Double speak: In bustling election season, voice actors put profession before personal politics

The voice on the line was warm, proud, reassuring, a voice that holds your hand and looks you in the eye.

“Barack Obama,” it said, “wants to be your president.”

The voice on the line is disdainful, incredulous, slightly sneering, a voice that rolls its eyes and spits in your soup.

“Barack Obama,” it said, “wants to be your president?”

Two voices, representing two competing visions for partisan America? Not quite. Both voice belong to Dude Walker, a New York-based professional voice actor who frequently does political advertising work.

“To support Obama, I emphasized ‘your’ for trust and connection,” Mr. Walker said. “To attack him, I went up in register. Like, ‘Bleh, imagine the nerve of the guy.’”

Mr. Walker laughed.

“You can say the exact same line different ways, and it can mean different things,” he said.

With the electoral calendar nearing its climax — and a close presidential race coming down to a handful of hotly contested swing states — ‘tis the season for campaign ads. With a deluge of messaging, positive appeals and vicious attacks, all aimed at persuading, well, persuadable voters, each spot needs a voice.

According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, campaigns and outside groups are expected to spend more than $3 billion on television ads alone this year — up from $2.1 billion in 2008 — while battleground-state cities such as Las Vegas reportedly have been bombarded by more than 73,000 spots.

The upshot? People in Mr. Walker’s line of work are really, really busy.

“You can get very busy in January or February of a general election year, but the load starts to build around Labor Day,” said Sheldon Smith, a longtime voice actor for Republican candidates and causes. “In late October, it would not be unusual for me to do 20 to 25 spots a day. That’s not every day. Some days, I’ll do two. When you do voice-overs, you have to realize you have no control whatsoever over your own schedule. But that’s not really a worry.”

So what is?

“You try very hard to avoid catching a cold in the month of October,” Mr. Smith said. “You just don’t want to be around someone who’s sick.”

Aural flavor

Political ads often are remembered for their messages. (Think Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” spot.) Or for attention-grabbing images. (Think the mushroom cloud in LBJ’s “Daisy” commercial.)

Though voice-overs are less celebrated, they are no less important. If an ad is comparable to a restaurant dish — a meaty attack, a side of factoids, a catch-phrase garnish — then voice-overs are like salt.

Too much, and you notice. Too little, and you also notice. Just right? You focus on the food.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, Tim Groeling teaches a political advertising course in which students are required to produce their own spots. “It’s deceptively difficult to get a decent voice-over,” said Mr. Groeling, chairman of UCLA’s Department of Communications Studies. “That’s something my students often have trouble with. It’s amazing how bad a commercial can be with the wrong voice. It kills. Takes the audience out of the moment.

“The entire point of a commercial is to establish an emotional tone. You can’t have a really devastating commercial about casualties in Iraq and then have a happy, chipper voice or one that seems unserious.”

While political voice-over work might seem decidedly less nuanced than, say, a performance of “Hamlet,” the truth is that there is an art to proclaiming how Mitt Romney would ship your grandmother’s wheelchair to China for a few extra pennies in outsourcing profits, or how Mr. Obama’s economy is akin to “The Road Warrior,” albeit with fewer dune buggies.

According to Los Angeles-based voice actor D.C. Douglas, political voice-overs typically fall into four “reads,” each with their own verbal nuances:

Compassionate: Softer, heartfelt vibes for a kinder, gentler candidate. Vote for me, and I will build this orphanage, then personally hug every child inside.

Patriotic: Positive and prideful. A vote for me is a vote for the greatest nation on Earth. And bald eagles.

The disenchanted voter: The truck driver or small-business owner who is fed up with Mr. Inside-the-Beltway incumbent. Bitter and angry. But also weary. And maybe even pitying. Poor President Obama. We gave him a chance.

The attack: Go for the jugular. Al Gore invented the Internet. My opponent is history’s greatest monster.

“The attack read can be close-to-the-vest ominous, or outright disdainful,” said Mr. Douglas, who has recorded ads attacking Mr. Romney and Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican. “With a bright pop at the end for the candidate paying for the ad.”

Speaking of attack ads, Mr. Groeling has noticed a trend of employing female voice actors for the most aggressive and negative material.

The reason?

“If they’re trying to do an especially harsh attack, a female voice can make it seem a little less harsh,” he said. “It also helps you maintain a little bit of dignity and distance from it.”

True-ish believers

Few political voice actors are as experienced as Mr. Smith, who has been recording ads for almost 40 years and is sometimes referred to as “the voice of God.”

A former Young Republican and GOP county chairman in suburban Detroit, Mr. Smith got his start in 1974 when a media consultant for Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken asked him to be the second actor on a two-voice commercial.

The consultant liked Mr. Smith’s warm, inviting, authoritative voice, which oozes Midwestern authenticity. He hired Mr. Smith to do more campaign work, including spots for the governor of Ohio.

Mr. Smith has worked for Republican candidates and causes ever since.

“Before I started doing this, I was active in politics,” he said. “Being interested and involved makes a difference. Political advertising starts out with, like, zero credibility with the listener. The great requirement for being successful as a voice-over actor is to have an authenticity that you bring to the material.”

