Having Joe Cipriano give me a personal tour around the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Lab was one of the highlights of my visit to Los Angeles in 2012. Here we discuss how he grew into voice over – a remarkable success story starting while at school (“Radio show was good, homework not so good.”). Also some background from him on Don LaFontaine, the man and friend, and the lab built in his honour.
In conversation with Joe Cipriano
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Transcript of conversation with Joe Cipriano
Andy: Here we are today at the Don LaFontaine Voiceover Lab and I’m joined by Joe Cipriano. Welcome Joe. Thank you for taking time out to meet with us today, Joe.
Joe: Thanks, Andy. I appreciate it. It’s good being here with you, and welcome to the lab. This is it! This is what we have done to honour Don LaFontaine.
Andy: That’s fantastic. Well, just in a little while we’ll talk about that, but first of all I’d like to learn a little bit about you… and apologies for my voice, it’s the air-conditioning of LA that’s just got to me! You’re first and foremost known as the promo voice, and you’ve been the promo of Fox for quite a few years now…
Joe: Yeah I started in ’88, so it’s been twenty two, twenty four years.
Joe: Wow! Yeah…
Andy: So that’s been a while, and you’re on several other networks..
Joe: CBS… I’ve been with CBS since 1997, and that came about… and a lot of voice-over – and you’ve probably experienced this is well – is through relationships and I had been at Fox for nine years from ’88 to 1997, and one of the heads of marketing moved over to CBS to kind of change around their marketing stance and their image. CBS at the time was known as kind of like the blue haired, old lady network, you know… And so they were going in with new programming and a new idea to change that image and make it younger and through the relationship that I had established with Ron Scalera, who was the Head of Promos at Fox, moved over to CBS. They started looking for different voices and he called me one day, and he goes, “You know what? Everybody we listened to, we compared to you, and we said why… it’s too bad it doesn’t sound like Joe… And would you consider coming over?” So that… I thought that would be the end of my Fox years…
Joe: …but I was able, thanks to Don LaFontaine, who also at that time was working at Fox, at CBS, at NBC… He was all over the place. So… it wasn’t so strange that there might be a voice that was on two different networks. So I was very lucky to be able to have that.
Andy: OK. So he’d set the scene before that. OK, so you started 1988, you say… Before 1988, what were you thinking about?
Joe: Well I started as a kid in radio… as on-air presenter: “Disc Jockey”, that’s what we call them here…
Andy: And in the UK as well, but kicking back before that, what… why did you go into radio?
Joe: You know, growing up, as a kid I knew I wanted to do something that had some sort of connection with entertainment. Mostly it was television, or radio, I kind of really wanted to do TV. And what happened was when I was in fourth grade…
Andy: What’s that mean in English?
Joe: Fourth-grade would be… ten years old.
Andy: OK. Thank you.
Joe: When I was ten years old we went on a field trip, our class, to a radio station in Hartford, Connecticut. I grew up in Connecticut. And as we were touring – it was on a radio and TV station – we toured the TV studios first and I thought I was very impressed with that, and to see those big cameras… You know, I was really starting to dream big about that. And gosh, wow! You know this would be something I’d want to do… And as we walked down the hall we came to this big window looking into the studio, and there are two men in this studio behind microphones and there were speakers in the hallway, and there were about thirty five of us – you know kids, ten years old – and they were just having a blast. They were having such a fun time. And I thought… okay… this now, this is really fun. And I bet that if I do really good and get into this room, that I can get into that other room over there too, at the same time! So… that kind of stewed for me for four years and at fourteen years of age I called a disc jockey at the local radio station and said: “You know it’s all I think about is radio and I want to get into radio.” and he invited me to come down to the radio station in our local town, and that began… from fourteen years of age to sixteen years of age… two years of me going to the station every week. I would go every Saturday. I’d file records I’d go get the disc jockey’s lunch. I’d do whatever I could and… in return they would let me go into one of the studios and make believe I was on the radio, and do my own radio show.
