The Narrator

In The News


Salt Lake City Weekly

Vocal Corps
Utah voice actors take advantage of a changing marketplace.
by Scott Renshaw

In a book on his coffee table, Scott Shurian keeps residual checks he never bothers to cash. It was more than 15 years ago that he contributed his performances to blockbuster films like Dances With Wolves and Ghost, yet the payments still trickle in—six cents here, 23 cents there. The one for $12, he’ll cash. That’s good enough for a decent dinner, after all.

You’d never spot Shurian—a robust, silver-haired fellow—in either of the aforementioned films if you looked your hardest. You’d need to listen—for the background voice of a soldier in Wolves, for a television announcer in Ghost. Not much fame comes your way if you’re a voice talent, and for more than 20 years, Shurian has contributed his rich tones to films, commercials, documentary narrations and industrial videos.

Scot Shurian

When he began his work in the early 1980s, voice talent either had to work in local markets or live in a major media market like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. According to Dave Williams, publisher of the Los Angeles-based Voice Over Resource Guide, there may still be as many as 20,000 people working primarily as voice talent in Southern California alone.

But the industry has changed radically—as a result of both technology and financial considerations—allowing more high-profile talent to work from smaller cities on a national scale. Today, Park City’s Eric Gordon can work six hours a day from his home, providing promo spots for as many as 60 radio and television stations coast to coast, including KSL locally. Sandy resident Ken Sansom can continue his nearly 20 years voicing the character of Rabbit in Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films and television projects from his agent’s Salt Lake City studio. And Scott Shurian can record narrations and commercials in between the classes he teaches regularly on the craft and business of voice acting, helping develop the next generation in learning how to talk for fun and profit.

On the radio, in video games and electronic toys, on businesses’ automated phone menus, on nature documentaries and in animated entertainment—you’re hearing voices all the time. Some of them just may belong to your neighbors.

When Dave Williams began his career in voiceover in the 1970s, the casting model was the same pavement-pounding paradigm familiar to aspiring actors everywhere. An advertising agency or production company would send out a casting call and audition prospective talent; eventually, casting companies got involved to centralize the process. But the actor’s physical presence was a necessary part of the equation.

That was before the Internet and digital-media technology—and as they have done with so many aspects of modern life, they changed the voice industry completely. The introduction of ISDN lines in the early 1990s allowed for the high-quality long-distance transmission of recorded voices; MP3 allowed digital voice files to be transmitted instantaneously. Agents created studios in their offices so their talent wouldn’t have to go to cattle calls, and some higher-level talent built their own home studios. It was only a short step to realizing that the “home” didn’t have to be in suburban Los Angeles. It could be literally anywhere in the world.

That was when, according to Williams, “People started saying, ‘I don’t have to be in your town to get the job done.’ A couple of the big voice-over guys packed it in and left.

“We’ve lost some of our great actors here in Los Angeles who used to beat the streets and have moved back home,” Williams continues. “And people thought, ‘If they can do it, I’m gonna give it a try.’”

There was still a certain skepticism and stigma attached to voice talent not living on the coasts, until financial considerations helped open more doors. According to Linda Bearman—a 20-year veteran talent agent who relocated to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles in 1993 to found Talent Management Group, and represents Shurian, Gordon and Sansom—ad agencies began looking more seriously at smaller markets in 2000. The occasion was a strike by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) against commercial producers.

“Very large advertising agencies discovered that instead of hiring union talent,” recalls Bearman, “there was quality talent in regional markets who were nonunion. And that’s how we in the middle of little old Salt Lake City get auditions from big companies—because now they know there’s good talent here and in other regional markets.”

That’s not to suggest that all Salt Lake City talent is nonunion; Ken Sansom in particular is adamant about only doing work through the unions. But once the eyes of agencies and producers were opened to the wider range of options available to them, as Bearman puts it, voice-over “instantly became a global industry.”

And some of the talent began heading to Utah’s hills.

If you’ve listened to KSL radio and heard a commanding baritone announce, “News, traffic and weather,” you’ve heard Eric Gordon. Hundreds of thousands of people from Bakersfield to Boston—and viewers of CNN International around the world—have heard him, too.

Gordon has become one of America’s A-list station “imaging” voices—the man who lets you know about upcoming programs and breaking news. That’s pretty heady stuff for a Toronto native who started out as a disc jockey in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Eager to break into the world of voice-overs while working at a radio station in Boston, Gordon put together a demo reel—a CD of promos—to send to the big networks, including CNN. “I figured, why not start at the top,” Gordon says. “In retrospect, I was highly delusional.”

