Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Very Good Question

A short time ago, I offered my readers a chance to quiz me concerning my profession. The lovely Karen, from Karen Cooks, took me up on the offer, and asks a very good question (three of them, actually, as well as two requests for elucidation):

Years ago I met a guy on-line. We eventually talked on the phone and he had the most wonderful voice. When we finally met in person, I found that his voice was just like any other Joe - nothing to write home about. I learned he used to be a radio host and when we talked on the phone he used his "radio voice". (This was only the first of many inconsistencies I had the displeasure of encountering with him). So, to my question...

1 - Do you have a different, normal speaking voice when you're not recording?
2 - Did you have training to acquire a radio voice? If so, what type?
3 - Is it work to speak with a radio voice? In other words, are you always conscious of having to speak a particular way, or does it come rather naturally?

Thanks, Karen. I would have assumed there were others curious about the answers to these questions, but I've never been asked them before. Maybe nobody else cares? I hope not, because then the next 1,200 words will be mighty boring. In any case, I'm happy to provide some answers. I'll try my best to cover everything in one interminably long ramble.

I don't have a different working voice than conversational voice, per se. That is, I don't consciously change the timbre of what emanates from my throat when I'm in front of a microphone. Unless the job calls for something radically different from my 'at home' voice (a characterization, or perhaps a dialect; rarely the case) I speak fairly much the same whether working or not.

Having said that, however, I am more careful with my speech when recording for a client. I make sure to pronounce everything clearly and distinctly, and also give added emphasis to those things that would seem to need it. For instance, most clients will want the word FREE to receive more oomph than you'd use if it showed up in conversation with a friend or spouse. The word YOU will often be given a bit of punch, in order to let the listener know that he or she, personally, is the target; that sort of thing, giving the listener verbal cues to pay attention.

There are also some 'tricks' employed by announcers to add flavor to a read; mic presence is one, and projection another. If I want to sound intimate, or even sexy, I'll get right up on the mic and speak softly. If I'm really trying for a hard sell, something difficult to ignore - possibly even irritating to the listener, but unlikely to be forgotten quickly - stepping back a bit from the mic and really projecting (adding power to the voice, similar to a stage actor making sure that the person in the last row can hear the lines) can be a useful technique. These things do not change the actual voice, but are an accentuation or diminution of what is already present.

As for whether or not I trained my voice, or had lessons, yes and no. I went to broadcasting school because I didn't know any better. That is, I didn't know that what I already had would have been enough to land me the job I now have. Some of the training I received was useful in a technical sense - learning the basics of operating a board in a radio studio and such - but I didn't really need the elocution lessons. Mostly, what I received in return for my tuition was confidence in my skills, and that was valuable.

Again though, having said that, one thing I had to train myself to do was actually something I had to train myself NOT to do. Having been raised in Boston, I had a slight Boston accent. Luckily, my parents (most specifically, My Father) had hipped me, early on, to the fact that some people found the Boston accent annoying. So, I was educated, at home, to include the 'R' that so many Bostonians drop naturally from words such as 'park' or 'car' (I don't pahk my cah in Hahvid yahd.) I did still have to watch out for some regional pronunciations (I used to say "hahf" rather than "haff" [half] and "ahnt" rather than "ant" [aunt], and those would never have been accepted in a professional setting.)

How I got to broadcasting school is a semi-interesting story, so I'll fill some space with that.

I had been employed in the customer service department of an office supplies company, answering phones and putting together orders for pencils, typewriter ribbons, fax paper, and other things nobody uses anymore. Then I was laid off. While on my way downtown to collect unemployment, I saw an ad on a subway train. It said something to the effect of, "Why not become a radio personality? Attend our school and we'll show you how!"

Many of the customers of the office supplies firm, upon hearing my voice on the telephone, commented how much they liked it. Some asked if I had been in radio, while others said that I should get a job in that field. Seeing the ad, and remembering those kind remarks, I immediately went to the school (after picking up my unemployment check) and enrolled.

When classes convened, I found that I was the oldest person in the class by a good ten years. I was thirty three. I graduated as valedictorian - it would have been a crime if I hadn't, given my age - and got a job here, at Marketing Messages, a couple of months afterward.

Now, on to your friend. If I understand you, and I hope I do, he did something totally different when on mic. He actually changed how his voice sounded, as opposed to working with his natural voice. Some folks can do that to good effect; most can't. I haven't heard him, of course, but many folks who do that, from my experience, suffer from what we at Marketing Messages call "cheesiness". It's the Ted Baxter effect. Or we might call someone like that Rick Radio. Usually - not always, but usually - when someone effects a voice that they feel is announcer-like, it will actually be overblown and unintentionally comic.

For my part, I was blessed with good pipes. I can no more take credit for my voice than I can my eyes or ears. I didn't choose my genes. If you have the chance to do so, however, get yourself a father and mother who both have good voices. Mine did (in the case of my mother, does!)

