For as long as I can remember, listening to the spoken voice has been a source of great pleasure to me. Since as an only child I had no siblings to do battle with, a small radio was among my closest companions. I listened in bed, even late at night when I was supposed to be asleep, and my enjoyment of the sound of voices has only increased over the years. And now there is not only radio but a cornucopia of podcasts by way of apps such as Stitcher and Podbay, everything from the revolutionary, idea-sharing TED Talks to Old Time Radio, any of which I can download on my iPad or smartphone.
When listening to a voice I’m not distracted by the speaker’s looks, or gestures, or whatever might be going on in the background. I sometimes even close my eyes when “watching” a television interview.
We spend a good bit of time discussing the way people look, or we have strong opinions about how they sound – if they’re singing. But unless there’s something distinctive or irritating about a spoken voice, we don’t give its quality much thought. We listen to what’s being said and hope to derive its meaning without distractions.
But voice qualtiy is critical because it sets the tone for how we will perceive a topic and, to advertisers, what we will buy and what movies we’ll see.
We wouldn’t recognize most of the professional narrators and voiceover artists we hear every day if we passed them on the street. Would you recognize Don LaFontaine? Probably not, but you’ve heard his voice not only in commercials but also many, many times in movie trailers – he has recorded 5000 of them – which often begin ominously with the words, “In a world...”
The legendary Alexander Scourby, although primarily an actor, possessed a distinguished voice that was instantly identifiable during the mid to late decades of the last century. He narrated a multitude of television documentaries, and his extraordinary output included more than four-hundred audio books. In Christian circles he was well known for his recordings of the entire King James and the Revised Standard versions of the Bible. In the audiobook industry, his is still considered “the greatest voice ever recorded.”
Although you might not recognize the name of actor Will Lyman, his voice is well-known as the narrator, since 1984, of the PBS series “Frontline”. And his polished voiceovers have been heard on countless documentaries for the National Geographic, History, Discovery and Learning channels.
Peter Coyote is well known as an actor. But his skills as a narrator are as formidable as his skills as an actor and won him an Emmy for his narration for the Ken Burns PBS series “The Roosevelts.”
How often have we been astonished when we finally see the face of someone whose voice we’ve been listening to, perhaps for years? We’ve formed a mental picture and are disappointed when we discover that the person looks nothing like he sounds. We might even be inclined to agree with the quip, "He has a face made for radio".
Despite having had a busy musical career, I often wanted to try new things. So back in the 70s I took a voice and speech class at the Pittsburgh Playhouse drama school. The teacher who, it so happened, was not a native-born American, decided that my diction wasn’t quite up to snuff. I sensed that he heard, or thought he heard a certain “ethnicity” in my speech, which in those days was considered a defect.
Wouldn’t he be surprised, in the 21st century, to learn that two of the highest paid and most recognized voices in media today are African Americans – James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman – whose voices undoubtedly betray their “ethnicity.” And it is amazing to me, a child of the “Good Old Days,” how many commercial voiceovers are done by African Americans. Obviously the advertising executives, whose only allegiance is to the bottom line, have discovered that these voices “sell soap.”
It’s not for no reason that Morgan Freeman was chosen to narrate the profile of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Convention. And regardless of what you might think of Hillary, you have to agree that Freeman’s voiceover was highly effective.
Many of the individuals performing narrations are well-known actors – James Spader, Oprah Winfrey, Alec Baldwin, Sigourney Weaver. But most are known only by their voices.
And it’s encouraging to realize that age doesn’t have to silence the venerable voices in our midst. Johnny Gilbert, at age 92, continues to introduce Jeopardy!, a task he has performed since 1984. Don Pardo, born in 1918, was the announcer for Saturday Night Live for thirty-nine years until his death in 2014.
If you’re a fan of audiobooks but don’t want to fork out beaucoup bucks for Audio.com or some similar "pay to play" service, check out Librivox.org, where volunteers read hundreds of books. The quality of the volunteers' voices is hit or miss. But one that I particularly enjoy is John Greenman who specializes in the works of Mark Twain. I can’t imagine wanting to listen to anybody else reading Innocents Abroad, Twain's matchless account of his world travels.
Another excellent source of free audiobooks is the Carnegie Library via Overdrive.com. Because most of the books are read by the authors, we are not always guaranteed a pleasing voice. I recently listened to a portion of Dick Van Dyke’s Keep Moving, from which I had hoped to get some pointers as I age. He was eighty-nine when he wrote the book, and although I adore Dick Van Dyke, I couldn’t quite handle the geezer-ish voice placed upon him by the passage of time. It was Dick Van Dyke, yet it wasn’t Dick Van Dyke.
(Incidentally, if you go to the library site, unless you don't mind waiting for your selection, be sure to click “Available Now” to access the list of books available immediately.)
Lucky is the person whose voice is pleasing to others. I’ve always felt that I had an acceptably pleasant voice and have heard myself in many interviews and not been horrified. But I can’t tell you how many times, when on the phone with a customer service rep, I’ve been called “Sir.” I used to thunder, I’m a Madam not a Sir!” But I’ve gotten so used to it I no longer even bother.
And besides, I’m sure in her long career, the smoky-voiced Kathleen Turner has more than once been addressed as “Sir” on the phone.