STEVE KAMER LA RADIO ARTICLE
by Don Barrett
"I've Never Known Anyone Who Went From Voiceovers to Radio"
(August 6, 2008) With much attention being paid to the world of voiceover with the upcoming weekend Voiceover International Convention at the Hyatt Century City, it seemed a perfect time to talk with someone who has successfully made that transition from L.A. radio person to national voice. On a recent trip to New York, we caught up with Steve Kamer (l), and we sat in his home studio, which was a long way from his California beginnings at KHTZ (K-HITS, 97.1/fm) in 1981.
While attending Lawrenceville Prep School in New Jersey, Steve always had an eye on some day being in Hollywood. In 1978, the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, he came to Los Angeles for the first time to visit family. "It was very exciting to see things that I had only seen on tv or in the movies," said Steve. "While on this trip I made a decision that I would attend college in California."
Making good on his dream, he started USC in 1981 and graduated from the Annenberg School for Communication in 1985. "I had my eyes set on working in radio as a disc jockey. Beginning at 14 while in high school I worked for five stations in Trenton, New Jersey. I had the voice at a very young age and I had knowledge of music because my dad's vending business included servicing jukeboxes so I had copies of all the records. The challenge was that my mom or dad would have to take and pick me up from my radio station shift."
His big break came in 1981. Greater Media owned Top 40 KHTZ. "I got an interview because I was friendly with Greater Media program directors in New Jersey and Philadelphia. A couple of them put in recommendations for me at KHTZ. I got a job doing weekends at the age of 18 and I became a regular fill-in."
"When I got to KHTZ Charlie Tuna was doing mornings," remembered Steve. " Ken Noble was middays followed by Steve Scott in the afternoons. Joe Cipriano was early evenings and Stoney Richards was late evenings. Overnights was Maggie Ross . And I would get two or three weekend shifts."
During his two years with the station while going to USC, Steve was taking voiceover classes in Hollywood. "One coach I worked with was Sandra Gale. She was with the Cunningham agency and I took one or two classes each week from her. I didn't receive school credit but I wanted to familiarize myself with the voiceover industry. I knew from the beginning that being a disc jockey on the radio and doing voiceovers were basically mutually exclusive. The fact that you use your voice in both is the only common aspect. They are two worlds with very little in common. Although some people successfully make the transition from radio to voiceover, I've never heard of anyone going from voiceover to radio."
Steve said that getting a VO agent is the toughest challenge for the radio talent. "Nowadays I am much more sophisticated and I go right to the buyers or producers who might employ me and solicit myself. In the early days I wasn't that savvy so the first stumbling block for me was getting an agent. Being a radio disc jockey had absolutely no cache to a voiceover agent in terms of them wanting to sign you. Turns out there was a stigma attached to being a disc jockey."
Steve's claim that a disc jockey and voiceover talent work in parallel corridors might be tough to understand. Steve explained: "When you're a disc jockey, most times you basically read from scripted liner cards so all of my training was to say things like, '30 minutes of continuous music including Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon and the Beatles.' It was scripted and robotic. When you do voiceovers, the skill set required would probably be like what an actor is trained to do. An actor is given a script so that the end listener has a real understanding of what you are describing with real feelings."
Voiceover diversity might take you one day to doing something for the History Channel and then radio station promotional liners or reading books on tape or a movie trailer. "There are so many applications as a voiceover talent that are much more diverse than being a radio disc jockey. The voiceover performer really puts you in charge. The disc jockeys for the stations I worked for were basically interchangeable. We're like Stepford Wives or Stepford Husbands. Anyone can read the liner cards. The audience won't be tuning in because they want to hear the Steve Kamer liner show as opposed to somebody else. If you're spending $20 million to promote a new motion picture you want somebody to get people motivated to go out and buy tickets and fill up a movie theatre. You have to be manipulative. You have to be persuasive. The pressure is so much greater and the stakes are huge on both sides."
Steve worked in radio from 1977 to 1994 until he made a clean break from radio and he could say he was a full-time voiceover artist. In 1984, Steve was among the first group of jocks at 'Format 41' when Transtar launched. This put him on KIQQ as part of the syndication of 'Format 41.' He also worked part-time at KWNK and KNJO in Simi Valley. After graduation from USC, Steve returned to the East Coast and started working at WFIL and WMGK in Philadelphia. A year later WNSR-New York took on a Soft Rock format and Steve was part of that launch and he lasted 8 ½ years.
"My goal when I got into radio was to get out of radio," Steve declared. "Radio was meant to be a stepping stone to a career in voiceover. I realized that very early on. In talking with voiceover artists, they were making in one month what I was making in a year as a radio dj. By the end of January they'd already met their FICA wage base for the year and that seemed interesting."
"In radio you can be at a dead end street. A new program director comes in and decides to bring in new disc jockeys or he makes a format change," said Steve. "With voiceovers, if you maintain a successful career where you have 20-25 people using you simultaneously, the likelihood of losing everything on the same day is very minimal. Once you've become established, there seems to be more stability."
Kamer's job today is staying relevant and he makes a daily investment in the future. "I work with a coach every day to make sure my read isn't the read that was popular ten minutes ago, but the read that is popular now, next year, and two years from now."
