"Gimme a bray-ay-ay-ay-ake! Gimme a bray-ay-ay-ay-ake! No-oh-oh-oh!"
Standing alone in a soundproof room, a grown man is imitating a sick car. Other adults watch through a small window, listening, coaching, judging. The five people assembled in the small recording studio and control room are making a sixty-second radio commercial for a car-rental company. The idea is to get family-car owners to rent a car for in-state trips, instead of gambling on the old clunker to climb the Mogollon Rim one more time. An engineer sitting at the control board carefully monitors the actor's performance. Another actor waits for his turn at the microphone. Two representatives from the local advertising agency producing the spot watch attentively. The man in the booth is Bill Andres, a longtime local deejay and TV entertainment reporter on KDKB, Y95, KOOL-AM, and Channel 12. He'll be paid a fee somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 for his twenty minutes of vehicular mooing.
Andres doesn't do much freelance voice work. He's glad to have this job and it shows. Andres would like to join the local voice-over elite. Dozens of different voices can be heard on Valley radio and TV stations, either promoting news shows or selling soap. A select few are heard more than others. One of the select few is Bruce Miles, who waits to record the 36 seconds of narration that will be spliced onto Andres' hacking car. Miles also can be heard as the voice of Berge Ford, the Nifty '50s Arizona Lottery game, and the Phoenix Zoo. A popular local actor and theatre maven, Miles specializes in versatility. He's one of the leading talents for "character work" in radio and TV commercials. Other voice-over pros are best at providing a "straight read"--reading copy using an announcer's voice of authority. Others specialize in sounding like the guy or girl next door. A couple of fellows specialize in the Voice of God. These voice-over specialists are commercial artists, working steadily to drive home a continuous aural message: "Buy." Commercials and promotional announcements for radio and television are their daily bread. They also can be heard in industrial films, in airplane cockpits and during scary rides in big theme parks.
You have no idea what they look like, no idea what their lives are like. But there they are. And they are everywhere. It seems like a pretty good living--getting paid for talking--and if you're good at it, it is. That explains the daily telephone calls to Barb Raynard from people who have been told their voices are great.
Raynard, who manages Lambchops Creative Recording Services in Phoenix (one of a handful of studios in town that do a lot of voice work), has turned the telephone calls into a side business. For $50, she offers the callers one-time voice counseling, which means the prospective announcer gets to try some scripts and discuss the business with a pro. Raynard can usually tell right away whether the wanna-be will get work. "If they automatically become Gary Owens--Mr. Announcer--I know we're in trouble," she says.
Gary Owens was the guy on Laugh-In. You remember: acoustic tiles on the wall. Hand cupped over the ear. Lots of insincere syrup coming from the mouth. Owens was an only slightly exaggerated caricature of what staff announcers once were. For years the industry has been shifting away from the often-stiff "announcer" style of read toward more expressive voice acting. "We're looking for rubber voices, people who can read a script 97 different ways and sound believable in all of them," says Raynard. "Or at least half of them. It's a very tough job."
For a fee in addition to the $50 consulting charge, Lambchops will help would-be talent get their rubber voices down on a demo tape, which they can shop around to studios and ad agencies.
Believe it or not, this occasionally works.
For the most part, though, voice-over professionals start as disc jockeys. Some come from the theatre, and most of them keep one foot in the profession they've come from, primarily because it's next to impossible to support yourself with just your pipes.
Charlie Van Dyke, of course, is an exception. He just talks and talks and talks and does quite well. Competitors envy his lifestyle.
Van Dyke's bold announcer's voice--almost everybody in the business calls it the Voice of God--can be heard in fifty cities, either promoting an upcoming television news show or precisely enunciating a radio station's call letters. Van Dyke doesn't do commercials anymore. God doesn't do characters. God doesn't sell tires.
Phoenix isn't much of a hub for national advertising or recording work, but its best voice-over stars are as good as anyone in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. Starting with God and proceeding in no particular order, these are the some of voices you've been hearing.
CHARLIE VAN DYKE Van Dyke is the sub-woofing authority figure who introduces various segments on KTAR and promotes news shows on Channel 12. He also can be heard doing the same thing in dozens of other cities.
Van Dyke started young. "I clearly recall, at the age of four, knowing what a radio was and thinking it was fascinating," he says. His first air shift came at age fourteen. In the years since, Van Dyke has worked in radio in Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Phoenix. His last regular radio gig came at KTAR in the mid-1980s, where he served as host during morning drive time.
By then his freelance business was booming. Today, the miraculous and ever-advancing cutting edge of technology can deliver a Van Dyke voice-over almost anywhere in mere seconds.
Typically, a station executive from another city will fax Van Dyke a script promoting his news team's blockbuster three-part series on cat adoption. Van Dyke will record the spot in his Phoenix office-studio, while the station exec listens in on a souped-up telephone line.
