Ray Norman

Which Imaging Voice is Right for Your Radio Station?

24.01.22 03:37 PM By Ray Norman

Finding an objective path

Narrowing down which voice will be the best fit for your brand has gotten out of hand, right? You can spend weeks comparing imaging voices, and still feel like you aren't quite sure. Changing a radio station's imaging doesn't happen often, but when you're listening to 200 different voice talents, you probably wish it didn't have to happen at all. The internet can deliver thousands of voice artists, any one of which might work. But the simple truth is that choosing a new voice to image your station can drag on and on. The deeper in the internet you dig, the more you find.  So you dig deeper, often going back over the same voices again, and coming to a different conclusion. That's frustrating!

Yes, I've been a voice talent as well as a producer of radio imaging for over 25 years, but I got my start in the radio industry. I've been exactly where you are. As a former production director, I have first-hand experience with choosing the station voice.  At that time, choosing a voice for the station's imaging was easy. There were maybe a dozen well-known, reputable male voices that specialized in radio imaging (and virtually zero female voices). They all advertised in the trades, and so were easy to find. Below that dirty dozen was another level; wider, less known but worth exploring. These voices were not so familiar, but hey, we were supposed to be looking for a unique voice, right? At that time, you could narrow your list down in a few days, and make a final selection by the end of the week by having the top few contenders do a custom read, just to get a feel for how they'd fit. Those times, my friend, are long gone. Sans the simplicity of yesteryear, you need a new method of choosing that imaging voice––one that will help you navigate thousands of possibilities.

A 4 Point Plan to choose your next radio imaging voice

Below are the bullet points I've come up with. Below that are the explanations of each.  The good news is, this won't take long!

  • Collect and vet qualified voice talent
  • Bookmark only the talent that meet the above criteria of "qualified"
  • Record your competition's imaging, listen and compare
  • Choose a unique voice that fits your vibe

Vetting voice talent

There are two distinct paths here: The the pre-sorted shortlist of imaging voices who are recognizable and established––and the ever-widening ocean of voices you may not have heard of. Each path has its downside. As for the top names in radio imaging, remember that those voices are heard all over the country––which kinda negates the #1 criteria for radio branding: Uniqueness. As for the ocean of not so familiar imaging voices, there is risk in that unless you can verify a long and solid track record (many of those folks don't have one) you are risking reliably.

From my own experience in hiring voice talent, I have learned to reject people that don't have a very solid track record if the voice will represent the brand, and is not just a "throwaway". There's a chance they could turn out to be slow turnaround, inconsistent in their performance––or even just bail at some point. Remember that we're talking about people, not off-the-shelf products. Whoever you select as your next imaging voice will represent your brand.  Reliability comes down to personal character. Personal character will be obvious with people who have been in the industry for many years. They've proven themselves, and that's why they've been hired over and over, year after year. This isn't to say that a fresh newb with an incredible voice can't do the job, but the question is: will they do it reliably in the future?  Sure, monthly updates of a page or two of imaging liners seems low impact, but nothing is worse than not even getting a timely reply from a voice you need ASAP. It can and does happen with non-professional, and therefore in my view, unqualified voice talent.

Anyone who's been at this a long time will be eager to point out their status of longevity. Look for it on their website. If you don't see that info anywhere, be sure to ask. Always.

Bookmark all potential imaging voices and services

Anybody who is a working professional in the voice over industry has a website. There are -no- exceptions. Their websites will have lots of demo reels, and will most always indicate the number of years the voice talent has been active. Another advantage of bookmarking radio imaging websites is you don't have to deal with downloading MP3 files, and instead can listen directly off the demo page.  Also, it's not uncommon for stray MP3 files to exclude important stuff like, well,  the name of the talent, let alone the contact info you need to get in touch. You might not care at first, but if any length of time goes by, it can be tough figuring out who that voice is you liked a year ago, now that you might need them. One especially good aspect of bookmarking websites is that if a voice talent gives up because they weren't getting work, they'll let their site expire, creating a dead link. Then you can un-bookmark them. Since the search for a new imaging voice doesn't happen often, it really does benefit you to know who's a real player in the industry, and who was just a try hard giver-upper.

You probably know this already, but web browsers will allow you to create folders and sub folders for bookmarks, which makes for easy sorting. I use this feature for nearly everything I care to bookmark. Of course, you can also search bookmarks!

Aircheck your competition, listen and compare

Recording and sorting your competition's imaging will allow you to do direct comparisons to potential imaging candidates, and evaluate accordingly. Market research is critical in choosing an imaging voice that will be effective in differentiating your radio station. Especially in the case that you are set on choosing from the top tier of recognizable, established voices, you run the risk of choosing someone who is in a non-compete in your market––then having to backtrack. Trickier still is choosing an imaging voice that sounds very similar to your competition.  The simple truth is you need to choose a voice––and production style––that sound as different from your competition as possible.

While many programmers seem to gravitate towards a few radio imaging voices that are recognizable names that "everyone is using all over the country", this is probably just the lazy man's way out. This idea might feel right, but imagine choosing a graphic logo design because it's popular and everyone else is using it! Just... no. This goes against everything that radio imaging is designed to accomplish. Does it matter that you envisioned a particular type of imaging voice, and that particular type of voice sounds a lot like your direct competitor? Absolutely it does! At best, a "sound-alike" imaging voice might work if you're trying to create confusion in your market, and hope to reap a reward from listeners who mistake you for your competitor. But you'll never make it to number one sounding like someone else. Radio imaging has gotta be unique and stand out.

An imaging voice that fits both you and your audience

In my experience, there are two considerations in choosing the right voice talent for anything, including radio imaging. The first is: Does the voice seem to project the vibe of the brand? The second is: Does the voice talk down to, or vibe with, the audience? 

To bring this into focus, here's a first-hand anecdote: For a number of years, I was the voice of a university fund-raising dinner presentation video. The client wanted a "mature" male voice over; not too old, not too young, that spoke to the audience as an "authority".  The audience at this fundraiser comprised of successful, mature adults, from people in their 40s to many in their 70s or 80s. These potential benefactors for the University were people who could afford to write a check for tens of thousands of dollars as a donation. So it makes sense the marketing department aimed for a mature voice that spoke with authority, right?  A trusted, persuasive voice. Well, that's one way to approach this. Then something happened: a new marketing director, with a different idea. She reasoned that the narrator of the video should sound young, and appeal to the mature audience ––as a student. Therefore, they searched for, and selected, a vibrant, youthful voice talent that sounded like a college student. The script for this young voice actor was customized to be a personal appeal from the point of view of the students who would directly benefit from large donations. And it worked swimmingly! The older adults in the audience were reminded, by the very tone of the voice, that students are why we donate money. It worked because it was believable. It worked because it was a different approach.

The imaging voice you choose doesn't have to sound older than the audience, or convey authority. A fun, youthful voice will work perfectly with a demographic that is, well, fun and young!  When it comes to radio imaging voices (and affiliate TV voice imaging as well) the conventional wisdom has been to skew toward the older, deeper and cooler sounding talent. But is older and deeper actually cooler? It depends on point of view––and the POV of the audience, is the only one that matters.

This is something you just gotta kick around with those on your team. With so much competition, voice talent that years ago would not have ever been considered for radio imaging––might be a perfect fit for your station––fulfilling the twin goal of uniqueness and acceptability with the audience.

All that to say this: choosing a voice can seem completely subjective. That's why it's wise to apply objective reasoning in the search for the voice to represent your radio brand.

About Ray Norman

Ray is both a voice actor and sound designer, with over 2 decades as an independent producer specializing in audio branding.

Ray Norman