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September 18, 2002
The Challenge of Voiceover Readings
 

I called a plumber to my house the other day because my outside hot water tank was leaking. He walked into the house lugging his impressive array of tools, announced that he was a plumber and instantly-without a word from me-began checking the water pipes beneath the kitchen sink. I told him that wasn't the problem. The problem-just as his dispatcher had told him-was a leaking hot water heater outside. He grunted an acknowledgement to this information, banged some more on the pipes under the sink, handed me a bill and quickly left, believing his work done. It wasn't. My hot water tank was still leaking.

What's wrong with this incident? Must I tell you? The self-proclaimed plumber had absolutely no idea what he was doing. He didn't hear the dispatcher or me tell him that the problem was a leaking hot water heater. In other words, he didn't listen or get the back story prior to his visit in order to do his work properly.

This is precisely the way many radio voiceover people stand before a microphone and give a reading sound to the text. It's also why they have so many problems with cold readings. They're just banging around, hoping their self-designated position (a voiceover person) and their tool-bag of vocal tricks and shticks (very deep, macho and warmly pleasant voice for the male; soft, yielding and sexy for the female), along with the accumulated baggage of past performances, will handle the whole job. It won't.

And, instead, in a cold reading competition, they'll be doing the banal "voice-focused" reads of every other actor who passes before the mike. They simply haven't bothered to read the text for story content, which is not just the words on the page, but the human condition story that took place moments or hours or days before the printed copy begins. It's also found in the ideas beneath and between the words. All copy has a back story potential - single voice or dialogue. If the performer is using their cultivated theatrical imagination and practiced acting skills to find and execute the backstory, the copy will dynamically come alive and the chances of winning the audition will improve exponentially.

Even If a piece of dreck copy routinely begins, "Right now, the Ace Hardware stores are having a sale on light bulbs," the back story, for example, could be that a friend (always visualize someone you know or knew) who has told you that he or she is always bumping into the furniture and falling down because the house is much too dark.

And you then suggest that he or she needs more lamps and light bulbs; and their reply is that bulbs are too expensive for that solution. So your first line of the copy, filled with the emotional tone of that excuse, just received from your dim-witted friend, is then emotionally colored with, "boy, what a cheap klutz! Okay, here's an opportunity, cheap, klutz. Listen up!"

This is, of course, just one of many back stories that could be used for this copy approach and if you find my story a lame one, come up with a better one--but better do it faster than fast in a first reading because others are waiting who probably can nail it. You say that you're not sure you can do it that quickly or even skillfully?

Then practice, practice, practice-while all the time remembering that one is never only talking to the microphone and an invisible audience. It's always a specific other person (one who is represented by the mike or is perhaps just on the other side of it). And it's always someone known intimately. Their presence is highly palpable; so palpable, in fact, that one can experience their scent, see their eyes, feel their energy presence.

The constant exercise of talking "to" and not "at" an invisible someone, and then quickly inventing the conversation-situation --with all of its emotionality-- that comes right before the first line of single voice copy, leads directly to the mastery of easily and quickly finding a back story.

These new habits become the radio performer's best friend in auditions. Without them, the performer is just banging away at the kitchen sink when they should be working on the hot water heater.


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Dick Orkin bleeds radio. From humble radio days in the Pennsylvania hills nearly 50 years ago, to the famous Radio Ranch in the Hollywood hills, Dick Orkin has come a long way. Dick's journey has produced many recognizable radio-ad campaigns and accolades. Recently, Dick was recognized by the National Association of Broadcasters and inducted into the NAB Radio Hall of Fame. Congratulations, Dick. You earned it.
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