Who is that talking? Whose mellifluous baritone is setting the tone for our evening television viewing?
The people whose voices you hear saying, “Monday on CBS,” “Tonight on an all-new ‘Simpsons,’” or making dramatic pronouncements on movie trailers, often make lot of money for just saying a few words. How do they get to do that?
Joe Cipriano is one of those voiceover actors, and Living On Air tells his story, from the time he was a 14-year-old kid hanging around an AM radio station in Waterbury, Conn., to now, when his vocal skills have earned him a house with a pool and tennis court in Beverly Hills. His wife Ann, an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer, is co-author of the book.
Your professional journey took you from Waterbury to Los Angeles by way of Washington, D.C. Can you tell us a little about your time in D.C., and what it meant to you professionally and personally?
Washington, D.C., holds a very special place in my heart, my life and my career. It’s where I grew up, really, and where I discovered how to become the kind of man I wanted to be. I came to D.C., barely 20 years old, after being hired by NBC for their FM station WKYS. I’ll never forget driving into town from my home state of Connecticut. As I wrote in the book:
After that long drive from Connecticut, pulling into the city was like a dream. All the monuments were lit up in bright white lights against the dark sky. Honestly, it took my breath away. Or maybe that was the weather. Have you ever been to Washington in the summer? At nine o’clock in the evening the temperature was 99 degrees and the humidity was 99 percent … coming from the Northeast I didn’t have air conditioning in my car but after that first night, I decided to get a new car, with air conditioning, as soon as possible.
The first person I met in D.C. was the man whose radio shift I was hired to take over, because he was moving on to television, on WRC Channel 4. His name was Willard Scott. I had never met anyone like him before. When I was introduced to him, I stuck out my hand for a shake, he pushed it away, picked me up in a bear hug and kissed me on my forehead. I spent my first week at NBC with Willard, learning the format of the station and following him around the building. Every woman he came upon in the hallway, he stopped and chatted and then gave them a kiss on the forehead. Men too, he was an equal opportunity kisser. This is what I meant when I said I discovered what kind of man I wanted to be. It’s something that Willard taught me by example over and over again in the years I worked with him at NBC. People loved bumping into Willard in the halls.He was down-to-earth, kind and friendly. That’s the kind of guy I wanted to be, I wanted to be a highlight in someone’s day and I never forgot it. Even to this day I always enter a room with a smile on my face.
D.C. was my first major market radio job, it was there I learned the heartbreak of getting fired from a job I loved, and where I also reinvented myself so I could carry on. It’s where I met life-long friends and my best girl, my wife Ann, then Ann Gudelsky, walking in that hallway of NBC. I started my voiceover career in Washington and found work in Los Angeles because of the skills I learned and honed during my years in D.C.
You don’t say much in the book about how you developed your voice, but you do mention the big baritone voices that run in your Italian family. How much of your voice is natural, and how much is skill development? Can you think of anyone in the voiceover business who didn’t start with a really good, God-given voice? Did you have a regional accent you had to get rid of, and, if so, how did you do it?
Yes, I can think of someone in the voiceover business who didn’t start with a really good voice … me! I was fired from at least one, perhaps two, radio stations because some executive somewhere hated my voice. When I began my career, I was very young and my voice wasn’t the big deep radio voice that was popular at the time. Because of that I would try to force it down when on the air, and the result wasn’t always good. It is how I became aware of just “going with whatcha got.” When I stopped trying to force my voice, I found the qualities in my voice that led to whatever success I’ve ended up having. I learned that trying to sound like someone else, because they work a lot in voiceover or because you like their voice, doesn’t work. It’s when you trust your own talents and just simply become yourself that you begin to open up possibilities. Being yourself works! The reason? Because no one else is doing that. It’s what makes you unique and makes you stand out in a crowd.
My focus is on interpretation of the script, that’s the most important key to voiceover, how your individuality brings the written word on a page to life. Ten people can deliver that same line 10 different ways, it’s your own take on it that tips the scale either way.
How did you polish your voice and presentation: record yourself and critique the recording, pay for coaching, listen to others?
In the early days, I just felt my way through it. But I learned, as my career continued, that it was important to pay attention to what the current trends were in advertising and marketing and how they were influenced by pop culture. Being aware of what’s going on in your own field is very important in helping you stay relevant in any career. I continue to do that today.
In D.C., while on the air as a disc jockey, I started taking voiceover workshops that were presented by our local AFTRA and SAG office in Washington. [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Screen Actors Guild are two unions representing performers in radio, television, voiceover and film.]There’s no doubt, there are techniques that can be learned and it’s your interpretation of those practices that allows you to make what you learn your own. I think you’ll hear that from me often, it’s true in every profession, being truly yourself is what makes you different and distinctive.
It’s clear from your book that you developed relevant skills that aren’t vocal, but still important for your job. For instance, you were able to build your own home studio, which was perhaps foreshadowed by building your own radio station in high school. You had strong technical skills in production, in creating and editing sound, and you understand what the technical people have to do in a production. How important are those other skills?
I wouldn’t say they are vital, but again those kinds of skills are just another tool in the quiver, so to speak. Early on in the profession of voice over, technical skills were not required. It was and still is a performance medium. Engineers used to set the microphones and adjust the audio gear, but today most successful voiceover artists have home recording studios. Most network promo work, movie trailers and television shows use voiceover talent via digital phone lines, ISDN lines hooking up to them in their individual studios. So, having technical skills is very useful because if something goes wrong, there’s no one there to help. You need to know at least basic information on how a recording studio works, how to troubleshoot when there is a problem and how to set your equipment properly so that your sound is at its best.
