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Ron Robinson

Talent -- The Friend Beside Us


There has been an element in vocal deliveries in both radio and television that has been secure for at least the last 10 years. Today, as often as not, on-air and commercial content is being delivered by those in the talent corps who have much higher and lighter voices than has been traditionally heard. The decisions to use these voices have been made, however, only for compensatory reasons.

Popularly phrased as the voice of “the guy next door,” these much higher, talent-tonalities have been injected into the broadcasting mix with specific, identified intentions: to suggest that a “real” person rather than a “fake” (radio announcer) person is doing the talking. This approach is supposed to increase the speaker’s credibility in the experience of a listener.

What is not discussed is what I believe to be the most important aspect of making these choices. Namely, the proposition of the bigger (“thunder-nut/puker”) voices coming off as antagonistic, authoritarian, and intimidating has not been examined or, in many cases, even acknowledged as a factor. This, I believe, is because such decisions to use lighter voices are based on intuitions and/or gut reactions on the part of writers and producers.

Before continuing, it is significant for me to state – categorically – that, at no time, do I urge these voices not to be accessed and exploited. I have friends and colleagues who have just such voices and who are earning fabulous livings both in on-air and V/O applications. These guys have serious skills and extraordinary control over their deliveries. Professionals they are – in every sense.

My beef is with the abovementioned intuitions. Talent with baritone or basso profundo voices are being shunted off to some degree not because of their tonalities but because of the copy!

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the majority of commercial scripts written for radio are antagonistic and authoritarian in nature. The copy itself contains numerous challenges to the audience and demands-for-behavior from the audience. This is already embedded in the script before any talent walks into the production studios.

I am satisfied that the combination of antagonistic copy and a bigger voice doing the read is, in many cases, perceived as being overwhelmingly pushy or abusive. There is a threshold in play here where the person making the determination comes to a conclusion of “That seems to be just too much.” Most of these considerations, I repeat, are made at an intuitive, unconscious level. None of this should come as a shock, by the way, as language is accessed, processed, and responded to at an unconscious level. (If we had to process our own language consciously, word by word, it would take us five minutes to order up fries and gravy with extra fries and gravy – and a Coke.)

Contrary to popular radio-wisdom, audiences are supremely sophisticated when it comes to accessing language. Indeed, I accept the position that “language” is the most complex and sophisticated technology that has ever been developed by humans. People (listeners) also have an innate ability to calibrate what they are hearing as they are hearing it.

By that, I mean our neurology is wired in such a way that we listen to individual speakers and make internal, unconscious adjustments relative to that speaker’s tonality, speeds, tempos, timbre, volume, and other factors. Listeners also determine the significance of what is being said based on that information. Now, here is the kicker: Listeners make allowances for the relative tonality and range of the speaker’s voice whether the voice is of a high, medium, or lower tonality! While “content” is important, it is not as singularly important as some might suspect or believe.

While I do appreciate how the concept of “the guy next door” came to be a significant factor in broadcast presentations, I am still obliged to also point out the obvious: Of all the guys next door I have met over the years, not one of them ever said anything remotely close to what radio’s guys next door are being compelled to say. Nor have they ever said anything in the style, speed, inflection, emphasis, or consistent warbling tonality that professional, radio “guys next door” say it.

Here is a simple exercise to demonstrate the concept: I invite the reader (man or woman with a naturally higher, medium, or lower tonality to say the following in exactly the way the directions I offer require.

The line is: “I feel very strongly about this.”
1. A reader can, first, rehearse that line – out loud – saying it relatively quickly and in their own higher tonality.
2. Now the individual can repeat the same line – a little slower this time and in their medium tonality.
3. Lastly, it is time to say the line again, but this time much slower and with the lowest tonality.
The question now is: Which of those deliveries has the most congruency and is the most believable?

Most normally aspirated speakers will intuitively choose #3. This is because the content deals with “feelings” and people access “feelings” when listening to or generating language that is lower and slower. This exercise is also a treat when demonstrated with the participation of others. The results are extraordinarily consistent. Plus, the information provided in the exercise transfers easily through all vocal ranges.

A next, logical discussion to be held concerns the inane admonition still foisted by too many PDs on unsuspecting talent to “speak naturally.” Suffice to say there are few experiences more unnatural than a disembodied voice being delivered through an electronic medium. But, that’s fodder for another cannon to be shot at another time.

While these elements are delivered somewhat deeper into my training, I suspect this article will be worthy of some serious consideration. Mostly, though, I want to bring attention to the first priority of presenting radio messaging: It all starts with the copy!

Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian Radio since the '60s as a performer, writer and coach and has trained and certified as a personal counsellor. Ron makes the assertion that the most important communicative aspects of broadcasting, as they relate to Talent and Creative, have yet to be addressed. Check out his website

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