by John Pellegrini
During the mid-eighties, I was doing mornings at a station in Illinois, and getting frustrated. I felt that my career was slowly going nowhere. I was losing my enthusiasm, and I began to believe that remaining in radio would amount to nothing more than playing one Madonna hit after another. It's not anyone's particular fault; we just don't enjoy the job anymore. Usually, the remedy is to get a job at another radio station -- keep moving every time the boredom sets in. But this time, the thought of staying in radio just didn't appeal to me. I believed that I really wasn't going to learn anything new, just change cities and maybe get a bigger paycheck. So, I decided to quit radio.
Some people are frightened by change. I seem to thrive on it. When I get to a point where others are feeling comfortable and secure, I panic and look for something new. I had been at the station for about two years, and as a means of diversion, as well as hopefully learning more about comedy, I began attending occasional improv classes at the Second City in Chicago. But, the more I went, and the more people in theater I met, the more I was inspired to think I was bound for the footlights. I decided to quit radio and go into acting full-time. I moved to Chicago. I would take as many acting, improv, and voice-work classes as I could. I would audition my head off, land some big roles, and find fame and fortune.
As you've no doubt gathered by now, this didn't exactly happen. For reasons far too numerous and involved to mention (maybe I'll write a book someday), my blazing showbiz career went down in flames before it even got started. But the year and a half I spent unemployed (I'm sorry, I mean "acting") had some major benefits, even if it cost me a fortune, because I did take acting, improv, and voice classes. I learned some valuable information which makes what I do now much easier. Plus, through auditions and other things, I was able to meet agency people as well as recording studio engineers. Some of them were kind enough to pass on their wisdom which I've used ever since. The studio stuff is already covered in Radio And Production by others far more qualified than I. What I want to spend some time on is the subject of acting in radio production, because if there's one thing the radio world needs desperately, it's better acting.
Notice I didn't say "actors." That's because we are all actors in radio, whether we know it or not. Your on-air persona, or your announcer's voice is a character that you've been acting out for years. But acting without direction is just so much spinning the wheels. At Second City, they teach you to be a writer/director/producer/actor. Apart from being able to blow smoke up your own ass, what this does is enable you to think very quickly in a number of directions and chose one instantly. Sounds like a Production Director's job to me.
When you're starting out in acting, the first thing you learn is to pay attention to how you perform or deliver the lines you've been given. Pay attention to the emotion you're trying to portray as well as the emotion you're feeling. Often, they're completely different. Discover the route between them as well. I'll come back to this momentarily.
We can all announce, but very few can do it convincingly. By that I mean, really sound like you're interested in the product you're trying to sell. Is this important? You bet! It's the reason your jobs exist in the first place. Make the product interesting to the listener, whether it's a sponsor, the station itself, or you as the air personality. We're selling product all the time.
So, how do you pretend you're truly interested in this load of crap someone has chosen to call ad copy? Playing with emotions is a good way to start. There are many different emotions and attitudes you can have for different situations. Think about all you experience in a typical week. Now, realize that the way you feel emotionally will affect your voice and your style of speaking. When you're excited, you talk faster, possibly at a higher pitch than your normal voice. When you're depressed, you're slower, more lackadaisical. When you're angry, you're very abrupt with an extremely determined edge. Listen to yourself and the way your voice changes and reacts to your different emotions. Then, try reading your copy with various emotional changes. How would you read this while feeling stressed? How would you read it if you were sleepy? Other factors that can change your voice include the physical ones. Your personal health can be a factor in your sound. How would you sound if you had a cold, or if you were constipated, or near death? You don't have to actually live through any of these ailments, just imagine how you would sound with them.
Pretending you have those problems is the way you start acting. Make sure, too, that you record yourself when doing this and continually monitor how you sound when you're pretending. This way, you'll develop new characters faster.
Now, I know that some DJs might not be interested in reading copy emotionally, or enthusiastically, their point being, "I cannot associate myself too closely with a product because it will cheapen my reputation with my listeners." Horsecrap. Less than fifteen percent of a station's listening audience actually remembers the names of the air staff. Unless you're doing a personal testimonial, the majority of the listeners don't care whose voice it is. There is something else important to consider here. If you have any plans or interest in making those "BIG BUX" in ad agency voice-work, I can guarantee you that you will not get any work, or very little work, if you sound like a "Radio Announcer." Contrary to what you may hear otherwise, ad agencies don't want "Radio Announcers." When I was auditioning for voice work in Chicago, every single talent agent I went to told me not to even mention that I had worked in radio. Ad agencies want actors who will sell the product, not sell how good they think their voices are. And that is the perception that agencies have of disk jockeys and radio announcers.
