Career Capsule: I loved radio and voiceovers even as a kid, and would spend hours DJing music on a little FM transmitter in my bedroom. I remember taking a short lazer sound effect from an old Newsboys song. I didn’t have anything else to use, so I used that one effect to create these little imaging stabs with two cassette decks, with me attempting to turn my pre-puberty pipes into a gravelly announcer. One other thing that seems funny now in this age of Spotify; I would record new music off of the radio and hope that the jock didn’t talk over the intro so I could get it “in the clear”. My legit radio career started in high school at the country station in my hometown. After college, I did mornings at a Hot AC in Western New York before heading to Michigan to host nights at WAYG/WAYK-“WaYfm”. In March of 2007, I left radio to focus solely on my growing voiceover business. Which was a really dumb idea on paper, but I felt like I was being called to jump. In April we moved to Ohio, my daughter was born and Atlas Talent Agency emailed out of the blue and asked me to join their roster. Then in May, I booked two large TV promo campaigns. God definitely had my back during that initial trust-fall.
Joe, tell us what’s new at Joe Szymanski VO .. any news, changes etc… and what’s new with YOU?
Well, I’m still pinching myself I get to voice for so many wonderful Christian radio stations. About ten years ago, a PD friend pointed out that I was the most heard voice on his station. Ego aside, talk about a lightbulb going off. What a privilege! What a responsibility. And that’s still what grounds me to avoid the temptation to “rip-and-read” and always make sure I take the time to connect with the message of the script. I’m always bouncing from project to project and most of them are very different from each other. Last week, I got to narrate a new nature documentary that will air soon on Smithsonian Channel. I also did spots for Barclay’s Investment Bank and that campaign is running nationally. Something not as glamorous but still enjoyable is voicing corporate narration like product videos and safety training. Also, a couple years back, I launched a website called ChurchVoiceover.com, It’s a diverse collective of top VO pros at rates that are ministry-friendly. We currently do a lot of work for Moody Radio and the Billy Graham folks, in additional to helping churches and other organizations. I would love to find more radio producers who could benefit from what we do because there’s a lot of value in it for them.
How do you balance work & family, how important is it for someone in Christian Radio to ‘have a life’?
For me, work & family intersects a lot. Although I still love doing it, there are days when my job is a grind. I love being around my family, but there are days when my kids drive me crazy. It’s all life. I can’t compartmentalize things as much as I’d like to because my studio is in my home, I’m always on-call and three of my four kids are homeschooled. You can imagine how loud our house can get. Soundproof vocal booths for the win! I do like taking a break or two throughout the day when time allows. Being a dad with young-ish kids, I find that part of my life helps me relate better to certain scripts, especially in CCM radio. Every experience in life is valuable. Even the hard ones. More and more, I find such peace and refreshment in nature so I try to prioritize that on the weekends, either going fishing, hiking or working in my yard. I think it’s incredibly important to find what checks that box for you and then carve out some time to do it. And if you don’t feel like you can spare a half-day, even stepping away for 10 minutes can help your brain reset for whatever is coming next.
As an audio creator, what do you do to keep up with trends, and technology?
Usually if a new technology is changing the game, I’ll usually hear about it on social media. One major shift for voice actors is that Source Connect & Zoom have replaced live sessions over expensive, aging ISDN lines. Which is a huge shift when you consider it was ISDN lines that made it so we didn’t have to live in New York, LA or Chicago to do voiceovers. Technology has also seriously reduced the price of entry, making it so virtually anyone can plug a mic into a computer and be a voiceover talent. It’s both good and bad. This industry has become saturated with talent and much more competitive in the last few years. A lot of those people are agreeing to do jobs for much less than they’re worth and a lot of companies are not willing to pay as much as they did in the past. The market is changing quickly. Lately, the rapid advancement of AI voices has everyone a little on edge. The technology isn’t quite ready for prime-time but it’s sure getting interesting. Human emotion is such a complex thing. To have the right emotion in just the right place, and have it ring true every single time? I’m skeptical, but we’ll have to see how things develop. I do love what AI is doing for sound design, with plugins that reduce room noise and echo in ways we’ve never been able to before. My sense is that we’re on the edge of a massive cultural shift with AI and I don’t think any of us really know what to expect. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, slowly clanking up the first big hill with a pit in your stomach. I hope it helps us become better, and not obsolete.
What’s something you’ve learned due to the pandemic, about Christian Radio, that you didn’t know before?
