Voice Talent / Radio Host
HOW TO BECOME A PROFESSIONAL VOICE-OVER TALENT
By Tim Russell
How does a person get into the exciting field of commercial voice-overs? There are many routes, and if it’s of any assistance for those who have been told, “you have a great voice, you should be in radio and TV advertising,” here’s how it happened to me.
I think I always wanted to be a talk show host. I started watching “The Tonight Show” on a regular basis when Jack Paar was the host, and then, of course, when Johnny Carson took over. Cartoons and movies (Laurel & Hardy) by day, talk shows by night. It was unusual for someone in grade school to be able to stay up so late, but my mother enjoyed the company. I thought I'd love to be on television someday and maybe voice a few commercials when I grew up. I watched and listened and absorbed every style of speaking I could, accents and all. But I never dreamed I'd have the courage to actually perform in front of an audience--let alone a microphone. I was just too shy. I managed to avoid joining the Boy Scouts. I was not an altar boy. (Watching Jack Paar in grade school does not facilitate getting up at 5 a.m. to serve Mass.) Even though I recognized I had a talent for mimicry and a love of comedy, these career ambitions were put on hold until after college.
I graduated from Notre Dame as an English major and entered law school at the University of Minnesota. Six months later I left law school. Litigation was not the kind of performing I had in mind. I was an English major who wasn't sure what to do. (This is not an unusual situation.) This is also when I took inventory and decided to give "show business" a whirl, shyness be darned.
“But while many of the celebrities sound as if they’re in person and on stage, they are, in fact, a result of the oral acrobatics of a single person: radio personality and [voice-over talent], Tim Russell.”
- Jan Dehner, "Man of Many Voices: Russell portrays Bush, Schwarzenegger and others"
After I left law school, I signed up for classes in broadcasting at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis. I thought, maybe doing radio would give me the best of all worlds. I worked as a tour guide at the Minneapolis Star Tribune to pay for radio school and to get some valuable experience speaking in front of people. I did a recording of “Famous Celebrities” for the paper carriers, my first voice-over. It was on one of those flimsy little sheets of plastic you could play on your phonograph.
My first radio job was at WDBQ-AM in Dubuque, Iowa, where I would end up doing three hours of production every day. I would write and produce radio commercials and get to experiment on a daily basis, goofy character voice things, you name it. I was there for two years when I heard from my brother that WCCO Radio, the grand “Heritage Station” in Minneapolis, was going to go full power with their FM station. I found out the new general manager’s name, wrote a letter, sent a tape and they hired me. I was the first morning show host at WCCO-FM when they went on the air in 1973. I developed a lot of wacky character voices, established a following, got a talent agent and started doing commercials on- and off-camera.
The on-camera work led to a lot of strange jobs involving prosthetics. I played General Patton made up as George C. Scott for an auto parts chain. That led to traveling the country, giving rousing Patton-like speeches, in full makeup and uniform, for big corporate sales meetings. (The on-camera work thinned out through the years at about the same rate as my hair thinned out, but I was still able to get a few speaking parts in recent movies like “Little Big League” and “Detective Fiction.”) Ten years later, I moved to WCCO-AM, to do mid-days at the market’s #1 radio station. I was there for another 10 years, until forced out by new owners in 1993.
After leaving WCCO, I became the morning man for a Twin Cities country station, KJJO. A year later, I got the call from A Prairie Home Companion, the nationally broadcast radio comedy and variety show created by Garrison Keillor, an institution that started in the Midwest and has become a worldwide radio phenomenon. I did two shows in the spring of the 1994 season and came back that fall as a regular cast member. I didn't have to audition for the show, thank goodness. (Don't know really how I got the job, but it's worked out okay.) It’s a thrill of a lifetime experience that I still enjoy to this day.
That same year, as a result of another ownership and format change, I became the morning man at KLBB, an easy listening station. In 1997, I went back to WCCO-AM, after yet another management change, and am now a part of the morning show as the radio station’s entertainment editor. I get to review movies, television, theater, music and interview the people who’ve become stars in all those fields. And, if I can’t find the celebrities to interview, I just do their voices myself. It’s always good to have a day job--in fact, that should be a show business rule.
Doing commercial voice-overs and performing on A Prairie Home Companion have been the most fun--a perfect career combination. Decades of voice-over experience is excellent for developing the versatility required for acting out the characters created by Garrison Keillor on his weekly public radio show.
A Prairie Home Companion is the ultimate form of radio. On Prairie Home, we get a chance to do humor--and humor is the best thing radio does. The visual media is too limiting when it comes to humor. We’ve seen everything there is to see with reality TV. But, when you hear things on radio, there are no boundaries for the listener’s imagination. You can hear the silliest thing, a chicken operating a pneumatic drill, and it comes to life in your mind. I really enjoyed the radio comedy show, Bob and Ray, when I was a kid, and that's very much the kind of humor Garrison Keillor writes for the show.
One of the skills you develop doing voice-overs is the ability to keep things grounded in reality no matter how silly the radio or television spot. You learn to fill in the blanks with realistic reactions in dialogue spots. You learn the art of “working the microphone” to keep things in the proper sound perspective--so when you’re calling in from outside, it really sounds like you’re calling in from outside and not just shouting in someone’s ear. A good voice-over involves "getting off the page" so that you’re not just reading the script, but are communicating the ad’s message to the listeners. This involves incorporating emotions, drama and whatever is necessary to make the character that you’re playing become real and alive to the listener. That’s really where the acting techniques come into play. That’s why doing voice-overs is really voice acting.
The secret to any kind of success in voice-over work is observation. You need to stay on top of pop culture, trends and anything that will give you the frame of reference you need to give the writer and producer the sound they are looking for. Fortunately for me, my day job as an entertainment editor gives me a way to stay on top of the latest from MTV, HBO, independent films, newspapers, books, politics--you name it. The political scene has especially given me lots of famous political celebrities to mimic and lampoon over the years and I’m having fun doing it.