Q It Up: Where do you go to find “local” VO talent?

Q-It-Up-Logo-4Q It Up: Where do you go to find “local” VO talent? Not necessarily the professional kind, but those secondary, "natural" voices used for imaging or commercial work. These would be voices you can bring into the studio or record on site and easily direct, someone other than the receptionist or the interns. Maybe it’s a local broadcast school or an acting class at a local high school or college. Where do you go for those “other” voices? Please add any other comments that come to mind, including how you work with them.

Brent Curtis, Montpelier, VT: We find them in the office, and we are members of an “exchange” with other stations.

Gary McClenaghan, Bell Media, Edmonton, AB: As a former creative director, I tend to discover and coach my own talent bank to use for my projects, finding them throughout the radio station. I usually have a good gauge of someone’s vocal abilities and how it will work into my projects. Everyone has different talents, so I find their strengths and lean on those when their brand of read is needed. First place I look would be the creative department. Writers usually just need a bit of coaching to find their sound, and considering they write the stuff, they usually make a good fit in their own projects.

I have also looked into Drama classes in the past, unfortunately with surprisingly little interest reciprocated, which I never understood. The challenge is getting people’s nerves in check, which ultimately can only happen with more mic time, so I always encourage everyone to get in mic time on whatever scripts are available. As an imaging director, I mostly try to limit the voices, using myself, one distinct female, and the Primary VO guy, just to ensure the brand and message is never confused with all of the client based stuff on the air -- essentially building three characters to define a distinct brand, with the Primary always being first and foremost.

I just had this convo with my boss about why our network of stations chooses to not look within for their imaging voices. Why would we outsource to agents to find our brand, when in house talent isn’t being coached, and/or considered? One doesn’t need a booming voice to be a solid imaging voice nowadays. Too many stations just take the word of an out of market agent or consultant without considering what they may have in house company wide.

Ernie Hernandez, Global Tour Creatives: When I used to work in radio, I would often ask favors from family members (sister, brothers or cousins) or friends. My old co-worker, who was the Imaging Director, would actually pull in listeners to the studio who were just coming in to pick up their prizes from the front desk. He would literally just approach any listener he saw hanging around the front office and ask them to record a few lines. Worked really well for imaging as the voices he used were actual listeners of the station.

JJ Thomas, Cumulus Broadcasting, Dallas, TX: Being the McDonalds of the production world, it's usually rip and read and get ‘em on! For the times where we're able to spend time on a spot, we have a bank of voices in the sales area. Find that right voice in your own backyard! A lot of times, the sales rep never thought of voicing a spot, but with coaching and sometimes creative editing, it works!

We've also had voices from area convenience stores that we visit come in to record. They don't get paid, but cutting a spot that everyone will hear is a good enough compensation.

Al Peterson, Radio America Network, Arlington, VA:  I got lucky back in the mid-'90s when I was production director at "WINK 104" (WNNK Harrisburg, PA), as the Harrisburg Community Theater playhouse was literally right across the street from the studios. In exchange for letting them raid our sound effects library for a few plays, I had my pick of all kinds of voices and character types, all of which could easily take direction. A lot of our production work aired on other stations in the region, so they were just thrilled that they were on the radio in every corner of our region.

I've done the same with one or two community theater companies here in the DC area, but now I go to them and record them on a tablet with a USB mic and truck the audio back to the office. This way, they don't have to wrestle with the parking here.

Our annual influx of summer interns proves to be quite rich as well. Once they've shed their "mic inhibitions", they become fearless. I show them basic accents and dialects and often utilize phonetic spellings in the copy ("Kuoppa moyning" =  "copper mining" in a Boston dialect). We get killer voices, and they get a demo CD with enormous brag factor: while their classmates have demos of them on the local Frick-n-Frack morning show, my interns have material that aired nationally. Big difference.

 As painful as it gets, sometimes you just have to go with a voice as-is. Like appliance store owners who thinks it’s a cute idea to let their youngest daughter voice the store's slogan. On that, you just record multiple takes with different emphasis each time, and pray that the earth opens up and swallows you before you get stuck with the editing job.

Scott Smokin' Silz, HotMixEntertainment.com, Chicago, IL: I always grab artists that visit the station, contest winners when they pick up prizes down in the lobby of the building, and station events if there’s no music playing in the background.

Ronnie Kohrt, Ronnie K Productions, Northeast Broadcasting, Winooski, VT: I believe all good commercials are stories, and what better way to describe the story or play the part in the story than someone who can feel the emotion or play the real life person you're describing in the commercial! Like recruiting in acting or TV. Find the relatable individual to perform your character or role. It doesn't necessarily have to be local, but it just has to fit the sound.

