As a publisher, I have come to understand the importance of audio books. As a special post, I interviewed Ruth Weisberg and Billy Dees about their work in voiceover narration. I am posting these interviews on HO, so writers and authors have an idea of what it takes to be a voiceover artist and book narrator. Hope it helps both the budding and established authors out there First up is Ruth Weisberg and next week, we will post the interview with Billy Dees.
“I grew up in a small row house in Northeast Philly) and spent all my summers in Atlantic City. By time I was a senior at Northeast High School, I was chomping at the bit to move out of my house and leave the only neighborhood I ever lived in, and to expand my travels and world views beyond Philly and the Jersey seashore.
I started my freshman year of college in the summer of ’74 at the main campus of Penn State University. Although my major was in Special Education, nearly all of my extracurricular and volunteer activities centered around theater, public speaking and television.
I was an usher for all the university plays and touring road company performances on campus, ran the university speaker’s bureau. I booked and emceed speaking appearances for Leonard Nimoy, Betty Friedan and Jean-Michel Cousteau. I also had a part-time job as a camera operator and floor manager for the university TV station and nightly news/weather TV broadcast. My work motto is that I will accept any job position that does not require wearing a hair net.
I had 3 goals while at Penn State: to climb Mt. Nittany, be in a musical play (a HUGE challenge for non-theater majors) and to study abroad. Sure enough, I conquered all 3. I spent my junior year in Durham, England as an exchange student at the University of Durham. By now I had several years of experience as a camera operator at the PSU television station and approached the head of the Audio-Visual Department at the University of Durham about landing a similar position for the BBC. He stifled a laugh, praised me for my “sheer audacity and bold initiative” and asked if I might be interested in radio broadcasting instead. Why? Because his cousin Kevin used to be a disc jockey in London and was now a seminarian and soon to be ordained a Catholic priest. Kevin produced and hosted a weekly music radio show for a local hospital broadcasting system and I could possibly learn the ropes of radio broadcasting from him. Here I was, a Jewish girl from row house Philly with a golden opportunity to meet a London DJ-turned-Catholic priest who had a live radio show. I jumped at the chance. Kevin and I met that afternoon, hit it off immediately, and that weekend he put me on the air as his radio sidekick. His DJ handle was “The Rev Kev” and we renamed the show, “Music, American Style” to account for my distinct American/Philly accent. We produced and co-hosted the live radio show together every week for the entire year I lived in England.”
What is your most memorable broadcasting job?
“Actually, all of them are memorable in their own way because they were so distinct and diverse. I was one of the pioneering female voices of the Shadow Traffic Network, a news anchor and morning show co-host on WXTU, Philly’s only country radio station, a news anchor for the late, great Don Cannon at Oldies 98 (WCAU-FM), a features reporter for Sunny 104.5 (WSNI-FM), and a news anchor for “Sunday with Sinatra with Sid Mark.” I was doing summer fill-in talk show hosting at WCAU-AM, and when the late, great Philly Mayor Frank Rizzo landed a live, afternoon talk show that fall, I was selected to be his on-air radio co-host and sidekick. I never auditioned or campaigned for the job. Management wanted someone who had proven broadcasting chops, was familiar with Philly, and could capably play ‘second banana’ on the air while deftly navigating Frank Rizzo during a live, 3-hour call-in radio show. We had a blast together and got along famously–both on the air and behind the scenes.”
How did you get into voiceover narration?