Indeed, the nation’s partisan divide isn’t limited to the Electoral College map. Mr. Walker and others in the industry say voice actors generally have to choose between working exclusively for Republicans or only for Democrats. The bifurcation reflects, in part, branding concerns — specifically, the concern that hearing the same voice savage Mr. Romney one day and Mr. Obama the next will introduce an element of cognitive dissonance, undercutting an ad’s message.

“It’s hard to play both sides,” said Mr. Walker, who once worked for both parties but now sticks with Democrats. “When I’m working with the [Democratic National Committee], recording a national or regional commercial, the last thing they want to hear is my voice on an ad for a Republican congressman in Ohio.

“Products like automobiles and fast food ask for that as well. They want signature voices. They don’t want the confusion. Though I’ve heard some big exceptions. [Actor] Sam Elliott used to do Ford pickup trucks. Now he does Chrysler. You would think they would have picked another guy.”

Like Mr. Elliott, Mr. Douglas isn’t picky about his clients. A self-described liberal who “hugs trees without their consent,” he nevertheless works for Republicans and Democrats alike.

His key? Having a sense of humor.

“I have a client who is very conservative and knows I’m an elite, out-of-touch Hollywood liberal,” Mr. Douglas said. “Yet we joke and have a good time. Reading conservative copy makes me laugh. So does a lot of the liberal copy if it’s attacking.

“Working for things I disagree with doesn’t bother me for two reasons. First, I’m taking money out of the pocket of a group I disagree with. Second, no one changes their vote based on a voice. If they do, they’re insane. I don’t take responsibility for insane people.”

Stanley Anderson is different. A 73-year-old voice actor who lives in Los Angeles, he grew up in Montana as a labor-supporting, “dyed-in-the-wool New Deal Democrat” and works exclusively on left-leaning commercials.

“I’m outraged at what is going on in the political world right now,” said Mr. Anderson, who recorded ads for more than 50 races in 2010. “So I have no problem speaking against the Republicans, their method of governance or their candidates. No problem.”

This year, Mr. Anderson was hired to record a series of ads assailing Mr. Obama. Never aired or made public, the ads were produced by Democrats and shown to internal focus groups to gauge the impact of potential Republican attacks.

“That hurt,” Mr. Anderson said. “It was very painful to do those. But did I refuse? Absolutely not. I felt it would help Obama, so I read them as best as I could.”

So what, exactly, did he say?

“I don’t remember,” Mr. Anderson said with a laugh. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

A (hectic) day in the life

The calls and emails can come at all hours from frantic producers across the country. We need a 30-second radio spot for a congressman in Indiana. Can you do it in 30 minutes?

“Once in a while, I get a 1 a.m. call,” Mr. Smith said. “Usually very late in a campaign. Probably in October. The last spots of the cycle, when they find out there’s a factual error in an ad or that they misquoted something. It’s often some small thing that needs to be fixed. So you just constantly live by your cellphone or are checking your email.”

Once upon a time — read: until the 1990s — being a political voice actor meant having to live in the Washington area. That was where the campaign media consultants were. More important, that was where the studios were.

Mr. Anderson remembers rushing from D.C. recording booth to suburban Virginia studio, appointment to appointment, in and out of cars and cabs, sometimes visiting the same studio three times in the same day. Many of the voice actors doing political work became friends, if only because they kept running into one another.

“For a number of years, we all used to get together on election nights and watch the returns together,” Mr. Smith said. “Every time a winner was announced, somebody would jump up and say, ‘I got that guy! I made him or her win!’ And everybody else would applaud.”

Today, the political voice actor community is largely fragmented, and the pace and volume of ad production have jumped sharply. Digital technology is to praise (or blame): Most actors, including Mr. Walker, have home studios, and spots that used to take up to six days to create and air now take less than six hours.

“It’s shocking how quickly they turn ads around,” Mr. Groeling said. “Ad cycles used to be one- or two-week buys. Now they’re doing them within hours of recent events or the previous night’s debates.”

Inside the recording booth, voice-over work remains unchanged. Actors are given scripts. A producer or consultant usually will patch into the call and offer specific directions.

You are a concerned mom. You are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. You are hopeful about the future of the country.

“The word ‘gravitas’ comes up amazingly often,” Mr. Walker says. “Producers love that one.”

Mr. Anderson said that recording a single 30-second spot can require as many as 20 takes. Actors shouldn’t eat before working because sensitive microphones can pick up stomach noises.

For the same reason, soft, loose clothing is preferred.

“Otherwise, it can rub up against things and make noise,” Mr. Anderson said. “I worked with one guy over the years that would come to sessions wearing nothing but shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. Of course, that is one of the main reasons to do this job.”

According to industry sources, voice actors make $400 to $1,000 per ad. The money, one actor said, is “good but not great.” Most actors have other, nonpolitical jobs: Mr. Douglas does voice-overs for video games and a national automotive insurance company, while Mr. Walker works for Sporting News radio and had small parts in “Minority Report,” “The West Wing” and “The Wire.”

“We’re all doing the same thing — a little of this, a little of that,” Mr. Walker said. “The political stuff is seasonal work.”

Tell that to Mr. Smith. When he first moved to Washington in the 1980s, he went to a department store to buy a television set for his apartment.

Within seconds of approaching a female sales clerk, Mr. Smith realized she had a cold.

“I didn’t want to even say hello to her,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m really sorry ma’am, and I know I’ve not given you a reason. But I can’t tell you how much money I will lose if I catch your cold.’ And then I turned and walked away.”

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