December 10, 2013
Joe Cipriano is a true "radio lifer," who grew up in '60s radio, then found a home in voice work not only for radio, but for TV, movies and even radio countdown shows. Even with his busy broadcasting day, Cipriano found the time to write "Living On Air: Adventures in Broadcasting," where he traces his career, from his radio roots to his current place in voiceover royalty. Here, he offers some highlights from the book as well as some observations on the business today.
So why did you decide to write a book?
Over the course of my career in broadcasting and in voiceover, so many people would come up to me -- especially in the past 15 years -- and ask how I got started, how I went from broadcasting into voiceover, how they can get into it and the steps you need to take. I had all these stories that I hadn't told before, and I didn't want to do a how-to; there are a lot of great books out there about that. I wanted to write more of a novel, in memoir form, that sets the scene for all the eras I went through, from the '60s on up to today. On top of that, my wife is also a broadcaster, an Emmy Award winning news producer and writer. She wanted to do something about announcing for a long time. She always came up with great ideas on what I should do.
You've had your share of fake names in radio. Why?
I started in radio as a kid hanging around WWCO in Waterbury, CT when I was 14 years old; I was a gofer for two years. In the book, I'm able to tell all the stories of being just small-town kid at a radio station, trying to learn all there is to learn -- and I finally got hired when I was 16 years old. My real name is Dave Cipriano, and I never thought anyone in radio used their real name, so I searched for what I thought would be a cool name. The first one I used was Tom Collins, which I found in a newspaper obit. I used that for a while at WWCO. Then I started doing weekend fill-in at WDRC/Hartford, and because its signal overlaps with WWCO, I had to use a different name, so I came up with Dave Donovan. I've never used my real name on the air.
Ever call yourself the wrong name during your work at both stations?
It got kind of complicated once. This is a true radio story: While working in Connecticut, I sent out aircheck to WRC in Washington, D.C. Granted, what are the odds of going from market #180 to market #8, but 19-year-old "Tom Collins" sent out a tape - and I got a call back from Gordon Peil, the PD there, who said, "I love your tape, but we're looking for something with a little more personality. Do you have anything else you can send me?" I said, "Sure, I can send you a tape of my work at this other station." So I sent him that tape - of me as "Dave Donovan."
One week later, I'm working at WWCO when I get a call from Gordon Peil again, who said, "Tom, I just have to let you know that we've narrowed down the contenders to three - and you're one of them. Can you come down to the station in a few weeks for an interview?" Naturally, I was thrilled. A half-hour later, I get a call from one of the secretaries at WDRC, who said, "Dave (I was Dave Donovan there), you got a message from Gordon Peil in Washington, D.C. He wants you to call him."
So I did and he says, "Gordon Peil here, and I just want to let you know that we've narrowed down the contenders to three - and you're one of them." I said, "I know, we just talked." And he said, "No, we haven't talked before." It turns out "Tom Collins" and "Dave Donovan" were two of the three finalists! Those were pretty good odds, and I did get hired.
When I started there, Gordon said, "Now that we brought you in, we want you to change your name." Fine by me. They liked "Cipriano," but they didn't like "Dave." Gordon and the station consultant, Bob Henabery, liked the sound of "Joe." And that would be the name that stuck - except for a very short period of time. Years later, after I left KHTZ/Los Angeles, I got a job offer to work across the street for KHHR, which had just flipped from Soft Album Rock KNX. The new PD was Ed Scarborough, who I used to work with when he was Ed Mitchell at WDRC/Hartford. He loved the name, "Dave Donovan," so I became Dave Donovan again until I got laid off and got my next job at KIIS-A, where I became Joe Cipriano again.
Being a DJ, you obviously have had to deal with the rejection of losing your on-air gig. How did you learn to handle it?
Your readers can certainly identify with this: Being in radio, I don't know how many times I've been let go -- and not seemingly for any reason on my part. When Ed Scarborough was hired as PD at KKHR and he brought me on board, an executive at "Black Rock" in New York hated my voice. Ed fought to keep me on for a couple of years, but eventually he had to succumb to the corporate pressure.
Through all of it, my career has been a roller coaster ride, which is true for broadcasting and voiceover. I happen to hate roller coasters; that drop from the top .... I feel it in my stomach. I don't like that sensation, yet I chose a career where that happens so often. The way I deal with it is through being positive. A lot of people in broadcasting and voiceover have a high level of confidence. If you believe in yourself, then you can go out on that limb.
There's no shortage people who'll say, "You can't do that." Too many people will tell you to give up, but you can't take in their negativity. Just believe in yourself and move one foot in front of the other. Even if you have a job, you can still set another goal -- say it's to get into voiceovers or something else ... network promotions, live announcing game shows or any another goal ... take one hour of your day and devote that hour exclusively to whatever goal you're working on. Some people think differently on this, but truthfully, I feel that if you put one hour a day into something that you want to achieve, you'll be surprised how far you can move along and progress to your goal.
