In the age of ear buds and audiobooks, they want to be the voices in your head
NEW YORK -- David McKeel pauses. The romance genre is unfamiliar territory for him.
He's reading a selection from Cheris Hodges's steamy novel, "Recipe for Desire." Where McKeel picks up, the protagonist, Marie, has sprained her ankle, and a millionaire hunk named Devon is driving her to Presbyterian Hospital in his red Ford Mustang. A perfect time for some flirting.
"I will say one thing," McKeel says, as Marie, "I never took you for a Ford man." He keeps his voice near its normal pitch; in the world of audiobook narration, modulating too much from one character to another is bad practice.
His coach, Johnny Heller, cuts him off. He wants McKeel to put the emphasis on "you" instead of "Ford."
"You can't dance around what's going on," Heller urges him. "There's an electricity we're missing right now!"
McKeel repeats the line, this time with the inflection in the proper place. "Yes!" Johnny whispers as he follows McKeel down the script.
The two men are in the middle of a Thursday afternoon lesson in Studio A in the Edge Studio offices, perched on eighth-floor of 115 Eighth Ave. in New York City. The green-and-gray studio is part lounge, part control center. Cream-colored armchairs and a glass-topped coffee table are arranged behind a metal desk with two speakers, two keyboards and two computer monitors. Heller, sporting a red bowling shirt with stripes and checkers, is stationed at the desk, pen and notebook at the ready. McKeel sits in the recording booth, a tight, green cube. His script is on a stand. The microphone apparatus cranes over his head.
McKeel, a Brooklyn-based 42-year-old working for an international humanitarian aid organization by day, is trying to get his break in an industry that's been on an upswing. Revenue for downloaded audiobooks has nearly tripled over the last five years, as recorded by the Association of American Publishers. Audible, Apple, Google Player, and major publishing houses are battling it out for access to customers' eardrums. Ear buds are a routine accessory. People shop, they commute, they travel -- and, while they do, they listen to the voices of strangers.
Strangers who are getting paid. To read.
It seems like a dream, but in fact it's a grind. People like McKeel train at Edge in hopes of becoming an audiobook all-star -- like Dion Graham, who has narrated the work of James Baldwin, Dave Eggers and James Patterson; or January LaVoy, who has lent her voice to books by Nicholas Sparks, Marcia Clark and ... well, James Patterson. Being chosen to consistently narrate popular titles puts voice actors into a privileged position between the beloved author and their fans. Yet the reality of the industry is not glamorous. Many working narrators can barely eke out a living unless they're holding down other jobs.
In New York City and Los Angeles, the country's two capitols for audiobook work, narrators annually earn around $40,000 on average, according to Voices.com. A large publisher might pay as much as $350 per hour, but smaller publishers might pay $50 or less per hour, with the rate tied to how long they say it should take to read a certain number of pages. To make a decent return on your labor, you have to be good.
And if reading for audiobooks sounds easy, a few hours in the booth can be humbling.
"The analogy would be singing," says David Goldberg, Chief Officer at Edge Studio. "Just because they have a good voice doesn't mean they could sell you a tune."
You need to speak unaccented American English fluently. You need to be able to read a new script comfortably, no time for memorization. Can you analyze the text in real time to know which words matter more? Can you stay still for many hours at a time? Can you read in a way that shows you remember what happened twenty pages ago?
McKeel, who goes by the trade name David Sadzin when he narrates, has been in the game since late 2017. He narrated primarily nonfiction works, including Craig Seymour's "Luther," Dave Tell's "Remembering Emmett Till" and Daniel Brook's "The Accident of Color." A former theater actor and comic, he draws on the skills he honed as a live entertainer to inform how he performs when he's alone in the booth.
"One of the tricks is to imagine that you're talking to people," he said the day before. "Having a sense of what it feels like to stand in front of a group of people and talk, that's familiar. It comes in handy."
But not every stage skill translates to narration. And so McKeel comes here, to an eighth-floor studio in Manhattan, to learn.
Heller, his coach, is an industry legend. He's narrated more than 800 books. He's distinguished as one of AudioFile Magazine's Golden Voices. He has three Audie awards and ten nominations (basically the Oscars of the voice-over world). His copy of the "Recipe for Desire" passage is covered with carets, cross-outs and character notes in the margins. As McKeel reads, Heller occasionally mutters phrases like "Look at her!" under his breath, as if to communicate telepathically how McKeel should inhabit a character's mind and see what they see.
Marie and Devon -- the would-be lovers -- arrive at the hospital to treat Marie's bum ankle. There they meet a nameless nurse. McKeel delivers the nurse's line too flatly. Heller stops him, again.
"Let's cast the nurse," Heller says, waving his hands like he's conjuring a spirit. "Even though she's a bit part, she's still somebody. Is she old? She fat? Middle-aged? A mom?"
McKeel is quiet, calibrating. Back to the story. "'Aren't you Devon Harris?'" he says as the nurse, now more nasally and star-struck. Heller cracks up and nods.
Stop and start, then repeat. McKeel barely makes it through a few paragraphs at a time before Heller walks over to reel off his thoughts. Their dynamic is somewhere between friendly banter and office hours. "Be careful with prepositional phrases," Heller warns. "We normally say them too quickly and lose them."
In the entire session, they dig into just two pages over two practice demos. When McKeel's on the job, he'll fly through hundreds of pages with Heller's notes on his mind.
Down the hall a few hours later, a bunch of voice-over first-timers crowd into Studio B. A teenager, young adults, guys pushing 50, they're all tense, arms crossed, fidgeting thumbs and bouncing legs. These are the beginners for Investigate Voice-Over Class, Edge Studio's introductory course that determines whether your voice can go places.
Paolo Fulgencio, a 31-year-old from Long Island, listed audiobook narration as one of his desired voice-over genres (Edge Studio coaches for more than twenty). His preparation?
"I've been picking up reading a lot recently," he said. "I've been reading aloud, practicing."
It's a start. McKeel started out in that beginner's class. He has work now, and he's made progress on the road toward that career breakthrough.
"I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to tell you anything today," Heller jokes to McKeel as their lesson ends. "Because you were good. You were so good."