And eventually, when I turned sixteen, I got hired at that station, and that began my career in radio. I went to full time in radio… I was still only in, what, eleventh grade – twelve grades altogether, going through high school. I worked on the air while I was going to school during the day and I would do my homework at sixteen years of age while the songs played! You know… My books out over the console, and I’d do my homework… Homework suffered… Radio show was good, homework not so good. Then when I graduated they gave me the afternoon slot there, because I thought about college and I thought college is just going to slow me down four years and so I went right into it… head first… feet first and uh… grew in the radio business, which led me then to voice overs, as well.
Andy: OK. So it’s very much you followed… you had a seed planted there, and you followed that passion. That’s wonderful.
Andy: And wonderful that you had the guts to get out and do that.
Joe: Yeah. I think I was… When you’re that young, I think that you probably don’t think things through too far ahead and thank goodness, because… You know, that’s what happens when you get a little bit older you might have a dream. You might think you want to do something, but then your mind starts to work, and you go “Gosh… If I do that, what’s really going to happen? And how am I going to do this?” And when you’re young, you just do it… and it worked out.
Andy: And… I guess your parents supported you through…
Joe: My parents were extremely supportive. They loved that I had found something that was a passion for me. They used to pick me up… I would take a bus to radio station – you know before I i was working there – and they would pick me up at midnight and then take me back home on Saturdays. And then eventually when I turned sixteen I had my driver’s license and I was able to drive in. And you know, I went from sixteen years of age on the air up until about twenty years of age… where I finally found a job in a major city. Washington DC. The nation’s capital and worked there. Was hired by NBC to work there as a disc jockey, and about six months into it I met my wife, Ann, who was also working there as a news writer. She was… her very first day of work and I bumped into her in the hall and that was beginning of our relationship and we were married three years later… three-and-a-half years later.
Joe: And she and I are both broadcast kids, so she understands what voice over is, she understands what radio is and very supportive… and so nice to have somebody that’s your best friend and that is your spouse who understands what you do… And you have this common interest as we both came from broadcast. So we always have that.
Andy: Sure… and as I’ve seen with trying to fix up this time with you, you’ve had… you’ve been on and off a couple of times thinking that you had a job coming up. Of course she has to be very understanding about that.
Joe: Oh yeah. She’s amazing. She is amazing, and it’s always been like that, you know. Radio was a little bit more steady. Once I got in to voice over you never know when you’re… Like late tonight… When we were speaking here… it could have been that I had a session right now. It was on hold and then I found out that it was released and moved to tomorrow… my buddy Scott Rummell who was going to be here at the lab today for a meeting… he thought he had a session, that got delayed, and that’s moved till tomorrow. So you’re constantly… there are so many times you’re putting your coat on, and getting ready to go out to dinner, and you get a call. It’s like: “Oh! We’re not going out to dinner… yet.” You know. But… the nice thing is, in voice over which I love, every time you work, you get paid. So… You know it’s not so bad!
Andy: It’s not, is it!
Joe: It’s not so bad! And then Ann will go back, and she’ll maybe start to pick up a book she was reading, and we’ll be delayed a half hour, and then we go out to dinner.
Andy: That’s cool. So you managed to make the transition from radio into voice over. Was it a natural progression for you to be…. actually, maybe I should ask you, did you go straight into doing promos and…?
Joe: Yeah… Not really. Although it was the genre of voice over that I was most interested in. I was in radio, in Washington DC, and I was very much interested in voice overs and I started… We didn’t have agents there. You really marketed yourself.
Joe: …and you sent out your demo tape. And I made my own demo tape, and I sent it out to the actual ad agencies looking for work.
Andy: Is this is something that… I don’t know the American market, but that’s how I’m working in Istanbul.
Joe: You’re doing without an agent.
Andy: After six years I left my agent. I’m working solely freelance now. In the States, can people work like that now?
Joe: Well, you see it depends at a certain level… that was in a local market, and this was back in the 70s, late 70s
Joe: There wasn’t really… it was a union work, it was AFTRA and Screen Actors Guild work. The radio station I worked at was an AFTRA station, but it just wasn’t set up to have talent agents there. They had a couple of casting companies, and you could solicit them and go to them, but there was no agent that would represent you.
