R.A.P. Interview: Rob Naughton

Rob-Naughton color white

Rob Naughton, Rob Naughton Voiceovers, Edwardsville, IL

By Jerry Vigil

When we last checked in with Rob over 15 years ago, he was taking care of commercials at KSHE in St. Louis, working alongside Ed Brown who at the time was handling the imaging. Rob eventually took over imaging at KSHE where he stayed for many years before exiting to take on his growing VO business full-time. Now three years on his own, one look at his client list, and one listen to his demo, and it’s safe to conclude Rob is doing very well and will continue to do so. From radio imaging to full-time VO, that’s what we talk about in this info-packed interview that’s a must read for anyone looking to make the same transition. Rob hooked us up with a special demo, which we feature on this month’s RAP CD. Be sure to check it out!

JV: Let’s pick it up from 1998 when you were at KSHE. How much longer did you stay there?
Rob: I was there for another couple years, then I got lured into the Internet by the interest of that little unknown thing at the time called streaming. I was fascinated by the tech side. I guess my “geek” came out, and for several years I was kind of on the streaming side of the early Internet talk and stuff with a couple of dot coms before broadband was even a household word.

But then after the dot coms went bust, it was harder and harder to find a job in that industry here in St. Louis. Fortunately I got a call from the PD over at KSHE who, at that point, was looking to fill the position of Imaging Director and he thought of me. So I went back there and started being an Imaging Director at KSHE and did that for maybe seven or eight years. During that time I also ended up imaging the Emmis property, WLUP in Chicago, for a couple of years, and I did that from St. Louis.

JV: Is Ed Brown still at KSHE?
Rob: Yes. He is the Commercial Production Director for the whole cluster in St. Louis, which I believe is four radio stations. He made the transition from imaging over to the commercial side when everybody started building clusters of radio stations. He likes that side of it. It offers a lot of variety and it’s an integral part of the radio station. But I was actually the imaging guy at KSHE for many, many years. And it was a good time. I had a lot of fun -- full carte blanche.

The neat thing was I was able to freelance during that time and get started in the VO industry. And though I was let go during some budget cuts at Emmis in St. Louis in late 2010 or early 2011, I had built my business enough at that time to absorb the hit. It was great of them to let me freelance like that for several years building my own business. I always joke that they kind of gave me a nice severance package in advance. So things worked out because I had really built the VO business during that period.

JV: So you had been building up clientele for what, like a couple of years before they let you go?
Rob: Yeah, a couple of years. And it was neat of them never to complain that I was in there doing stuff for a good part of the day that had nothing to do with them. I would never work for a competitor obviously, but I was building my business during that time.

I think that a lot of radio guys, especially in the imaging department, and commercial guys too, are able to do this. It’s uniquely something that only radio has, that you are in this job where you can do auditions, you can build these demos, you can learn all these skills, and you can build your freelance business while you are working for someone else. For imaging guys in radio to make the transition to voice, we are poised really well. Actors have to go from job to job, and you don’t know where the next check is coming from. If you talk to actors out in Los Angeles, it’s a tough gig. But radio allows us to be employed while we are building the business.

I think imaging guys have the special skill of being voice talents, writers, engineers and producers all at the same time – something else only radio offers. It’s a unique skill set that the imaging guys at radio stations have – and let’s say imaging people, not just guys. It’s a unique skill set, and it definitely does translate into a good skill set for home-based VO artists.

I think my imaging background had certainly helped prepare me for this. And I would say that it was being both in imaging, which is the pure promo side, but also coming from smaller markets when I first started, where I had to do commercials, too. All day long I had to do both when I first started in radio, and I developed a good range, in a lot of different formats -- anything from narrating a nature show on Discovery to doing hard-hitting rock promos for somebody. That range, being that flexible really doesn’t hurt in this business. I think that’s helped me.

JV: When you were building this client list for those two years prior to being let go, were you building clients on the imaging side or the commercial side or both?
Rob: Everything. That’s the neat thing about voiceover. While it has a huge healthy business in radio imaging, it also has affiliate work. There’s narration, there’s commercials, there’s promo, and if you are really lucky, there’s movie trailers, but very select people get into that.

