10 Questions with ... Jeff Davis
August 16, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Based in Hollywood, I am a voice actor with primary focus on imaging for Radio/TV in the U.S. and Canada. I am also active in network television on several levels. I started in radio in Mobile, Alabama and, three and a half years later, landed at WLS/Chicago, where I am still the station voice. While in Chicago, I began taking acting and voiceover classes and did a lot of work in commercials on and off camera.
I came out to Los Angeles to further that aspect of my career, working at KRTH FM as production director and then, after two years, helped start Star 98.7 in the mid-90's and worked three years as the afternoon drive personality. This was all in tandem with the start of Jeff Davis Productions, the company I started as a media company producing video and audio as well as imaging for broadcast.
I hosted a few syndicated programs for Westwood One and, in short, have never been out of work. I also write, professionally, and have a volume of work in commercial art, which was my major at Virginia Commonwealth University. I love what I do and I feel very privileged to make a living doing it.
1. You transitioned from being a jock to being a voiceover guy and actor -- how did that transition happen? What led you from being a dj to the kind of work you do now?
It's funny because at WLS we were always referred to as radio personalities rather than dj's or jocks. There is a difference.
Jocks, aka DJ's, play records and basically maintain the format. Radio personalities are allowed to be themselves on the radio and, I believe, develop a relationship with an audience. They are entertainers, to be more succinct. Moving from radio (which evolved for me, as I never left) to voiceovers and acting seemed natural because of the orientation at WLS. We were given lots of freedom to create and personalities such as John Landecker, Fred Winston and Larry Lujack, along with his loyal sidekick Li'l Snotnosed Tommy (Edwards), could not have been the amazing talents they are without that kind of latitude.
I once asked John Gehron what the boundaries were and he said he trusted his talent and added the caveat that I would have to be held accountable if something went sideways. He hired good, talented people who understood the awesome responsibility of having the reins to a 50,000 watt giant.
Moving to Los Angeles seemed a necessary move for me because I had gone as far as I could in Chicago. I've done seven movies out here with speaking parts, one co-starring, hosted (off-camera) a short-lived CBS-TV show, did the opening narration for a science fiction movie that aired on Fox, and I am currently doing voice work for a few shows that are in development.
This Fall, I appear on an episode of the animated series, "Squidbillies." I do regular work for Fox News Channel and have a few things currently running there right now. Truthfully, I didn't think about transitions as much as I was thinking about things I wanted to do, and I was willing to work my ass off to make them happen.
2. You handle several news-talk clients, including WLS; what difference is there in the kind of voicing and imaging required by news-talk clients from other formats? Has what news-talk stations look for in their voice work changed over the years, or is it the same today as several years ago? And how much is the work you do shaped by program directors versus yourself -- how hands-on do pds get with the sound of your work?
Those are good questions. Music formats share at least one characteristic with News-Talk-Sports: they have different approaches within the formats depending who's is controlling the station's overall presentation. On a Classic Hits station such as WLS FM (Chicago), WOMC FM (Detroit) and KONO 101.1 (San Antonio), it is up bright and fun. It has to have an element of friendliness because a large part of that audience is female. It has to be up but not puke. Some voice people push their voices far beyond normal and it sounds detached and mechanical. Voice imaging obviously varies with the format. Being femme-friendly is also important for AC/CHR, too. Classic Rock stations need a little more grit. Country stations have been working for quite some time to raise their female numbers so many of them have an approach not unlike AC or CHR. With the "Bob" format it is total silliness, which gives me a chance to use my acting chops. But, so does News/Talk. WSB uses a flat delivery, low register; it's very clean but there's not much oscillation, while KSL/Salt Lake changes up the reads a lot in what they call a "stage whisper," but the ID's are dynamic enough to blow your speakers at high volume. Kevin LaRue is a prolific and capable writer, and that helps a lot.
We just re-imaged WDBO/Orlando as they are going FM in a few days (maybe launched by the time you read this) and we went with KSL's read, but with a slight kiss of an edge. I'm allowed to talk about it as of today since it has been made public.
I think the biggest change with News-Talk and, to a degree, Sports, is that there are the image reads, which remain consistent, and then there are reads that require some acting and measured interpretation of the intent of the copywriter. If I were a PD, I would want my voice guy or gal to be able to give me an authoritative read, but also be capable of milking a few tears on a piece of copy that intends to make people feel something. As far as PD intervention goes, most of them hand it off to very capable production people.
In N/T, I am fortunate to work closely with people such as Craig Carden at WSB who really brings soul to the work and the imaging of the station and the masterful work of Jason Dildine at WLS, who understands and protects the rather omniscient soul of WLS. I work closely with other amazing people such as Levi May at WDBO, who is another N/T production guy who totally gets it. Ditto for Paul Helms at KSL. In SportsTalk, I am privileged to work with John Reilly at WBZ-FM, who is an amazing voice talent in his own right. I could fill pages with kudos for many others who work tirelessly to turn out envious work every day and, not meaning to sound like a sycophant, sometimes work thanklessly above and beyond the call of duty because they really care about their stations. I also work with a number of small stations and I can tell you they have that same dedication. I wish I had space to list them all, because they are all terrific people who deserve a mention of their unique talents.
No matter what they're paid, it isn't enough, and most of the dedication served by them happens at a time when no one is there but them to see it. These guys also let me collaborate and conspire to create some amazing radio. It's hard work, but it should also be fun.
3. What's the most unusual request you've had from a station regarding imaging?
I don't know that I've ever had an "unusual" request. I've had some unreasonable requests and, on a rare occasion, impossible requests. Once or twice in the time I've been doing this, I have been asked to sound like the competition, which made no sense, but I did it anyway. My job is to drive the truck wherever they ask me to take it. I have a responsibility, even if I don't like the route or the destination, to be the best damned truck driver I can.