But CNN called about an opening with its Headline News network in 1991, because, as Gordon recalls, “the demo literally hit someone’s desk the day someone else got fired.” Two years later, with the advent of ISDN, the opportunity came to do promos for radio and television stations elsewhere—and to consider relocating.

Park City appealed to him from previous ski vacations, and he thought he had enough affiliates in his stable to afford it. “I went to the bank, and we only qualified for a small condo,” Gordon says. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should have gone to Dubuque instead.’ Then after we’d been here only six months, CNN called again, and said, ‘We have International open.’”

Ten years later, Gordon’s typical day in Park City finds him working from his home studio, doing promos and “pops”—self-congratulatory, “we broke this story” spots for news radio and television stations—as needed by his cadre of employers. He tends to keep his occupation a bit on the down-low, since respect doesn’t always follow his line of work. At one Park City party, he recalls telling other guests what he did for a living: “They said, ‘Really? Is that kind of like being a hand model?’ People think, ‘If it wasn’t for his voice, would he be a plumber?’

“It’s very repetitive and very redundant,” Gordon says of his work, “not for everybody. … On days when it becomes like Groundhog Day, you have to go, ‘Well, look what this profession has allowed me to do.’”

For Ken Sansom, his profession has allowed him to become an icon for children around the world—even if they’d never recognize his face. The Utah native spent 25 years as an actor in Los Angeles—including credits ranging from The Brady Bunch to Days of Our Lives—but for the last 18 years has worked almost exclusively in voice characterization. “When I reached about 60 [years old], there were not that many roles to get that were on camera,” Sansom noted by phone from his Sandy home. “The last year or two I was [in Los Angeles], there was little call for my age.”

Fortunately, Disney had already come calling about the voice of Rabbit in 1988, and Sansom offered the persnickety take on the character that has become its trademark. Still, only five years later, Sansom was ready to move back to Utah for a business opportunity that never panned out. Disney was willing to fly him back and forth to record Rabbit material, but within a few years the ISDN technology allowed him to record his lines in Bearman’s studio.

Sansom works at least once a week, recording Rabbit and auditioning for commercials when Bearman gets an audition invitation that seems appropriate. He’d probably work more, except that he won’t do commercial work that conflicts with his LDS faith, and—unlike many Utah voice actors—he will work only union jobs. He seems content with a semiretirement that’s still fairly lucrative: “The guy who makes $10 an hour can’t understand anybody making $250 for two minutes.”

When Sansom first moved back to Utah in 1993, he briefly taught his own voice-over classes. Scott Shurian continues to do so—and he has plenty to teach.

His own career began in radio announcing with Armed Forces Radio and a broadcasting correspondence course from the University of Maryland. Shurian eventually found his way to radio news and remained in that field for 20 years in California with the ABC News Radio Network and Golden West Broadcasting. After retiring to Montana, he began doing freelance voice-over work before moving back to Southern California in the early 1980s. Some of his one-time radio colleagues had already migrated into the voice-over field, and Shurian was ready to follow their lead.

What he discovered was that his decades of radio training wasn’t enough. “The agents would say, ‘You have a great voice, but you sound too much like a newsman,’” Shurian recalls. “And that made sense to me, because that’s all I had been doing for years.”

Shurian’s revelation led him to Los Angeles-area voice-over workshops to “create this new vocal persona.” And while he admits to some Eric Gordon-esque good fortune with landing his first jobs just when someone else was departing, he began doing corporate narrations for aerospace companies like Lockheed, TRW and Hughes. Even as he expanded his résumé to include film and commercial work, he became well respected enough for his work in the narrating specialty that he was invited to some of the workshops as a guest speaker.

When he moved to Salt Lake City in 1997 to be closer to family, he discovered a wide-open market for teaching voice acting, even as he continued doing his own voice work. Applying his experiences in other voice workshops and in his work, Shurian began first with all-day workshops, then eventually 10-hour sessions broken into five two-hour evening classes.

Shurian hosts these classes in his own home, where students are greeted at the front door by his black Lab and class “mascot” Shadow. Anywhere from five to eight people scrunch together on couches, alternately listening to Shurian’s lessons on working in the field of voice-over and practicing at a microphone with actual advertising and narration copy.

