Voice Over Education Blog

April 2017

Decades a lurker, radio drama comes back as a podcast.

To adapt a famous radio program intro, “Who knows what imagination lurks in the minds of humankind?” Without a shadow of a doubt, the listeners of radio dramas knew. And now, so do podcast listeners. The heyday of radio drama gave way to television drama, but the genre never entirely died. It survived here and there -- on radio, records, on-stage and the Internet – till now it has been coming back, in a big way.

Well, bigger. And it’s growing. It’s GROWING! We mean, it’s (SFX: EXPLOSION)...

In the 1960’s there was radio’s Firesign Theater, a comedy troupe delivering sophisticated absurdity on Los Angles radio stations, in an improvisational style but very carefully scripted. By the mid-’70s, Firesign’s four original performers had gone their own ways, but they also stuck together, performing on records and on stage now and then, in various formats, as recently as 2011.

In the early 1980’s, National Public Radio serially broadcast at least two of the first Star Wars stories, with their scripts greatly expanded to suit the extra available time, and in many ways even more vividly imagined. (For example, there was more character development and backstory, while the torture and garbage bin scenes were as gruesome as the listener’s imagination will allow.)

At the same time, Bob and Ray were on the radio, with their own brand of radio “drama” in the form of short skits about the loony family of “Mary Backstage, Noble Wife.” (The title itself was a play on an old radio program about marriage amid the footlights, called “Mary Noble, Backstage Wife.”)

Also about that time, Garrison Keillor was introducing America to Lake Wobegon and other dramatic characters residing on "The Prairie Home Companion." Keillor has retired, but the program continues to feature radio dramas, complete with live sound effects, using techniques still very much alive in the film industry’s Foley studios.

Should voice actors accept buy-out jobs?

Ring, ring goes your phone. Or “bloop,” you’ve got an email from a prospective client. It’s an interesting job. But either explicitly stated, or reading between the lines, you see that it’s a buyout – an “in perpetuity” job or audition. No residuals. Theirs to use forever, in any way they wish.

Still, it’s an interesting opportunity. Should you be interested?

The obvious answer is, can you make your next mortgage payment and if not, will this cover it? At the other extreme is if you’re a union member and may accept this type of work only on union contract terms.

But there are many genres in which SAG-AFTRA or other union membership is not relevant, and situations where your actual existence is not at stake. At what point are you selling a valuable service for a simple, fairly valued price, and when do you begin to sell your soul?

The issue of “in perpetuity” has been discussed among talent almost in perpetuity itself. There is no absolute answer. But here are some questions to ask yourself before asking a potential client about this. Our point in these is that it’s not a black-and-white issue, and there might be self-limiting factors. Above all, our point is that you should think about it fully and carefully.

Is exclusivity also an issue? It’s not the same issue, but it is related. A voice actor could voice an ad for one advertiser, then for a competing advertiser several years later, without anyone objecting or listeners even noticing. But if sold “in perpetuity” and the two campaigns thus might run simultaneously, that potentially becomes a problem. Understandably, future prospective clients might at least want to have been warned. If you always sell your voice in perpetuity, the universe of non-conflicting clients begins to close in on your career.

Is it a genre or market where vocal identity is not a significant issue?

What we teach kids, voice actors should also remember.

Kids are amazingly natural. They breathe naturally from the diaphragm – and their voices tend to be vocally free – they say what they mean to say, without physical restriction or inhibition. By the time we’ve become young adults many of us have lost these capabilities. As voice actors, we may need to re-learn them.

But kids don’t know everything. Parents need to teach other good speaking habits ... like slowing down, not mumbling, and being sure they’ve been understood. As voice actors, it’s good to review these habits, too.

One of our staffers recalls being told as a child, “If they haven't heard you, you haven't said it.” That pretty well sums up any conversational statement, and definitely encapsulates the goal in voice-over. It’s the responsibility of the speaker to be understood – don’t expect the listener to bear all that burden. In fact, in some VO genres, you can’t even count on them paying attention!

Here’s a list of good speaking habits, and how to relate them to your voice-over delivery.

Get their attention. Parents teach that it’s not polite to shout “Hey!” at the dinner table; there are more polite ways to get someone’s attention. In voice-over, such an obvious attention-getting ploy is a very rare but accepted procedure. For example, a script that starts with “What’s this?” or shouting (figuratively, at least) in a pushy commercial. But in most cases by far, there are more sophisticated ways to capture the ear of your listener. One of the best is to value that first word. Pronounce it clearly, and just a bit more slowly than you otherwise might. Then, rather than pausing after it, deliver the first complete thought (the first phrase) to bring your listener mentally up-to-speed. Consider, for example:

Laws you should know about before you start podcasting

Are you thinking of producing a podcast? 57-million Americans listen to podcasts every month (that’s 23% more than last year!), and although the lion’s share of that is driven by major TV networks (such as ESPN) and traditional radio outlets, you don’t have to be big to get on the bandwagon. Technically it’s easier than ever go from wannabe to podcaster in a couple of hours.

But hold up for a few hours more. You’ll be competing with heavy players, and the average podcast listener follows only five shows a week, so it’s helpful to adopt “best practices.” One of those practices is an understanding of podcasting-related legal issues. What’s legal to say and do?

This is not legal advice for any jurisdiction, and the rules and laws, etc. vary from place to place. We encourage you to investigate critical issues further, to find what details apply to you and your needs. This list may not be complete. Our purpose here is just to suggest issues some people overlook and to give you a place to start.

We don’t mean to be discouraging. Rather, we want to help you pursue your podcasting ambitions with energy and confidence.

Rather than give you legal advice, we advise you to obtain expert legal guidance, or at least educate yourself a bit – browse the Web and read up on the subject before proceeding on what might be mistaken assumptions. There are some helpful links in the text, and at the end of this article. In particular, whether or not you intend to grant some form of re-use rights to your podcast, you should review the Creative Commons Podcasting Legal Guide.

So, what are some of the legal issues that every podcaster should be aware of?

Copyright of works by others

Will you use copyrighted recordings in your production? In most cases, you’ll need appropriate permission – first.

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