Joe: And it wasn’t like it needed to be negotiated. At that point in your career, you’re working for scale and so you know it’s like you get the job. Scale is x amount of dollars, and that’s what you get paid, and it goes through the union. So, I did pursue that and it was about that time that I became aware of people like Bernie Anderson who was the voice of ABC, and Danny Dark who was the voice of NBC, and because I was in broadcasting and working at NBC, I thought “Wow! This is really an interesting… again, another way to get into TV… to be a voice of a network.” And that’s something that really sparked an interest in me, and that was something that I was going to go after. But my first voice over gigs were regional, east coast, local… jobs for maybe department stores, or car dealerships, and things like that. But I knew… Ann and I both knew… that if we wanted to do the big gigs – and she was in television by then as a news producer and writer – that we either needed to go to New York City or Los Angeles.
Joe: And so we took a trip. We did a ten-day trip. Five days in New York City. Five days in Los Angeles… and we looked at each other once we got to LA – we went to New York first – and we said, “Los Angeles… that’s the one.”
Joe: So then it was a matter of trying to get a job out here in radio. Took me about a year and a half, and I got a job. Because that’s something I always tell young people in voiceover, or in any business. Don’t move to a new city without a job. Have a job waiting for you, because – especially coming to LA – to be just another starving actor doesn’t set you apart from the masses, and when you go into an audition, and you need that audition… desperately, either for breakfast tomorrow, or to pay your rent… that stench – and I’m sorry use that word – of desperation… it wafts through the room. I’ll tell you: it puts you in a very bad situation.
Andy: I think that’s an important thing to bring out, that people look at you now and they see the work that you’re doing now, and the history of the recent years… although it’s a long recent years… and they… it’s very easy to think that you’ve always been like this.
Andy: That’s really why I wanted to learn, to hear about your ten year old experience, because that’s so… that’s part of the story, and it’s so easy for us just to look at somebody where they are today and forget about where they came from.
Joe: Sure. Everybody has to struggle… and you know what? It’s not worth the journey unless you do struggle a little bit.
Joe: Because you have to experience the downs and those difficult times so that you can really appreciate the successes, you know. So… and I truly believe that. Yeah, I mean you look at anybody, anyone in pretty much any profession. There are those times when perhaps there is a struggle or there’s a decision that has to be made. “Am I going to go this way, or am I going to go that way?” And it’s that turning point a lot of times that can change somebody’s life, for the rest of their lives. So yeah… You know it’s a matter of… for me in voice over, I knew radio so well. I had to learn how do you become a success in voice over? What do you do? And there weren’t at that time… we didn’t have facilties like this, where people can come here free of charge and take seminars, workshops and be taught what you do to get into voice-over, it’s such a genre.
Andy: And let’s just talk about the DLF Lab, the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Laboratory. Obviously Don was somebody who played an important role in your life. you mentioned a little bit earlier. So…. could you summarise maybe that, and what happens here?
Joe: Yeah, sure! Don, as you know was the King of promos and trailers. He also did commercials, as well, although he really truly excelled in marketing: being that voice that markets films not just run of the mill films, but the biggest of the big films… and all the television networks. So he was kind of like the state of the art, you know, when it came that he almost invented that genre of what we hear today, what we do today, for movie trailer announcing. You know, those reads are so Don… He wrote that copy “In a world…” I mean that’s something that he penned, and that is still used today… Because he came from a marketing background himself he would write these commercials for films and one day the voice over guy didn’t show up. And they said, “Well, why don’t you do it?” and boom, a career was born!
He always did something that was truly remarkable. He was a good friend of mine, of Paul Pape who’s a co-founder, George Whittam, and all of our advisory board members who also are in promo trailers. He would… you know… you probably heard the stories, he would go from session to session in his limo. It’s the days before ISDN and he literally could have two, three sessions within an hour… so you had to speed around Hollywood. At least the studios were relatively close.