The station functionary, who pays Van Dyke a regular retainer for such work, may suggest changes in the delivery ("Punch up that part about `Homeless felines crying out for love'") or he may not ("Loved it, babe, that's a wrap").
If the promo runs tomorrow, Van Dyke sends the tape via overnight mail. If the cat-adoption story is breaking news, Van Dyke can deliver the spot immediately via satellite to the client.
Meanwhile, Van Dyke has kept an eye on the trend toward "voice acting." "More and more people don't want a straight announcer to read something," he says. "They want the delivery shaped around each piece of copy, with more secrecy or compassion."
Or urgency. Van Dyke also can be heard in some airplane cockpits, as the calm-but-concerned voice of a built-in warning system. He doesn't remember the name of the device. But he does remember the warning: "Dive! Dive now!"
THOMAS C. BASHAM
Another deity-caliber voice, Basham is best known locally for his thundering radio and TV commercials for the Phoenix Cardinals. Played at three-quarters volume on any one of the automobile sound systems along Central Avenue on a Saturday night, a Basham sound bite can kill at twenty paces.
Basham got his start in the theatre, and as a young man studied with fabled acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Later he studied drama and oral interpretation at Baylor University and the University of Southern California. Later still he signed a seven-and-a-half-year contract with Universal Studios, where he worked as an actor on TV series Adam 12, It Takes a Thief and others.
Basham was working in repertory theatre in Los Angeles when a fellow actor MDRVsuggested he could do voice work. He's worked steadily at it ever since, in L.A. and New York, providing voices for cartoons, films and commercials. In Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, Basham's voice does the creepy narration during the spirited ride.
"It was one of those things in life where it felt kind of like a niche," he says. "Without much effort, without a lot of hustling, people just started coming to me."
They still come to him, all the way to Phoenix, where Basham fled the big cities about four years ago, and where he can be heard selling Shasta Pools.
But he is best known here as the voice of the sorry Cardinals. When recording the spots, Basham paints a mental picture of the team's mascot as a bird of prey. "My sense of football is that there is something dangerous and exciting about it, and I want to bring in that color," he says. As a marketing device, Basham's voice far surpasses the team's on-field performance.
LISA MALAY Malay's serious-gal-next-door delivery can be heard as Charlie Van Dyke's female counterpart at Channel 12. She also sells for the Culiver Team auto dealers, UDC Homes, and Camelview Plaza. On weekdays she handles a midday shift on Mix 101-FM. "I liked commercials when I was a kid," she says. "I used to entertain--I thought I was entertaining--my parents. I drove 'em nuts on car trips, reciting commercials I'd seen on TV."
Malay got into radio in her hometown of Kansas City. "It sounded like a piece-of-cake job," she says. "I knew I wanted to talk and try to entertain people or something."
Making commercials is part of the job description for radio air talent. She's done them for her radio employers from the beginning and began to pursue outside freelance voice work about six years ago, during a long affiliation with the sister stations KTAR and K-Lite.
"I like the anonymity that comes with being behind the microphone," she says. "It's acting without having people stare at you. . . . I'd love to do cartoons. I think that'd be a blast."
Lebeau's voice has been heard pitching Eveready batteries, Kemper Insurance, Michelin tires, Pepsi Cola, U-Haul and more than a dozen other products. She's capable of a wide range of characters, and gets asked to do more teenage parts than a fortyish voice actor would expect.
Her big break came when she was teaching speech and communication classes at Phoenix College. A friend asked her to do the narration for a political commercial. Someone from the supervising ad agency liked Lebeau's voice. "You can really do this," he said. "Do you want to?"
She said yes. "I felt immediately comfortable in the recording studio, and ended up doing more work for that agency. . . . I don't think I would've had the courage or the nerve to say, `Okay, I'm gonna make a career move into show business.'"
But move she did. Some of her acting credits include parts in several movies, a role in the soap Search for Tomorrow and a list of resume entries compiled while working with several local theatre troupes.
If you never watch TV, listen to the radio, see movies or attend local theatre, there's still a great chance you've heard Lebeau's voice. She has done several sessions for companies recording voice-mail telephone systems.
RON BRISKMAN Briskman is Toyota's regional voice, as well as the public-service voice of the local "Don't Drive One in Five" campaign. He can be a fast-talking character or he can tell it to you straight.
Briskman was running successful restaurants in Chicago when he stepped into a voice-over-business cliche. A guy walked up to him at a dinner party and said, "You've got a nice voice, have you ever done commercials?" Briskman said no and forgot about it.