4. You've branched out into acting, writing, commentary, even cartooning. What do you think drives you to do so many things at once? Besides your voice work, what among the other things you do brings you the most personal enrichment?
Wow, that one requires a little introspection. When I was growing up, I was into all kinds of stuff. I worked at a grocery store to help my mother support us (five kids). I was the school artist, designing the school annual, and I was the staff artist of the school paper. I learned at an early age that certain things that put you in a spotlight make you very popular. I used to do a few of the girls' drawings for biology class, and I did display art for teachers that I had no classes. Teachers asked me to read my short stories, usually humorous, in front of the class. I wrote a play that was produced by the Drama department. I loved being "on," and my ego craved the attention.
I got out of school at 3:15 and was at work at 4:00 p.m. until 9:00. I stayed up late working with my art and, of course, homework. When I was 15, my mother bought me a small, battery operated tape recorder and that led to, eventually, a radio career. I've done political cartoons since I was a kid and I think I probably have always loved politics. When I was at university, I was a radical, but when I figured out what was going on, I became a conservative. I've always had lots of diverse interests, but somehow connected to artistic media. I just finished writing a novel in the vein of Louis L'Amour and I'm looking for a publisher, if you know anyone. LOL
5. You've been not just the voice of wls and a former jock there but the station's historian as well. What's your favorite anecdote among all the stories from the station's 87 years on the air?
My favorite anecdotes couldn't be told in print! WLS had extremely humble beginnings and nurtured some of the brightest names in entertainment for that time, when everything was live and listeners experienced it, warts and all. I have two things in my mind that stand out. I have a recording of a 15 year-old Ann-Margret from about 1955 that sounds like it was recorded yesterday, but probably my favorite story is about "The Hindenburg Disaster." Herb Morrison was a feature reporter on a show that aired at noon from WLS in the 1930's called "Dinnerbell Time." He wanted to go to Lakehurst, NJ to cover the arrival of the airship but Burridge Butler, owner of WLS said, "No, I can't afford it." Some things never change. Herb told Mr. Butler that he would take his vacation and do it on his own time if he could have the use of an engineer (Charlie Nielsen) and a disc recorder. If not for his dedication and professionalism, the famous quote, "Oh, the humanity!" would never have entered the American lexicon. There is a lot more to that story, but it's a book.
6. Who have been your influences, mentors, and/or inspirations in your career?
Too many to mention but I think, early on, John Landecker. I remember working at WABB in Mobile and Jim Cassidy, who did middays, saying to me, "It doesn't matter, we ain't ever gonna make it to WLS!" I should have said, "Whaddya mean 'we'?" Two years later, I was working with John. He even used a few of the Americana Panoramas that I wrote when I worked at WGH in Tidewater. That, was surreal. When I was a kid I used to listen to Bruce Morrow (Cousin Brucie) at WABC on a little 2-transistor radio made in Hong Kong (the real start of our balance of trade problems). During the day I listened to WKIX and was especially fond of the Beatles, whom my grandfather was sure were communists. To get back to Landecker, I had not been on WLS long before WLS PD, John Gehron, called me on the hotline, "John, why are you still on the air?" I laughed, "No, it's Jeff!" He said, "Jeff, if I wanted 'Decker on the air for eight hours, I'd have him on for eight hours! Be yourself and stop mimicking Landecker!" That one phone call changed my life... though I'm not sure to the betterment of the listeners!
7. What would you say is the most memorable moment of your career thus far?
Probably, getting Styx on WLS when they were about done as a group. They had not had any national exposure, to speak of, and were in some kind of legal mess with Wooden Nickel Records. A song I had never heard called "Lady" was playing over and over again on a jukebox at a Pizza Hut. I worked with MD Jim Smith and asked him about it. He told me, paraphrasing, that the band was toast and that "Lady" had come out and gone nowhere the year before. He and John allowed me to play it on my show a few times, which was heard in at least 38 states, and I noted the calls from listeners. We added it as an album cut, and their exposure became exponential. I got calls from everywhere asking about the song. WLS always had great relationships with bands in the Midwest but I honestly believe without WLS, Styx may never have landed a contract with A&M. Tommy Shaw, a long-time friend, lived in the same apartment building as I did in Chicago and he now lives across the street from me here in Hollywood. Is he stalking me? One wonders.
8. Of what are you most proud?
I am proud of the fact that I have never compromised my professionalism, have dealt with both peers and listeners in an ethical and moral way. Well, there were some girls... we may want to strike that last part.
9. Fill in the blank: i can't make it through the day without _______________.
...my computer. It would be nearly impossible to work without it. An aside, I remember when Windows first came out. I asked the chief engineer if the hard drive in a computer was a magnetic medium, why it could not be made to record and edit audio. He said, "Why on Earth would anyone want to do that?" A few years later, I was an advisor for what eventually became Adobe Audition... its predecessor, Cool Edit.
10. What's the best advice you've ever gotten? The worst?
The best advice I ever got was from a co-worker at WGH named Mike Patrick. Mike told me that I belonged on WLS and coerced me into sending a demo. Where I had doubts, he had none. I owe ya buddy. I don't know where Mike went but he was a true friend who pushed me to achieve something that, to me at the time, seemed impossible. The worst advice? I don't know about that one.
I seemed to have dodged bad advice because I've never, for one day, been without a job in radio. Bad advice only becomes bad if you take it. I seemed to be a little more reserved in that process so I tend to weigh consequences before I make decisions. That would be good advice for anyone in our profession since talented people (with egos) tend to be a little reactionary and spontaneous. There is something to be said for the virtue of patience.