10 Questions with ... Roberta Solomon
March 29, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I had a strong background in theater and music, but meandered my way into a degree in Radio and TV Performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. (I'd actually started out studying to be a recording engineer, but kept getting asked to do voice work, so I finally took the hint.) A friend who was working at KCUR, then the campus radio station, suggested that I apply for an announcer position there, and I knew the moment I opened the mic for the first time that I'd found my path. I was at KCUR for less than a year when I was "discovered" (at a restaurant where I was waitressing) by a sales guy who worked for KMBR, an old style Easy Listening station. I landed the gig and did nights at KMBR for a couple of years, and then moved to mornings when the station changed call letters and formats. (I also married the morning guy; we shared the mic, and life, for 10 years.) While I was on the air at Lite 99.7 FM, I started doing a lot of freelance voice and on-camera work. I co-founded a talent agency with several other voice artists, and by the mid-'90s, my voice work had expanded into a full-time job, so I decided to leave the air. I put a studio in my home and started imaging radio stations almost immediately. Imaging has been a huge part of my work ever since.
1) Could you tell us about any new projects?
I'm the news voice of a number of affiliate TV stations around the country and I co-voice the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network (sharing the duties with the legendary Earl Mann). In the past year, I narrated several projects for ESPN, voiced the spots for the French Open on NBC, did some comedy bits on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and a trailer for the world's largest producer of Hardcore arena concerts. I also do a lot of medical narration, which weirdly, I love. Right now, I'm voicing an ongoing project for a pharmaceutical company, teaching doctors about drugs for multiple sclerosis. And I was hired by Bayer Animal Health to narrate a video outlining new ways to vaccinate turkeys. (Now THAT's great subject matter at cocktail parties.)
The French Open
Masters of Hardcore - Raiders of Rampage arena concerts
2) What's new in the world of voiceover?
Our aural esthetic -- what we consider "good" sound -- has always been driven by technology. (Read Peter Milner's "Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music." It's an awesome book.) It's fascinating how the digital consumption of radio (and other media) has changed the way voiceovers are done. The old school "Voice of God" that once reigned is out, because nobody really needs to hear a voice across the room anymore. The dominant style in voiceover now is "authentic." It's quiet. Personal. The change has been driven by social media, but also because most people now consume radio on their phones. So you're speaking directly into someone's ears now.
3) Weren't you once the host of one of those weekend bad horror movie shows? You have to share some of the stories and how did you get the gig in the first place.
Yes! Back in the '80s, I auditioned for and won a job hosting a live weekend show on KSHB-TV in Kansas City. A few months into it, the station started playing monster movies, and decided they needed a host to introduce them. The weekend show became the "Creature Feature," and I became Crematia Mortem. The show had a huge following because it was carried all over the Midwest, and it lasted for nine years. Crematia's been featured in a couple of books, a documentary, and a few years ago was inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame, along with Elvira, Joe Bob Briggs, and the Universal Studios "Shock" movies.
4) How do you keep going at such a fast pace with all the work you do?
My biggest issue isn't the pace of the work, but the unpredictability of it. I rarely know when I get up whether the day will be crazy or not. Sometimes, there's nothing on the schedule and I wind up working all day. Other times, sessions get postponed and suddenly I've got a couple of hours to kill. If you don't have an attention deficit disorder when you start doing VO work, you will after you've done it for a while!
5) 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 doing it and often they were the "spice" to the main image voice, who was a guy. But that started to change pretty quickly and it makes me happy to think I was part of the change. And while male image voices still outnumber women, there isn't a format where we're not heard.
6) What was it like going from everyday radio to working for yourself?
Exhilarating. Terrifying. Gratifying. Humbling. The entrepreneurial life is not for everyone, because you're responsible for everything. 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. I knew I wasn't just going to be the talent anymore; I was signing on to be the receptionist, salesperson, accountant, engineer, and the janitor as well! And there's an emotional side to this work that nobody talks about much. You have to learn to manage "the black hole." That's the fear that every gig you land will be the last one you'll ever do. (That fear never goes away.)
Voice work is extremely isolating, because everybody works from home. Radio is all about collaboration and connection. So that was a huge change. I had to learn how to create community in new ways, through conventions, workshops and coaching. I found my "tribe" when I started studying with voiceover coach Marice Tobias. She's worked with many successful radio personalities who've transitioned to full-time voiceover work, and it was an epiphany to connect with her other students who were walking the same path I was.
7) 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?
You need a soundproof, acoustically-treated space so you can work anytime, and a studio setup that allows you to produce broadcast quality audio. There are as many studios as there are people who have them, but the basics are a good mic, a computer and recording software (with some kind of processing), and the ability to connect with your client and send them files in the manner they prefer. You need a website and social media presence so potential clients can find you, sample your work, and connect. And you've got to know how all this stuff works, or hire someone who does. (Even though I'm pretty skilled in the studio, I've always worked with an engineer.) But what's changed in voiceovers is that the bar has been raised really high for performance. There are so many talented people now vying for the work, that I believe the most important tool is continued coaching and ongoing study of the craft. Even if you're working from a closet in your basement, you're now competing against the best voices in the business, who've got great studios and who go after the work as hard as you do. So you have to continually focus on elevating your own abilities in the booth and in business.
I've pretty much always got a mic and an iPad with me for emergencies (the Twisted Wave app is great). The best emergency studio is your car. (Non-parallel walls, lots of padding, etc.) I've worked in hotel closets stuffed with pillows, in a friend's bathroom, under an ironing board covered with blankets, and in a baby's room using a pile of stuffed animals as soundproofing. I've done sessions using a Sennheiser 416 attached to a lampshade, a curtain rod, a tiki-mask wall hanging and a wine bottle. Of course, I also book time in pro studios when I travel, especially if I'm working on a longer project where the producer needs to direct.
8) What people have influenced your radio and voice over career?
I still remember the life advice I got from KMBZ's great newsman Noel Heckerson, after I'd had a particularly bad day on the air. I asked him, "Noelie, what do YOU do when you've screwed up?" And he said, "Bert, I turn the page."
My late husband and morning show partner Jim Welch taught me the "one thought per break" concept on the air. Dick Stadlen, who was the PD of KDAT in Cedar Rapids, IA, was the first person to hire me as an image voice. Jim Richards of Vallie, Richards, Donovan Consulting guided me to my first imaging demo. Fellow image-gals Ann Dewig and Jen Sweeney continue to blow me away with their creativity, heart and work ethic. Mike Elder hired me to voice WCCO in Minneapolis, long before it was common to hear a woman imaging a News/Talk station. Scott Mahalick of Alpha Broadcasting, who with a single question, set me on a path to "the next level" in my work.
9) 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 www.spokenword.com about the challenges of getting into VO. And check out Dee Bradley Baker's website at www.iwanttobeavoiceactor.com. 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 home-based voice talent is George Whittam. His vostudiotech.com website has all sorts of guidance on creating a recording environment.
10) What's your advice for those in radio who are interested in doing voiceover work?
- Don't bad-mouth 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 shifting so fast, 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.
What profession would you have chosen had you not done radio and voice over?
I'd get a degree in bioacoustics. I'm 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's your favorite radio memory?
Ray Dunaway (now at WTIC/Hartford) slow-cooking a pot roast inside a car to prove how hot it was that summer.
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.