R.A.P.: So, when you're not doing voice work, you're working on the Madden program?
Dennis: Yeah, I work on the Madden show. The Madden show is now distributed by a new company, Major Sports, out of Chicago. Chris Devine is the owner of Major Networks, and Jeff Schwartz is the head of Major Sports. These guys are Chicago radio guys from way back, and now they have this new company. They're distributing the Madden show and two Bob Costas shows plus a show with Pat O'Brien. They're currently developing programming for the future, and Gary and I are involved in helping them develop that. It's very exciting.
R.A.P.: Is the area of syndication large enough for production people to pursue as a sideline much like you did, or is it confined to a small group of people these days?
Dennis: I would say that syndication has shrunk over the years. All you have to do is look at what's happened to Westwood One and Unistar and NBC and Mutual. They're all one company now. They used to be separate. There's been a lot of combining, and it's certainly shrunk in terms of the number of people who have been involved. It's been downsized just like everything else -- fewer people doing more. I wouldn't say it would be a great time for production people to go out and say, "Hey, I'm a hired gun. Hire me to produce a syndicated show." I think the production people who would get work in syndication would be people who already have a great idea and already have a show that's pretty well fleshed out, and then try to pitch it to a network or a syndicator. That's probably the best way to get a show on the air if you're a producer.
R.A.P.: Before anybody tries to get some free-lance voice work they need a demo. What advice do you have to putting together voice-over demos?
Dennis: I think the most important thing you do before you put a tape together is find out who you are in the market. What I mean by that is find out where you fit in. If you're a top personality in your market, chances are you're not going to be hired by an advertising agency to do radio or TV voice-overs because they're looking for voices of people who sound like anybody. They don't want a personality. They want types. In my case, I'm sort of the anti-announcer. I don't really have a ballsy announcer voice, and I get hired a lot as the regular guy, the normal guy, the typical dad, the typical husband -- "Honey, I'm home." So the best thing you can be is anonymous.
Secondly, you want to fit a niche. If you do have a great announcer voice, there's plenty of work out there for people like that. If that's who you are, then that's your niche, and that's what you ought to go after. If you do incredible characters and incredible dialects, better than anybody you know, that's where you ought to head. Then you make a tape. My first tape had song parodies on it, and it had me doing comedy dialects and my straight voice. I really didn't get any work from it. A friend in the advertising business told me to narrow it down, find a niche, and then fill that niche. So that's what I did. After listening around, I decided I was going to do a "honey, I'm home" regular guy tape. Finding a niche was the best advice I ever got.
Then I made my second tape. Make your tape very narrowly focused, especially when you're starting out. Focus on what you do best, and then hammer that for two minutes. And you want colors. If you're doing a straight read, you might want a more up tempo read, then a slower read, then a quiet read. But you want maybe two minutes of quick cuts of basically the same type of approach.
Once you start getting work, then you're in the door and people know you. Once they know you, then you can start surprising them. When I update my tape now, I don't really look for types of reads, I look for actual spots I've done that are either high profile spots or spots that a lot of people have reacted to. These are the ones I put first on the reel, so the response is like, "Oh, he's the guy who did the Pennsylvania Lottery. "Oh, he's the guy who did the Regional Transportation Authority spots." "Oh, he's the guy that did that funny thing on TV" -- things that are high profile that people recognize and talk about. And you say, "Yeah, that's my voice." That's what you put first.
Now I send out a two-sided tape. One side is straight reads, and the other side is characters and dialects. If I were producing me, I would know other people in the market who probably do character voices better than I do. But the people who already know me, well, now they've got something else to listen to, and they'll say, "Oh gee, I never thought of him as a guy who could do this." Then, once you have a reel like that for commercials, you need a reel for narrations, and industrial television and video, and sales presentations. A lot of people are putting their advertising and marketing dollars back into point of purchase and selling, helping their sales departments sell better, and they're putting together videos for all kinds of things, non-broadcast things that never go on television or radio. That's a booming business, and that's where a lot of voice-over people are needed as well. And you need to come up with another tape just for that segment. I've got a demo for about every sort of thing.
R.A.P.: How often should a person update these various demo tapes?
Dennis: I always use six months to a year as a good bench mark.
R.A.P.: You've made a lot of contacts along the way. Has this been a big part of your success in the free-lance arena?
Dennis: I am really the product of networking. I've always worked and collaborated with people I've worked with before. And with the help of friends, getting their advice and making contacts, I've been able to get where I am.
R.A.P.: Do you have a studio at home?
Dennis: Well, believe it or not, I don't have a studio per se. I basically have an editing station. I resisted the temptation to build a studio because I really like working with an engineer. Have you ever tried to fix a car these days? It's impossible. Cars are so complicated now, and there are people out there who are specialists just in tune-ups and emissions testing. I could run my own board and do the knobs and dials, but I prefer to work with an engineer. I do that with the Madden show, and I hope to do that with future shows, if I can.
But what I have at home is basically just an editing station and a writing station. I have two Panasonic SV3700 DAT machines, a CD player, a double bay cassette deck, an Adcom straight line converter which I plug everything into, and I have an old Teac reel-to-reel. I even use the turntable about once a month.
R.A.P.: What all is involved in putting the Madden show together?
Dennis: When we put the Madden show together, I decide on what we're going to do that month and I buy tape, sound bites from a whole list of stringers around the country, guys who interview sports people for a living and then sell us hunks of tape. Then we take that and combine that with Madden's commentary which I write, and that becomes the John Madden Sports Calendar. When I get all this tape from all over the place, I write my scripts, time the segments, and then decide which pieces I'm going to use for that one month. I load that onto one reel of tape. Then, if I need to edit it, I edit on the reel. However, there will come a time very soon when everything will be done digitally. That vocal tape is then sent to Chicago where they put the shows together. A guy by the name of Jeff Collins who is our new engineer does the final mix of the show. He gets Madden's tape, our scripts, and my vocal reel; then he mixes the show together.