The key is disassociating yourself. Your own personal beliefs are not important. The actors who play the bad guys are some of the nicest people in the world when they're not in character. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of acting. You're not being paid for what you think; you're being paid to sell what someone else thinks. Many people cannot do something they don't believe in. That's why there are so few really good actors.
Acting is a tough art to master. Many people work at it for years without ever feeling good at doing it. It's a continual and constant learning process. Not only must you be aware of your own emotional control and how to manipulate it so that you can bring out whatever you need, but, to develop characters, you've also got to observe other people and how they relate to their surroundings. Everything I mentioned in my article on character voices [Schizophrenia for Fun and Profit - July 1992 RAP] comes into play because acting is developing characters. Acting is also imitation. Lawrence Olivier wrote in his book, On Acting, that he based his portrayal of Shakespeare's Richard III on an American theater director that he had worked with a few years previously. "One of the most loathsome, contemptible men I'd met," he wrote. Perfect for the characterization of Shakespeare's ultimate villain. This is how acting develops. Doing a spot for a hardware store? How would the grease monkey at the local service station describe the service and selection you get there? How would that hated math teacher you had back in grade school describe that formal restaurant you're supposed to do a commercial for? Need other characters? Spend some time at your County Courthouse. There's an entire pool of character talent waiting to be used by you. Soon, you'll find characters everywhere you look.
One thing I don't encourage is studying other actors for your characters. Study their methods by all means, but don't base your portrayals on theirs, unless you're deliberately doing an impression. Watching Perry Mason is no way to learn how a real lawyer speaks and works. Also, if you find yourself admiring an actor's technique so much, then you haven't seen a good acting job. Acting, when done well, involves the total abandonment of the self, and the total commitment to the character, to the point where you don't even see any technique. You don't think for one second that Dustin Hoffman is doing a great job pretending to be Willy Loman. You instead think, "My God, was that Dustin Hoffman? I didn't even recognize him!"
After you've begun to act on radio, you'll find it's incredibly easy compared to acting on stage or on film. That's because all you have to change is your vocal style -- no makeup, no props, no costumes, no physical changes whatsoever. That is the magic, the "Theater of the Mind" of radio. You can be anyone and everyone. You'll also find that if you approach your production with an attitude toward acting the script, not only will your production sound better, but you'll also begin to write better copy because you'll be more attuned to the delivery and communication of the message in a believable way. You'll take greater care in eliminating tired clichés and catch-phrases because you'll see instantly that they don't work or contribute toward persuasion. I'm convinced that if salespeople and agency people were to take some acting lessons, advertising would improve overnight.
Acting challenges you. Acting forces you to examine the world around you and keeps your outlook fresh. It's extremely tough, frustrating, and demanding. I could write an entire article on every possible mistake you could make while acting, and on my very next project make every single one of those very mistakes without even realizing it. Hell, I couldn't write the articles I've already had published in RAP if I hadn't goofed up in the first place! But, the rewards far outweigh the pitfalls. To have a client tell you that no one has ever been able to sell their product as well as you, is one of the best thrills in the biz -- that and a nice paycheck.
We production people are the last keepers of the flame of radio's great theatrical past. That may sound pretentious, but it's true. If Orson Welles were alive today, and trying to start his career the same way, in radio, he'd likely get into some kind of production job. I can just hear some modern day Program Director telling him to keep War of the Worlds to under a minute and a half. The point is, we still understand and breathe the potential of radio's imagination. Granted, there are some days when all you can do is rip and read copy. But, by utilizing acting, and theatrical technique, you can clear your head of the clutter and examine other approaches. God knows we can all use as many new ideas as we can get. Acting allows you the freedom to be someone else and think from someone else's perspective. The character you become knows everything he or she needs to know about your subject. Just give them the chance to tell the story of how their life was changed by it. You're only limited by your imagination.