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Want to own your voice? It's easier than you think

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A group of about 40 independent producers gathered at KCRW Saturday, March 2 to learn more about radio and owning their voice.

When speaking in radio, you shouldn’t say “verdant lawn” when you mean “green grass.” Clarity is king. Host of Today Explained, Sean Rameswaram, told a room full of emerging and seasoned producers to “try and strip out the bougie words” at “Own Your Voice,” a recent KCRW workshop hosted by its Independent Producer Project.

The KCRW workshop was led by Sean Rameswaram, host of Vox's Today Explained. 

Yet, as Sean espoused rules like these, he also debunked them.

If you are S-Town host Brian Reed and your language is a little flowery then you use that. Why? Because it is your authentic voice.

Sean cautioned against blindly following industry conventions. With the help of recorded interviews from Anna Sale (Death, Sex & Money), Sam Sanders (It’s Been A Minute) and Stephanie Foo (This American Life) he illustrated how some of the best loved and most accomplished producers in the field, have had to find their own voices, their own way.

There is a growing movement in the podcast industry to trust listeners. And these days, the democratization of the medium means there is an audience for just about any kind of voice, style and type of story you are telling. You just have to decide, what is your voice?

That’s not just the accent that you have but also how you sound – what kind of a host/narrator/storyteller are you? You’re not that NPR news host but are you that super casual voice that sounds like they’re talking to a friend? Perhaps you are some hybrid of the two? You have to find your own sweet spot. And it might keep evolving.

After years of being a print journalist, I attended Transom’s travelling workshop earlier this year and was told in my first-ever tracking session with a producer,- ‘great you sound a little like a BBC news host but can you sound more natural?’ We both laughed.

Sure I was stiff, nervous and over-enunciating. I was a radio beginner, it was all so new and intimidating. Yet, there is an element of the Queen’s English that is very much a part of how I speak.

During the KCRW workshop, Sean asked us to make a one-minute audio piece on California’s high speed rail. As one observer at the workshop noted after I played my audio, I had a kind of Commonwealth flair to my voice. That lends to my vernacular. My opening line was “Is the idea for a High Speed Rail in California bonkers?” Everyone laughed. I hadn’t planned for that. I was worried they may be missing bits of my minute spiel with all it’s important facts and numbers. But you can glean so much from how listeners react to your voice and what you have to say.

Other participants who played their audio took varied approaches. Some made no mention of facts, Governor Newsom or how much High Speed Rail costs. They were very specific and personal. Did they even care about High Speed Rail when it took them hours just to get across town from Pasadena to LAX? They found a more personal, more compelling a story about a rather dry subject.

So your voice is unique. And you can pick what rules apply to you in most cases. Except this one: Good tracking is good writing. And good writing is good tracking.

First, what is tracking? Sean explained: “When you go into a studio, sit (or more commonly stand) in front of a microphone and record narration for a story.” Hence, a good radio voice boils down to a good script.

Here are some key points from Sean about writing a good script.

- Every line is an idea. One thought a sentence. So don’t throw a bunch of things in one sentence. This is something that as print journalists, we tend to do.

- Do a Brain Dump first to find out what your story is about. Meaning just rattle it off to a friend before you write a script. You’ll be surprised how the bones of a story will reveal itself.

- Write short sentences. It’s easier to read and breathe.

- Don’t be wedded to the way it’s written on the script. Give yourself space to riff in the studio.

You voice will sound more natural. Some folks use bullet points and others use phrases. Think about using a thought rather than a word.

- Closets make very good studios.

- Sometimes to get that ‘toss it off’ kind of voice, you can indulge in a little drink before tracking. Or you can change your mood by listening to music, going for a walk or bringing in a puppy. (Yes, he said all that!)

- Who are you writing for? Who is your audience? Those answers should shape your tone and the words you use.

- Listen back to your tracking. What do you sound like? No matter how natural you sound, it’s still a performance. Take the opportunity to try and change what you think didn’t work. Unless you’re Jad Abumrad (Radiolab).

- Don’t say “verdant lawn” when you mean “green grass.” Unless you damn well mean “verdant lawn.”

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