There are a lot of veins in the industry, so I spent those years really exploring where I kind of fit in, what I was good at and what the industry would allow me to do within it to make a living.

JV: Did you make a decision at some point in your employment there that you were going to go out on your own, or did that just happen as a result of being let go?
Rob: No, it was kind of overdue that I should have left anyway and gone out on my own because I was having trouble splitting my day between the two studios -- my studio at the radio station and the studio at my house. And because you have to do a lot of sessions via ISDN, my agents were getting confused as to which numbers the studio should call. And that’s just not cool. At the time, I was doing some stuff with NBC Olympics and some other stuff that was big enough that you just want to keep it simple. I was getting kind of straddled between the two studios a lot, and so it was inevitable that I had to leave anyway.

JV: Do you remember the first day when you thought, hey, this is going to be okay, this is going to work?
Rob: I think that day was after I got fired. I had a session with TNT the next hour that I had to get home in time for. But again, they gave me that opportunity to build my business, and most radio stations I think will do that. I know that in groups like Clear Channel and some others that I’m aware of, guys are doing station work for all varieties within their clusters and in their other cities and such. That’s how a lot of guys have built their businesses, too. I didn’t take that track, however. Emmis is a smaller company, so we didn’t have that many properties. But I did do The Loop in Chicago, and I helped out a little bit in some of their international stations and other stuff, too.

JV: Do you remember that first gig that really paid you, that made you jump and go wow, there’s money in this?
Rob: It was for FSN, Fox Sports Net. It was just a 15 second promo, and then I saw what it paid and was like wow.

JV: Were you still at the station then?
Rob: Oh, yeah. And I did those for a whole series of shows. At that time, Fox always faxed their scripts over, and I would tie up the fax machine. That was just the way they did it. They’d send you this sheet, and that’s how they tracked the money. But anyway, I would tie up the machine and the salespeople would be like, what is this? And again, everybody was so understanding at the station, so it was cool. Not all companies would do that, would allow you to build this whole other business while you are working for them. That’s just another plus of being from the radio side of things. I think we are more of a relaxed industry and we like what we do. We like radio and we like doing it. A lot of people in the station, including my bosses, were interested in what I was doing. They kind of wanted to be voice guys, too.

What I would say to other people is don’t hold back from talking to your bosses about stuff like this because I think you will find that they are very open to it and that they are actually very interested in what you are doing. I still find people that are kind of surprised what the voice over industry is, but when I tell them to turn on the television and just listen to how many voices are coming at them, then they get it.

JV: You certainly took advantage of the opportunity to set yourself up while were working at the station. That obviously has been key to your success on your own. What else would you say has been integral in your success thus far?
Rob: That I treat it like a business, and that means I have to market. I have to improve my technical side. Like anyone else, I need equipment to make it happen. And I’m always looking for ways to improve on my own. You’ve got to take the business seriously. It is what it is. It’s a business.

JV: And developing your voice, is that something that you’ve done through coaching or just on your own? How have you progressed in that area?
Rob: I would say there were two things that I did. One was a few acting lessons. I didn’t go to The Theater Conservatory of blah, blah, blah; I just took a couple local classes to get me around actors. And the first thing I noticed was that none of them listened to the sound of their own voice. Radio people tend to listen to our voices a lot. We love the sound of a cool voice. They don’t listen like that, and they are more in the moment. I definitely picked that up from them, be in the moment. That’s what actors are good at.

And I did do some coaching. I worked with a guy named David Lyerly. He was very influential in getting me more tweaked for what television wants when you are working with TV. That was very helpful. And there are a lot of coaches like that. I went to websites. I started out at places like VoiceoverUniverse.com, where there are a lot of other people. You can post questions and learn about what equipment you need to get going. I went to VoiceBank.net early on and saw all of the agencies that are out there, both nonunion and union. That’s where you get their contact information and find out how to go get an agent. And that is a big part of the game, getting an agent that fits you and gets you the kind of work that’s going to help you prosper.

JV: Some of the clients I saw on your list online, CNN, TNT, Jimmy Kimmel Live, narration work for the Discovery Channel, a biography of Morgan Freeman, NBC Olympics, National Geographic. I take it some of these were on board before you went full-time voiceover?
Rob: A few were, yes.

