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You Don’t Know Them, But You May Know Their Voices

Political voiceover actors are on call right up to Election Day

Kathryn Klvana has recorded voiceovers for Democratic independent expenditure ads in Virginia's 10th District, similar to the one above against GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Kathryn Klvana has recorded voiceovers for Democratic independent expenditure ads in Virginia's 10th District, similar to the one above against GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Even in the final days of the campaign, Sheldon Smith is a busy man.

A phone call to his cell on Wednesday first went to voicemail. The recording left no mistaking it was the right number; it was the voice of a someone who talks for a living. 

In the 15 minutes between when this reporter was supposed to call back later that afternoon and when she actually called, Smith had already completed another voiceover. It was for Alaska Rep. Don Young, the dean of the House and a longtime user of Smith’s vocal cords.

Smith estimates he’s worked for about 20 Republican congressmen this cycle, but he’d rather not name them. “A guy who does what I do doesn’t really want to become the story,” he said.

Something new?

Smith has narrated nearly 160 political spots this cycle. He’s been doing it for 44 years. But some things have changed in the political voiceover business, starting with technological advancements over the past 20 years that have allowed voice actors like Smith to record spots in their own homes.

For Smith, that’s now northern Michigan. There’s no reason for him to be near studios in Washington, D.C., anymore. 

Technology also means the pace has picked up. “Because of the way the work is done, it’s more frantic than it used to be,” Smith said.

Young’s consultant had emailed Smith from Alaska at 3:45 p.m. on Wednesday. Smith recorded the spot, transmitting the audio to the recording studio in D.C., all while the consultant was on the phone from Alaska, and was done shortly after 4 p.m.

“You never put your phone down in an even-numbered year,” Smith said.

Kathryn Klvana, a Maryland-based voice actor, is less exhausted than she was when she’d have to drive to several different studios in a day. These days she retreats to her closet studio when she needs to work. She just never knows when that’s going to be.

“I really need to go to the hairdresser to get highlights, but I can’t really risk a three-hour period,” she said Thursday. “I kinda have to be within a half hour of my home.”

Having done this since 1994, she’s recorded high-profile presidential spots for John Kerry and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But she’s especially motivated by the political consequences of her work this year. She’s working for congressional candidates as well as outside groups like House Majority PAC and Independence USA.“The stakes have never been higher,” she said. “I’m trying to put everything I can into doing an effective voiceover because I think it does make a difference and can change votes.”

President Donald Trump hasn’t just affected people’s political enthusiasm. His candidacy and his presidency have reshaped political speech.

Watch: President Trump’s Halloween Rally in Florida

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“There used to be a different sense of what you could say and what you could not say,” Smith said. That’s not all because of the president; he thinks there’s been a larger cultural shift at the hands of social media, too. But both have had an impact on the tone of political advertising.

He’s not talking about negativity. (Both Smith and Klvana agreed that negative ads have been and will be around forever because they work.) It’s the way the attacks are launched. 

Smith has recorded plenty of brutal ads over the years that were effective. But they were also narrowly focused and highly accurate. “Today it’s more broad brush,” he said.

Meanwhile, Klvana has noticed an effort to soften negative spots a bit more, with producers sometimes calling for a sadder or more disappointed tone. Women have traditionally been called on to soften negative hits. But with so many female Democratic candidates this year, Klvana has heard there’s less demand for female voiceovers. (Producers often like to have some gender balance to avoid confusion in the spot.) 

And some things the same

So what hasn’t changed in this business? Voiceover actors only work for one party. And much like political consultants who have to avoid coordination conflicts, they can’t do work for an independent expenditure and a candidate in the same race. 

Many belong to the union (the combined Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Actors) through which they get a pension and benefits. Joining was probably the best decision Smith ever made. “And here I am a Republican who’s a union member. Go figure,” he said.

Klvana is grateful for the steady work that campaign season brings — a luxury for actors. She’s also happy to be on her side of the microphone. “They are a lot more fun to voice than to listen to,” she said of political spots. “At a certain point, I just want to turn the TV off.”

The end is near. The Friday or Saturday before the election is usually the last possible time Smith and Klvana will be asked to record a spot, so that it can get to TV stations before Election Day.

By Tuesday evening, Klvana will be in the air. Her husband booked them a trip to Iceland, where she’ll be checking the results. Smith will spend the next few days after the election reading about the races he was involved in. If I speak for someone, I care about whether they win,” he said. “And if they didn’t win, why that is.”

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