J. D. Smith

Big Radio Voice Guy

 

Designation

Following his given name, on event fliers he is listed as Big Radio Voice Guy.

        In daily use, though, the phrase becomes a burden, like the hyphenated and long but vigorously tended appellation of peoples whose past and current sufferings are bound up with shorter and harsher names.

        Abbreviation represents another kind of violence, but it is the same kind as surgery, or pruning a tree. BRVG would represent the obvious choice, but it rings false. Four letters assume the heft of a word in itself, something like the ticker of a publicly traded company or a secret police agency whose full name, like a jealous deity’s, cannot be spoken.

        Or maybe it is just the R that gets in the way. Its gear-grinding sound of stock pirate impersonation breaks up the fleet phonemes of BEE, VEE, GEE. At any rate, that letter is implicit. He does not have to distinguish himself from Big Voice Stationery Guy, or Large-Voiced Man of Shoe Repair.

The extra letter falls away like the egg tooth of a newly hatched chick. On his card, his name is followed by a comma and B.V.G., as others are followed by M.S.W. or D.D.S. Programming notes at client stations follow suit, with entries like “BVG at 10:17 a.m. CDT.” Clauses of contracts precede those letters with “Hereafter referred to as . . .”

        The acronym could be played with like the letters on building blocks or Scrabble tiles, or the ones floating in a spoonful of broth. A greeting in his current rotation voice mail rotation states only “BVG will BRB.” A former greeting had included the paraphrased musical question “Are you down with BVG?” until the reference became dated. This took a surprisingly long time.

The Stations of the Voice

Big Radio Voice Guy can be heard on some two hundred stations across North America, more than three hundred if HD radio affiliates are counted. Most of those stations’ call letters start with Ws, though others begin with Ks and even a few Cs.

        Those stations cluster primarily around the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, thinning out as population density falls and local speech changes. West of the Continental Divide the English-speaking natives want to hear low and slow tones like their own voices, or something pastel-sounding on the coast. The South, New or Not, remains itself. Ontario at its most expansive and avuncular is unwilling to call undue attention to itself unless the subject turns to hockey, a sport BVG knows only slightly. He has tried repeatedly and without success to understand what icing is and why it is a bad thing. Quebec insists on speaking French.

        Then there is Mexico, dangling from the Lower 48 like a cluster of broadcast grapes. He cannot reach them but does not believe them to be sour. While days of Wolfman Jack and 250 kilowatts are long gone, this is not what troubles him.

        Big Radio Voice Guy is fluent in Spanish, with only a trace of an accent. High school and college classes by day and restaurant jobs at night had laid the foundation. Yet Mexico did not need him. On several occasion his agent had made inquiries, but vatos de voz grande were already the norm there, and they worked cheap.

If he could not climb that mountain, he could still scale a foothill. For a year, and against his agent’s advice, he provided station identification for an AM ranchera and norteño frequency in southern Ohio. To his agent’s relief, he declined to renew his contract as the playlist shifted toward narcocorridos. Principle outweighed the challenge.

 

Roads Not Taken, One

The question had dogged him since grade school, put by various speakers but always beginning with a compliment that went more or less “You speak in such a wonderful baritone. Have you ever thought of singing?”

        This depended on what people meant by singing. Of course he sang in the shower, and he sang along with the car radio once he got his license and drove alone.

        Those who offered their lure of praise suggested that this did not count. They meant Singing with a capital S on stage, in front of an audience, carrying a tune for those who could not do so themselves. Doing this, or the dream of doing this, appealed to a great many people, especially if Singing involved monetary compensation.

        The pressure mounted from several sources: a guidance counselor, a great aunt, a church choir leader with gaps to fill. The high school chorus director added the last straw. He could audition for chorus or be reported for smoking outside before first period.

        For weeks he pored over the songbooks, trying to memorize the lyrics and make sense of how the black notes turned into tunes with shape and color. Turning the radio off might have helped, but his allowance didn’t buy many records. How else could he hear the lesser hits of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, or find out about Texas Swing? Every few minutes he held one tune in his mind, briefly two, then none.

        Several times during this stretch his mother would say “It’s almost time for dinner. Why are you staying in your room?”

        “I’m getting ready to try out for the choir.”

        “That’s nice.”

