With budgets a hot topic across the (radio) board - no pun intended - you would think programmers would be eager to negotiate radio imaging rates. But in my experience, that's seldom the case. I'm betting that your current retainer for station imaging is the same as the last one was, and pretty much identical to the imaging retainer in the last market you worked.
But are you paying too much? Or are you getting a great deal when it comes to radio imaging?
With any other service or product, you spend a lot of time price-shopping and comparing. But radio imaging is mostly exempt from this process. Why is that?
Searching for a new imaging voice takes time. A deep search into radio imaging rates takes a lot more time - and if price is a high priority filter, you're likely wasting your time searching and sorting by rate. That's because most voice talent rates and imaging rates are not posted. This is, in part, because radio programmers have learned that most imaging voices and services charge relatively the same fees (barring barter), with nearly identical retainer structures. So it's a feedback loop. A first time PD is better off simply asking the GM "what rate do we pay for imaging?" This means that any established radio imaging voice or service knows the price that, historically, radio is willing to pay––and they will ask for that.
There is an exception to this: if the imaging voice is a "recognizable" name––the cost is most likely more.
Do you really want to use the same voice that a hundred other radio stations are using for imaging?
The irony behind the high cost of recognizable radio imaging voices
With any branding element, uniqueness is the most valuable asset. Which makes the whole idea of "recognizable" or "name" radio imaging voices fairly ridiculous. This ain't 1995. Every radio station in America streams to the internet, which means the audience will stumble across repetition in both format and imaging voices––repetition that erodes whatever uniqueness exists in your brand. It's about supply and demand: The more common something is, the less it should cost. But of course, in broadcast media, the bigger the imaging name, the more you pay. And so it is ironic that radio programmers might shy away from imaging voices they aren't familiar with- voices that are unique to radio imaging and therefore more valuable as branding elements.
Do you really want to use the same voice that a hundred other radio stations are using for imaging?
So, what's the solution? How do you know who to hire, and how much you should pay?
Outside the radio imaging box
Sure, the easiest (and laziest) way to search for your next imaging voice is to just stick with "known" voices, and pay whatever rate they ask. But: the bucket of "radio imaging voices" is still a small one compared to the vast selection available if you look outside the box titled "Radio Imaging Talent".
Keep in mind that the list of voices you are familiar with is likely the result of acquired wisdom - names and websites handed down to you by others in the radio industry. Which is why the pool of talent - and the price you will pay - remains largely static. Big corporate broadcast imaging services are keen to place their talent on as many radio and TV stations as possible. Over-saturation is not their concern- but it should be yours.
Where do you look and what qualities are you looking for in a radio imaging voice?
To start with, here are some basic tips:
- Search for "voice actor", "voice artist" or "voice talent" or even "affordable voice talent", instead of "radio imaging voice".
- Filter candidates based on the years (yes years not months) they've been in the business - and eliminate the rest.
- Be prepared to negotiate a fee that works for both of you. Don't just go with the "standing" budget or asking price.
Now, let's break these points down
The universe of fantastic voice actors who don't specialize in radio imaging
How to make your radio imaging outstanding: Compression, equalization and special effects
The trend in commercial voiceover is overwhelmingly skewed towards natural delivery with zero effects. Which is why, as a broadcast programming looking to make your branding stand out, you can feel free to doctor up your station's imaging voice. Compress it. Filter it. Add a touch of reverb. Pitch-warp it. Think of your imaging voice as a logo, and do whatever it takes to make it stand out. Even a light, friendly "lite mix" voice can totally stand out as unique if you apply the right effects.
One way to think about this is to listen to vocals in pop music. Ask yourself this: Why do music producers use such effects on pop vocals? The answer is: to make those vocals- and the song- stand out! Sure, there are still genres of music where the vocal is natural, and that's a good thing. But if you look at the musical pop pie, you'll see that, overwhelmingly, vocal production effects are part of the biggest slice of that pie, in terms of what is popular.
