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Voices of authority

January 11, 1988

Station announcers have the golden tones that demand attention from the folks at home

By Tom Sowa
The Spokesman-Review

The late-night newscast has just ended and maybe 20,000 area TV viewers hear a taped message telling them: “Stay tuned for tonight’s Cinema 2 presentation, the heartwarming family classic ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.’”

Bob Phillips, the announcer who recorded that message for KREM-TV, is himself fast asleep at his Spokane home. His voice, thanks to modern communications technology, continues working through the night.

Phillips, one of six “voiceover” announcers for local TV stations, never knows if his taped message hits the mark: Does he grab viewers’ interest and stop them, even for a minute, from switching channels or turning in for the night?

In the crowded, message-intensive medium of television, Phillips and the other voiceover announcers in Spokane ply their trade. Their job is to help stations sound unique amid the buzz of commercials, public service announcements and network hard-sell.

Spokane’s voiceover announcers put years of experience into a few minutes of messages each day. The blurbs they read run from quick four-word teases to 30 or 60-second public service announcements.

And they rely on the vocal skills of inflection, nuance, modulation and pacing. Says Richard Clear, the voiceover announcer for KXLY-TV: The challenge sometimes “is to be friendly and impressive in 3 ½ seconds.”

Voiceover announcers tell viewers to stay tuned at 8 for a movie, alert them to the highlights of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or simply identify the station by its call letters, as in: “KSPS…the quality shows.”

Their well-trained voices eventually become familiar and recognizable to attentive viewers, but their faces never appear on screen.

Voiceover announcers don’t hold glamorous jobs. The only celebrity they earn is the occasional question and raised eyebrow when their voices are recognized outside the station.

Clear says the job provides him a small chance each day to put something of merit on the air.

Spokane’s voiceover announcers, in addition to KREM’s Phillips and KXLY’s Clear, include Frank Dalton at KSPS, Cal Fankhauser at KHQ, Chuck Cromwell at KREM and Sam Lawson at KAYU.

They all possess distinctive voices. Most started their careers working in radio; Clear and Lawson, in fact, both work at local radio stations. Clear hosts two afternoon shows at KXLY-AM; Lawson handles a disc jockey’s shift in the afternoon for KISC-FM.

Of the six, five work full time for their respective stations. Lawson works one or two hours each week recording KAYU’s material in his home studio.

And most of them record commercials for area agencies on a free-lance basis, sometimes because of their own initiative, sometimes because a business in town tracks down a particular announcer whose voice was heard on TV or radio.

But none of the Spokane announcers make the kind of money paid to the network announcers heard by millions each week – those golden-throated success stories like Ernie Anderson, whose “The LOOOOVE Boat” blurbs and other spots have made him a wealthy man.

If anything, says Cromwell, the voiceover job in a town like Spokane has become more predictable and less interesting than it was 30 years ago.

In the 1950s and ’60s, before the arrival of videotape, announcers did their work live in a station booth.

“It was just like doing commercials on the radio: you’d read it right then, live, and people would be hearing it live.”

Adds Cromwell, who’s been at KREM since 1957: “I also used to appear on camera reading copy for commercials, making pitches.”

Station tastes changed and technical advances accelerated the change toward one-per-station voiceover announcers, recording a whole day’s work onto tapes that could be saved and played at any time and as frequently as needed.

Nowadays, most stations rely on the voice of a single announcer whose main job, according to Robert Grant at KREM, is “to be understood immediately and recognized instantly.”

The ideal, says Grant, KREM’s promotion director, is a voice that makes people say to themselves, “That’s KREM” when they overhear a recorded message while doing something else in another room.

Even then, there are bound to be critics. Phillips, who handles the morning and early afternoon voiceover tasks at KREM, remembers getting one message from a station caller.

“Someone called up and said: ‘I’m tired of that same old voice all the time. Haven’t you got anyone else, or does the announcer own the station?’”

They have their fans, too.

Dave Lockhert, the underwriting director at KSPS, deals with numerous advertisers – called “underwriters” in public TV – who pay the station to carry a short promotional message at the beginning and the end of shows.

In those underwriting messages, KSPS uses Dalton as the only announcer. On occasion, however, an underwriter may insist on using a voice of an announcer from previous commercials.

“I ask them to give it a chance, to listen to Frank,” says Lockhert. “I tell them that with his quality voice, it’s an advantage, not a disadvantage.”

Most underwriters agree to use him after hearing Dalton’s work. “They usually see the merits of using Frank’s voice. I think he has the best voice in the market. It’s very recognizable. He’s one of my selling points,” according to Lockhert.