        It could have been. On the appointed day he lined up and waited his turn, sheet music in hand.

        When called he brought up his music and stood without singing, or speaking.

        “What are you doing?” the choir director asked.

        “I’m waiting for your instructions.”

        “No. No. NO. I mean what are you doing with that sheet music? You should have the repertoire memorized. Set the sheet music down.”

        He complied.

        “Not on the piano. Put it on a chair.”

        He complied again.

        “Now, Marlboro Man, you will song ‘Ode to Joy.’ I will go easy on you—the English version.”

        How hard could this be? It was a short song, and there was something in it about joy, and people were watching him, and he didn’t have the words in hand his mind went to a place without words, like the time he had taken a line drive in the groin.

        “Well, are you singing or just wasting more of everyone’s time?”

        Jarred into awareness, he began,

        Joy O Joy is where it’s at

        So get yourself some Joy, go cat . . .

finishing the verse with a handful of stammers and improvising further lines in an impersonation of his parents’ records by Frank, Dean and Sammy. A faint clapping came from the back of the room, then silence. Words without music came back to mind.

        “If I’d had the page in front of me I could have done it.”

        “That will do, I’m afraid. That will do. I am sorry you did not take this opportunity more seriously. You are free to go.”

        He reached the bathroom a few steps before vomiting.

        The director reporter reported him after all, and there was no way to appeal. He was grounded for a month, his allowance halved for two, and he never picked up a cigarette again. His agent would later mention that clients appreciated how little his voice had aged over the years.

        More than twenty-five years after the audition, such as it was, he found himself feeling expansive and benevolent after a Thanksgiving dinner of heirloom breed turkey and a rich Zinfandel, and he entertained the thought of writing the director a letter of thanks for steering him away from tobacco, even if that wasn’t his intent. Over the weekend he found the address where the director was staying, which turned out to be a nursing home. By the next Thursday the inspiration faded. If the director still had his faculties left he would take the note as one final vindication, and there was no point in giving him that satisfaction. Bastard.

 

 

Laryngitis

Far worse could befall BVG. There is no need to invoke the remote specter of cancer. He has no family history. Vocal cords can always develop nodes, or tear, but this has yet to happen.

        Instead, after dreams of no particular sort, he awakes capable of no more than a croak, and after a few words not even that. Then all bets are off, all appointments cancelled. More than once he has sent away an airport limousine driver by holding up a sign written in broad marker strokes—like the signs drivers hold up for their passengers at airports—and a more than sizeable tip.

        What else is there to do? He sends emails whose subject line includes the word “regrets.” The telephone must fend for itself. With no performance to grow anxious for, no unseen stage to fear, tension ebbs from his feet and other persistent hiding places, a tension usually present because he wants to fulfill his contractual obligations, and because he can be replaced. He naps, in spite of his morning mug of coffee.

        For the next two to four days he walks his dogs and ingests soothing liquids. Mostly he listens: to classic rock and eighteenth-century classical music on vinyl or one of the later audio formats—how many are there now? He yields the floor to a good half-dozen species of birds at the feeder, to hummingbirds’ wings near the back yard’s brighter and deeper flowers in warm weather, or to squirrels’ scolding and clucking in all seasons.

        Nothing is demanded of him. A second take can’t be done without a first.

        If bliss can be imagined as a country, these spells outline its most scenic province.

 

Signs of Promise

From birth he was a good (i.e., quiet) baby, who almost immediately slept through the night. Approaching the one-year mark he babbled and cooed melodiously, as is customary, but even more so.

        Only with speech did problems arise. Without pique, and perfectly—his mother taught both second grade and Sunday school—he intoned “MAY I PLEASE HAVE A COOKIE?” or “I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE A DOG” and was heard throughout the house.

        Having waited for the right developmental phase, shortly after his third birthday his mother began asking him to use his inside voice.

        He answered “I DON’T HAVE AN INSIDE VOICE.”

        He could not be contained, let alone silenced. He could only be located.

 

Advice to the Young

BVG avoids interviews, which have a way of deviating from the script. A good question, one that usually starts with one of the Ws or “How” and doesn’t simply ask for a yes or no answer or a particular piece of information, could be answered in any number of ways, and most of them invited follow-up questions. As his mechanic says, the more parts something has, the more ways it can go wrong.