$10 a liner? Sweet! Rolling the dice with the new kids: benefit vs risk
Starting a career in show business is next to impossible. Starting a career in radio imaging is more impossible. But many great voices with years of professional tenure are available - if you just look for them. Their names may not be familiar in the radio world, but that may just be what the consultant ordered. Remember, you're looking for a unique voice for your unique brand. A simple rule is: look at how long your potential voice talent has been in the business, and how many clients hire them. (It doesn't have to be limited to "radio imaging" as pointed out above). Most professionals are professionals by virtue of the fact they earn enough doing voice over to keep doing it, year after year or decade after decade. Many will post their tenure prominently on their website. Experienced voice over artists will have a deep resume. It doesn't hurt to check out their Linkedin profile to see who's hired them. Big clients are averse to risk, no matter who they are or what business they're in when they hire for voice over.
But how safe is it to give a new, non-radio guy a shot at imaging your station?
Simple: It's perfectly safe if you are dealing with a tenured, pro voice actor, and not, for example, a recently fired DJ. Someone out-of-work will work dirt cheap––until they get hired full-time. At that point, your sweet deal of $10 per liner is very unattractive and unimportant to them, and they'll just stop replying to your emails. Or worse, inform you their new rate is $475 a month, minimum 2 year agreement-- take it or leave it.
And now you're screwed.
Here's the thing: Unlike 20+ years ago, nearly anyone can afford to attempt voice acting now. And the majority don't stay with it long. They give up, life brings them changes, they get bored, or suddenly feel you should pay them more. Remember: Your station's imaging voice IS your brand. An unreliable situation, no matter how cheap the voice is, will bite you in the butt later. I speak from direct experience here, as I am often in the position of hiring voice talent for a wide variety of gigs. I found out the hard way that there are a variety of reasons a voice artist might quit on you. An if they get a new gig with a non-compete? They'll let you know with zero notice and there's nothing you can do.
Sure, this makes it hard for newcomers, but truth is, you are a level above where they are, and of course need to put your companies needs above all else, and mitigate risk wherever you can.
How to negotiate voice talent
Reliable people are worth more than unreliable people. The value of a voice is in the integrity of that person. Good people are there when you need them. I've learned this from several decades of producing voice over, as well as being a voice artist myself.
Maybe the best way to approach this is to reveal how I negotiate rate from the talent side: How many pages or promos? How big is your market? How long will you commit to? This is in contrast to the old days, where I would just ask: "What's your budget?" and go with whatever. I am also quick to reference my many years of dedication to the craft of radio imaging and my nearly 24 hour accessibility to my clients. Personally, I don't use this as leverage to get a higher rate, but instead to gain my client's trust and get the gig.
OTOH, as a producer, I have to get a feel for whether the voiceover talent is going to simply be there for me next time I need them.
So I point out to the talent that we're talking a long-term agreement- and that they should consider the "steady income" aspect of what I, the producer/client am offering.
Sure, I will offer a written agreement as the one who hires voice talent. But trust me, when someone bails, the last thing on my mind is pursuing them with legal action. I've never done that, because when someone quit on me, my immediate focus was on finding a replacement. That's why I preach finding reliable people. You will need them again and again if you want your imaging to stay fresh.
Of course, as a voice talent, I realize that often there is a firm budget. Asking the programmer to change that budget will create an obstacle. I don't ever create obstacles, but I will suggest things. Example: The programmer who only wants me to voice a one-time set of promos for a special event. Do I demand a retainer? No. Provided I am not in that market already, or involved in a non-compete, I'm happy to voice one-offs. In fact, whether imaging services tell you this or not, the truth is in the world of advertising, nearly all voice over work is for a specific time-limit, or a specific job, and does not involve the "voice retainer" broadcast programmers are familiar with. With the increased availability of fast-turnaround voice over, which means stiff competition for voice actors, rates and contracts are more fluid than ever.
About Ray Norman
Ray produces broadcast imaging, and is a voice actor and sound designer. You can check out his latest imaging reels and snag some liner ideas... because, you know, this is radio after all. ;-)