How To Move From Radio To Voice Overs

How To Move From Radio to Voice Overs
By Kate McClanaghan


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 “They say you better listen to the voice of reason. But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason. So you better do as you are told… you better listen to the radio.” —Elvis Costello

It’s a common misconception that if you’re in radio then you must be in voice overs, when in fact, they are two separate and very different worlds.  The truth is if you are in radio—it’s very likely you wish you were in voice overs. Precious few successfully discover how to move from radio to voice overs because, much like theater, people in radio will starve for their art.

Most of the yearly graduates from various universities and trade schools for broadcasting and production often find themselves becoming one of the great nomadic populace that dedicate themselves to radio: in part because they love the medium and also due to their initial aspirations to becoming a voice actor.  Radio seems a logical enough route at the onset should you want to get into voice overs. 

However, after dedicating years to small and medium market radio, requiring these committed individuals do five to eight shows a week (typically six to eight hours long a piece), as well as write, voice, and produce no less than 150 station promos a week (to keep the station afloat with endorsement and advertising money), and all for a meager paycheck that is typically $5,000 to $8,500 below poverty level. The main thing driving these people is their love for the medium and the fact that radio has become the devil they know.  There’s comfort in what’s familiar.

RadioTo add to this, people in radio find themselves out of work every six to eighteen months and not for any fault of their own.  These are extremely dedicated people by and large, but due to the fact that the small- or medium-market station they found employment with in Baton Rouge, for instance, changed formats from adult contemporary to all talk, or the station was bought by Cirrus, or perhaps they simply hit the pay limit at that station and they are now being replaced with people who are $2 less an hour.  (Can I get a Grapes of Wrath reference here, please?)

As pitiful a picture as I may be painting here, the plot thickens when you discover many bad performance habits are generated with all those years in the radio trenches. Hard-sell deliveries don’t translate well to commercial or narrative voice-over.  Unfortunately, radio talent tend to develop a very sell-y sounding delivery that becomes ingrained in every read and is very hard to break. Even though you might think all that experience in front of a mic would add to their value as a voice-over, these talent typically address the mic the same way for everything they do, regardless of what the script requires of them.  So their deliveries aren’t exactly natural or versatile, which can be a real deal killer in voice-over. 

To make matters worse (yes, there’s more) these talent are used to delivering one take and one take ONLY. Now, as a novice, you might think being One-Take-Jake to be some sort of selling point.  Instead, it’s the polar opposite: To be a successful voice-over you’re expected to offer options with each take, rather than offering the same inflection again and again with little or no variation from one take to the next. The reason being: you’re trying to satisfy the production demands of a number of people, and to take direction (if and when it’s given) and apply it immediately.  This isn’t done in a single take and serves only to make a radio talent feel as if they failed in some way, simply because they aren’t used to this standard commercial process in which most voice overs are professionally produced.

There are literally masses of radio talent roaming the country, attempting to suss out a living in the industry they know and love: radio.  So, it stands to reason, these are the folks who populate and drive pay-to-play (P2P) sites such as and, both popular voice-over job sites among radio talent that offers nonunion talent paying voice-over opportunities from all over the country and Canada.


What’s Your Rate?

Professional voiceovers have only recently had to ponder the question, “What’s your rate?”  Historically that’s a question a producers, casting directors, and talent agents answer, not talent. Yet in radio circles, where they are used to writing, voicing, and producing hundreds of spots a week for local station vendors, professional recording engineers are replaced with hurried edits off a radio talent’s laptop; seasoned producers, casting directors, and talent agents are replaced with anxiety-driven, bargain-basement rates to vendors that would probably rise to the occasion if they were given a realistic estimate. 

Instead, radio talent, so worried they will not get the job unless they dramatically low-ball the rate, act on this dreadful misconception: “I’ll give them the first one for $5, and charge a higher rate later on.”  To that I say, “Good luck!”

The problem is you set a precedent with the first job you do with a new production client.  And if you tell a new client your rate is $5, for instance, they will expect that same rate again on the next job. In fact they’ll base their next budget on the original quote you offered.  So, why would they use you again if your rate suddenly inflates to $250 on the next booking? ($250 is the average rate for a voice-over on a basic nonunion small-market radio spot.) You can’t very well charge 50 times what you initially charged and expect to hang on to that client for continued business, even if you did forewarn them. They probably won’t remember and will only have canceled checks in their past accounts to go by with the original devalued rate. The point is, this won’t make your client happy, and rightfully so.  Would you be okay with that if you were in their shoes?  Charging below-basement rates to new clients serves only to devalue your work and the work of others in the profession, as well as devaluing the worth of talent agents and recording engineers alike, whose skills and expertise are completely overlooked in this scenario.