I’m lucky because I enjoy tinkering and I love gadgets and toys, so it comes naturally to me.
Judging from the photos in your book, the top voiceover community seems to be a white man’s club. Is that true? If so, why do you think it is, and do you think it’s likely to change any time soon?
Well, voice over may not be the oldest profession, but it’s been around a long time and, because of that, there is still a lot of old thinking going on. When broadcasting was new and the technology was minimal, the kind of voice that projected, that carried through the static was a deep, male voice. The technology has advanced but the thinking has lagged behind. I remember when I used to watch television news and there were only men anchoring the broadcasts. If you ever saw a woman during one of those newscasts she was probably the “weather girl.”
TV news has moved more quickly than voice over. I remember in 1974, when I was on the air at a small Top-40 radio station in Waterbury, it was a big deal that the newscaster who worked during my afternoon show was a woman. That raised a few eyebrows back then, at a time when we didn’t even have any women on the air as disc jockeys. There have always been people who break the mold and help move the thinking further down the line, and she was one of them. By the way, the newscaster I worked with every afternoon in the early 1970s was a very talented news journalist named Susan Campbell. Do you know her? [See interviewer’s full disclosure at the end of this interview.]
So, to answer your question, in my business of network promos and movie trailers, it’s a male-dominated world, but it’s finally evolving. I’ll tell you where the transformation has been dramatic and a long time coming: the “live-announcing” field. I have announced the Grammys, Emmys, Blockbuster Awards, Producers Guild Awards several times over, but for the past four years, the live announcing is female-dominated. It’s about time. Even though it means less work for me, I’m very happy to see it happen in a field that I love. Watch just about every live TV event show or awards show and you’ll hear it’s a woman doing the live announcing.
What do you do about laryngitis?
What about it? Do you have it? If so, please back up five feet and let go of my hand.
Losing your voice is like watching money falling out of your pocket and being carried away in the breeze. If you can’t speak, you can’t work, there is no salary or vacation pay in voice over for the most part. Worst part of it is, because you can’t work, someone else hasto do it. This is how “new talent” come into the business. Every time you miss a job, there is a good chance someone else is ready to impress the producers with his or her talent. I got my first big job in television promos at the Fox Television Network, because the announcer who was doing the job took a two-week vacation. They hired me to fill in and over those two weeks, they took a liking to my sound. When the announcer came back from vacation, he was out of a job and I ended up working for Fox every day as their comedy voice, from 1988 to 2005.
Ann, much of your writing has been for television, and writing a book is a very different process. Was there anything about the process of writing the book that surprised you?
It was definitely a luxury to write without a deadline hanging over my head every fewminutes. I really appreciated being able to take my time and embellish a little when setting the scene for a particular story. As much as I love the excitement of a newsroom, all of that energy and noise, on this project I found out I most like to work in silence, no TV or music to bother me. I didn’t even like to hear people talking in another room! We really wanted this book to read like a novel, so for me that meant slowing down and focusing on the story. I was lucky to have the time and the comfort of working in my own office without any distractions. But Joe was just the opposite. When he was writing, he listened to music with golf on the TV in the background. I could never do that!
Back to Joe: You could be called a frontline casualty of the collapse of AM radio. Do you see similar dramatic changes happening, and how do they affect people’s jobs and lives? How might they affect those of voiceover artists?
I was fortunate to escape being a casualty of the collapse of AM radio. I was lucky to transition to FM around 1975. AM was still doing well at that time but the chink in the armor was visible. AM was king because AM radios were everywhere, at home, in the car, at work. New technology allowed radios to become personal, much like today’s iPods (how strange that iPods really aren’t “today” at all) and iDevices. Because of the invention of transistors, AM radios could fit in your pocket and under your pillow at night and listening to those radios could be a very personal experience. FM needed console radios, big speakers and fancy equipment. We totally missed the fact that FM sounded so much better than AM. But when FM radios got to be smaller, more readily available and you could install an FM converter under the dash in your car, things started to happen.
It was an amazing transformation to witness and today we are going through an even more dramatic one. Big companies own most of the terrestrial radio stations in America. In many cities, one company might own 3 AMs and 5 FMs. It’s mind boggling. Arguably, because of all of this, creativity has suffered. It’s more about having your eight radio stations broadcast comparable formats that will attract different demographics, so you can sell advertising in blocks on all your stations. In the old-fashioned competition you would do something so amazingly creative and new with your radio station and win the ratings wars because of your originality. This rather clinical approach to broadcasting has opened the door to the consumer getting music and entertainment via the Internet in a much more personal and satisfying way. Pandora, Spotify and so many others are so easy to receive, and you can program your own radio station that appeals to your exact tastes and preferences. If we thought the transition from AM to FM was legendary, wait until Internet connectivity is widespread in automobiles. It’s about to become a whole new entertainment world.
Susan Storer Clark is a frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books. She is a former radio and television journalist. Since retiring from the federal government, has completed her first novel, set in the urban turbulence of 19th-century America, and is at work on her second, the fictionalized life of a slave captured by Francis Drake in 1580. Ms. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years. Full disclosure: Susan worked with Joe Cipriano when he was a DJ in Waterbury, Conn.; she was the newscaster during his air shift in 1974 and 1975.