Deep and ominous voices sound the attack …sugary and optimistic voices signal support.
As part of our series on the “dark arts” of the campaign business….we meet the people behind the voices trained to influence the democratic process.
As Alex Keefe found, some of the most famous political ads in recent American history may have been voiced in a closet near you.
WOODEL: So, when I do voices for political campaigns, or for anybody, I do them out of my closet here in the house.
KEEFE: This is literally a closet.
...a closet lined with heavy, velvet drapes to soak up any echos - and a high-end super-sensitive microphone at which stands 64-year-old Norm Woodel (wood-DELL) - portly, gray polo, camo shorts, sandals.
This is where the magic happens.
KEEFE: Are there famous political campaigns that have had their work voiced in this little closet here in Lakeview?
WOODEL: “It’s 3 AM and the phone is ringing in the White House.”
KEEFE: That was you?!?
KEEFE: You did the Hillary Clinton one?
“Three A-M” - if you don’t recall - was arguably THE political ad of the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign ran it to underscore this idea that she was seasoned, reliable - and to suggest her rival Barack Obama was not.
AD TAPE: It’s 3AM and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call...(fade under)
Okay - but then - just a few hours AFTER the Clinton ad airs - just 1-point-6 miles away from Norm Woodel’s closet - ANOTHER guy, gets ANOTHER phone call in HIS makeshift home studio - and the voice on the other end of the line is frantic.
PRICE: And they said, ‘Have you heard what’s on the air right now? Hillary just ran the red phone ad.’ Which, I don’t know if people heard it, it’s something like ‘It’s 3AM - the phone’s ringing in the White House.’” (fade under?)
Right, so this is Bill Price - another Chicago campaign voiceover talent - and now he’s getting an earful from HIS client - Barack Obama’s presidential campaign - saying they gotta respond to this 3-A-M phone ad - RIGHT NOW.
PRICE: So we literally had 20 minutes for me to do a commercial, right here...and they wanted it on the air for the evening news cycle.
AD TAPE: It’s 3AM, and your children are safe and asleep, (crossfade up & then fade out...)
These dueling ads epitomized the experience versus change narrative in the Democratic primaries.
Pundits gobbled this up - Saturday Night Live even did a parody of the ad.
(Obama ad fades to black here)
NUT: Such are the big political debates ignited - in part - merely by the power of a human voice.
The men and women behind those voices aren’t just people who read stuff into a microphone.
They think of themselves as actors - artists - who use their voices like instruments to manipulate your emotions - which, in turn, can influence your vote.
Also - they don’t sleep much.
HUDSON: When you’re doing voiceover work, it’s almost as though you have no life, when you’re doing political campaigns.
Wanda Christine Hudson has been doing voiceover work for more than four decades.
And she says working campaigns is a lot different than her usual commercial or video game voiceover gigs.
Political season means abruptly cancelled lunch plans, sleeping by your phone and voicing ads in the dead of night.
HUDSON: ...and your voice has got to be awake and alert and up on your toes!
But Wanda Christine - as she goes by - says she likes the fast pace, the fickle campaign staffers, the challenge of using her full palette.
HUDSON: ...because maybe the candidate didn’t like that word, or maybe their campaign manager thought, maybe we want more smile in her voice, or maybe we want it to sound a little bit more serious, or maybe we want her to sound younger, or maybe we just want her to sound natural.
These vocal acrobatics may SOUND easy.
But imagine having to talk like this ON DEMAND - with short notice - on a tight deadline.
Norm Woodel - the original 3 A-M phone call guy - will say a little phrase to himself to get the right tone - he calls it a ramp.
WOODEL: So I have a ramp that I use to get into my NFL voice: To the men on the field it’s a battle.
...then later, Woodel says they’ll edit out that little bit he says at the beginning...or, at the end.
WOODEL: The all new Chevy Silverado. The most dependable, longest-lasting trucks on the road...asswipe. [bleeped]
WOODEL: Just thinking that half-cuss word we put on the end, as a guy talk kinda thing, would get you to the toughness you need.
But sometimes finding your voice takes more than just a little ramp.
When Bill Price was voicing political ads for Obama’s 2008 campaign, he invented this whole character.
PRICE: Like being the doctor who walks in the room, and there’s parents there, and they’re distraught cause their kid’s really sick and think he’s maybe gonna die. And then you’re the doctor that gets to say, There’s one last hope.
For Wanda Christine - a black woman in a business where she says there aren’t many - there’s also personal history in her political voiceovers.
HUDSON: My great-grandmother was not allowed to vote. My grandmother was not allowed to vote. Um, so I think about the things that they had to do to try to make a difference so that I could vote. That means something to me. And because it means something to me, (sniffles) uh, excuse me - I want it to mean something to whoever is making that decision based upon my voice.
WOODEL: Oh, come on. ‘Please try to refresh your browser’?!? So let’s look at this ad...(Mac bleeps)
AD: I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message...
Back at Norm Woodel’s home studio computer - he shows me how all this emotion and character and subtext is crafted to influence voters.
He’s dissecting a T-V attack ad he voiced for President Obama’s 20-12 campaign against Republican Mitt Romney.
He cues up the video...
AD: Tough on China? Not Mitt Romney. When a flood of Chinese (fade under & stop).
Just a couple seconds in - he pauses - to explain that throaty, leathery voice.
WOODEL: Well, first I wanna be credible, reliable, dependable. That happens here. That doesn’t happen like, Tough on China?
AD: When a flood of Chinese tires threatened a thousand American jobs, it was President Obama who stood up to China (stop)
WOODEL: Okay, so what do we wanna build into Obama?
Woodel stops it again - looks at me - and smiles.
WOODEL: President Obama. That guy. We have to sense a smile when you say his voice.
AD: ...stood up to China, and protected American workers. (stops)
WOODEL: Okay, so (rustling...)
Here, Woodel actually walks over from the desktop...
WOODEL:No no, you can sit there...
KEEFE: Oh, okay...
...and he puts his arm around my shoulder - looks me square in the eye...
WOODEL: ...and protected American workers. D’you hear what happened to the voice?
KEEFE: It was intimate. It was close. You’re like whispering in my ear, almost.
WOODEL: It’s just you and me. Me talking to you. Reassuring you.
These messages - individual words, even - have been poll-tested and focus-grouped to find out which will hit YOU in the most personal way possible.
Wanda Christine says it’s also personal for many voiceover artists.
KEEFE: Do you only work for one party now?
KEEFE: Are you allowed to say which party that is?
But the folks behind the other two voices we’ve heard in this story made a personal political choice only to read for Democrats.
Bill Price thinks he just SOUNDS more...Democratic.
PRICE: I think within my voice is more - second chances, and hope and...even small miracles...than it is about justice. Maybe that’s more of a Republican thing. I’m more, uh...you know....sentimental.
And for Norm Woodel - there is a bit of a gee-whiz factor.
WOODEL: After the President of the United States of America says, ‘I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message,’ I come on. (laughs) Isn’t that wonderful?
KEEFE: Um, I’d like you to help me end my story in a much more interesting way than we normally could. So, could we do scary first?
WOODEL: For WBEZ, this has been Alex Keefe.
Hmm - okay, give me more wholesome now.
PRICE: For WBEZ, he’s Alex Keefe.
Okay - I want confidence.
HUDSON: This interview has been brought to you by WBEZ and the handsome Alex Keefe.
KEEFE: Ok, I’ll take that one. All right, that’s a good spot to end.