10 Questions with ... Roberta Solomon
October 7, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I was always fascinated by science and started out at the University of Missouri-Kansas City as a biology major. Pretty quickly, though, I switched to theater. I was just a few hours away from my degree when I was offered a part in a touring company of a musical. It was my "big break," but I just didn't want to do it. So it dawned on me that maybe I wasn't meant to be a stage actor.
One of my best friends at the time was a student announcer at KCUR, and he told me they were looking for new voices. I won the gig, and part of the deal was that you got several months of training before they put you on the air. When I opened the mic for the first time, I knew this was what I was put on the face of the earth to do. I actually slept on the studio floor on Saturday nights for a while so I wouldn't miss my Sunday sign-on shift. I'd been at KCUR for eight months when I was "discovered," waiting tables, by a sales guy at KMBR. The station had been an old-style Easy Listening station and was automated at night, but they were looking to go live. He offered to introduce me to the Program Director, so I threw a demo together, went in for an interview, and was offered the shift the next day. Not too long after I arrived, the station changed formats and call letters, and became Lite 99.7 FM. And I moved to the morning show, which I co-hosted for 10 years with my then-husband Jim Welch.
I'd started doing a lot of voice work outside the station, and co-founded Voices Inc., a talent guild with some other great artists (including Jim Birdsall, one of the voices of NFL Films). I branched out into TV and popped out of a coffin every week as Crematia Mortem, the host of the "Creature Feature" on KSHB-TV, and I was also the voice of the station. When my time as a TV Horror Host came to an end, I joined the cast of "Right Between the Ears," a live radio comedy show that originated from Lawrence, KS, and was carried for a while on NPR member stations and Sirius Satellite Radio. I was still doing morning radio, but it got to the point where my "outside work" was interfering with my radio gig. So I figured it was time to put a studio in my home. I've been doing voiceovers full- time since 1995. I work now in pretty much every area of the industry.
1) Congratulations on your ESPN project! Can you tell us all about it?
It's a cool series I just narrated called "The Better Half/Wives of the SEC." It's about the wives of the SEC coaches, all strong women in their own right, and their unique contributions to their husbands' careers. Here's a link to the first short piece that aired last weekend on College GameDay.
2) You are somewhat of a pioneer among female broadcasters. Weren't you one of the first to make the transition from air personality to full-time voiceover?
I think it's safe to say that, yes. When I started imaging radio stations, there were only a handful of women voices doing it. I know I'm one of the first women to put a studio in her home.
3) What was it like going from everyday radio to working for yourself?
Exhilarating. Terrifying. Gratifying. Humbling. All at the same time. I had to learn how to manage "the black hole." That's the fear that every job you land will be the last time you work. But seriously, I've always been grateful that I spent as much time as I did inside a radio station before I went out on my own. If you don't have an understanding of how to run a business, I don't think you can be successful as a solo voice artist. I learned how to be the manager, the salesperson, the marketing department, the bookkeeper, and oh yeah ... the talent.
4) What are the tools of the trade for you in your work? And, what do you in an emergency and you're not in your studio?
Technology has had a huge impact on the way the work is done. The gear is cheaper now and the turnaround is faster. But the basics remain the same. You need a relatively soundproof, acoustically treated space so you can work anytime (I once did emergency tracks for a TV station at 2a), a good mic, a computer and recording software, and the ability to connect with your client and send files in whatever way they prefer. You need a website and a social media presence so producers can find you. And you've got to know how all this stuff works or hire someone who does. What's changed in voiceovers is that the bar has been raised really high for performance. Even if you're working from a makeshift booth in your basement, you're potentially competing against the best voices in the business who've got great studios, mad skills, and know how to use them.
I've pretty much always got a mic and an iPad with me for emergencies, and the best makeshift studio is your car. (Non-parallel walls, lots of padding, etc.) Last week, I cut emergency tracks for a TV show from the parking lot of a veterinary clinic. I've recorded updates for movie trailers in the Denver airport (with a coat over my head) and did a bunch of TV promos in a cemetery. I've worked in more pillow studios and hotel closets than I can count, and recently figured out that a Sennhesier 416 attached to a wine bottle is exactly the right height for me. I was quite proud of that. Of course, I also book time in pro studios when I travel, especially if I'm working on a longer project or one where the producer needs to direct.
5) What people have influenced your radio and voiceover career?