Low-balling your rate in this manner will not serve to land you steady work or even further your mission to move from radio to voice overs.

Our best advice to you when it comes to offering a rate for your services:  Stay out of it!  Instead leave it to the professionals whenever possible, namely a seasoned talent agent.  NEVER hang a shingle out saying you cost $X amount as a flat fee.  There is NO flat fee for performance.  Why?  Because there are far too many variables in the equation! Every production is unique and so are the demands of the project, therefore the value of the job (your rate) should be based on the project demands, the intended usage and length of usage according to the standards established by the union (SAG-AFTRA).  Besides you’re only undermining your own true authority as a professional by offering a rate that most clients would certainly oblige if offered.  Blindly offering a rate out of fear and anxiety will only further distance you from discovering how to move from radio to voice overs.

A rate for your skills, personality, and performance is determined by the intended and ultimate use of the final audio—not how long the final audio will be, and it never has.  Regardless of the suggested rates offered on various pay-to-play online casting sites that only serve to benefit the client and not the voice talent.

The primary purpose behind a client employing professionals (casting directors, producers, and talent agents) is the simple fact that these industry veterans have experience in determining what the value of a particular job might be.  For instance, whether the project will be created for commercial use, Internet, new media (iPad, Twitter, smartphones, Facebook, or games), cable, network, trade show, interactive, animation, and/or corporate narration.  

How long the vendor intends to use your final performance in any combination of the list of above options or repurpose any portion of your performance, all factor into the ultimate value of the voice-over (or acting) job. I’d say that’s well worth their meager rates, wouldn’t you?

Ironically, in recent years, with all the added forms of media your work could ultimately end up in, the value of these key professionals has diminished.  Without an experienced producer, casting director, and/or talent agent, to safeguard the true value of your work, talent have been left to their own imagined value. With little or no experience, talent have readily been giving away their services through the continued use and abuse of many of these online voice-over job sites, which is unfortunate. Radio talent, especially, have even less experience determining their value and often exhibit greater desperation by attempting to low-ball their rate beyond any normal standard in order to win the job on these sites. As the saying goes, desperate people do desperate things. Coming from a radio background they will do-it-themselves rather than employ an agent or leave it to the professionals.


For the Love of the Game

It’s understandable how so many people can completely devalue themselves for the love of the work. Actors have been doing just that since time immemorial. They’re simply trying to earn a living.

But when we’re referring to voice-over, we’re generally referring to a mass medium, rather than an intimate theater setting, and we’re speaking of a recorded performance that can be repurposed again and again, adding to the value of that performance. This makes the following cautionary tale all the more pertinent.

Would-be voice talent Elwood Edwards voiced “You’ve got mail,” among the other notable AOL prompts back in 1989, prior to the Internet becoming such an established utility. He wasn’t paid a dime for his time.  A few short years later his iconic statement became the title and central theme of a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  So, not only did Elwood’s voice greet millions of individuals prior to opening their e-mails, it was used in trailers, had broad theatrical release, played on network television, and had been broadcast on cable and commercials. Had he been paid what the job was worth, he would have incurred residual pay in the hundreds of thousands, by today’s standards.

In a PR move to reduce the possible backlash that might follow, AOL compensated Elwood in 1998 with a buyout (flat fee) of approximately $80,000 and had him sign a release putting any possible future compensation to rest.  He was happy, AOL was happy. Of course, if he had continued to receive renewals and residuals for “you’ve got mail” he would possibly have incurred as much as $3,500,000 to date. 

Certainly this is an unusual case, but you could say every case is unique. 

The bottom line is it doesn’t matter what the length of the final audio is, what matters is the intended and ultimate use of the final audio that determines the true value of the job. It’s well worth mentioning, since so many radio talent base their ridiculously low rate on the “fact” that final audio will only be “five seconds or less.”  This has nothing to do with what you should be paid for your voice-over, and it never has.

This is where voice over training, discovering how to be a voice actor, and learning how to do voice overs will improve any seasoned radio talent’s game tremendously—no matter how much experience and what you may know already about radio, every professional stands to elevate their career to a dramatic extent by seeking voice coaching.  Every potential client likely to hire you believes you are a voice actor, and therefore you need to consider yourself as such. 

Not all voice over classes offer this viewpoint, but then, unlike SOUND ADVICE, they haven’t extensively and repeatedly surveyed more than 12,000 of your potential employers nationwide as we have.


Copyright © 2014 by Kate McClanaghan. All Rights Reserved.