        Other considerations, though, can loom larger than his comfort. After turning down several previous requests, he gave in to the alumni magazine after reading about a third straight year of budget cuts and the elimination of nine degree programs. Lending his name couldn’t hurt in drawing donations besides his own.

        The telephone call went smoothly enough until the interviewer, herself a recent alumna, asked what he would tell anyone seeking a career in his field.

        “You’re kidding, right?” he said. “Let me go off the record for a minute. It’s a lot different than when I started out. A handful of companies control everything now, and if they don’t like your style the only work you might find is DJing weddings a hundred miles from a major market.”

        After he listed the companies she noted that one of them was a major donor to the business school.

        “If you give me until close of business on Friday I’ll try to come up with something you can print.”

His email came the next day.

First, don’t follow in my footsteps. I still have some good years left, and I can do without the competition.

Second, and again, don’t. Seriously. There aren’t that many jobs, and they’re not as glamorous as they sound. You might get bored.

Third, don’t smoke. Nobody should be doing that anyway. Besides, raspy voices aren’t going to make a comeback in the industry any time soon.

Finally, read. Newspapers, history, Russian novels, whatever you can get your hands on. That will make you thoughtful, and listeners will pick up on that. The guys who don’t read always come off as shallow, like there’s something missing, because there is. And it’s always guys. I don’t know why that is. Women in this line of work read.

 

From a Conference Call Transcript

Man 1: We got our ass handed to us in the last Arbitrons.
Man 2: That we did.
Man 1: So what are we gonna do about it?
Man 3: Bum out?
Man 1: We’re checking that box right now. Next.
Man 3: If we can’t raise our ratings we can cut our overhead.
Man 2: And how can we do either one of those?
Man 3: For the first part we can change format. Maybe do hip-hop.
Man 4: We don’t know anything about hip-hop. Anybody who can program that will ask for more than we can afford.
Man 2: How about the second part, then? Where can we cut expenses?
Man 5: Vending machines instead of free sodas.
Man 1: Wiseass.
Man 3: What aren’t we doing in house?
Man 2: The bumps.
Man 6: What’s that?
Man 2: You are new to this business, aren’t you? You’ve heard bumps. Station identification, DJ identification You know, you are listening to dead-ended broadcast major Joe Bonehead, etc.
Man 6: Harsh.
Man 2: It’s true.
Man 6: I didn’t say it wasn’t. So who’s doing that for us?
Man 3: BIG RADIO VOICE GUY.
Man 5: He’s still around?
Man 1: He’s not that old. He’s just been doing it forever.
Man 4: How much does he cost us?
Man 2: Lots. Let me have the intern dig that up. Yeah, Jeff, the coffee’s just the way I like it. Now I need you to check out a number.
Man 3: Before we get too far, what are the alternatives?
Man 4: There’s that kid who’s been doing the West Coast markets.
Man 5: Too laid back. He always sounds like he’s smoking a bowl.
Man 6: How about that guy on Long Island?
Man 3: Hell no. He sounds like a puppy getting shocked in the nads.
Man 5: And how do you know?
Man 3: I’m just guessing here.
Man 1: Right.
Man 4: And how much do those guys go for?
Man 2: Whatever they want. Their agents are in a pissing match.
Man 5: Figures.
Man 2: Jeff just came back with some stuff from the databases. Kid’s some kind of Harry Potter with this shit.
Man 1: So what has he got?
Man 2: I’m not sure BVG is any cheaper than the other guys, but he doesn’t seem to be holding out for any more, either.
Man 4: No pissing match, then?
Man 2: He apparently prefers to urinate alone.
Man 1: I take comfort in that. What else should we know?
Man 2: For the last two years the focus groups have given him lower negatives than anything else, lower than the DJs, the format, and the commercial-free blocks.
Man 4: If it ain’t broke.
Man 5: Maybe we re-up him for another year and go over to a Jack format. The people yammering on their phones while they drive aren’t listening to the DJs anyway.
Man 4: Let’s do this thing one step at a time.
Man 2: Everybody who wants to keep BVG for another year, raise your hand.
Man 6: Um, we’re not videoconferencing.
Man 3: Good point. Let’s call the roll.

