The Commercial Chronicles: Whose Voice Is That? Wait! It’s Mine!

comm chron logo1by Dennis Daniel

When you’ve been doing this gig as long as I have, everything kind of meshes together. I don’t even think it’s possible for me to calculate how many radio commercials I’ve done since I started professionally in 1981 (My God… the mind reels!) It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve done thousands! At 55 years of age, that really does seem quite mind blowing.

Shit, I can still remember when I had my little Panasonic tape recorder with the condenser microphone and wooden frame around the speaker. I played with that thing endlessly, doing all kinds of sketches and voices. I never would have dreamed as a 10-year-old kid that one day I’d count my recordings in the thousands! A tear comes to my eye when I think about all the reel-to-reel master tapes of all the commercials I did for WBAB and WDRE in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Where are those tapes now? We used to put the overload in the basement of the buildings. Well, those building are gone… and so is all that work! Not to mention all the imaging I did for those stations, and others, over the years. All of it, GONE! Truth be told, whatever I sent to the RAP Cassette back in the day is about all I have left of the work I did back in the day!

That’s because when you are on the endless meat grinder of day-to-day production, the only real thing you give a shit about is getting everything done so you can go home! I’d say a good 80% of it all was just fodder! Meatball productions for clubs or bars or car stereo places. True, I did have my gems that I loved… but most of it was just “the job.”

I remember, in these very pages, how I waxed poetic about the stress, injustices and downright villainy going down every day as a radio station production director. I’m sure it’s still the same, if not worse because of how much radio has changed.

Suffice to say, I have cut a lot of stuff.

What’s really strange… what’s really mind blowing, is when you cut so much stuff you forget what it is you cut, and then, you can be walking in a mall, or watching TV or listening to another radio station, and suddenly, a commercial comes on and it sounds very familiar. In fact, it sounds like you. Know why? IT IS YOU! Has this ever happened to you? It is Twilight Zone time. Did I do that? I don’t remember doing that! Why don’t I remember? Because it’s impossible to keep track, and once the stuff goes out there, it can have a life of its own!

Friends send me You Tube videos with old commercials on them and say, “Is this you?” I can’t tell you how weird it feels to be listening to something, hearing your own voice, and not remembering when you did it… or that you did it at all. Yet, there you are! IT’S YOU! This has happened to me countless times.

We sit in front of the mic, we read the copy… we produce… we go on to the next thing. Sometimes what we do stays at the station… other times we’re doing it for more than one.

I’ve done commercials for lawyers who, to this day, still use the same VO! I’ve done countless end tags for radio and TV commercials. They still exist out there. Who else has a job like this? It’s like being your own ghost! I can’t keep track! It’s not just about volume, it’s about memory! How could I possibly remember all that I have voiced that’s gone out there into the stratosphere only to re-emerge and be heard in the most unlikely of places, some of it YEARS after it’s been done. I don’t remember what I did yesterday!

So many times I’ll be asked, “You know that spot you cut for so and so in May?” (I’m being asked in November.) “They’d like to re-do it.” I’m like, “Spot? I did that? Let me check my folders.” OY! It’s actually kind of embarrassing! But I’m just so used to reading it, then forgetting it. It’s just another cog in the endless wheel of stuff that keeps coming and going on a daily basis.

I remember the first time I ever heard myself on commercial radio. I had just started a gig as a part-timer for a small ad agency. They hired me because the owner of the agency’s husband discovered me. I was going to college studying “Communications” and working at a Taco Bell at night. I always did voice impressions, so to keep things lively, I always joked around with the staff and customers doing voices. One day, this traveling district manager comes in, and the manager of my store says, “Hey Dennis… do some of your impressions for Mike.” So I did a bunch, including my famous “Who’s On First” with me doing both parts. The guy loved it! He said, “Hey, my wife owns an ad agency. I’m gonna tell her about you. Maybe she can use you. I got an appointment with them and proceeded to do a dog and pony show that got me the gig. My first professional job was to do a series of impression commercials for a ski shop. I did The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, The Marx Brothers, The Honeymooners and Archie & Edith from All In the Family. I recorded the spots at WBAB. That’s how I met my future employers. Anyway, I do the spots and I find out when they’re going to air… and I actually got up at like 5AM because that was when the first one aired. It was beyond exciting to hear myself on the radio. Remember feeling that way?

Once you’ve entered the maelstrom, the wine gets corked. This is not a function of not caring or not being excited… it’s a function, in my case anyway, of workload. When there is so much on your plate, you don’t have time to savor. It has to be banged out in order to get to the next thing. So my advice, if indeed you feel as I do on this, is perhaps to take a step back for a moment. Think back to the wonder and majesty that came with first being involved in this business and doing this for a living. Try to remember how special it is. If you lose that sense of “special” once and awhile, it’s understandable. But we do have the ability to go beyond a present mindset. We can take a trip back and examine why we’re here in the first place. I mean, just thinking about the fact that I have done so many commercials I don’t even remember one’s I’ve done is really quite amazing when you think about it. I am as guilty as anyone for losing the sense of magic because it has become a “job.” Yet, there is still a sense of magic in it, isn’t there? As long as there is that very small spark left, there’s hope that a balance can be found between the “job” and the “magic.”

This month’s commercial us a play on words. I have always loved the back and forth of word play in sketches by Abbott & Costello and Monty Python. I wanted to create something that followed in those footsteps. It is all word play, and I think it works. However, here is the real interesting part… it has never aired. I’ve done about 10 different versions of this spot, just changing the client… and no one… not one… thought it was funny or worked. So it still sits… languishing in that netherworld of unrealized ideas. It may have been created, but if it doesn’t air… it’s unrealized.

What does my RAP Pack pals think of this spot? Does it work? Is it too complicated? Am I sacrificing humor for the message? It just blows my mind that this has never been used by anyone. I play it for people and they literally fall on the floor laughing. Maybe that’s exactly what’s wrong with it! It’s too funny! It’s too good. It’s not memorable for the message. Go ahead and be brutal with your opinions. I’d really like to know what you think. I never put anything out there like this before, so let’s see what happens! Thanks for any input… and have a great New Year!

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