When I need a graduate or 20-25 year old younger male, I fortunately have many friends in this range. When I need a Mom or Dad for that crafty ad about that amazing moving company, who better to turn to than your own! Does the client fit this role? Another place you can explore is the very client themselves, co-workers there or even their kids. Not only do you find your voice, but you embed their company into their product. This goes a long way with the client and is sure to amaze them.

Take advantage of the voices in your sales department, traffic, weather, even the receptionist or the winner who comes in to pick up a prize! I don't believe there's such a thing as a 'voice for radio.' Radio is emotion, radio is real life. Provide correct guidance and positive feedback and you can get a great read out of anyone! I've gone as far as taking my recorder out to our local outdoor walking mall to record ambiance and our local kiosk guy who sells popcorn.

Always ask for permission! And I go as far as having non-employees sign a release of voice document. The point I'm getting across is to tap into every resource possible. It bothers me when a single station just settles for dull copy, one voice doing every spot, including the tags (probably the production director or that one cocky account executive who thinks his voice is God).

Mechanics are not going to go halfway through their toolbox searching for that one sized wrench and say, "oh well. I guess I can't find the right wrench. Guess this bolt isn't coming off!" He's going to search his entire toolbox when looking for that right wrench for the application. You should do the same for voicing. Use every possible connection to create the perfect ad! And don't forget long distance friends. With today's digital age, I can get audio from across the country quicker than some can walk across the hall! I'm lucky to have a larger workforce that spans the country inside our company, including locations that range from Boston to the western hills in Wyoming.

As you can imagine, if I need that WICKED PISSAH BAH-STAN sound, I can tap into the connections who live that lifestyle. A swig of moonshine and some twang needed for that restaurant spot? I call on my cowboy friends in Wyoming! I've felt connections you've made in your career play a bigger part in searching for great voices than many think. I still stay in touch with a couple of good friends from school years ago who do a fantastic Bill Clinton... And you bet I'll be tapping into that voice soon with the upcoming elections involving Hillary!

That said, when you take, provide. Don't just pop in every year or so demanding some copy ripped. Keep the connection! Help them when in need! Send them a card once in a while for the holidays and keep that connection warm and fuzzy. You're not using the voice. You're working with the voice, and you should keep your partnership with them good, because you'll never know when you need the next perfect voice, for that next perfect spot.

Gregory Best, Best Voice Overs, Lakeside, CA: I think using unprofessional talent is a big mistake. You have made an investment in your station, product or image so you should be willing to also invest in professional talent as well. Put your best foot forward.

There is no reason a small or medium market station can't sound like it belongs in a major market. As a PD in the ‘70s, I learned how to do just that. I started out at a small town station in Illinois about 90 miles from Chicago. We local talent studied what worked in Chicago and other major markets. We hired Gary Gears, a Chicago voice over pro formerly with WLS, for imaging. Then WLS sent someone down to meet with us. They wanted to know why this little 3k watt mono FM was showing up in the Chicago book.

Try not to do in house imaging and especially not with amateurs. It makes a real difference to invest in a pro unless you are willing to accept mediocrity.

Andrew Frame, BAFSoundWorks, Lehigh Acres, FL: Over the years I have built up a comfortable e-mail address book of talent that I can call on for "natural sounding" full reads or one-lines, as well as which of them have children of teen age.

After-hours, I stick my head out the door and have my wife or daughter come in and run off the lines. They easily have the ability to carry small- and regional-size work, so I'm never at a loss.

Gord Williams: I think I can comment on where you can find talent, but nothing definite about finding talent that fits the project.

First you can try local radio, but I personally feel that if you hear them all the time on the local radio, you would not want to have them on a local radio project, if for no other reason their work - good, bad, or indifferent is included in the cost of advertising where they work. It would be very uncommon to find someone who does not do spots for their station. However, there could be some cache with government projects or special projects for clients of the radio station, such as industrials or similar.

Secondly, I would be more likely to look for local talent at theatre performances, as they have acting ability and can emote when they read. They may blow your meters out however if they aren't used to being mic'd and have to hit the back of the room with their voice. Bring the limiters.

The third thing is to try and create a seminar for those interested. Kind of a catch all. I was involved with a project that did just that and tried to market the talent like a promoter. The traction on that was sketchy as was keeping the talent in check. My mistake perhaps was to not paint a rosy picture of the prospects, and some wandered off when we got interest. Hard to close the deal when you don't know where they are.

Finding a great non radio voice is probably as easy as listening, anywhere at any time. Convincing them they have the talent can be another, as without the training, great natural voices may not overcome nervous tendencies or sound natural during a read.

I think producers have to adjust and make it less about being a Johnny one take for talent that aren't in it full time and more about helping them along to produce pieces that sound great on their audition.