 

In Person

Familiar as his voice may be to millions, he is rarely recognized in person. His last head shots were taken at least a decade ago.

        He can dine undisturbed at any restaurant in New York or Los Angeles. On a handful of occasion he has appeared on a baseball stadium’s crowd-cam, but only as one of many, and he received no applause.

        The last time anyone stopped him by saying “Aren’t you . . . ” was some years ago outside the Royal Ontario Museum.

        He wasn’t. The woman had mistaken him for her high school bus driver.

 

Roads Not Taken, Two

His agent called only on Wednesday afternoons, but on at 7:45 on Tuesday morning her name appeared on the caller ID. Her mother had been ill, and an emergency might have disrupted her schedule. He took his sleep mask all the way off and picked up.

        Her mother’s condition had improved, as it turned out, and she had no travel plans besides her usual August fortnight on Martha’s Vineyard. But for him there was big news: a morning drive-time slot in New York, with an initial salary in the mid five figures and ratings-based incentives.

        “That’s just their opening bid,” she said. “If they want you badly enough we can get them to come up on money and put you up somewhere while you pick out a new place.”

        He finished the glass of water on his nightstand while she proposed a game plan, then asked if he was on board or would sign off, or some similar phrase involving agreement in business.

        He expressed uncertainty.

        “I have one question.”

        “Shoot.”

        “What time would I have to get up?”

        “Let’s backtrack. The on-air shift starts at six, and you’re looking at about an hour of prep work before that, so realistically you’re looking at starting your day at three, maybe three-thirty on the outside if you live close to the studio.”

        “You’re kidding, right?”

        “No babe, this is the real deal.”

        He reminded her that he hadn’t gotten up before 9:30 for a decade. Little privileges like that kept announcing from feeling like announcing was just another job.

        “We can let them know you’re sacrificing. They’ll find a way to make it worthwhile. They can always find a little more.”

        “They don’t have enough money.”

        “Now you’re kidding.”

        “No, they don’t print enough money.” Uprooting the kids to a new high school wasn’t going to happen, and the kitchen was finally remodeled. And there was no way he would start getting up at 3:30 on the outside. BVG could not go for that.

        “No can do.”

        A certain reserve crept into her voice for the rest of the call, and it remained there for over, fading only when she landed the chance of a lifetime for another client.

        That success apparently covered a multitude of others’ sins. At least she knew when she’d gotten enough. So many didn’t.

        The 9:30 reveille stood, but he would, in the way of aging men, rise in the small hours to relieve himself. Now and then, as he rose to meet that needs, the clock read a time from 3:00 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.

        Why in the world, he wondered, would people choose to get up at this ungodly hour when they didn’t have to milk cows or drive an ambulance? Madness.

        Nature’s call answered, in ten minutes he was back to sleep.

 

Occasionally, at Social Functions

Practical jokes have never appealed to him. Watching Candid Camera as a child, he asked his parents why the mean man was on television.

        In the fullness of time, though, he came to understand that not everyone shared his sensitivity, and some even welcomed rude surprises.

        With this in mind, he has found a way to reduce the boredom lurking in benefits and receptions.

        “Come over here,” he says, waving to an in individual selected carefully, and sometimes days in advance. “I have something to tell you.”

        His interlocutor in place, BVG states “This is kind of delicate matter. I’d better whisper.”

        Confused but receptive, the listener waits as BVG cups a hand to his or her ear. At this point BVG says “NOW, COMING TO YOU LIVE AND DIRECT ON AM, FM, HD RADIO AND ACROSS THE COUNTRY NOTHING BUT THE BIGGEST AND GREATEST HITS . . . HITS . . . HITS.”

        The pranked party inevitably startles, then realizes what has happened, furrowing a brow or rolling eyes, but laughing.

        “I should have known.”

        BVG does not just laugh. He roars.

 

J.D. Smith’s humor collection Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth, in part consisting of fiction, was published in 2013. His third poetry collection, Labor Day at Venice Beach, was published in 2012, and in 2007 he was awarded a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His other books include the essay collection Dowsing and Science (2011), and the children’s picture book The Best Mariachi in the World/El Mejor Mariachi del Mundo (2008). His work is forthcoming in Quarterly West and the anthology 99 Poems for the 99 Percent .
bio-smith