JV: And I see that your agent is Atlas. Were most of these landed through that agency?
Rob: Later on, some of them. Some were from some other agents. I went through two different agents before landing at Atlas. It wasn’t because anybody was better or worse; it’s just that Atlas was a good fit for me. And again, that’s where I kept moving forward. I was with one agent that kind of discovered me and gave me my first chance, but they weren’t the best fit for where I wanted to be. So I kept moving through the industry, and that’s what I think it takes -- unless you land in that perfect fit the first time out, of course. But yeah, a lot of that work really comes from them -- all of the work is from them.

JV: Well, that’s what you hope for when you get an agent, right? You hope for good clients.
Rob: Yes, yes. I did do some work in the beginning myself, which may help some people, too, when they are in the process of trying to land a larger agent. I actually reached out to video producers that I found. At the end of TV shows, you will see what production company produced the show. I actually reached out to those shows’ producers and offered myself to do scratch tracks, which are basically free voice demos that these production companies do for their clients. A show that’s produced for Discovery isn’t necessarily produced at Discovery Studios. A different studio might produce that and sell it to Discovery. I reached out to a few of those people; one was a company that did a show for Discovery and another one was Ant Farm, which does movie trailers for both theatrical movies and video games. Both gave me some chances to scratch for them that turned into jobs. That kind of got me the credentials to move forward with some different agents and build their confidence in me. If you’re a guy that is essentially unknown, living in the Midwest, trying to get into production things that are going on in Los Angeles. you need some credentials to get you there so that they believe you can do it.

JV: That’s very smart.
Rob: But I am always tweaking. Just last year or so, I really wanted to tweak my studio more just to make sure that it was up to par with where the other VO pros are, because I’m competing against guys that make millions or recording studios that spend a lot of money. A lot of commercials are recorded in very expensive recording studios. I have to match their sound. So I found a gentleman named George Whittam. One of his websites is EWABS.com. That’s East West Audio Body Shop. He does podcasts and they talk about nothing but equipment. He’s a radio engineer who now services the VO industry in Los Angeles. That’s what he does. But he came from radio. They just talk about all this equipment. He will also do private sessions and tweak your equipment over either ISDN or Source Connect, which is just a way that he can hear what my studio sounds like. He can also adjust it just with mp3 files.

So I used him just last year to tweak my room to make sure I didn’t have any extra noise or stuff like that. It’s an ongoing process. One reason I do it is because I love the industry, I like messing with this stuff; and two, it’s just something to make sure you’ve got your game.

JV: Tell us about the studio gear.
Rob: I basically use one of the standard mics for at least the VO industry, which is the Sennheiser 416. I run that through and Avalon M5, and then that goes into Adobe Audition.

JV: Narration seems like it would be a challenge to jump into for someone coming from radio. What was your first narration gig and what was that like, how did that come down?
Rob: They liked my voice on an upfront piece that I did for Discovery Channel. They asked me if I’ve ever narrated, and I just said yes. And I’ll tell everybody in the industry, that’s one of my little secrets; I say yes. Steve Tisherman, who was Don La Fontaine’s agent, was the first guy that ever called me back because I was able to kind of imitate movie trailers really well. So he called back, and for every question he asked, I just said yes. And when we got off the phone, I immediately called up the Screen Actors Guild and said, “How do I join you guys?” Steve asked if I was a member, and I just said yes. [laughter] Well, why not agree? I said sure, I could do it.

Well, they sent over like 40 pages of narration. I overly prepped for that gig. I read that thing forwards and back to make sure I had it. Not something that I do these days, but at the time, yes. It threw me off a little bit to read that much for that long, but I did okay. It ended up working out pretty well. I got the gig.

Just answer yes.

JV: Did you have to deal with the stigma of coming from radio when you transitioned to VO full-time?
Rob: Is there a stigma?

JV: Well, it’s a stigma that seems to be fading away. Now, it almost sounds like you have an advantage over some people that don’t come from radio.
Rob: You do have an advantage. Like I said, in being an Imaging Director, the ability to act, engineer and produce at the same time, that’s definitely a skill. And there are some video editors that end up making the transition to the movie trailer voices. Tony Rogers is one of those people. Don La Fontaine was a trailer writer before he made that transition.

