The Voice Over Audition: History + Pursuing Excellence

Many of our younger thespians are unaware of what transpired prior to their entering the commercial voice over world. Others are in search of the most beneficial way of continuing their pursuits of excellence as a talent. When I’m asked what it was like a few years ago, almost all are surprised at my history lesson.

While these are two separate subjects, they never the less are of equal importance. The history lesson is presented as I lived and participated in as it was taking place. The help I will be offering is my own personal opinion.

Circa: 1974

Sponsors (the ones paying the bills) hired advertising agencies to publicize extol – the outright benefits of buying anything and everything. Print adds and radio were the two main vehicles for telling the sponsor’s story. But television was moving quickly into the leading position. Both radio and television had the spoken word as a prime purveyor for what they had to say; albeit, much of the verbiage was considered to be “puff” verbiage, which was deemed to be less than accurate. A good example of puff was certainly the language used in all of the cigarette commercials. Can you imagine telling people about all the singers who smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes because they didn’t irritate singers’ throats? They claimed the reason was the fact that “Luckies were toasted.” As they also pointed out, most doctors smoked Lucky Strike “two to one.” If you’re wondering what that really means, join the club.

Doing a network TV cigarette voice over commercial led the way to some enormous paydays for the actors.

In those days, the procedure for conducting an audition for a voice over commercial was quite simple.

1. The advertising agency contacted a commercial voice over agent by phone, or by posting a casting call breakdown through one of the published services.

2. They’d describe the type they were looking for and the agents would submit names to the advertising agency producer.

3. The producer would select by either voice recognition from a past experience with the actor, or by listening to the actors voice demo reel.

Early on, actors all had demo reels of their individual work. Most of these reels (or tapes) were about three minutes in duration.

4. The actors, who were selected by the advertising agency, were then given an appointment to come to the agency and be auditioned and directed by the producer of the spot.

5. The more well-known voice actors were oftentimes booked by the advertising agency without actually having to take an in-person audition.

In the beginning, the agents spent their days mostly on the telephone.

Agents worked at their desks. None of them conducted in-house auditions. It was a much simpler time. But all was about to change.

In my humble opinion, what transpired was a needless and detrimental acceptance of what many thought had to be. Our unions were void of cognitive perceptiveness. While many new venues were being developed, creating vast avenues for product, the union constituency were the last ones in the pecking order to garnish the full extent of the monetary rewards.

Circa: 1977

It was about thirty plus years ago, when one of our more famous agents (who will remain nameless) came up with the less-than-bright idea of bringing the actors he represented in-house to audition for voice over commercials. He pointed out to the advertising agencies how it would be free of charge. The audition would cost them nothing. What a concept. The advertising agency could actually send a script to this guy (agent) and, without charge, get back a (reel to reel 7.5″) tape of the actors and actresses reading the exact script they would in turn use for their on-air commercial TV or radio advertisement. It also sounds simple, doesn’t it? The scripts were mailed to the agent, the agent brought in his talent, auditioned them, and sent a tape back to the advertising agency. Stay tuned.

Make no mistake, across the board, the experienced professional journeyman actors absolutely hated it. Voice actors were accustomed to reading for the man doing the hiring. Most of the agents’ sound equipment, if you can call it that, was less than professional. The common statement heard around town from the actors’ point of view was a total disdain for what their agents were up to. I heard many of the actors say how their agent had no idea about how to direct.

In the beginning, this in-house process was exclusively used in Los Angeles. The agent who was responsible for all this never reasoned out that he wasn’t going to be the only agent offering this economically illiterate format to the ad agencies. Think about it. If one of this agent’s actors was chosen by the advertising agency to do their radio spot, the agent would earn, at 10% in those days, around twenty dollars. A trained monkey could do the math and discover auditioning folks for radio spots was a complete financial disaster. I mean… you can’t turn on a light bulb for twenty bucks, let alone pay a staff member to stand there and direct the talent.

And now here’s the real pretzel logic. The news of the in house auditions spread like wild fire. No one can surpass an actor’s ability to spread word of mouth information.

