Interview with a Narrator: Bob Johnson

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Bob Johnson has been a voice actor for years but especially since transitioning from a 32 year career with the Intelligence Community. Bob’s clear, rich, smooth middle-aged voice is described as great for storytelling, narrations, documentaries and live event announcing. He was born and raised in the DC area and attended the University of Maryland. Bob is married to a lovely lass from Scotland, and they have 5 grown children. Their 10 year old dog, Sasha, forces them on long walks where they enjoy listening to audiobooks and keeping the squirrels safe from Sasha!
Bob has also been a volunteer reader for the Metropolitan Washington Ear for over a decade, bringing the written word to the blind and visually impaired in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Bob serves as a member of the MWE’s speaker bureau and represents their interests to local assisted living centers, senior groups and health fairs.

Please contact Bob directly at 240-418-7889 or via email at [email protected]

After 32 years working for the U.S. intelligence community, you became a voice actor, especially a narrator of audiobooks. How did you become in this very different field?

I was actually a reader at my sister’s wedding, and, during the rehearsal (which took place in the Basilica at Notre Dame), the priest mentioned that I had a great voice and asked if I was in the radio/TV business. My family quietly laughed knowing what my real job was, but I followed up with the priest and he described to me the growing world of voice overs. This was in 2003 or so. Now, working in the Intel Community did involve a bit of acting, so I was already comfortable “being someone else” and started narrating many of the internal, classified eLearning and documentaries that are used for training purposes. In fact my very first industrial narration is still on the CIA website (www.cia.gov/library/videocenter). As I developed a more comprehensive understanding of the voice over business, I knew this was something I wanted to continue to pursue after I retired, you know, because I was already an accomplished narrator! Boy, was that an eye-opener when I left the Federal Government and the comfort of narrating in a classified environment and started to see what being a voice actor, business owner, sound engineer, proofer, marketing rep and an accountant entailed!

How did you get into the field of performing audiobooks?

In discovering the many genres of the VO world, I was drawn to audiobooks due to the long-form nature of it. I run 10 milers, half-marathons and participate in triathlons so have come to enjoy the process of any long-form event, and, I guess, the same holds true for narration projects and audiobooks, in particular. I was part of the first class in 2014 of the ACX Mastermind Group taught by David H. Lawrence XVII and Dan O’Day and felt a real connection with developing the process and discipline that is required for audiobooks. I think the same holds true for eLearning projects and documentaries, other VO genres that I enjoy. I still voice commercial work and corporate narrations, but I save my afternoons for the long-form narrations.

Though you have narrated books from various genes, you specialize in cozy mysteries. What draws you to that genre and makes you especially suitable to it?

You know, I’ve just recently started in this genre and have really come to enjoy these stories! I’m currently narrating the Corgi Case File series by Jeffrey Poole and can really identify with the main character, Zack Anderson. It’s written in the first person, and Poole’s style of writing, humor and off-hand comments tend to fit my way of speaking. Plus, we’re a dog family, so the idea that a corgi is involved in all that Zack does rings very true with me, so this has turned out to be a perfect match – for me any way! Some of the other books are just fun reads, especially some of the romantic comedies, and tend to highlight the good in everybody, albeit after a few twists and turns, but always end on a positive note. I think after narrating a few of my other thriller/mysteries that involved murder and mayhem, I wanted to take a slight turn and narrate something a bit more uplifting. I enjoyed the other stories, but you can exhaust yourself voicing the various drama that’s required.

In the description of Dead by Christmas by Robert J. Dukelow, about KGB agents wanting to defect in 1968, it describes the book as potentially true because the author worked in U.S. intelligence for 33 years, which is one year longer than your career in intelligence. Did your own experience assist you in performing this book?

It certainly helped me understand the story Bob (the author) was telling. We had a great time going back and forth exchanging our stories, and, while it might be a little too “inside baseball” for some to pick up on, his nuances in describing the bureaucratic in-fighting between Intelligence Agencies was spot on. This remains one of my favorites, primarily because it is so true to form. I’m still drawn to espionage books but, I guess because I was part of that world for so long, prefer the more historical and accurate portrayals instead of some of the more “fictional” works. They’re still good books, but I just tend to react when I know something isn’t exactly right or extrapolates a negative connotation of the Intel Community that I know not to be true.

You recorded Bracketing the Enemy: Forward Observers in World War II by John R. Walker, which looks to be a fairly technical book. How do you make something potentially dry and for a more limited audience interesting and accessible to larger groups of listeners?

I narrated Bracketing the Enemy as, sort of, an homage to my sister, who is a Major in the US Army and served multiple tours in the war zones. I was also hoping she would make it required listening for all of her Army buddies studying in their various leadership courses! It’s the type of book that I would normally be drawn to read anyway, so I thought I would enjoy the historical context of the book. Plus, it came on the heels of attending the Mid-Atlantic Voice Over Conference, where I had a chance to listen to Sean Allen Pratt and the 4 voices required for nonfiction. It was such a unique perspective, and completely unlike narrating works of fiction, I thought I would give it a try. I’ve listened to quite a few books narrated by Sean Pratt and always listen carefully for his 4 voices. It’s always a great learning experience, and his consistency throughout is something I know I still need to work on when performing nonfiction work. I still have a few more fiction books in the queue but I’m starting to get excited to get back into a few works of nonfiction!