The only stigma that’s on radio is because of the old time radio voices, and they still will send directions for many auditions that say, don’t sound “announcer-y”, and that’s kind of a common joke.

I don’t really find a stigma there. It really doesn’t matter. You either got it or you don’t. And as I said before, a little bit of acting lessons and stuff may help you get out of that radio mode. And the only way that I can explain the radio mode is this rapid fire, ripping off tags and just being used to having to fit tons of copy in a small amount of space. We do tend to carry that over sometimes, instead of backing out and forgetting about the way your voice sounds. What is the spot saying?

But as far as a stigma, the biggest voices that you hear all over the television came from radio. Yes, many commercials are voiced by actors, but a lot of the promos and many of the trailers are radio guys. Howard Parker, Joe Cipriano, they were all voice guys for radio stations.

JV: Any other fun stories you’d like to share?
Rob: I would say the fun stories come from the home-based situation when you are doing things. One summer I promised the kids we would go on vacation to Colorado to Estes Park. So we are in a cabin, and I didn’t know that I was going to be the voice of the Summer Olympics and other shows that were on cable networks at the time we planned this vacation. So I’m up in the top bedroom in this little cabin with a raven making a ton of noise outside of the room, trying to voice all these promos. And if it rained, you could hear it on the roof. Those are the situations where the home-based VO guy kind of goes MacGyver and makes it happen, and that’s where it gets interesting, definitely.

You’re going to go through a lot of those, and I know a lot of guys that have the same sort of war stories of trying to make it work on our end because the buck does stop here. You are the engineer that has to make it happen. Sometimes technology will throw you some curves right before you have to perform, and you’ve got to be ready to go.

I remember once at the radio station, they had this alarm system for our windows because the windows faced outside, and if anybody tried to break in they would go off. Well, they were pressure sensitive, and I’m in there jamming on some music playing back from a spot that I was doing for the CW Network, and the alarm goes off. And I’m making up excuses to the engineers because the alarm was going off, excuses about internet connection difficulties and such. Fifteen minutes later, the engineers finally got the alarms to shut off so I could continue the session. Things like that are going to happen, and you’ve got to stay cool. Stay cool and get through it and you’re going to be okay.

JV: You must get asked a lot: how do I get into VO? What other tips would you offer readers who would like to make that transition?
Rob: Visit websites where you can get the information. Ask a lot of questions. Many professional voice people were extremely helpful to me when I was getting started, and I would say their names but then they’ll get a ton of emails and be mad at me. They know who they are, and I’m very appreciative. And people that reach out to me, I am just as equally helpful. We are a small community in the VO industry, and you will find as you get into it that people are open to helping you out and giving you any assistance getting in.

I would say again that you do have to think of it as a business. You are going to have to market yourself. We would all love to go on American Idol and be discovered and that’s all we have to do, but it doesn’t really work that way. Make the calls, go to the different websites and get the information. Start pursuing agents and the rest will come. And mostly, find your strengths and build on them. Don’t try to be everybody else that’s in the industry or sound like everyone else. Find your voice and go with it.

I do get asked by a lot of imaging people how to make the transition. I just want them to know that you are really in the best situation that you could ask for, working in a radio station and being able to freelance. That’s where you are going to learn about how a studio should sound and everything else. I don’t know many industries that really give you that chance to do that.

JV: And you’ve got the engineer right there if you have a question on the tech side.
Rob: Yeah, and I used our engineers at the radio station a lot. I really bothered them a lot when learning all the technical aspects that I needed to know to be able to run a business like this. You have to be up all the time. You have to keep your company running, which means power backups. I have two of everything. Every piece of equipment I have is backed up. If you go down, a client in Los Angeles doesn’t care what your problems are. They will find someone else who can do it.

If you are employed right now at a radio station, that is the time to prepare. You don’t have all the concerns of not getting the next client. Do it when you are working in a station, and hopefully they will allow you to do that. That is the best situation because being a starving actor is not easy. That’s the other option, to just start off with nothing. That’s not easily done. I would really say that people employed in radio stations are in the best situation to get started in the VO industry -- especially now when home-based voice actors are more accepted than ever before.

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