“You’ll find that the first time a person stands in front of a microphone,” Shurian says, “they think they’re supposed to sound a certain way. … We’re not interested in what your voice sounds like, because to me there’s no such thing as a bad voice. It’s what you do with what you’ve got.”

Shurian excels at helping his students work with what they’ve got. He plays a variety of “demo” CDs from other voice actors, identifying the difference between radio personalities who think they can do commercials because they have a “radio voice” and those who show a variety of textures in their work. He guides students through understanding the difference between just reading the words off the page and actually speaking them. He directs them always to know of any piece of copy they’re reading, “Who am I, who am I talking to and what am I talking about?” He plays the role of both professor and encouraging colleague, mixing in a hearty, “There you go,” when a student nails the right breathing pattern or intonation.

Some of the participants may never intend to pursue a career as voice actors. Lori Farrell, a clinical social worker, is one of many individuals who come to Shurian’s class simply looking to improve the way they present themselves in their speaking. But near the end of the fourth session, working a commercial dialogue in which she plays a girlfriend agreeing to change banks for her sweetheart, Farrell takes Shurian’s direction and reads a line with a smile that’s absolutely audible. That’s when a reader becomes a voice actor.

Others, however, are serious about trying to break into voice work. Trace Eddington, the public address announcer for BYU men’s basketball games, already has a few commercials for the university’s athletic department under his belt; Kyle Fatheringham reports back to the group on an audition he has just landed in Provo for a “robot voice.”

There are success stories from Shurian’s classes like Sandy Tiemann, who runs a Sugar House flag store with her husband and took her first class from Shurian four or five years ago. A self-professed “late bloomer” as an aspiring actor, she attends acting classes of all kinds regularly and is also represented by Linda Bearman. Thus far, however, her only paying work has come from making use of her unconventional, high-pitched squeak of a voice in local commercials for clients including Subway and the Utah Arts Festival—a total of “maybe $600 all of last year,” according to Tiemann.

Yet that’s still better than a lot of people will do in an industry that everyone describes as fiercely competitive, even as the market expands to include more electronic games, automated call menus and books on tape. As in any performing art, there are far more rejections than jobs. But Bearman says it may even be a harder field than most, as national Websites like Voices123 pit voice performers around the world against one another for the same spot, while simultaneously driving down payment rates. “You might decide, ‘I’m going to be a voice-over talent and get a home studio put together, and I’m going to start working,’” Bearman says. “Well, good luck. Because you’re no longer competing with just, say, 600 people in Salt Lake City.”

It is also in some ways an even more pitiless business than other kinds of performing, because of its depersonalized nature. Eric Gordon says he takes meticulous care of himself not to get sick because “since we’re not in the building [of an employer], we get treated like a machine. And if for any reason that machine breaks, there’s not a lot of humanity involved.”

Still, there will be many who will plunk down the cash for studio time, production fees and art to create “demo” CDs that can be sent to prospective employers or placed on Websites. They’ll be vying for work with the likes of Gordon, who continues to work with a $175-an-hour voice coach in an effort to keep ahead of the industry curve. “If you choose to live outside of New York or Los Angeles,” he says, “you have to make a concerted effort to study the craft, be able to modify your sound. If you’re just cut and dried, you won’t make it.”

Sandy Tiemann’s real goal in voice work is to break into animated characterizations—one of the sides of the industry where, most professionals agree, you probably would need to relocate to Los Angeles unless you’re already an established name like Ken Sansom. Shurian doesn’t focus on character animation voice work in his class—he’ll only teach what he knows, and that’s not an area in which he has worked—and Tiemann says some day, when her children are older, she might just make that pilgrimage to Hollywood and see what develops.

Plenty of other voice talents won’t make that trip, because they won’t ever need to. They may never make much more at it than Scott Shurian makes from his measured-in-pennies residual checks, but they’ll stay right where they are to work in a field that Linda Bearman describes as almost a purer form of acting. “The beauty of voice-over,” she says, “is that it’s a craft. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter what size you are. It’s nondiscriminatory. It’s ageless.”

And it’s not just for New York City and Los Angeles any more.

by Scott Renshaw

Salt Lake Tribune
Giving a Voice to Tricks of The Trade

"Scott Shurian's name might not be familiar to you, but there's a chance his voice is. With a career that spans over four decades, the Holladay-area voice actor has 2,500 commercials and over 5,000 professional narrations to his credit since his early days." Read More...