You performed Port of Refuge by Garrett Dennis, which happens to be the only book I’ve ever given just a single star rating to because of a graphic scene of the rape of a man and the cavalier response to the violation because of the fact that the victim was a man. How do you deal with narrating such uncomfortable material?

This was a tough one for me and not a scene I saw coming when I signed on to narrate and produce this book. I knew the book dealt with cult-like issues but didn’t anticipate the rape scene. I interpreted it a bit differently, although I do agree that the author chose to ignore the criminal aspect of the event. I think the author chose to use the event to bring out the shame in Ketch that he was able to use to bring him closer to his girlfriend. Perhaps some of the superfluous comments by the Captain over the event were over the top, but I do think it captured what might be said when a man is raped, wrong as that might be. I also think the author didn’t want this to be the primary point of the story but used it as a way to bring out Ketch’s feelings, both towards himself and to others. I’m not sure I would have turned this book down had I known about the rape scene, but it does remind me of issues that I feel uncomfortable with narrating – any gratuitous drug use, bullying, racism, violence, sex scenes or anything that degrades others in a way that’s not specifically part of the story (a fine line, I know!). Maybe this is why I’m now drawn to cozy mysteries!

You serve as the public address announcer for a variety of sports at the University of Maryland, College Park and Bethesda Big Train (a Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball summer wood bat team). What do you enjoy about announcing games? How do the various sports contrast in announcing them?

If I weren’t a voice actor, I would be sitting on the couch watching ANY sporting event! So to combine my love of watching sports with an opportunity to announce the action is an absolute perfect match for me, especially with the University of Maryland! I look at PA announcing – or live event announcing – as just another genre of the VO world. I’m heartened at the number of voice actors who also are involved in PA announcing. I was fortunate enough to be included in a round-table discussion on a recent podcast of The VO Meter with Paul Stefano and Sean Daley where we discussed how PA announcing influences and promotes our VO careers. Like with the many other genres of voice, it’s a completely different style. You can go full-on announcer (which I love!) or delve into the conversational with many of the ads that you have to read during the game. You also get to feel the energy of the crowd and can react to their enthusiasm, feedback you never get when sitting alone in your booth! It tends to wear your voice out, but I normally just save my editing duties for the day after any announcing duties.

Of your voice accomplishments, what are you most proud? What has been your biggest challenge?

It might sound kind of trite, but I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still doing this! There are so many times when you wonder if this is the right thing to be doing or you’re wondering how many times can you take being turned down. However, the enthusiasm I have for learning and continuing to improve, coupled with the overwhelming support that the VO world offers (and this is truly rare in the “real” world!) just keeps you going! I was recently working with J. Michael Collins on some training and having some new demos produced, and he’s such a positive voice (pun intended!) in the community that you just know you can live up to his expectations for all of us. There are so many other “voices” out there that keep many of us who, perhaps, aren’t as active on social media but read with pride the positive and supportive comments that are meant to keep all of us moving forward. They sometimes get a bit snarky, but that’s the fun part too, and I always enjoy the back-and-forth discussions that ensue (except when talking about the best DAW to use!).

My biggest challenge remains the technical side of recording, which is an industry unto itself. I do feel compelled though to really learn this aspect before I start hiring out to do this but know this is something that I’ll have to do if I want to focus solely on narrating.

What narrators have most influenced your audiobook performing career?

I listen to audiobooks everyday when out walking the dog or on those long drives to Maryland (traffic in the DC area is crushing), so I have a chance to listen to a variety of narrators. I love Scott Brick (who doesn’t??!!!), especially his Brad Meltzer series or anything by David Baldacci, which tends to be local to DC. I just listened to Simon Vance’s Dr. Thomas Silkstone series by Tessa Harris and am finishing up listening to Dion Graham’s narration of a number of George Pelecanos’ books. I grew up in Wheaton, MD so love his local references to the area. I had a chance to attend Johnny Heller’s Splendiferous Narrator Workshop last year as well as APAC and sat through the Listening Lounge, where some of the top narrators in the industry got up and narrated a 5 minute or so sample of their work. I was so completely blown away by their performances, the way they focused on every word, their expressions and the way they moved when narrating, they didn’t hold anything back. They showed me what voice acting looked like and allowed me to see what it sounded like. This was such a positive experience for me so when I listen to these narrators I can see their performances as well as enjoy their stories.

You can check out Bob further at the following sites:

Twitter: @RJVoices
Facebook page
Instagram: @RJVoices
Linked In
http://www.rjvoices.com/

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Interview with a Narrator: Bob Johnson
Article Name
Interview with a Narrator: Bob Johnson
Description
Bob Johnson left the intelligence community to do audiobook narration and other voice work. Today he talks with us about his life and career.
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Fangirl Nation
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One Response

  1. Paul Stefano June 22, 2018 Reply

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