just about sitting down and doing voice work all day, and it isn't. It's probably 60/40, business to the voice work. So my programming and marketing, and even the marketing work that I did through the photography business, dabbling with the social media and all that has really been helpful with doing that part of this business as well.
So it's been good. I'm ecstatic. I really didn't think it would take off this quickly. And trust me; I've got a lot more to go before I can say I'm really successful, but it's been a very good run and the business continues to grow. So I'm excited about it.
JV: Do you have an agent?
Dean: No, not yet, but that's something that hopefully will come this fall. Right now I'm involved in a lot of the so-called pay-to-play sites online. You pay, basically, to become a member. Then you submit demos -- different styles like corporate work, e-learning, commercials, whatever. Then you describe what each demo represents. Then the voice seeker goes in looking for certain characteristics, and if there's a match, they send you an invite to audition and you go from there.
I'm involved with about four different online companies that I paid to be part of. One interesting thing I noticed just recently is that in the short time I've been doing this, about 30 percent of my business is repeat business, which is good. I'm starting to build a base, so it's not all auditions. I'm actually marketing to these people, and they’re getting back to me with repeat business.
Radio has been a huge part of what got me into this and has helped me to understand this business. One thing I really loved about radio was the research, the science behind it, the music testing, the different strategic studies and stuff like that -- not just one particular project, but project after project, year after year, looking at trends and really trying to figure out how to program based on the strategy and the research and everything you see. There's a lot of research that comes out of the voiceover work too, and I'm trying to use some of that information as part of how I market myself and how I put together my demos. So I'm applying those strategies to the voiceover part of it.
I'm kind of approaching the voiceover business the same way I approached both on-air, as far as prep, and also what I did as a programmer. When I was a jock -- and I was never really a great jock -- I had a decent voice, but I wasn't one of those smooth great jocks. This kind of helped me in the voiceover end of it, because voiceover work is not really about being smooth and having a big voice anymore. Those days have really changed. It's more about being conversational, really being able to sell copy, all the things that you want on the production side of it. But when you have the salesperson writing the commercial, maybe you're trying to get 180 words into a 60-second spot. That stuff is kind of gone from the voiceover side of it. You can see if an agency sends you commercial copy to do or if there's a radio station sending you commercial copy. You can tell by how it's written and how many words are in it. These days there seems to be a bit more creativity, at least from the voiceover side, because it's not about knocking out a lot of stuff just to get it on the air and get to the next thing. All these people do is just work on the creative side.
JV: What else are you doing to expand the business?
Dean: I get involved with different voiceover memberships. There are a lot of different things on Facebook, and there are consultancy companies. I have a voice coach, Marc Cashman out of LA. I'm also involved on the business and mentoring side of it with folks out of England, Gravy for the Brain. Peter Dickson is the guy there. He's the voice of the X Factor. He's been around for quite a while and is a very successful voice actor. He founded that company with a couple of other gentlemen. That has been really helpful, more so on the business side for me, although they do help on the voice side, too.
But it's really more about how you market and the type of marketing you do, and also the approach that you take in doing the voice work. It's not like doing a radio show. It's really thinking through the copy and probably all the things some production directors, copywriters, and people who are doing commercials want to do a little bit more of, but don't necessarily have the time because they're doing either production for six stations or they're doing an air shift at one station and voice tracking at three other stations, and then also doing commercials for all four stations. It's nice to be able to concentrate on some of the work, at least right now anyway.
JV: What genres of voiceover work are treating you the best at this point?
Dean: I'm doing more of the warm, fuzzy, natural approach. I'm working on a voice for some senior stuff that I'm starting to get a little bit of work for. I actually did a commercial about saving the wood turtles in Nova Scotia. I got to do an old farmer's voice. I auditioned for the spot. They said, "You sound good, but sound less American." I'm like, "Huh?" I had to Google and talk to some people about Canadian accents.
I'm not really into the hard sell stuff. It's not my strength, so I tend to stay away from that. I also get cast for a reasonable amount of work for voices many years younger than my actual age, which has been really cool. So I'm still learning. I just work with the copy. It's a different approach for each thing you do.
I do a lot of corporate stuff, a lot of corporate explaining, a lot of work for insurance companies. I do a lot of work for a company called Myriad Genetics. I've talked about breast cancer and different types of tests. Some of the subjects are really interesting, like some of the medical testing that's coming up. Even if they're not doing it now, some of the approaches they're taking now, some of the robotics and things like that, about the way that they're building cars and some of the assembly lines. It's been an amazing learning experience about a lot of things that are coming out.
You don't realize how much of this kind of work there is. I never paid attention to YouTube commercials. I was one of those bad people that if you were going to run a four second commercial in front of a YouTube video, I never paid attention to it. Now I do. And some of that stuff is very, very well produced because there are no time constraints. They can produce something 90 seconds. Nike does some absolutely amazing, creative stuff that's really fun to watch.
JV: What was one of the bigger surprises you found getting in this business?
Dean: Definitely the amount of work that's out there. They say it's a $14 billion industry. I don't know if it really is or not, but there is an amazing amount of work; and there are several pundits in this business that say there's more work out there than there are qualified people for it. It's a matter of finding it, marketing it, and getting short-listed for that stuff. And on the other side, it's the amount of people that think they can just pick up their iPhone and say, "Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3," and they're in the voiceover business, because they feel it's a really easy business. It's absolutely amazing when you hear some of the stuff. People think because they have a good voice they can get into the business, and that's not necessarily true.
