Oink Ink Radio Talks Voice: 3 Part Series
Part 1: Behind the Scenes in the Auditioning Process of Radio Advertising.
Oink Ink Radio’s Dan and Jim Price, brothers and co-founders of the country’s premier radio advertising agency, know more about radio voices than anybody else. And so we’re launching a three-part series focusing on the nuts and bolts of the critical role voice plays in producing some of the best radio spots of the last 25 years.
In the first piece, they share their insights and thoughts on the auditioning process and how it compares to that which they employed years ago.
When it comes to Oink Ink Radio’s approach to auditioning, the overall process hasn’t changed much over the last two decades — largely thanks to the forethought given to the procedures those many years ago by Oink’s founders and brothers, Dan and Jim Price.
“We draw upon a database that we constructed 25 years ago and have maintained over the years,” said Jim Price, co-founder and executive creative director at Oink Ink Radio. “We maintain both a New York and LA database, and each has probably 2,000 actors entered into it, categorized by type, approach, style, voice quality — everything.”
“And so, when it comes to an audition, we plug in the specifics of what we’re looking for — and an appropriate list is generated,” said Jim Price. “That also helps to ensure that we’re not forgetting someone.”
“Of course, we also speak with Talent agents,” said Dan Price, co-founder and president of Oink Ink. “We’ll tell them what we’re looking for, and ask that they send us new actors — people we don’t yet know about.’”
Of the 25 or so actors invited to the audition, about 80 percent come from the Oink Ink process and about 20 percent from agents.
In the early days, the Price brothers conducted auditions themselves but have since come to rely on two casting directors who handle the actual casting sessions. Dan Price says, “We have conversations with them about the mechanical considerations of a spot. For example, even if someone sounds great, but they’re reading a 30-second script in 35 seconds — that doesn’t tell us much.”
When the time comes for the audition, the Oink Ink approach is to say very little. “We prefer not to tell the actors too much up front; rather, we want to see how they interpret it. The perfect actor for a given project will hit the ground running— he’ll sound as if he wrote the script.”
Dan Price agrees, “We’re really looking for someone who brings as much to the party as any of the rest of us — someone who surprises us in an unexpected way.”
After the auditioning process, Oink’s casting directors select the best read from the actors. Jim Price then goes through and discards the ones that don’t work for that particular script. “And then I take it from the other perspective, and pick the ones I think work best,” Dan Price said. “We then take our shortlist to the client and indicate those recommendations.”
Like much of the rest of the world, technology has, however, changed the process of radio voice auditions over the last 20 years.
The Price brothers remember back to a time when actors would go to ICM in Los Angeles, the biggest voice operation at the time, and hang-out, on site, throughout the day auditioning.
“One of the most obvious ways technology has changed the casting process over the years is that actors have the ability to generate their auditions remotely and send us Mp3 files,” said Jim Price.
Clearly, remote auditions generate better attendance and open the field to a broader range of actors. “Now, people across the country have voice booths or a good microphone and proper software at home and can generate auditions,” Jim Price said.
Part 2: Then vs Now
From their vantage point as leaders creating the best radio spots of the last 25+ years, Oink Ink Radio’s founders and brothers, Dan and Jim Price, have observed plenty of changes when it comes to the role voices play in the creation of radio commercials.
“The style of commercials has changed over the years,” said Jim Price, co-founder and executive creative director at Oink Ink Radio. “We’ve gone from a mindset of ‘how do we make the best theater of the mind’ to now – jumping forward 25-30 years, far more emphasis being put on return on investment. The spots have to work harder.”
Just because the Price brothers understand the reasons behind the change to their niche industry doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes miss the ‘old days’. “For a radio purist, the emphasis on ROI doesn’t make for quite as much fun and experimentation in the studio,” said Dan Price, co-founder, and president of Oink Ink.
“What I mean by that is way back when we would have ensemble actors come into the studio all the time. We would do spots with a ‘family’, or a boss and his minions sitting around a conference room – all great voice actors, including people like Roger Bowen, the original Henry Blake in the movie M*A*S*H or Richard B. Shull, another great character actor, or Jim Harder – just wonderfully comedic ensemble actors.”
Price brothers agree that those voices painted vivid pictures in the listeners’ mind’s eye of who this person in the commercial was. “We also had these great ‘husband and wife’ teams. Bill Fiore and Mary Elaine Monti immediately come to mind. There was a lot of collaboration and scripts were written broader and more dialogue driven. Our clients have expressed a desire to abandon that approach over the years. They now want spots that are more transparent,” Jim Price said.
The Price brothers recount a series of flavor-of-the-month-radio-spot styles between then and now that many clients wanted to emulate. It started with cute he/she dialogue spots (like the “Molson couple”), then clients started asking, “Do you have anyone who sounds like Tom Bodett?” (of Motel 6 fame). Then it was the young, cool, hip damaged voice kind of thing.
There was also the phase, cites Dan, that happened more in television than radio, but it involved clients being lulled into thinking the voice of the tape editor they had grown used to hearing during production worked well enough for the finished product. “Yeah, the voice-editor-turned-talent was a thing. People in the inner circle get so comfortable with the sound of the voice that they’d say, ‘Hey, let’s use his/her voice. It sounds like the person next door.’ But that’s the problem from my perspective, the voice literally sounds like the guy next door. There was no interpretation, and nothing dynamic or distinctive whatsoever,” Dan Price said.