Man, that's tough. I've learned something from everybody I've ever worked with. My morning show partner and then husband Jim Welch taught me how to connect with listeners on the air. Brad Waldo (now at Fly 92.9/Dayton) was a great PD, who encouraged the air staff to be prepared but be yourself. Radio and TV guy Drew Dimmel was the first talent I knew who had a studio in his home, and was my mentor. Drew basically gave me a template for setting up shop as a voice talent. Paul Duckworth (KOMO) encouraged me to seek out voiceover coach Marice Tobias, who's helped a number of radio folk expand into voiceovers. Her workshops introduced me to a group of stellar voice talent from all over the country who are now my tribe. I have a girl crush on my VO sisters Ann Dewig and Jen Sweeny, whose talent and work ethic I admire so much. Scott Mahalick of Alpha Broadcasting put the idea in my head that I should try to do movie trailers. When I finally did one six years later, I sent him a note to thank him. Plus, Hoss and the agents at Atlas Talent have been incredibly supportive.
6) Could you share with us some of the reading material or websites that someone interested in voice over should look at?
Joe Cipriano's book "Living on Air" is a delightfully-written account of his path from small-town radio to a huge career as one of the most recognizable voices in the industry. He wrote it with his wife Ann and it's a really fun read. Randy Thomas' "Voice for Hire" is a great book about how to grow and maintain a career in VO. Beau Weaver has some great FAQs on his website about the challenges of getting into VO. And check out Dee Bradley Baker's website. While his focus is animation, it's got tons of useful stuff on it for beginners and seasoned pros alike. The go-to studio advisor for voice talent is George Whittam. His vostudiotech.com website has all sorts of guidance on creating a recording environment.
7) What's your advice for those in radio who are interested in doing voice over work?
- Don't badmouth your radio station or the industry in general, especially not on social media. It just bugs me to no end when jocks who have been very vocal about "what's wrong with radio" then call me for advice on how to become an image voice. Stop it!
- The gear is not the career. Having a good recording space and the right mic and a groovy website is where you start, but it's only one part of the equation. The other more important piece is your performance and your marketing. The people who grow great careers in VO are constantly working on the craft and their skills, studying with coaches, expanding their knowledge, surfing the trends, taking workshops. Having the right gear is not a guarantee that you'll work.
- It's a marathon, not a sprint. And you will never get "there." It takes time to ramp up to a career and the work to maintain it is never-ending. The culture and the industry are constantly shifting, and you must shift as well. It will cost you money and time to set yourself up for the work, promote yourself for it, and get good at it. I firmly believe that the reason for any success I've had is because I just keep showing up.
8) You've already talked about ESPN, who or what are some of the other projects and companies you have done work for?
I'm currently the in-show voice for OK! TV, a daily entertainment news magazine on Reelz Channel and about 150 stations around the country. I'm one of the voices of the Chiefs Radio Network, and the image voice of a bunch of radio and TV stations. I've narrated documentaries for Discovery, NatGeo and Smithsonian Channel. ("Decoding Immortality" won an Emmy.) Promos for HBO, Weather Channel, "The View." I recently did trailers for Catherine Deneuve's "On My Way," the hilarious flick "Space Station 76," and "Tiny Giants 3D," an IMAX film for little kids about a chipmunk. I did a game trailer for "Child of Light," and do some work for Masters of Hardcore, the largest producer of hardcore and EDM concerts in the world. Now THAT gig tickles me.
9) Any advice for personalities who voice commercials for their stations?
Voicing spots on your station is a great way to hone your chops. Try to identify why a network spot sounds different than a local spot, and then ... do that.
10) What profession would you have chosen had you not done radio and voiceover?
I'd get a degree in bioacoustics. I'm pretty fascinated with the work that Bernie Krauss is doing; measuring the health of natural environments based on their acoustical complexity and cataloging the vanishing soundscapes of our planet.
What do you do to relax?
I meditate every morning and I do a lot of yoga. I hang out with my friends, and I'm a constant reader. I've just started Haruki Murakami's book "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," and it's crazy! But I feel happiest when I'm in the kitchen cooking vast quantities of food for people I love. Now that it's getting cool, y'all should come have soup.
How do you see the future for broadcasting?
I'm not sure I know how to answer that, or if "broadcasting" is even the right word anymore. The way we consume media is changing so fast.
What's your favorite radio memory?
I have three!
- Walking down the hall of the radio station at 7a to find a baby elephant blocking my way. It was "Zoo Day" on KMBZ.
- Doing a Saturday remote at a furniture store using a wireless mic tuned to the same frequency as the one worn by the pastor at the church across the street. Apparently, I interrupted a wedding with "You'll find great values today on sofa-sleepers and mattresses!"
- Training the air staff of a radio station in Benin, West Africa.