Dalton’s easy, melodious tones have made him sought after by businesses and agencies in this area, adds Lockhert.

“He’s not out there actively pushing himself. But they hear his voice, and they ask about using him.”

While Dalton’s voice is confident, resonant and upbeat, he admits he’s anything but a natural performer. “Speaking in front of an audience, that tears me up and scares me.”

If the job isn’t lucrative, at least voiceover announcers have places of honor among colleagues.

“They are the voice of a station; they set a feeling for listeners. Depending on what the station needs, it can be strong, laid-back, subtle, warm or harsh,” says Grant at KREM.

Phillips’ voice, the one used in most of KREM’s promotions, is “very warm and friendly,” according to Grant. “He sounds like the friend next door, and that’s what we want.”

KHQ’s Fankhauser, a mainstay at that station since 1958, possesses a comfortable, strong baritone that he says people sometimes recognize when meeting him for the first time.

“Sometimes people think I work 24 hours a day,” he adds, because many viewers hear his voiceover promos throughout the day and night on the station.

Fankhauser, the promotion coordinator for KHQ, explains to them that the technology of tape recording lets him record a week’s worth of messages within an hour.

Like most of the announcers in town, Fankhauser spends about an hour or two per shift recording voiceovers. The rest of each day is devoted to other duties he performs at the station.

In Fankhauser’s case, he oversees all of KHQ’s promotional material. Cromwell and Phillips at KREM both work as audio operators during newscasts. Dalton works as a morning program switcher at KSPS, making sure one program (on videotape) starts just when the previous program ends.

All of them, by virtue of their profession, love the chance to use their skills in an impressive light. They get that chance most often while recording the audio part of paid commercials that are being produced within each station.

“What I hate most,” says Fankhauser, “is having to rush and go faster than I should with my reading.

“I love to do spots where I can take my time and do a nice soft sell. That lets you show off your voice.”

KXLY’s Clear – a name that has nothing to do with his choice of professions – enjoys that same challenge.

“I want to convey an understatement,” says Clear, after listening to a commercial he recently recorded for a car dealer.

“This one succeeded,” he says. He listens again, and he hears his voice modulate smoothly through a 30-second spot for BMW, a commercial that includes sound effects he added, the hum of an auto accelerating from 25 to 50 mph.

“I punched – emphasized – the right words at the right time,” says Clear when the commercial ends. “I want to suggest: ‘This is one heck of a car’ without screaming or overdoing it.”

KAYU’s Lawson says he has two announcers’ voices, depending on the context.

During his shift at KISC, his voice approaches a “smooth, relaxed tone.” In the KAYU spots, Lawson aims for an animated, excited quality.

“I try to make it sound like this is something really worth watching.”

In the four years he’s done voiceovers at KAYU, he’s learned how inflections and tiny pauses can add extra emphasis to a message.

“There are days I go home and listen and feel proud of what I’ve done.” Other times, he’s not so happy. “The average person wouldn’t notice, but I listen for inflection and enunciation and the overall general feeling.”

Discriminating listeners will also detect different voices used locally for the lead-ins and teases for each station’s news programs. “That’s the general direction at most stations – to keep one voice for news shows, another for everything else,” says Grant.

Two of the Spokane affiliates use voices they’ve found in town as their voiceover announcers for news. KHQ uses its audio maintenance supervisor, Tom Parill, for news voiceovers. KXLY hired Gonzaga TV department chairman Rod Clefton for its promos. KREM relies on Pullman communications professor Glenn Johnson as its news voiceover man.

None in the announcers’ group sees the job as a male-only occupation, though no Spokane station has used a woman as its primary voiceover.

Briefly, when it first went on the air in 1982, KAYU used a female to read about half its station voiceovers. Because of personnel switches, it brought Lawson aboard in 1983 and he’s been the station announcer ever since.

KREM’s Grant says he’s seen numerous stations around the country using both a male and female voiceover. But he’s not sure Spokane is ready for a woman as the main reader.

“Spokane is more conservative. But another reason is that women don’t have the same vocal range as men. Men tend to have deeper voices and they’re more likely to have the vocal tone that cuts through background music or sound better than women.”

To suggest women can’t do the same thing, says former KREM news director Wes Lynch, is “garbage.”

“The only reason you don’t hear women is that men have been in these jobs.”

Lynch, corporate communications manager for ISC Systems Corp., says the policy of using women would raise objections only at first.

“The same thing happened when we first used women news anchors. We got people calling who thought their voices were terrible.”

“Using (a woman’s voice) would raise comments for the first six to eight weeks. And then it would be accepted.”

Monday, January 11, 1988


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