Consider me the accidental voiceover narrator. I was working a full-time, split shift at Shadow Traffic. I did live traffic updates from 5am-9am during morning rush hour, then had a big chunk of time off midday before returning for my 3pm-6pm air shift for the afternoon rush hour. Rod Carson, who was one of the founders of Shadow Traffic and a prominent traffic reporter for KYW NewsRadio, worked the morning radio shift at Shadow Traffic before heading to his other full-time job as Production Director at WMMR. He called me in a panic one day from the radio station, saying he needed a female voice to narrate a :60 radio spot that was due on the air later that day. So I popped downtown to WMMR, cut the radio spot in less than 20 minutes, and made it back to Shadow Traffic in time for my afternoon air shift. Oh, and before I left the studio at WMMR, Rod told me to bill the client $150 for the commercial
After that assignment, I took an excerpt from that first radio spot, added a few more audio samples to showcase my vocal range and narration chops, and created a kickass voiceover demo reel. I then shopped it around to area production companies, corporate audio-visual departments, recording studios and ad agencies. I got a steady stream of bookings for radio and TV spots, corporate training, promotional, and industrial videos, and audio textbooks for continuing education courses. I did this during my down time midday hours at Shadow Traffic and around my other radio broadcast jobs. I absolutely love making the printed word come alive with credence, conviction, and flair when I’m in a voiceover recording session.
What is the most important asset to a voiceover artist?
“Listening! As in, listening for the ‘sweet spot’ of your copy, to the needs of your client and the intended response from your audience. It’s also vital to listen to the various vocal placements in your linguistic arsenal so you’ll know where and how to add the necessary elements of emphasis, tone, inflection, pitch, volume, pacing, and even silence for dramatic heft. Another important asset is the ability to do ‘cold reading’ capably with credibility and style. That’s where you are voicing copy you are seeing for the first time without a rehearsal or practice. Voiceover narration is much like a manicure; most of the work is in the prep, managing different files, cutting to the proper length, and then in the end you add the polish and finishing touches.”
What type of training should a quality voice over artist/narrator complete?
“Practice! Whether it’s the formality and structure of a group voiceover class, or individual private coaching, the greatest gains in your training will occur with sustained practice. Select a wide spectrum of subject material in various lengths to showcase and challenge your cold reading and vocal skills. On the flip side of reading aloud printed material, tapping into your improv skills is another training tool to unleash a range of voices, timing, and to loosen up tension. For example, instead of singing in the shower, narrate in the shower! What would the shampoo bottle say to the conditioner, and what would those voices sound like? Or watch TV with the sound muted and slug in your own silly voices. I particularly recommend watching evangelical religious TV shows with the sound off because TV preachers are so compelling with their delivery, timing, dialects and accents, and measured use of silence for drama and flair.”
When did you start teaching about narration and voice over work?
About 5 years ago, when I joined the faculty of The Voice Box as one of the instructors for the popular 8-week course, “Voiceover: The Total Experience.” I love helping students to develop the dynamics and diversity of their vocal ranges and narration reading skills. I also enjoy being a keynote speaker about voiceover narration for professional trade organizations and a guest lecturer for communications classes at schools and colleges. I am also the creator and host of “Throw Drama from the Train,” a fun field trip where we narrate the posters and billboards inside the train cars while actually riding the rails. It’s a practical and hilarious way for students and fans of voiceover to get out and hone their cold reading and narration chops without the confines of an audio booth or the pressure of an audition
What would people be surprised to know about narration and voiceover work?
I often say that breaking and entering into voiceover narration is easy; becoming a lifer is the hard part. And having a so-called ‘good voice’ or being able to do cartoon voices or celebrity impressions doesn’t cut it, either. It takes practice, talent, and patience to develop the skills needed to nail your reads and bookings. It also helps to have killer connections and key referrals in this business who will support and refer you for recording sessions. You know those pharmaceutical TV spots you see all the time that always end with that hilarious laundry list of side effects? Here’s the voiceover version. Go on, say it out loud in your best voice:
“Side effects of voiceover narration include: sounding more professional, better reading and listening skills, speaking with clarity, conviction and credibility, feeling more confident, influencing opinion, inducing knowledge, having others listen to you, learning about other subjects, and having a ton of fun!”
Voiceover, narrator and coach Ruth Weisberg is also the producer/host of Storytime and Show ‘n Tell with Miss Ruth for Radnor Station 21 in Lower Merion, PA. You can follow Ruth on her YouTube channel and on Facebook Also email Ruth with your voiceover questions at firstname.lastname@example.org