(A typical studio shot from the 1970s, with those great old ITC cart machines on the right.)
We will call him Todd, because that is not his real name. Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world. So when he got to college, he got on the sports staff of the campus radio station. His first assignment was to produce and deliver the Friday night sports roundup, which aired at about 10:30. This was not a particularly desirable assignment—most people wanted to be out partying on Friday night, not organizing wire copy or gathering scores. But because Todd wanted to be a sportscaster more than anything else in the world, he eagerly took the assignment.
Elsewhere in town, a bunch of Todd’s fellow broadcasters were at somebody’s apartment engaging in the usual beer-soaked Friday night ruckus and listening to the station with one ear. But when Todd started his sportscast, everyone snapped to full attention, for Todd was the worst-sounding broadcaster they had ever heard. He spoke with a strange inflection, he slurred words, and those he didn’t slur, he read too fast. The 10-minute sportscast seemed to last an eternity. The station’s sports director was embarrassed; the program director was livid. (Livid was his default setting a lot of the time.)
Over the ensuing weeks, people at the station worked with Todd, trying to get him to sound better. His reading improved, but the speech impediment that led to the inflection and the slurring wasn’t fixable. It became necessary to take Todd aside and tell him that he had no future speaking into a microphone. He could still work in radio or TV in some off-air role, but he wasn’t going to be a sportscaster.
Although we realized (as much as callow 20-year-olds can realize such things) that we were stomping on Todd’s dream, we also believed telling him the truth about his limitations was a kindness. There was no sense in the guy wasting his education trying to become an on-air personality or reporter. He didn’t have the voice for it.
Not everybody has the well-rounded, mellifluous tones of the professional announcer anymore. Today, on-air people are encouraged to talk, rather than to “announce,” and that leaves more room for deliveries that sound like regular people—so much room, in fact, that few people are ever told “you don’t have the voice for it” anymore.
But some people don’t.
Sales reps write a great deal of the copy you hear on your local station—and it’s a short leap from writing the copy to deciding you’ll deliver it, too. Some sales reps have good voices and know how to read copy, but others do not. Sometimes clients want to voice their own ads, and like sales reps, some sound good doing it and some do not. But since the sales rep and the client are the ultimate arbiters of whether an ad is acceptable, there’s nobody to tell them if it doesn’t sound good—when the delivery is poor or when the script is lousy (which is a topic for another time).
And it’s not just commercial voiceovers. I once worked at a station that hired a reporter fresh out of college who still sounded like a 14-year-old girl. As far as I know, nobody ever coached her to moderate her chirpy teenage voice, and the station’s credibility suffered every time she was on the air. You’ll sometimes hear DJs who sound too young, or who don’t speak clearly enough, or who don’t read well. Some of these problems can be ameliorated through coaching, but at a lot of stations, coaching runs the gamut from spotty to nonexistent. And without that coaching, lots of radio people are like high-wire walkers on a windy day—they’re going to fall off, but you don’t know when, or how big a splat they’re going to make.
Some people are simply unlucky, like Todd. Even with coaching, they have voices that just aren’t good enough. Not everybody on the radio needs to sound like Gary Owens or Alison Steele. But there are times when it would be better for everybody—stations, clients, prospective DJs, and listeners—if somebody would stand up and say “you don’t have the voice for it.”