I would never have dreamed that home studios would become as critical and as accepted as they did. Engineers should be given a lot of credit for helping radio pivot when the lockdowns started. I also am continually in awe of how skilled CCM air personalities are at weaving their way through (and sometimes around) hot button issues that have our culture deeply divided. It is not an easy time to be on the air. Fortunately, this format is filled with amazingly talented communicators.
What are your thoughts on AI in Christian Radio?
Chat GPT seems to be showing some interesting potential as a starting point for things like showprep and writing imaging and promos. It’s kind of scary though. A friend of mine asked the program how many times Queen says the word “mama” in Bohemium Rhapsody. Chat GPT answered “four times”. He asked “what about Mama Mia let me go?” It acknowledged its mistake and told him he was right. Thirty minutes later, a friend of his across the country asked the same question and this time, Chat GPT said six times, which is still one short. So the potential is still there for misinformation but it seems like it might be open to corrections and recalibration on the fly. As far as AI personalities in Christian Radio, I’m skeptical that it can bring the level of care and connection that is offered every day by the actual human beings behind the mic. As it stands now, even if they get the inflections, tone and pacing spot-on, a lot of actual human work would still have to go into scripting that break before AI does the rest. Since Christian radio seems to be routinely exceeding pledge drive goals and experiencing great ratings in many major markets, I would hope that the GM’s and OM’s themselves would never accept AI as a replacement for humans.
What is the ONE thing you must have everyday to do your job? (other than coffee)
About that… I drink a single cup of coffee most mornings. Any more dries out my vocal chords and my voice won’t be as strong. I went without it for years, but middle age hits hard, and I find I can get away with a light roast. Other than that, I know this sounds kind of basic, but my smart phone is crucial. Everytime I break one and have to wait a whole day to get it replaced, I’m reminded how much freedom I have, being able to check email and do almost everything remotely. I can even voice last minute urgent requests from the road with just a mic, my iPhone and a small CEntrence device.
Do you feel syndication is positive for Christian radio?
Like anything, it depends on the value of the content. If radio is going survive, let alone thrive, it can’t devolve into the kind of homogenized liner-card voicetracks that have become the standard on a lot mainstream stations operated by large corporate groups. Generally I’m hearing a ton of national contest promoting, sponsor reads and celeb gossip, but not much with any real substance. Not to mention atrocious stop-set lengths. Seems like a tough atmosphere for a listener to bond with your station. If we’re talking compelling content, that kind of syndication is likely going to get results, no matter where it comes from, especially if it can offer a local tie-in. That said, I think it’s crucially important to maintain a local presence in your market, no matter what. I have the most respect for the stations who still have actual brick-and-mortar staffing in the community they serve and operate their station like the unique product it should be. Northwestern Media comes to mind. Jason Sharp and his team have demonstrated a wonderful model of how to scale up without losing the local identity of each of your stations in the process.
Who are your radio heroes and influences?
I grew up in a very rural area, so my exposure to major market jocks was limited. But Rick Dees was a huge influence to me as a teen. Jon Rivers too, which is ironic because Jon and I ended up sharing an agent for a few years, and I didn’t know it until we got cast for different roles in the same radio commercial, which was kind of a full circle moment for me. My former morning partner Geoff Moore taught me so much about radio and life. He’s now with Christian FM/SmartRadioSuite and we attended CMB together this summer as first-timers, which was another full circle moment. I use to stream highly phone-interactive live shows at Top 40 stations for inspiration. Guys like Scotty Davis at KDWB, Romeo at Z100 and Java Joel at Kiss-Chicago. (Why were all the night shows hosted by males?! Oh, hey there Delilah. #sorry) At the time, it inspired me to try to bring that kind of energy and fun to WaYfm when Mike Couchman (another hero) brought me out to Michigan. As I look back though, I realize I would often emulate other jocks, when I should have been more of myself. Over time, I’ve managed to find my own voice, thanks to a few great voiceover coaches and in doing commercials. These days, ad agencies generally want somebody who sounds like an everyday “guy next door”. It’s hard to fake authenticity when you’re reading something. You really have to fully connect with the author’s intent and how that intersects with your unique point of view, rather than just trying to get it to “sound” a certain way as you’re performing it. It’s an actor’s approach and it’s especially challenging for those of us coming from radio, where we sometimes develop a habit of talking a certain way when the mic is on. My teenagers say I should just talk less altogether, but I don’t think that’s related.