As things turned out, the two men, who had never met before, lived in the same apartment building. One day they met again, shared a cab downtown and Briskman finally was cajoled into making a demo tape. "Four days later I was doing a national commercial for the Ford Motor Company," says Briskman, who was determined to remain in the restaurant business (he was running Dingbats, famous for its colorful doorman, the then-undiscovered Mr. T) until the first $6,000 residual check arrived.
Briskman moved to Phoenix in 1985 and started to build his own recording studio, called Aaztec Recording and Tape Duplicating, from where he regularly records commercials both local and national. Listed with 300 ad agencies across the country, Briskman is one of the busiest voice workers in town. He recently recorded narration for a fleet of commercial sightseeing helicopters based at the Grand Canyon. BILL EIMERS
Eimers says he specializes in "friendly, enthusiastic kinds of things, men in their twenties or thirties." He still gets the occasional call for an adolescent voice. Recently he has been heard as the voice of World Car Rental Sales, but he's also done campaigns for Phoenix College, Big Two Toyota, and Bashas'. Some voice people are represented by talent agencies. Others go it alone. Eimers, Briskman, and Lebeau market themselves as a team, sending out tapes and resumes to relevant ad agencies and studios about three times a year. Each tape carries the three voices emoting in a variety of situations. Eimers was an acting student at a performing arts school in San Diego when the idea of voice-over work first came up. While visiting Phoenix he met up with a fellow who ran a recording studio. Eimers fibbed about his voice experience and went in for a tryout read. "I was horrible," Eimers says. "He basically said, `Gee, you're pretty horrible.'"
But Eimers practiced and in a few days came the call. The first spot was for Diamond's. The strangest role since has been a talking cactus. Eimers, who works as a manicurist when he's not speaking commercially, is serious about his craft. He is a voice talent, first and foremost, not an aspiring radio jock and not an actor between parts. His last theatre work came about five years ago, and he doesn't actively pursue lucrative on-camera TV commercials. "I don't have any desire to be on TV or be a deejay," he says. "This is what I really like. None of the other stuff appeals to me.
"It's just me and the copy and the voice. No memorizing, no marks to hit, no hair blowing in the wind. It's me and the words."
BRUCE MILES Miles is a character, and can play hundreds of them. He's done Santa Claus and several elves in one spot, former Arizona Governor Rose Mofford in another. For a Circle K promotion in the not-so-distant past, Miles was asked to provide the voice for an animated crocodile. The convenience-store corporation was building a nationwide promotion around the release of the Crocodile Dundee sequel. Miles' crocodile had to speak with an Australian accent.
Not surprisingly, Miles has talents above and beyond his unseen airwave work. He's currently starring in the much-extended run of Guv: The Musical, Mill Avenue Theatre's lampoon of Arizona politics. He helped found the theatre about three years ago. Before these recent career turns, Miles worked in local radio, as a jock at KRIZ, KNIX, KBBC and others. In addition to his work for Berge Ford, the lottery and the zoo, Miles has done several national commercials, including one for the Visa credit card.
Miles has a reputation for being eminently directable. Alone in the booth, trying to sweat out thirty seconds of copy, voice-over pros hear all kinds of interesting directions from the folks gathered on the other side of the mixing board. Miles' favorite: "Can you be a little more relaxed? And can I hear some more excitement in your voice?"
TONY EVANS Evans has been Channel 3's promotional voice for ten years. His commercial work can be heard for clients like Five Star Ford, Mega Foods, Little Caesars Pizza, and Hi-Health stores. His announcing style is breezy and upbeat.
Evans also works a midday shift on "classic-rock" KSLX, where he can be heard on many of the station's commercials as well. Four or five recording sessions are not an unusual weekly load, he says. Even though KSLX's commercial studio is several giant steps down a hallway from the control board, Evans has been known to cut spots during his air shift. "I like to be versatile," he says. "The boss likes to watch me fly along the tile."
Like many of the voice-over experts, Evans started as a kid. "I remember at seven years old playing disc jockey in the house," Evans says, "playing the music through the air vents to my parents." Evans was a wizened fifteen when he got his first real radio job, spinning records at KDOT in Scottsdale.
His reputation is considerable and long-standing. Unlike most local vocalizers, Evans doesn't shop a demo tape around town. "I don't look for work," he says in a matter-of-fact way that can't be categorized as bragging. "It comes to me."
They can be heard in industrial films, in airplane cockpits and during scary rides in big theme parks.
In some airplane cockpits, his is the calm-but-concerned voice of a built-in warning system. "Dive! Dive now!"
"I liked commercials when I was a kid. I drove my parents nuts on car trips, reciting commercials I'd seen on TV."
"It's just me and the copy and the voice. No memorizing, no marks to hit, no hair blowing in the wind. It's me and the words."
His crocodile had to speak with an Australian accent.
"Can you be a little more relaxed? And can I hear some more excitement in your voice?"
"You can really do this," he told her. "Do you want to?