What has a soldier in common with a voice-talent? We might say that they both require some degree of technical instruction and certainly a sense of duty and service. And what if the soldier is a voice artist? Then you have Brian McGovern, a war veteran from Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, now station manager for AFN Honduras. Brian knows how to make the best of both worlds: combining his career in the US Army as a resourceful military broadcaster with his passion-turned-profession: voice acting of very popular audio books.
Who is Brian McGovern outside the recording studio? What’s keeping you busy aside from voice acting?
I am a 38-year-old husband, father, and soldier. My hobbies include video production, spending time with my kids, that is, when I’m not in foreign countries. I also sing and play drums at church. And I run a radio station.
Tell us a brief history of your voice acting career. When did you realize you wanted voice acting as a career? What was your first project?
I gradually realized I could do this for someone besides the Army after I was asked to voice some radio spots for Fort Hood’s online radio station. Before that, my voice work had been limited to things like narrating my TV news stories, and narrating military ceremonies. The civilian who ran the station at the time told me that I was really versatile, which was encouraging. I don’t remember the first spot I did, but I’m certain I’ve improved a lot since then. I initially signed up in a few voice acting communities, but I found that even with a paid membership I was still just one of many voices out there trying to get work. Some people are able to rise above that and get work on the pay-to-play sites, but I’ve had more luck with word of mouth. I’ve got a website, and most recently, a Facebook page. I’ve designed consistent branding to apply to both my site and FB, as well as to my Twitter page. And, I’m in the process shifting my tweets to be more business-focused, with the goal of establishing and maintaining professional relationships, while at the same time keeping things informal.
As a military broadcaster, can you tell us a little about this branch of the US Army?
First off, I should probably provide a disclaimer. My thoughts and opinions are not necessarily those of the US government. Anyway, broadcasters in the Army receive their training in the career field alongside members of all branches of service at the Defense Information School, in Fort Meade, Maryland. To be considered for this MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), a soldier is typically required to submit a voice audition. The first block of instruction is Basic Writing and Announcing Skills, followed by TV and radio production. I was first encouraged by one of my instructors, who told me I had a “great voice.” My deployments include a year in Iraq, a year in Afghanistan, and five months in Kosovo. I actually won an award for a story I did in Afghanistan, covering some EOD technicians who were disposing of old Soviet-era munitions. (The story is viewable here… In my view, the story wasn’t amazing, but perhaps the judges just like explosions…)
Currently, I’m the station manager for AFN Honduras. We’re one of the smallest stations in the American Forces Network (if not THE smallest), so our mission has primarily been to operate as a radio station. However, we’re pushing toward more video product as well. (example here)
In terms of the journalism aspect of being an Army broadcaster, we’ve been doing one thing that a lot of civilian news outlets are just now catching on to. That is, we’re trained in all areas of broadcasting, so we can essentially be a one-man-show, so to speak. It’s typical for an Army broadcaster to go out on a mission with Infantry troops, for example, gathering footage and interviews and then come back and write the story, voice the script, and edit the video. It seems like more and more civilian organizations are starting to feel that this model of video journalism is more cost-effective than sending out a reporter, a videographer, and a sound guy.
One more thing about this job: When dealing with clients, I don’t typically make a huge deal of the fact that I’m a soldier, or a war veteran. I want clients to hire me because of my skills, and not just because I’ve played the “vet card,” so to speak. That said, I’m very proud of my service in the military. I just don’t want it to be the main reason someone hires me.
How does voicing for audio books differ from voicing for corporate narrations and cartoon characters?
I had never thought seriously about doing audio books until I realized that the type of voice work I do in my day job lends itself to documentaries and non-fiction. So I started with strictly non-fiction, but now I’m in the middle of a fiction novel, which is much more challenging. I had done character voices in radio spots, but for 30 seconds at a time. There’s a huge difference between that, and maintaining a character’s consistent sound for an entire 60,000 word novel. And another difference is the sheer length. My first couple of books were only around 9,000 words, and I thought those were long!
Incidentally, here is a sample of Brian’s audio book performance
Do you have any tips on voicing audio books? I’m sure there are a lot of voice actors who want to get into the industry.