JV: What’s in the home studio?
Dean: I think I have all the foam that Amazon sells. It doesn't make the room soundproof. I am working out of a closet that I'm converting, but it really has deadened the sound. It has made it acoustically very good. If a guy fires up a lawnmower across the street, I have a little bit of an issue, but I'm able to work around that. I have a Sennheiser 416 mic, and I'm looking to buy another mic. I have a decent PC, computer. I use Adobe Audition, which I just love. It has such great features and makes the editing part of it a breeze.
That's the other side of VO. There’s the voice side, and then there's presenting the final piece. The breaths have to be taken out or kicked down -- depending on the type of read, what they're looking for -- and the mouth noises and all that stuff. That's a lot of what some of the newer people coming in can't do. They don't understand the production, the amount of work that goes into the editing process at the end.
I just have a digital interface that goes to my computer from my microphone. Any processing that needs to be done is done in Audition.
It's an extremely simple setup. I do have a phone patch as well, so folks can listen in on sessions and yell into my ear. I do a reasonable amount of that. To tell you the truth, I enjoy doing sessions more than just cutting it and sending it, because I know when I do a session with them, they're happy with what they got. They got exactly what they wanted, as many takes as they needed, and it's out the door and it's done. Whereas sometimes when you do something online, you’re doing revisions.
JV: What kind of processing do you do in Audition?
Dean: I process it enough to give it a little bit of chutzpah, a little bit of strength, but I try not to overdo it because you don't know what they're going to do. When I first got into this, I didn't do any type of processing at all. At the radio stations I worked at -- all great stations, great companies -- they always had great chief engineers. I'd listen to the station. It would sound exactly the way I wanted it. If we wanted to make an adjustment I'd say, "This has to be a little bit more over here," or whatever, but I never told them how to do it. They just made it happen and it sounded great. We always had great audio chains. So I didn't really know a lot about processing and never paid close attention to it, because the people I worked with were experts at it.
So when I got into VO, I basically just plugged the mic into the interface, into the computer and sent it out. Then I heard some of that work coming back, and I'd be buried by the music. I realized they just weren't doing enough processing. They weren't doing enough to kick things up. So I just recently started adding a little more processing, depending on the type of project it is. But I try not to overdo it. I try and keep it as simple as possible. I'm looking at maybe getting something else that's a bit more extravagant as far as processing, as opposed to doing it with just software, although I think Adobe Audition is awesome.
JV: What processing are you doing in Audition?
Dean: I use a high-pass filter, just a tiny bit. It was suggested that might be a good idea. I've learned how to use this 416, where I can get relatively close to it, especially if I want to do something that's a bit warmer and fuzzier. The only problem is it picks up even a little bit of mouth noise. A little saliva bouncing around in your mouth sounds like an earthquake in that thing. So just a little with the high-pass filter and then I go back and do a little compression. That way I can be a little more animated if needed, and I don't have to worry about where the levels are.
The other thing that has really blown up is the amount of video production companies there are. If you Google video production companies, it just explodes, and it explodes on the voiceover end. I've worked with people in some good sized agencies and good sized production houses that do a lot of projects, and I've also worked with people that I know are working on a Mac at home in their jammies at 2:00 in the morning. Those might be some of the people that do great video and put together a good project, but those are the people that aren't necessarily processing the voices. So whenever I can, whenever I talk to a client or a voice seeker, I try and get as much information about how the project is going to be used and who's doing it, so I have an idea of what I should do.
I did a project for an electric company in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Power and Light, that was doing a documentary to save the osprey. The ospreys were building nests on the power towers and they were getting zapped. So they came up with this program to build these new towers away from the main towers, where they could nest. So I did the first one and they loved it. When I listened to the finished piece, you could barely hear my voice over the music. So another power company in Kentucky called me to do the same thing for them, and I knew that I had to do something different with the processing because they're not necessarily audio pros.
JV: Let’s wrap this up with a recent Q It Question we had for our panel. “Should promos be treated like commercials?”
Dean: The answer is yes. Right or wrong, it should be yes, based on value, because there should be a value put to production. I always put a value on production. I allotted X amount of promos per hour, and whatever I was running -- sweepers and any kind of imaging -- I put a value on that, what we charge for a 10-second, what we charge for a 30-second, 60-second. I always thought value-wise, that if I was taking time off the air that it had to be really good, that I wasn't going to run the same promo about a particular contest or event for three weeks. If I'm running that 70 or 80 times a week, that's just going to beat that into the ground. Anybody that's spending that kind of money for commercials probably has a wider variety of stuff to run.
So I always felt from a value point of view that it was extremely important, and I always felt that it should be treated the same from a creative point of view. Look at some of the stuff that big agencies are doing, really creative spots; I always thought that station imaging needed to be treated like that. If you were paying for those spots and paying for the talent to do it, your imaging and promos should be valued the exact same way, and you should put that value into how you produce them and how you run them, because they're a big part of the station. If they sound like the same yelling, screaming car spot that's running 60, 70, 80 times a week, and if you have something that sounds like that in your production, you're going to turn people off. That stuff is really important. So from a value point of view, I really think it's important to treat promos with that same value you put on commercials.
Dean welcomes your correspondence at