Joe: So, to stop himself from going absolutely crazy, he always had Clinton, his driver, waiting for him in the limo and he would bound out of the studio, jump into the back of the limo, and they’re off to the next. And in those days I would see Don four times a day. I’d see him a Woodholly. I’d see him at Fox. And I’d catch him over at CBS, and back at Woodholly! Because we were all doing that thing. You know, I might have five sessions today, he’s got like fifteen, seventeen sessions a day, or more.
Andy: You were sprinting between the two…
Joe: Yes! Exactly! I was schlopping… or schlepping… between the two. So, the thing that Don used to do in that limo was he would take people with him on a ride along, to ex… people who wanted to get in voice over… to experience what it’s like for… to be around somebody who’s at the very top of voice over.
Joe: And also pick up all of that experience of: How do you relate to the director? How do you relate to the mixer? What do you do? What does copy look like? I mean, you were actually reading the picture? How do you do that? Do you practice? There are three beeps before you start talking? I mean, there’s so much to learn in promo and trailer, and it was like an advanced course in one day. People like George DelHoyo who is now one of the most popular voice-over artists there are in the world… I mean he does English speaking narration for promos, trailers, commercials, and he has an entirely different career in Spanish. He’s, you know, fluent in Spanish. So… he went on a ride along. So many people that are now a success in this world of voice-over went on a ride along with Don, and learned how it’s done.
When Paul came up with the idea, Paul Pape, of doing something… he came up with the idea of this lab… that would be like a virtual ride along with Don. Don’s no longer with us, but Don’s… you open up the door. You’re in Don’s place now. You’re going to experience what it’s like to do voice over… what it’s like to do promos and trailers and commercials and narration and ADR and looping… all the different genres and we have the people that are at the top of those professions, they come in here and teach. They donate their time, and fourteen people at a time come in for this one on one sort of an experience. They get into the booth and they’re directed and taught, and they get to experience what it is, and… which makes it a lab. It’s a laboratory… it’s an experience.
Andy: And it’s a way of you giving back yourselves in the way Don did.
Joe: Yes.. the way Don did.
Andy: He paid it forward to you, and you’re paying it forward to others.
Andy: So, if somebody wanted to learn more about the lab, where would they find that out?
Joe: You can go to SAGFoundation.org and you click on the little tab up there for the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Lab. We’re also on Facebook, and we have a Twitter feed as well. But the SAGFoundation.org website is probably the best place and we welcome everybody to come and check that out.
Andy: Well, thanks very much for sharing your…
Joe: Thanks, Andy.
Andy: …your experiences with us today, Joe, and a pleasure to spend this time with you.
Joe: I appreciate that.
Andy: Thank you so much.
Joe: Best of luck to you.
Andy: Thank you.
Joe: Alright, thanks.
About Joe Cipriano
Joe Cipriano is probably best known as the voice of FOX-TV Network – a post he’s held for the past 24 years. He is also one of the signature voices at CBS, where his voice is closely associated with some of CBS Television’s brightest comedies, including “Two and a Half Men”, “Mike and Molly” and others. For the past two years, Cipriano has been the announcer for NBC’s hit show, “America’s Got Talent,” he’s one of the promo voices for ESPN and is the “voice” of Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef America. He has been the signature voice of “The Food Network”, “Hallmark Channel,” “Lifetime Channel” and NBC, where he vocally represented their lineup of Dramas, including “Heroes,” “ER” and “Law and Order.” Cipriano has been the live announcer for many of television’s biggest events, including the Grammy Awards, the Emmy Awards and “VH1 Honors,” among others. He has worked as an on-air personality at radio stations including KIIS-FM, Los Angeles; KKHR, Los Angeles; KHTZ-FM, Los Angeles; WRQZ, Washington, D.C.; WKYS, Washington, D.C. WDRC-AM/FM, Hartford, CT; and WWCO-AM/FM, Waterbury, CT.
SAG Foundation – home of the Don LaFontaine Voice-Over Laboratory