Let's see... anything else? Oh, yes. Is it work? You bet it is. When I'm reading a script, I'm always conscious of my pronunciation, my pitch, my timing, my emphasis, and how much I'm being compensated for my time (which isn't enough to make most folks jealous, but it does pay the rent, so no complaints.)

And I think I've answered your questions. If you (or anyone else) wishes me to expound upon any of the answers, feel free to ask for specifics via your comments.

Talk to you soon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What I See Through The Smoke

It's been over three months since I posted something here. Sorry about that!

It's not that I didn't have anything worth writing about. There's always something interesting happening at Marketing Messages, and the people I work with are fascinating and extremely talented. It's just that I was unable to get at what I wanted to say in a concise manner that would do the subjects justice. For instance, I began a piece concerning regional pronunciation, but the more I wrote, the more I found that I wanted to dig deeper in order to give it a treatment of which I could be proud. And as I continued in that direction, it became more unwieldy than I preferred. Likewise, I'd like to walk you through the entire process of making a Messages-On-Hold production, from the time a client contacts us until our final delivery, but I don't want to bog you down with minutiae of real interest only to someone within my profession. It's a matter of finding the right balance of fact and observation without becoming pedantic. I promise I'll publish them both, in future, but I don't want to put them out here until they're the best I can give you.

In the meantime, in order to keep this space from being completely dormant, here's something a bit lighter. It's a collection of photos taken outside of our building, with commentary. First, though, a small explanation concerning its genesis, as well as the title of this post.

Some of you are aware of the fact that I'm a smoker. No need to upbraid me about it; I know I'm an idiot, and I hope I'll quit before it kills me. The important point here is that smoking is discouraged indoors. And I have no problem with that. I have no desire to pollute the work space of anyone else. As a consequence, when I feel the need to replenish my nicotine levels, I take a trip outside of the building. And, since I do so perhaps 5 times a day, I figured why not make use of that time in a semi-constructive manner? So, I brought along a camera on a few of the trips outdoors. Here are the results.

This is our building, as seen from the parking lot out front. I've always thought it had an interesting look, especially for someone, such as myself, raised in an Irish Catholic neighborhood of Boston. The style of brick used in our building is immediately recognizable to any attendee of a parochial school in one of the city's neighborhoods. Most Catholic schools in and around Boston used much the same material. On occasion, when giving someone of my approximate age and background directions to our place, my final instruction has been to look for the building resembling a school. And they've always found the place, so...

A couple of different views of the building, showing more of the style of construction (as well as Roddy The Wondercar!)

A view of Winchester Street from the front door.

On the left side of the building is this loading dock. It is unused, as neither we nor any of our neighboring businesses take deliveries of such bulk that it would be needed. It is, however, a lovely spot to sit in when the sun is shining. Thus, it is my own personal outdoor smoking lounge. So far as I know, I'm the only person who makes any use of it.

I've always had a love of old industrial spaces such as these. I think it goes back to my childhood, when the Bakers Chocolate factory was located on the banks of the Neponset River only a few blocks from my home. They moved when I was 4 or 5, and the factory became a place for us kids to explore and play in. The loading dock there was similarly a quiet place to sit in the sun sorting out the thoughts of the day.

A picnic table adjacent to the loading dock. See the odd angle of the eating surface? Kids with skateboards will sometimes come to our parking lot, after hours, and turn the table into an impromptu ramp, lining it up with the loading dock. It would be nice of them to return the table to its original level condition after they finish with it, as it appears otherwise relatively unharmed by their activities, but they don't.

To my right, as I sit at the loading dock, soaking in the sun and sucking in the smoke, is this barn-like structure. Inside are huge pieces of heavy machinery, steam engines and such. The fellow who owns them is a collector, and he occasionally comes by to tinker with his treasures. He invited me in for a look one time. Fascinating stuff, relics from the early part of the previous century. He belongs to an organization of such collectors, and he will sometimes display the machines at their meetings. How he gets the things there, I have no idea. They are massive metallic beasts, much larger than the truck in this photo.

The MBTA (Boston's public transit system) has train tracks behind our building. It is a section of the Riverside branch of their Green Line.

Streetcars go by every ten minutes or so, which makes for a pleasant diversion.

And, when I've finished my smoke, I go back inside. Those of you familiar with my alter ego may wonder if the "small dog" sign refers to me. No, it doesn't. I'm the BIG dog. The small dog (dogs, actually) are owned by my boss, Richard Snider (and, by the way, if you want to see some good photography, you should visit his site. My efforts are tragic when compared to his.) Anyway, the dogs visit the office every few weeks, and we don't want any human visitors surprised by their presence, thus the friendly warning sign.

Oh! I suppose I should explain the photo at the top of this piece. As I sit at the loading dock having a cigarette, the view is of a pleasantly green ancient graveyard. It is closed for business, nobody fresh having been planted there for perhaps a century. It's a jolly sight to ponder as one is ingesting carcinogens, though.

See you soon!