First thing, of course, would be to make sure you have a quality microphone, appropriate software, quiet recording environment, etc. That goes for any VO work, not just audio books, and I know that advice is routinely covered on all sorts of VO-related blogs and websites, including Direct Voices. But while it seems obvious now that we’re in the business, there are still people out there who feel they can get by with the built-in mic on their laptop. While the production studio here at the station would be ideal for recording, I don’t use it for my personal voice-over endeavors. There are strict regulations about using government property for personal gain. So, I work in my barracks room. That can be challenging, and I often find myself reading from under the comforter I’ve taken from the bed, in order to minimize echoes and outside noise. But I’ve nevertheless been able to get some good results.
Another thing is: listen to audio books… well, good ones. Just as in any craft, learn from the masters.
When you’re confident that you can put together a quality audition, sign up for an account on a VO website that accepts auditions online. At first, only audition for titles you believe you can actually read. Auditioning for something you aren’t ready to handle just wastes the publisher’s time, and yours. If you’re like me, and started out in something more formal like journalism, don’t necessarily audition for a children’s book with lots of crazy characters right away. (Audio books don’t typically feature cartoon-like voices anyway.) Do what you can, and then as your skills improve, and your versatility takes shape, branch out.
Another thing that may seem obvious is to provide a quality read. Now, I’m certainly not as good at this as I can be. But, it’s imperative that you don’t just throw an audition together. Treat the audition as if it were the actual job. Likewise, treat the job as if you were auditioning. It’s easy to get lazy toward that last chapter, and let little flaws slip by.
Also important is to work on “General American” non-regional diction. I was fortunate to have grown up in Montana, where most folks don’t have much of an accent, if any. I heard a book sample online the other day that featured a great voice – deep and resonating – but then the narrator uttered the words “call” and “all.” At that point it was clear that he was raised in the Northeast. With the exception of character voices, or when the publisher specifically wants a certain accent, the listener should not be able to determine where the narrator grew up. However, the accent you were born with can be something for your toolbox that plenty of other people don’t have. If you’re from the American South, and a book calls for that accent, by all means, you’re certainly better equipped for it than I am!
Any words of wisdom or guidelines to those who are still starting out in the industry?
In the Army, the cliché answer to anything that’s wrong with you is “Drink water.” But it’s completely true. I’m pointing the finger right back at myself on this one. I’ve occasionally been guilty of starting a read with nothing but caffeine in my system. But staying hydrated is crucial.
Research as much as you can about how to improve your voice. There are more free resources available than ever before. Learn how to get better at your craft. To the outsider, it may seem like reading words on a page is the easiest thing in the world to do. But it’s got challenges. Attend webinars. I attended a free one given by Kevin Delaney a while back, and was amazed at his wealth of knowledge. One major thing I took away from it is that the old adage “it’s all who you know” isn’t necessarily true. A better way to say it would be, “It’s all about who knows YOU.” Don’t be afraid to start small, but get your voice and your name out there – especially online. I dream of the day someone mentions my name to a colleague as a potential voice artist for a project, and the colleague says, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of him.” Even if I didn’t get the gig, that would be amazing. This is a long process. And achieving the level of Sam Elliot or Morgan Freeman is a rarity. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Start small, even if it means doing reads completely on your own, and putting the good ones on your online profile.
Another thing I do is to pay attention to commercials. Many of us are tempted to tune out advertising when it comes on the TV or radio, especially if it’s the millionth airing of one particular ad. But I try to listen to the way the VO artist is reading a certain line. And then I repeat back that line, and see if I can improve on it. In a nationally-airing ad, I usually can’t, but it’s good practice.
One difficult thing to do is get honest feedback. If you have even a modicum of voice talent, people who don’t know the business will tell you that you sound absolutely amazing. That’s good encouragement, and there’s definitely value in that. But it’s also crucial to get critique from people who know more about VO than the typical citizen. Now, a lot of pro VO artists really don’t like when novices contact them and want someone to critique their work. And, rightly so. That pro is trying to earn a living, and rarely has time for all the rookies emailing them for a critique. So, it’s a good idea to establish relationships with other people in the VO business long before you even consider soliciting feedback. And while valuable input from seasoned VO veterans is important, the opinion of the customer is even more important. Even if they can’t tell James Earl Jones from Gilbert Gottfried, the customer is the one paying you.
Another thing about feedback: You will get discouraged. You will receive negative feedback. It’s not just a possibility; it’s a fact. Someone, somewhere, isn’t going to like your voice. But don’t take it personally. Focus on what you can improve, and keep plugging away. Find ways to deal with discouragement. And those might be different for everyone. For me, I rely on the support of my wife, my faith in Jesus Christ, and also constantly reminding myself to never take one person’s negativity as an overall assessment of who I am as a voice artist, or as a person.