Overnight, every agent of near substance was in the game.

(As an aside, I was brought into Abrams Rubaloff & Associates, the then industry leader, to build perhaps the very first full service recording facility in Los Angeles. I experienced the actor’s comments first hand.)

The talent had zero reservations about what they felt about the new system. They pointed out to me: New York and Chicago weren’t doing in-house auditions. In essence, we were removing the actors from a face-to-face audition with the man who could hire them. The whole idea was unsound. It was foreign territory for everyone involved.

What had begun as a single agent auditioning six, seven, and maybe ten actors for the commercial at hand quickly turned into total warfare between all of the Los Angeles agents submitting talent. Since the advertising agency no longer needed to spend their time setting up their own in-house auditions, they began indiscriminately sending their scripts out to every voice over agent in the city. The so-called initial brainstorm became a tornado of as many as one hundred and fifty or so actors reading for the same role.

The only thing that helped to keep the situation reasonably sane was the time frame. The commercial scripts we were receiving from the advertising people came to us through the mail. In most cases, we had around a week to get the finished audition back to them. It was a bad third-party process. Rarely did I have the opportunity to speak with the person who wrote the commercial we were auditioning.

I mentioned earlier how we recorded on a reel-to-reel setup, using what was known as tape. That’s correct, an actual box containing an audition tape was sent or hand delivered to the advertising agency or production company.

Enter our trained monkey to figure out:

A) The recording tape cost money

B) The box to package the audition in cost money

C) The delivery cost money

On one particular early morning, I was the designated tape box audition deliverer. The advertising agency was in a high-rise building on Wilshire Blvd., an area known as the miracle mile.

It was a common practice to get to an advertising agency office in the AM before they opened and leave our audition package in either their building mailroom or at their front door. In this instance, I chose the front door drop-off. At their door, I counted no less than fourteen jiffy bags, all containing the audition tapes of our competition.

That day served as a very enlightening experience for me.

Our Abrams Rubaloff audition consisted of eight actors. If each of the other fourteen offices had submitted the same number, it meant one hundred and twenty actors were vying for the same radio spot.

As a young and perhaps hopelessly naïve crusader, I attempted explaining the actors’ position to AFTRA and also to the Screen Actors Guild; all to no avail. I actually felt I was working on behalf of the actors we represented. Frankly, I felt disheartened over the whole event. I wasn’t guessing. This was plain old-fashioned arithmetic. The handwriting was on the wall.

An actor knows what they’re getting into when they enlist in our subjective life form. But blatant disregard by the agents, who represent you, and the unions you belong to, is the same predicament we’re in with most of our politicians. Talking a good game and playing it are two entirely different things. My exact words to both guilds were the same: “It’s not fair for an advertising agency to command subservience by the actor.”(I don’t think they understood what the word subservience means.) The fact is, one hundred and twenty actors got in their cars, and read for a commercial they had very little chance of winning. As I tried to explain to our guilds, “You’re looking at the tip of the iceberg.” Well … it is no longer the tip. Today’s iceberg is buoyed by just about every hamlet privy to electrical current.

The Wonders Of Science

The winds of change were upon us. It took about four years, when, without warning, little brainless electronic conveniences crept up on us. The romance was about to be removed from an entire industry.

The fax machine; we all celebrated.

(Wow, No more slow mail)

The cassette; Wow, we all celebrated. But wait a minute,

We still recorded on tape, but now we were required to transfer to cassette.

Da harv was a little annoyed.

They still sent us the scripts, but now they always seemed to get to us at the last minute.

Da harv was a little annoyed.

Every time I turned around, it seemed like we were all celebrating about one more magic gadget being added to our rapidly growing impersonal attitudes.

Da harv was a little annoyed.

More scripts coming to us faster and faster; we celebrated. So did every agent in the city.

E-MAIL; we all (really) celebrated.

The biggest strike in our history; we commiserated.

No one celebrated.

The home studio; many of the agents no longer do in house auditions. They send the scripts, which are sent to them by e-mail to the actor’s home. The agent doesn’t have to go through the audition rain dance.