His voice coach is David Lyerly. "He's almost like a voice psychiatrist or voice psychologist. I think that's his background. He has the ability to get the performer to read the words on the paper as the producer or the casting director intended. He's probably the best person with that skill. There are other good ones like Marice Tobias in Los Angeles, but David's ability for me has been unparalleled. I've progressed more in a shorter period of time under David's tutelage than at any other point in my career."
Steve is clear on his role in the voiceover world and he understands for him the importance of investing in a voiceover coach. "You're an independent contractor. You are a vendor. You want to offer the biggest portfolio of products to them. What aspiring voiceover artists don't understand is that the voice is only a small aspect of a successful voiceover career. People think they have a great voice and thus will do great at voiceovers. The voice is sort of like the ante at the poker game. The voice is something that we all come to the party with but now why is Steve more valuable than someone else. Why am I always going all in and winning? It is because you bring other things to the table, many of which are intangible - you're reliable, you're willing to do one promo for $227 on Christmas Eve as you are during normal business hours. Your attitude has to be so impeccable that a producer knows that they can rely on you whether they have $500 to spend or $10,000 to spend. And you are going to bring the same A game to the booth in either case."
My clients in Buffalo, Norfolk and Trenton know that they are going to get the Inside Edition voice [for 12 years] or the Yankees voice or the ESPN voice. I'm not going to just give them one take because they are paying me less. I will try just as hard to nail it for the guy in Trenton as I will for the producer at Hammer Creative in Hollywood. What happens over time is that the people who were pages and interns at NBC when I became a full-time voiceover talent in 1994 are now creative directors and producers at Showtime or HBO. And they remember how helpful I was in giving out suggestions when they were just starting out in their careers. Many performers become caustic, dismissive and unfriendly towards new people or those lower in the food chain. I try to be equally cordial and helpful to everyone."
His big national voiceover break came in 1994 when the Today Show hired Steve to do their promos. He realized years before that he needed to get to know the people who made the decisions. Instead of meeting them one by one, he invested in industry events where a large group of decision makers would be attending. He went to the NAB Radio Convention for many years. He went to ProMax and NATPE. Even if he only met a handful of the right people at these conventions, it was far more than he was meeting early in his career. Steve attended his first NAB Convention at age 18 that was being held in New Orleans. He paid for it himself. He didn't ask anyone to cover the costs. It was an investment in his career. "I went to hospitality suites and introduced myself and told them what I wanted to do with my career. I met Frank DeSantis [KLOS, KMET, KPWR, KNX] at that first convention. He's now a big executive with Dial Global in New York and we have been friendly since that first meeting. And then you have access to their friends."
At one of the conventions he met Jeff Kreiner who was at NBC. As Steve got better at his craft, people like Kreiner started taking Steve more seriously. It was Kreiner who invited Steve to audition for the role of the Today Showannouncer at the time Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel were co-hosts.
"I constantly sent out my voiceover demo reel to voiceover agencies and simultaneously to people for whom I wanted to work. I was always of the mindset, particularly if you didn't have representation, which is mandatory if you want to get into the big leagues, I would send out my demo to agents and simultaneously to producers. Agents don't sign you for many reasons. If they have people on their roster who sound similar to you they may not sign you simply for that reason. So what I felt was necessary was to build up an arsenal of work, I would go to the agent and say, 'Look, I beat your guy out of HBO. I beat your guy out of the Today Show . You should really make me your guy. It was always my belief that ultimately the agent was necessary to build the career. They might be quick to admit they aren't good at launching a career but are good in building a career. I figured if I could launch my own career and get enough work and my work was attractive and my 10% was attractive enough to a Don Buchwald [famous agent for Howard Stern ] I could get an agent. I never begrudged the 10% to my agent. That's nothing. I pay my waiter 15-20%. Agents have overhead, phone bills, secretaries and lunches to take producers out on my behalf. Ten percent commission is negligible. I never understood those who wanted to cut the commission. There's no incentive for the agent if they are not making at least 10%."
Once Steve got on NBC, the Buchwald agency signed him. His career was now beginning to gain some momentum. "I was considered a promo client but once I got in there were opportunities to audition for everything."
The ISDN line has been a blessing and a curse for voiceover talent like Steve. He's not only auditioning for gigs with New York actors and voiceover talent, but now has competition from Hollywood and basically everywhere in the world. The blessing is that he can now compete in other cities. "In New York my voice is a known entity, in Los Angeles I'm a fresh voice," said Steve.
Steve is represented by the Atlas Talent Agency and you can hear samples of his work at SteveKamer.com. When the Olympics begin this Friday, you will hear Steve's voice. This is his third Olympics in a row for NBC.
"I still LOVE radio to this day, but I also realized early on that I was not going to be a Robert W. Morgan , a Dan Ingram, a Gary Owens , a Howard Stern , etc., each of whom is/was known as a top air personality in the country," said Steve. His goal is to voice a tentpole movie trailer from one of the major studios. A daunting task? Absolutely. But Steve has a plan. In addition to movie trailers, most of the trailer production companies will also do the DVD and the video game. Steve has already begun the process of doing games knowing that his talent and attitude will eventually set him up for movie trailers. Don LaFontaine - look over your shoulder, here comes Steve Kamer.