Changing political history, in a closet near you

September 3, 2014

Think of radio and TV campaign ads as the soundtrack of an election season: Deep and ominous voices sound the attack, while sugary and optimistic tones signal support for a candidate.  

As part of WBEZ’s series on the “dark arts” of the campaign business, we’ll meet the people behind the voices trained to influence our democratic process.

As it turns out, some of the most famous political ads in recent American history may have been voiced in a closet near you.

“When I do voices for CBS Morning News or CBS Evening News or for Subway or for political campaigns or for anybody, I do them out of my closet here in the house,” Norm Woodel, a veteran Chicago-based voice-over artist, told me during a recent visit to his Lakeview home.

The Dark Arts of Politics

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The closet is lined with heavy, velvet drapes to soak up any echos - and a high-end super-sensitive microphone. Woodel is 64 and portly, wearing a gray polo, camo shorts and sandals.

This is where the magic happens

In 2008, Woodel used this closet to voice the famous “3 a.m.” ad during Hillary Clinton’s Democratic primary run against then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. Clinton’s campaign ran it to underscore this idea that she was seasoned, reliable - and to suggest Obama was not.

Just hours after the ad ran - 1.6 miles away from Woodel’s closet - another Chicago voice-over artist got a phone call of his own in his home studio, and the voice on the other end of the line was frantic.

Bill Price was getting an earful from his client - Barack Obama’s presidential campaign - saying they had to respond to the Clinton ad immediately.

“So we literally had 20 minutes for me to do a commercial, right here,” Price told me recently as we sat in a small bedroom he’s converted to a home studio. “And they wanted it on the air for the evening news cycle.”

These dueling ads epitomized the experience versus change narrative in the Democratic primaries. Pundits gobbled this up; “Saturday Night Live” even did a parody of the ad.

Such are the big political discussions ignited, in part, by the power of a human voice. The men and women behind those voices aren’t just people who read stuff into a microphone.

They think of themselves as actors - artists - who use their voices like instruments to manipulate your emotions - which, in turn, can influence your vote.

And during election years, they don’t sleep much.

‘You have no life’

“When you’re doing voice-over work, it’s almost as though you have no life, when you’re doing political campaigns,” said Wanda Christine Hudson, who has been doing voice-over work for more than four decades.

Wanda Christine - as she’s known professionally - says working campaigns is a lot different than her usual commercial or video game voice-over gigs: Political season means abruptly cancelled lunch plans, sleeping by your phone and voicing ads in the dead of night.

But she says she likes the fast pace, the fickle campaign staffers, the challenge of using her full palette.

“Because maybe the candidate didn’t like that word, or maybe their campaign manager thought, maybe we want more smile in her voice, or maybe we want it to sound a little bit more serious, or maybe we want her to sound younger, or maybe we just want her to sound natural,” she said.

Those vocal acrobatics may sound easy to perform. But imagine having to talk like this on demand, with short notice - on a tight deadline.

Woodel, the 3.a.m. phone call guy, will say a little phrase to himself to get the right tone - he calls it a “ramp.”

To psych himself for tracking NFL commercials, he says to himself: “To the men on the field it’s a battle,” then edits out those words.

When he had a hard time finding the right tough tone for a Chevy Silverado commercial, he used a ramp at the end: “‘The most dependable, longest-lasting trucks on the road, asswipe.’ Just thinking that half-cuss word we put on the end, as a ‘guy talk’ kinda thing, would get you to the toughness you need,” he explained.

But sometimes finding your voice takes more than just a little ramp. When Bill Price was voicing political ads for Obama’s 2008 campaign, he invented this whole character.

“[It was] like being the doctor who walks in the room, and there’s parents there, and they’re distraught ‘cause their kid’s really sick and think he’s maybe gonna die,” Price recalls. “And then you’re the doctor that gets to say, ‘There’s one last hope.’”

For Wanda Christine - a black woman in a business where she says there aren’t many - there’s also personal history in her political voiceovers.

“My great-grandmother was not allowed to vote,” she said. “My grandmother was not allowed to vote. Um, so I think about the things that they had to do to try to make a difference so that I could vote. That means something to me. And because it means something to me...I want it to mean something to whoever is making that decision based upon my voice.”

Words as power

The messages in these political ads - individual words, even - have been poll-tested and focus-grouped to find out which will hit you - the voter - in the most personal way possible.

Wanda Christine says it’s also personal for many voice-over artists. She says she’ll only do voice-over work for one party, though she wouldn’t disclose which one. But the folks behind the other two voices we’ve heard in this story made a personal political choice only to read for Democrats.

Bill Price thinks he just sounds more Democratic.

“I think within my voice is more [about] second chances and hope and...even small miracles...than it is about justice,” Price said. “Maybe that’s more of a Republican thing. I’m more sentimental.”

And for Norm Woodel, there is a bit of a gee-whiz factor.

“After the President of the United States of America says, ‘I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message,’ I come on,” Woodel said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

Alex Keefe is political reporter at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.