It’s an honest question. I get it a lot.
“How do I get into voiceovers?”
Usually, the person wants a Secret Formula…wants to know how I did it…wants to know how to follow the same path I did. The thing of it is: you can’t follow that path. It simply doesn’t exist anymore.
The first thing I used to tell these people (back when I knew everything) was, “Get a part time job at your local radio station.” My start was a 250 watt AM station in a small Indiana town, which (until they added FM) could barely reach the city limits. Places like that do still exist, but now they’re usually just outlets for syndicated programs with someone else doing all the talking. Even if you did manage to find a station that’d let you do much on the air, chances are you’d be stuck in a rigid format that frowns on any individual personality.
Voiceover’s “Poison Pill”
But let’s say you did find a local station that’d let you keep that mic open for more than ten seconds at a time. Chances are, you’d be learning and developing skills alright… the wrong ones. For one thing, you’d likely be tempted to sound like the other radio DJs you’ve heard all your life, and who are on the air with you now. Trouble is, that DJ sound is exactly what voice seekers don’t want anymore. They avoid it like the plague. Send out a voice audition with what we used to derisively call the “Ron Radio” sound, and you probably won’t be heard past slating your name. Even if you’re not yukking it up like a DJ, chances are you’ll be considered “too announcer-y“. It doesn’t matter how nice your voice sounds.
Writing Your Own Ticket
Unlike my experience, you also won’t find yourself in a position to develop your own style by creating your own material. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I’d never make it as a Disc Jockey. But I did enjoy running what they used to call a “tight board”, turning the various elements of an air shift (commercials, Public Service Announcements, time & temp, and the music) into one smooth audio flow. After a few wrong turns I was finally able to see a more likely radio future in the production room. Doing commercials and little comedy bits for the “real announcers”, I was able to use all the character voices I’d gleaned from years of watching Bugs Bunny and Yogi Bear and Bullwinkle. Not just funny voices. Characters. Eventually (very eventually), I got hired by a radio station who wanted a production guy who could “think like [Stan] Freberg and keep it clean”. There I found a like-minded mentor who showed me how to adapt my writing skills into creating good, engaging, and entertaining advertising copy. Within a year, I started picking up local Addy Awards. Part of my secret was being able to write material for myself I already knew I was good at. The other part was luck in having advertisers who let me do it. You may not be able to rely on your own word-smithing to give you an edge.
So What Am I Supposed To Do?
Chances are, you can’t get away with doing what I did. Heck, I wouldn’t be able to get away with it myself. Radio stations don’t have time to train you, they want you to hit the ground running. And formats are so rigid today, the kinds of stuff I created would never get on the air. And studios? They don’t have time to un-train you!
Have you ever been driving down an Interstate and notice an old two-lane road running alongside? It’s an older way to get somewhere, but not exactly the same route or even end point. There are still ways you can adapt the things I did to get into voice work. Not everyone has the same experience, but here are some parallels.
- Find A Place To Stink. Comedian George Burns lamented the end of Vaudeville because, he said, it left “no place to be bad”. Touring the circuit, performers were able to learn what worked and what didn’t, until their talents were polished and their individual styles emerged. You may not have local radio, but there are podcasts, local theatre, or even just fooling around with the record button on your phone. Learn to listen to yourself. Compare what you hear to the sound and style of national (not local) commercials. Don’t imitate those voices. Find a way to do your own version of those styles.
- Find a Mentor. Sure, you probably won’t have anyone like the guys who took me under their creative wings at the radio stations. But you can find teachers online, maybe even where you live, who’ll guide you to finding your own voice (or voices). I’m not talking about the people who want to sign you up for an instant voice demo after a $2,000.00 weekend seminar…I’m talking about someone who’ll work with you, one-on-one. If you don’t have stage fright (or even if you do), get involved in community theatre. You’ll learn how to use your voice in the context of a character (straight or comic). See what you can learn from various directors. It’s likely you’ll have several mentors shaping you before you’re ready to “show yourself”.
- Learn what you’re good at. You may be able to do a great Homer Simpson but guess what. That job’s already taken. Perhaps you can sound like Morgan Freeman or whoever the celebrity-du-jour is for producers. But unless you’re a great impressionist, just develop your own way of adapting those styles. It’ll happen over time. And it will take time.
What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
So, yeah. You probably won’t get anywhere in your voiceover career by trying to do it the way I did it. But that’s because this is now…and you’re you. I’m still at it because I’ve tried to keep learning and adapting as styles and market demands change (and they’ll always be changing). Once you get the hang of reading the signs, I bet you’ll find the “road rise up to meet you”…instead of coming to a dead end. I’d be interested to hear what routes you’ve discovered.
— over and out —