The winner may be heard celebrating, while nine hundred and ninety nine wonder what the celebration is all about.

But here’s some good news. The economy has forced many of the advertising agencies to reduce their staff size. The number of actors auditioning is beginning to show signs of shrinking. The smaller staff size won’t allow enough time to do all that listening.

I believe we’re experiencing a gentle return to the work of the quality actor. Of course, that’s usually why we’re hired as casting directors. Since the advertising agency is paying us by the hour to cast their voices, it’s a rarity for the numbers of actors we bring in to become of gargantuan proportions. It goes without saying, the smaller the casting call, the higher the degree of talent. We’re hired to find quality acting skills. That is always our intention.

(And) So the universal question, as always; How to become a quality voice over actor? Please stay tuned. I might be able to help.

Workshops & Coaches

In general, actors have the very best handle on the good, the bad, and even the most ugly of what’s out there professing to be the actor’s helper. The larger the city, the more good and bad helpers you will find. I call them the in and outers. These are the folks in our business who find themselves in a struggle to make a living. They turn to coaching.

What I suggest first is the most tried and true method for finding help in a big city like Los Angeles. “Word of mouth.” Actors talk to one another. While advertising can be a marvelous signpost, that’s all it is. Read the sign, and then ask an actor or two if they have had experience with the people whose name appears on the signpost.

The really good workshops have a tendency to stay around for long periods of time. The bad ones disappear quickly. Word of mouth works both ways.

When an actor calls a workshop inquiring about what they have to offer, and his calls are consistently being answered by a machine, and no one gets back to him that very same day – well, for me that isn’t the kind of a place I would like to trust my career to. It may be a workshop that you’re calling about, but it must be run like a business.

For me personally, I wouldn’t think of signing on with a workshop, unless it was recommended by an actor or two whom I respected. Agents are also good authorities on where to go for education. Even if an agent does not represent you, they will usually be amenable when it comes to making workshop suggestions.

Before calling a workshop have your questions prepared in advance. Ask for printed informational material about the workshop you’re inquiring about. It’s important to know how long they’ve been in business, as well as their qualifications. How many different kinds of classes do they offer? It’s important for you to be studying with a like group of people. By like, I mean at similar experience levels. What I’m getting at is that you obviously wouldn’t want to be in a beginners voice over workshop group if you happen to be an actor with twenty years of experience in the theater.

Note: In the above paragraph I have bolded the words voice over, because in a variety of theatrical classes, having a novice or two in the group may be a distinct advantage.

The workshop representative should be amenable to giving you a reasonable amount of telephone time. That representative must be knowledgeable. Too often a person who is acting as nothing more than a telephone receptionist will handle your call. When your career is at stake, you should expect a great degree of caring to be displayed by the people running the workshop in question. Never settle for second best. Los Angeles is the home to the finest acting coaches in the world. Just ask another actor. They’ll know where to find them.


* Once you sign on and enter a voice over workshop environment, do so with a total commitment.

* Honor your choice of this particular workshop as the very best in the world.

* Consider your ultimate achievement as a process. You are a work in progress (forever).

* Do not expect an overnight epiphany of success.

Every professional musician practices with his or her instrument each and every day. As a voice over artist, your instrument is your voice. Being the best reader in the world will not diminish your chances of success.

Read out loud each and every day. Newspapers and magazines are a must. I’m referring to the articles they contain as opposed to the advertisements. A voice over actor must be comfortable with a cross section of verbiage. Whether you’re interested in an article’s subject matter or not, you may one day be called upon to read for a commercial containing the same or similar content as the one you dislike. Your job is to be comfortable with whatever is thrown at you during an audition. The more you practice, the easier it will become. An actor doesn’t have to be a doctor to read medical terminology. Don’t limit yourself.

Good luck!


  1. Harv, your insight and experience is a refreshing addition to the pot luck stew of voiceover "experts". How things have changed; yesterday's producers are today's gofers who often have little skill in directing, if they're ever allowed to do so. And "branding" an product or service is often lost in the never ending quest to re-figure out how to sell it……AFTER the campaign has been launched.

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