Me, I never ever considered doing anything else. If I ran into a brick wall in radio, I'd still continue pushing, but I'm also a big believer in diversifying my career and not putting all my eggs in one basket. Even in the voiceover arena, I'd also do so many different things -- radio imaging, game show announcing ... I'm always looking for something else to spread out my options.
How important is it to be aware of the circumstances of your current employment? One time you read something off the AP newswire and realized your days at KIIS-AM were numbered. How did you handle that?
You go into survival mode. I was at KIIS-A, a job I picked up after being let go at KHHR. KIIS PD Gerry DeFrancesco got me the 10p-2a shift, which I did for a year. But I tell you: Nobody was listening to KIIS-A back then, especially from 10p-2a. I'd do a contest where the prize went to the 20th caller, and the guy or girl who won was also the 5th, 10th and 15th caller before winning as the 20th caller. They'd just hang up and call back.
The whole time I was there, I was constantly looking for something else. I wanted get back to an FM station, when one night the AP bell machine went off. I ripped it off the wire and saw the new FCC ruling that allowed major markets to simulcast the FM on AM. Right then I knew I'd soon be out of a job. I called Gerry DeFrancesco and said, "I know I'm going to be out of job here soon, I was hoping to take anything you have" - which was the 3-9a shift on the FM, after which I would run Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 on tape - and I took it. I didn't care if it was only $170 a week. It was something to keep me going while I started looking for something else.
Little by little during this time, I started doing more production. The new KIIS PD, Steve Rivers, liked what I was doing, and he used me for fill-ns. I eventually built myself a five to six-day-a-week job at KIIS FM, which played a big role in getting me into voiceovers. One day in 1988, I was filling in for Big Ron O'Brien in afternoons, when someone from Fox TV happened to hear me on the air. He called me at the station about some voice work, brought me in for and audition - and I got the job and have since worked for Fox for over 20 years.
Was that your first non-radio voice work?
No, I had been doing a little bit here and there since I moved to L.A. I'd had some success with some things, and then I wouldn't get work for a couple months. My first big voiceover gig was in82, voicing the trailer for the movie, "Fast Times At Ridgemont High."
Did you ever entertain thoughts of doing voice work entirely back then?
There was no way to rely on voiceover for a full-time income back then. Even when I started at Fox I was very cautious. I began to do all of their promos and I would be making 10 times what I made at KIIS FM, but I still didn't give up the weekend gig from 1988-91. I'd been burnt before so I was very careful.
What's the difference in voice work for TV shows, movie trailers and game show announcing?
In TV promos, the timing is extremely important. I couldn't have a better background being a Top 40 jock, because it's like talking up intros on a Top 40 station. I used talk up the songs, knowing I'd have 8.5 or 12.8 seconds before I hit the post. Having that skill really helped me in transitioning to promos, where it's all about talking in little short bursts that, in TV, are measure in frames.
At Fox, they're actually very pleased to get promos done quickly and get them out the door. They don't have time for someone to come in and do four or five takes. Just two takes and move on ... so for that part of the voiceover world, having a radio background is great. Moving into movie promos, though, there they just describe to you what the trailer will be like and what kind of music there will be. It's an entirely different skill set; it's more of a storytelling medium. Timing is not quite as important, because they can cut around your work. That's also true for narrating the long-form documentaries you see on the History Channel.
Commercials take a really strong skill set, as does animation. A lot of people who have specific training in acting, for instance, excel in doing animation and cartoon voices.
How intense is the competition for those jobs?
It's an interesting dynamic because the competition is certainly there and it's very intense. Yet it's so funny in that I'm about to audition for a program that's using someone I know, but the producer is thinking of making a change. At the same time, I've lost jobs to very good friends because the marketing folks who initially hired me felt they needed to make a change and go in a different direction. So the competition is there and a close friend may win out on a job over you, but the truth is ... it's much like the competition I felt in Top 40. We were all a band of brothers on-air and in the community. Despite the competition where everybody was going for a few gigs, we still supported each other and felt we were a part of this great community. We'd commiserate each other over failures and celebrate our victories.
I feel that voiceover people stand on each other's shoulders. Today, with all these individual studios all over town, we don't see each other like we used to when all the studios were in Hollywood, so we cherish our relationships. We know how difficult it is to break in to voiceover, so we're thrilled to do it every day.
Finally, is writing an autobiography similar to lifetime achievement award, where some of those honored feel like it's something akin to a posthumous recognition?
For me, it's more of wanting tell this story. I really enjoyed sharing these great stories of the characters I've met along the way. I also enjoyed working with my wife on it for over three years and the process of interviewing the people I worked with years ago. I call this book my love letter to radio, a time when a radio talent could start in a small market and move up - and as we all know it's still really tough to do that. I loved being able to recreate the time and place of what I went through and I hope people can relate to that. But even with this book finished, my story's not over; there's still plenty more to come.