Michael Shishido, Ohana Broadcast Group, Honolulu, HI: At our radio group (KUMU, KDDB, KQMQ, KPOI), we use everyone in the building unless they have a real aversion to speaking in front of a microphone. The "real voices" come from the promo people, the receptionist, the sales assistant, etc. We are fortunate enough to have enough bodies in the building to get most, if not all, of our production done. The real problem is getting kid voices and it's usually a client that'll write a spot that calls for a child's voice (and they usually want to get on the air tomorrow, but that's another topic). If that situation arises you have to have a knowledge of who in the station has kids who are willing to voice copy. Then you need at least an extra day to get them in the building to record their part.

The other challenge is getting the best performance out of these infrequent voice talents. It takes time. And it helps if the copy is written for regular people. These characters shouldn't have commercial lines in their copy. Their lines should be natural. And if the copy doesn't work, get it changed. Edit it so that it'll work for your non-professional voice over person.

Whether it's the receptionist or the sales assistant or someone off the street, you'll know pretty quickly how much talent you have to work with. I will try to use at least everyone in our station at least once. Usually by the second session, I'll know if they've got more of a natural voice over talent or if they require voice over TLC. Radio is still a fast-paced business. We don't have the luxury of coaching someone who wants to jump in the business from out of the blue (although that has happened). It does tend to slow down your work flow when you need to stop and coach someone from scratch.

Because it's such a fast moving atmosphere, there's no real outlet that I've needed to cultivate to develop a farm system for voices. I supposed if pressed, I would tap the local colleges. The marketing department would be a natural, but the real talent is in the drama/theater area. Amateur actors are the best bet, even if they're lousy stage actors, they usually have enough talent to pull off a radio commercial. The other challenge to all of this is money. Outside talent probably will want a talent fee. There's no budget. So we're back to the receptionist.

Dennis Brougher, KPRO, Riverside, CA: We're a small AM station here in SoCal with no budget for outside talent. In the past, I've used weekend board ops, my chiropractor, a soon-to-be ex-wife, even the guy delivering the Sparkletts water bottles. Once I had to record a 60 second paid safety spot for one of our Dodger Baseball sponsors. It was supposed to be me and a female voice sitting in a car. I changed it at the last minute to a dad talking with his kid, when my 4 and 5 year old happened to stop by the radio station. After a bit of coaching and a lot editing, it turned out to be a great spot that the sponsor liked, rather than the original male/female voiced spot. Besides, I was short one female voice anyway, so it saved my bacon, too. 

Adam Venton, UKRD, Bristol, United Kingdom: In general, this doesn’t apply to us. However, there was one occasion (for the World Cup imaging I sent in recently) where we needed a Portuguese VO, and Col’s (my boss) neighbor turned out to be Portuguese – so we had her in to do it. She’d had no voicing experience, so it was a challenge, but the results sounded great. It was just pure luck that she lived next door!

Johnny George, Johnny George Communications, Fishers, IN: After being in radio as a Production/Imaging/CSD guy for over 25 years, I only WISH I could have had the service that is available to me now for alternate voices.

I belong to a voice bank of very talented production people, who freely barter back & forth their vocal prowess on a daily basis. I too give up my voice, but don’t follow the day to day courtesy. I am available to them and their voices are available to me, but I purposely do not overuse them since I am busy too, but as a freelance voice actor with a stable of clients who use me on a regular basis. When I do need a variety of extra voices and the “kitty” is a nice dollar amount, I pay, rather than barter, in an effort to spread the wealth. Wish I could do it more often. Some of my clients have made some of these other talents their regular voices and I only orchestrate the connection, review and edit if needed and act as an agent and take an agents fee for doing so.

Our group is world-wide, which makes for some authentic accents and styles. I like that. And visa-versa. Thanks God for the Internet, not what’s-his-name. The availability of outside talent at a moment’s notice is a great tool to be able to utilize in today’s markets.

If you’re not part of a group, organize one yourself. But it’s a long road to find dedicated and responsible people that need each other to make each days production sound less “local”. Receptionists, salespeople and other jocks are quite valuable, but you can use them just so much.

Todd Broady, Entercom, Buffalo, NY: When sales and clients want to take their ads to a high level, I call on local actors here in Buffalo. I have a good working relationship with several groups in town. I can call, tell them what I’m looking for and they can give me exactly what I’m looking for. They are professional. They take direction well. And they’ll usually hit it out of the park in several takes. It’s amazing to me what the right talent can do. Takes a mediocre spot to being a great spot! A tool I use is producing the ad with in house talent and outside actors. Let the client hear the difference. They almost always pick the Actor.

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