R.A.P. Interview: Jay Ginsberg

JV: What did you take away from that eight-year experience that you would pass on to somebody that wants to break away from radio and start their own production company?
Jay: I love working for myself. However — and this tends to be true for most people who have gone into full-time freelance or owning their own companies — you have to do the marketing side. You have to be willing to spend the time developing your clientele and handling the business side. That’s been the side that I really never had much interest in. But Peter, my partner, loved doing that. He loved going to client meetings and working on the marketing materials, while I loved being in the studio and working with people and writing. So, because we had that chemistry right from the beginning, it worked out really well. We had a lot of national clients. Peter was very good at talking that game, while I was good in the studio.

For anybody who wants to do their own business, I wish them luck, and they may do extremely well; but there is that side of needing to get out and hustle up the clients all the time. We were very lucky to get some big clients, and I had the pleasure of gaining that experience of working on these large accounts — Dole Foods, Kaiser Permanente, large national clients. But the getting of the clients wasn’t something I was interested in. So when I got the job offer at Comedy World with a really nice payday, I just thought “Yeah, let’s go – I’ll go do that for a while.”

My career has always been kind of jumping around. I’ve taken occasional time off from radio to do some inventing; I have some patents. I was touring manager for a deaf theater company for a couple of years when I took a break from radio. I had a deaf girlfriend that I lived with for three years, and she was an actress. I actually helped them on the road, and that was a great experience for me. But I always ended up going back to radio.

That reminds me of a story, from back in 1972. There was this general manager of WAYE; his name was Harvey Tate. I was quitting that job because there was something going on politically at our station that I wasn’t happy with; it was probably about the music or something silly. I said, “You know, I have to stand up for how I feel; I can’t deal with this.” He said to me, “Jay, you’ll never get out of radio.” And to this day, I can’t get out of radio. I love radio. I always go back to it.

I’ve been so fortunate to be able to make my living in radio and have the creative experiences and the opportunities I’ve had. Every day I’m thankful. In fact, this afternoon I have a friend coming over to spend the night, he and his wife. I worked with him back at Kamel in 1982-83. He works at KGO now. We’re still old friends. I still have quite a few friends who have stayed in radio, and we stay in contact. We share our stories, and we’re still all enjoying it and grateful to be able to do the work we do, the work we love.

When I get tired of it, then I’ll stop. But each day is an opportunity to grow creatively. I enjoy the daily interaction at the radio station. That’s one of the other reasons why I like working in radio. I like going in every day. I like seeing the people. When I work at home and I’m working alone a lot, there’s that human experience that I miss.

JV: You’ve been doing the voiceover thing for quite a while. What have you picked up along the way about the voiceover business that would be helpful to someone trying to break into it?
Jay: Voiceover is a different industry from radio, and voice acting, as opposed to announcing, is a different element of what we do. It really takes commitment to make a living in voiceover. One needs to not only study voice and acting and work on technique and style and the development of all that goes with that, but also again there’s a lot of marketing, a lot of time spent reaching out to clients, showing up, doing a great job, and maintaining communication with your clients and so on.

The way to make a living in voiceover is to work hard. Some people, some of my students, will land nice accounts that can pay thousands of dollars for a 30 or 60-second spot, but then you go back to your $200 or $300 commercials, if you’re doing nonunion work, and it can pay even less. So you have to be ready to work hard and find something that you do that’s somehow different, that sets you apart because there are thousands of people now involved in voiceover. When I started in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, there were probably hundreds across the country making a living doing voiceover. Now there are thousands, and so many people from radio are making that jump, whether for creative reasons, because they need to get out of the radio station environment, or they just want to make more money and have more fun working on their own.

So, I wish everybody good luck doing that, but it’s a road where you’ve got to spend your time marketing and you’ve got to keep your chops up, in terms of your voice work. I had a great experience last week. I’ve done it a couple of years in a row now. I work with a fellow named Marcus Lovett, and he’s the voice of David Letterman – he does all the David Letterman promos and does all the promos for the ABC Morning Show. He travels around the country. Wherever he is, he just grabs an ISDN line and plays his tracks to New York. I love working with him because he’s just so darn good at what he does, and he gets paid really well for doing it. His ability to take the words on the page, read them really well, generally on a first or second take, to the tenth of a second to fit a video, is amazing. His level of ability is inspiring, but it also shows how hard he’s worked. He was on Broadway playing the lead in Phantom of the Opera. Now he’s the promo voice for ABC and has been for all these years. He’s an opera singer. He has this great tone. Besides doing the promo work, he’s also a musician. He’s very active creatively in lots of areas, and I think that’s what it takes.

When you’re doing full-time VO, it swings with the mood of the industry. You’ll be hot for a year or two, and then it really quiets down. That’s happened to me. For example, I love doing announcer work. I actually have a website dedicated to Racer Stevens. People call him my alter ego. It’s this kind of deep, over the top voice that’s sort of loosely based on Don Pardo. I used to love doing that kind of stuff. Well, there’s less and less of that sort of stuff going on now in VO. A lot of voiceover is this natural, conversational style, as opposed to the announcer or booming voice. There’s more narration work now than commercial work. Then you have to choose: are you doing union work, are you doing nonunion work? Where do you stand?

So anyway, there’s a lot of opportunity in both radio and voiceover, but for those people trying to make the shift, be ready to build slowly. Have some money in the bank when you get started, unless you already have clients – sometimes people will take clients from a radio station and make them their own. But you do have to work hard when you own your own business. You’ve got to take care of all the billing. You have to reach out to new clients. You’ve got client meetings. You’re doing voice casting. It’s a lot of work.

One of the things I love about radio is that you’re working with the same group; you know what their expectations are, and you try to meet that, of course. But every day you go in, you do your job, and you leave it there. You come home and do home life, and then go back to the job. When I was working my own business, I tended to take it with me. I’d even work weekends sometimes — just always working and thinking about it. Now I don’t do that. I leave the work behind at the station, and then I come home and I do my life. Then I go back and I do it again the next day.

I teach all my classes on top of that, and I do my own voiceover work. Every morning I get up around 6:30 or 7:00 and I start doing auditions for my agents in my own home studio. I have agents in San Francisco and all over the country. Then I go to the station. I’ll keep my e-mail open at the station and I’ll occasionally cut an audition at work, but not very often. Usually I do my audition work at home. They let me do a little freelance there at the station, which is really nice. They even gave me an office just for my freelance work, downstairs in the building — just a very unusual situation for me, and they made it really right. They support my freelance there, and that’s made a big difference.

I’m actually mentoring some of the people at the station now. I think they appreciate that, that there are a couple or three people there that are really interested in radio and have something to offer. I’m able to offer up my 40 years of experience. Some of them have only been in radio two or three years, so I’m there to help them, and that’s something I enjoy.

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