Radio imaging is one of voice over’s most misunderstood niches. Even many accomplished career voice actors have misconceptions about it. To be clear, we’re talking about being the “voice” of a radio station, the person you hear on the station 24/7 branding it. Not the DJ who pulls a regular shift, announces the songs and gives away the prizes. The imaging voice usually lives out of market, is contracted and doesn’t do anything else for the station (of course there are exceptions). Often, no one at the station has even ever met the imaging voice in person.
There are several key factors that make radio imaging work very different from your typical commercial or narration gigs…
First, the talent is generally working under a retainer for 6 months to a year. This guarantees the station that the talent’s voice won’t be heard on any other stations in that market during that time and guarantees the talent a semi steady paycheck. It’s a much more formal, long term relationship than most voice work and stations will often keep the same imaging voice for years if things go well. The pay isn’t as good as high level commercial work but isn’t bad considering the time a seasoned talent needs to get the job done. Retainers generally range anywhere from $200 to the low four figures per month, depending on market size, for a few pages of reads. Top talent often have 100+ plus stations on retainer at any given time. Getting even a handful of stations means you are in a very small club. It’s competitive, do the math and you can see why.
Second, in all but the largest markets, the work is self directed, meaning the stations emails the copy and the talent does it on their own time and emails the recording back to the person who produces the imaging. They are usually called the creative services director or in smaller markets it’s often the program director or APD. This is where the radio experience becomes essential. The talent must have an idea of how radio promos and imaging are built. Most are highly produced with all types of flashy sound design and other attention-getters that you would never hear in a commercial or narration. If you don’t understand the work flow of radio production you won’t be able to get the producers what they need and no one in radio these days has any time to help you learn it.
In addition to knowledge of the nuts and bolts of production, you need to understand radio formats, lingo and demographics. CHR, AAA, TOH, PPM (Contemporary Hit Radio, Adult Album Alternative, Top of Hour Legal ID, Personal People Meter) and many others are terms only radio people know about- but to be successful in imaging you have to speak radio. You also have to know the trends in how stations are presenting themselves and what demographics they are going after, basically just staying abreast of the industry. For example, knowing that many CHR stations are going for a friendlier more conversational sound, country stations are becoming more and more like CHR’s and stations are frequently targeting women more than men because that’s what the big national ad buyers want, stuff like that is good to know when you get behind the mic or on the phone with a PD.
Third, the way imaging is recorded is very different. Imaging talent will often just get a page of sentence fragments that would make little sense to anyone outside of radio. The imaging talent knows that they are only a piece of the production puzzle. There’s likely song snippets, audio from listeners, artists and DJ’s that all come together with the imaging voice to make a promo or sweeper. Quality radio imaging talent have likely put the puzzle together from the other side of things and can hear in their heads what’s likely to be between the lines of the seemingly nonsensical script. Radio imaging producers will also expect several different reads of each line so they have some choices. Good imaging talent will know how to lay down the same line 3 or 4 different ways while still managing to maintain the delivery and attitude that is the “voice” of that station.
Prized imaging voice talents are generally great at improv as well. The give the station the lines they need read and then some outtakes and generally riffing on the theme of the copy. This helps the producer out because it’s like having an additional copy writer on staff, who likely has much more time on his hands to think up something funny or relevant. Great outtakes will make you a favorite of stations faster than almost anything else. Improv is a great skill to have for commercial or narration but really shines in radio imaging.
As with all skilled work, the devil is in the details. Radio imaging isn’t any harder than commercial or narration work, it’s just very different and requires a knowledge of radio that generally only those who have been there have.
If you have any questions about radio or voice over for imaging feel free to send me an email and I’ll do my best. I have 13 years of radio experience and still maintain many contacts in the industry in addition to lending my voice to several radio imaging providers. I would also highly recommend listening to put out by Ryan Drean. He interviews both producers and voice talent so you get the dual perspective that every successful talent needs. See my post about the Producers Podcast