Tom & Giselle. A-Rod & J-Lo. Jay-Z & Beyonce.
There are certain tandems that roll right off the tongue when you think power couples. A combination of two forces that are greater than the sum of their parts. Every industry seems to have their gold standard couple – and in the voice over world it’s Jim and Dawn Cutler. Although, if you ask Jim, he doesn’t exactly hold up his end of the bargain.
“Dawn is more than 50% of what we do for everyone. I am not worthy to touch the hem of her garment.”
“I think George and Amal Clooney are a wicked awesome power couple,” adds Dawn. “We’re just a couple of working stiffs.”
Jim met Dawn back at WDHD in Boston and the two set off together to conquer the field with their own separate career paths. Their resumes are daunting; ESPN, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, HBO, Nickelodeon, with each of their voices floating around radio stations in every major market coast to coast. They’re titans of the industry – but nothing about their demeanor resembles anything other than humility. Their approachable nature is clear from their self produced vlog on their website.
One of the more recent videos details a personal accident most people would keep private. The 14 minute YouTube clip is called “The Day I Almost Died,” and the title is not misleading. Jim and Dawn recount the day Jim fell off a ladder, shattering his body in the process. Rather than recoil and recover, the power couple did what power couples do best – they persevered. Leaning on Dawn’s strength, Jim was back to work 6 days after first responders weren’t sure he was going to live.
“The mantra from my clients was ‘your voice AIN’T broken so read this stuff.’”
Jim and Dawn opened up about how they got to the top of their profession, and more importantly, how they intend to stay there.
JACK FERRIS: What was it that set you along your unique career path?
JIM CUTLER: I was on track to be an Astronomer/Astrophysicist. I made a huge mistake when I was a kid. I walked with my Dad up to the planetarium controller-guy to tell him I wanted to be an astronomer. He harangued us for 30 minutes how there were ZERO jobs and I was an idiot to want that and how since he had failed I surely would fail. We drove home and I was literally crushed by that nerd and decided to do something else. That conversation taught me to never discourage anyone. It changed my path. I’m a serious hobbiest still.
DAWN CUTLER: My entire career has been a series of lucky accidents. I landed my first job in radio by winning a coin toss. Not an exaggeration. I was with a startup New England Business regional newspaper. It was just clueless me and one other kid doing literally everything. We got an invite to a Chamber of Commerce lunch and tossed a coin to see who would go. I won and randomly sat next to a news station manager at the lunch which turned out to be a life changing connection. Number 2 happened a few weeks later. I was learning commercial copy writing in production when the Imaging Director pulled me into the studio to read a local mall spot on the fly. The female talent from another station who normally did them for the market was on vacay and the current spot had to be re-tracked with immediate changes. I told no one and prayed no one I knew would hear it. (They did.)
JF: Dawn, I imagine it was a bit of a male dominated industry when you were first getting your feet wet. Did that deter you at all?
DC: It still is overall in terms for the number of signature / primary voice opportunities for men as opposed to women. It’s improved by leaps and bounds from what it was. It didn’t deter me at all. It actually compelled me to keep going. I read my share of mall spots but once I was able to make the leap to promo and imaging work was when things started to change.
JF: What was the landscape of the industry like when you first got on the scene? What jobs were you happy to book when you first started?
JC: There were about 5 people who voiced everything on TV. I was lucky to get anything. In Boston I’d get cast at a studio where 5 other actors would each have one little single word each to read. But my part of the commercial would be to read 30 lines in ten seconds which is impossible. The other actors who had one word each would say, “Well he isn’t very good.” I’d be thinking “great, I couldn’t get the single word part could I? Now it will be another six months before I’m cast again in something.” Lots of frustrating stuff like that.
On TV, I wanted to sound less like the “announcers” of the time. I was looking to the future. As a kid you hope to do things differently than the status quo. When I started in the biz the old guys looked down on me for not doing that affected read. Luckily the biz quickly changed to more of my style. If it hadn’t I would have been out and done.
JF: Over the last decade, what shifts have you seen in the industry and how has the work changed?
JC: Microsoft says the attention span is now 6 seconds. I think that’s right. That’s why Google has the inescapable 6 second ads that you can’t skip, etc. Television gets this and promos and imaging has become very short. At the ESPN TV newsmagazine show E:60 we used to have this fantastic theme song and opening credit sequence with the reporters walking up from the Subway, and coming to the board room. No time for that anymore, we go right to content. It’s the age of “Skip Intro”. Which is also a fantastic DJ name.
As for voice work changing? The future of voice work is Youtube style – regular guy. The “radio guy” style sticks out like a sore thumb on Youtube. It’s totally moving that way and I like it.
JF: Do you prefer radio work or television?
DC: Both equally. I love the variety. Radio is format specific and in TV I might be doing news, comedy, drama all in one day.
JF: What advantages do younger, aspiring voice professionals have today that you’re envious of? What are the disadvantages?
JC: Equipment is dirt cheap. Mic and a laptop. The only disadvantage is there are Ten-Trillion trees growing in all of North America. Go to any one of those trees and shake it, and 200 voice people will drop out. My mailman has a mic and a laptop and is on “Voices 1-2-3”. Glad I’m not starting now. BUT, if you want it there is no reason not to go for it.
JF: Advice you’d give to a younger voice professional?
DC: I get this question a ton. Almost every day. My experience isn’t going to resemble anyone else’s foray into the biz. (See my response to question #1 ….I mean, what are the chances of anyone stumbling down that path?)
It isn’t “in a world” or any of that other cliché stuff. Yet almost everybody thinks it is because of that movie. If you really want to do it, jump in however you can but don’t quit your day job for a very, very long time.
JF: What excites you about the unknown future of media? What scares you?
JC: I love it. Broadcast radio will definitely be in the mix. But look at what I think is coming soon online: You know that your Amazon home page is different from my Amazon homepage. We all have a page that’s unique to what we bought in the past and what Big Data says they think we want. We’ll that’s easy to do. Once they have the data about you they are just serving you photos of these things. That’s jpeg files and links, right? Well audio files are just as easy to send.
What if Big Data tells the sports network that YOU, and JUST YOU like the Yankees, the Chiefs, Real Madrid and golf? Your stream from the sports radio network would feed you 50% of the new stuff the host is talking about, and the other 50% would be content about Yankees, Chiefs, golf and Real Madrid football. It’s just wav files, just like Amazon serves you jpegs and links of the things they know you want.
DC: We are where we are because we embrace change. Looking forward to embracing more. I say to the industry about new things: “Bring it!”
Jack Ferris writes feature stories for BSM and serves as an update anchor for iHeart Radio in San Francisco and as a freelance contributor for the PAC-12 Network. Previously he has worked as a sports anchor for KXLY-TV in Spokane and as the co-host of the Don West Show on KPQ in Central Washington. You can find him on Twitter @JFerris714 or reach him by email at FerrisJack54@gmail.com.