Next came the celebrity voice phase. “In almost every case, the casual listener has no idea that the actor is famous,” Jim Price said. “And the celebrity is almost never as good as about five people we could list, actual voiceover pros, who would have done a better job. At, of course, a fraction of the cost.” Dan Price said that sometimes he’s watching or listening to a commercial and he’ll ask his family if they recognize the voice. “And it would be someone like, I don’t know, Luke Wilson,” Dan Price said. “Interpreting copy is a talent.”
While the Price brothers admit that they long for the old days, the industry’s current atmosphere presents its own set of rewarding challenges. “Since the copy has to do the yeoman’s task in carrying a spot, it now has to be more clever and interesting rather than relying on funny and comedic timing,” Jim Price said. “Spots now have to work harder – which means so do we. The commercial has to sell. Less use of theater of the mind means we have to start with clever copy to solve whatever problem we’re faced with, but we also need a distinct voice to cut through. There are a different set of challenges we work with today.”
Some of the Price brothers’ favorite new voices include:
– Stephanie Thomas represented by Solid Talent/Los Angeles
– Gore Abrams and Willow Jensen, both of Cunningham/NY
– And Megan Leonard and Eli Bridges c/o Buchwald/NY
Part 3: Working With Actors to Produce Great Radio Spots
Oink Ink Radio’s Dan and Jim Price have developed a specific approach to getting the best performances out of voice actors for their radio spots. Dan Price, co-founder, and president of Oink Ink, lays the groundwork for the voice sessions by admittedly over-preparing for the session.
“You wouldn’t believe the prep we conduct before a session,” says Dan Price. “If I revealed my entire list of procedures, people would think I’m nuts, but it’s what works best for me.”
He’s got it down to such detail that his timing calculations for Oink’s spots will almost always come within tenths of a second of the actual timings. “I prepare for key changes within the music, sound effects or pregnant pauses. It’s all mapped out so that I can determine where we are with timings,” he said. “And then I have with me back-pocket solutions to solve timing problems so that we never have to spend time fixing those during a session. Most audio producers spend a lot of time-solving timing issues; time that could be better spent on making their spots better.”
The Price brothers spend the majority of their session time focusing on capturing good audio. “I have notes about script interpretation, a point of view, how I want things read, both big picture and down to nuance. All of these things allow us to hit the ground running the moment a session starts,” Dan said. “I mean, you’re on the clock with actors. And that’s what we’re there for – getting the most out of the time we’re in the studio.” As ironic as it sounds, Price says the level of preparation is precisely what allows for spontaneity. “The tighter you are from the outset,” says Dan Price, “the more time you have to capture that great energy…which evolves into exploration. Going to take 91 is counter-productive. That’s usually a sign that someone has no idea what they want…or how to get what they want.”
The Price brothers agree that good auditioning prevents in-studio disasters and sets spots off on the best foot. “If you’re not on a good track early on, it’s very difficult to get there. The session has to remain upbeat and positive, no matter what,” Dan Price said. “In the very beginning, we keep it light. I don’t say much. My main goal is to make sure the actors are comfortable with the situation and not intimidated by the setting. Sometimes we have a room full of clients, people listening on the phone – the atmosphere is not conducive to the actors feeling 100 percent natural; the situation is anything but.”
Another positive outcome of the actors’ comfort level is their feeling invited to share different approaches that may occur to them. “Tapping into that is very important. In almost every case, the actor will have done far more sessions and spots than any other person sitting in the room,” said Dan Price. “And so, early on in the session, I work on the big picture – pacing, getting it to time and overall point of view. From there, we start working on smaller and smaller things. To the point that, by the end, we’re doing small individual phrases and then back-pocket script tweaks and ad-libbed jokes.”
These days, the Price brothers find that their work is split between actors live and in-studio and via remote recording. “When we’re recording, we may not see all of the actors face to face. Half of what we do, in fact, I’m not in the room with the actor nowadays,” said Dan Price. “That was never the case years ago.”
Today, technology allows for recording voices from all over the world, Los Angeles mostly. In fact, it’s even used to record, say, dialogue with a “husband” in their New York studio while the “wife” might be on the west coast. “The unfortunate thing is that they’re not able to play off each other in a personally connected way, but actors have become very good at it; it’s just the way the business has evolved,” Dan Price said. “Years ago, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to walk into the booth and chat with the whole ensemble of actors. Now, we don’t have that benefit, so I’ve had to adopt a different way of communicating.”
“We would do batches of these spots with clients sitting in on every session. You’d do the whole go-out-to-dinner every night – the whole thing,” Jim Price said. “Now, it’s very rare for clients to attend sessions for a variety of reasons – cost and technology are at the top.”
On one hand, Dan says exploring options in the studio with just the mixer and actors is great. “But on the other hand, the client isn’t there to experience why we decided to approach problems in a certain way,” he said. “Had they been there, they would have likely come to the same conclusions. So, the approvals get a little trickier these days.”
One of the things that hasn’t changed much is the Price brothers’ process of working with child actors. “To me, there’s nothing worse than hearing a spot with a kid in it who wasn’t used properly or you can’t understand him or her,” Dan Price said. Rather than an impressive resume, the Price brothers look for child actors who can mimic. “We hire children who have the cute voice, but after that, I just need to know if they can mimic,” Dan Price said. “I’ll perform it as naturally as possible in the studio with them, and they’ll mimic it. They do a take of each line in the script. Then, we go back and edit the best lines together – it works every time.”