Voice Actor Rodd Houston Says It Took Nearly 80 Auditions Before He Landed His First Major Radio Commercial
The “Browning of America” is not coming, it’s here. Over the past two decades, much has changed for African Americans in the voice arts industry. Black actors have not only used their voices to promote products and build brands globally, but their voices have also raised the consciousness of humanity about the scope of Black talent and social issues.
While many successful voiceover artists are on-camera actors as well, most voiceover talents moonlight and have other employment options to make ends meet while they pursue their passion as a voice actor. The voice arts is not a career for the faint-hearted. Rodd Houston, a veteran voice actor and native of the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, successfully transitioned from an impressive career in the music/recording industry to being a full-time voiceover artist.
Houston’s distinguished list of voice credits includes noted campaigns and promo spots with some of America’s top corporations, including broadcast and cable networks CNN, ABC, PBS, USA, AMC, TV One, and The CW. An avid sports lover and a superfan of his hometown basketball team, the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston has voiced for just about every American sporting franchise. He works regularly with CBS Sports, FOX Sports, ESPN, NBA TV, NFL Network, and the Golf Channel, as well as corporate brand leaders Verizon and Macy’s, just to name a few.
Houston’s list of TV commercials is extensive and includes a variety of spots from Vicks ZzzQuil’s Unique Botanical Blend to Broadway’s musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, to Cadillac’s XT6 “Crew” featuring Joel Klatt and Gus Johnson, PECO’s “You Can Save With a PECO Energy Assessment to Prevnar 13’s “Increased Risk.”
Houston joins an elite group of voice artists who have blazed a trail and opened doors for a new generation of aspiring voice actors of color. This group includes such celebrity notables as James Earl Jones ( “Darth Vader” of Star Wars), Morgan Freeman (“Vitruvius” of The Lego Movie), Keith David (“Goliath” in Gargoyles), and Dennis Haysbert (Allstate); as well as industry legends Dave Fennoy (McDonald’s), Al Chalk (Hercules: The Legendary Journey), Nancy Giles (“Aunt Nanner” of PB&F Otter), Joan Baker (Showtime Network’s Red Shoe Diaries), Malikha Mallette (Tylenol, Lean Cuisine), and Dion Graham (voiced audiobooks for authors Carl Sagan, Ben Carson, M.D., Jerome Dickey, Dave Eggers).
Celebrating more than twenty years in the business, Rodd Houston has been a recipient of Voice Arts Awards for Outstanding Body of Work (2017) and Outstanding Radio Promo (2018).
How It All Started
Houston’s first introduction to the voiceover industry happened during his senior year at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, where he was a communications major with speech and theater as a minor. One of his professors, Dr. Shirlee Sloyer, taught “The Reader’s Theater” class, where he studied the dramatic interpretations of novels. The students would read aloud and act out portions of the books. The class also visited local high schools in the Long Island area and performed for the students.
One day, Dr. Sloyer said to him, “Rodd, you’re good at this Reader’s Theater thing. You get into it. You get dramatic on the dramatic stuff, and you’re funny on the comical stuff. You should consider doing voiceover work.”
Houston, who initially did not understand the concept of the voiceover business, asked her, “What is voiceover work?” She further explained, “Imagine when you’re watching television or listening to the radio, and a commercial comes on and a person is talking about a particular product or service, that person who is doing the talking is being paid for that, it’s a job, and for the top people in that business the income can be very lucrative.”
That conversation sparked Houston’s interest in learning more about this unfamiliar profession. Dr. Sloyer shared valuable information and gave him a primer on how to get started. He followed her advice explicitly. Nearly two years after college, he found a class and started training with Charles Michel, who is one of the top voice coaches in New York.
But before Houston was able to take the class, he had to secure the funds. “I had to scrape up the money to pay for the class. In the meantime, I did a series of different jobs,” he recalls. “I was a bike messenger for a summer. I worked at the Canal Jeans Co. And I worked at a temporary agency, which later led to a job in the recording industry.”
Michel was helpful to Houston, teaching him the nuances of the business and how to create and color his voice. Michel’s course was grounded in the basics of speech and Houston learned more about articulation, pronunciation, and enunciation. After the class, Houston joined Michel in a professional recording studio to record his first demo reel, which back then was recorded on cassette tapes. Houston said, “The demo was tailored to my particular skill set, and it allowed me to put my best self forward and be competitive in the industry.”
Houston stresses that the series of theater and improvisational classes he’d taken in college even before studying with Michel were invaluable. “I recommend that people interested in the voiceover industry take speech and drama classes and try to be as well-rounded as possible,” he advises. “I had the basis before I pursued a career as a voiceover actor. I wanted to learn about the specifics of doing voiceover because it’s a specialized craft. Charles Michel’s class gave me a good foundation.”
Though Houston had a good foundation, it still took a while before he secured a job. The demo reel was just the first step. He purchased a copy of the Ross Report, also known as “the little blue book,” which was then a vital industry publication featuring a comprehensive listing of casting directors and talent agents. He duplicated copies of his demo to send out, to garner interest from a talent agent or a casting director. Houston sent out sixty demos.
“I received three to four responses, which from sixty demos was a good ratio,” Houston explains. “I met with a couple of agents and casting directors, and I was sent on a few auditions. I didn’t book anything. And after three to six months, when nothing happened, I think some of them lost interest and figured they might have heard something by that time. But I hadn’t lost interest. Eventually, calls weren’t being returned, and I wasn’t booking. This period lasted for almost two years.”
Houston says he never got discouraged, though. “I figured it would come when it comes,” he says. “And as long as I had a presence in the game, ultimately, at some point, I would get a shot. There was this one agent, Ann Wright [of Ann Wright Representatives], who was my champion. She believed in me and kept sending me out. And it probably was seventy to eighty auditions before I got that first job.”
The Recording Industry
In the meantime, Houston had to keep working. The temporary agency where Houston once worked led him to an entry-level position at a burgeoning label, Tommy Boy Records, where he started in the mailroom. During this time, Wright would send him out on two or three auditions a week and Houston would sneak away from the mailroom to go.
While at Tommy Boy, Houston was promoted through the ranks to several key positions during his nearly twelve-year tenure. He had the opportunity to work closely with hip-hop artists who ultimately became global music legends, including De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Naughty By Nature, Wu-Tang Clan, Onyx, House of Pain, Digital Underground, Coolio, K7, and RuPaul, whose dance club anthem, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” was one of the many videos Houston executive produced for the label. “Supermodel” was the third single from RuPaul’s debut album, Supermodel of the World, which reached №2 on Billboard magazine’s Dance chart.
“I first worked with Rodd when he started as the assistant to Chairman Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy in the late ‘80s,” says Monica Lynch, former president of Tommy Boy Records (1981–1998). “He worked directly in Tom’s office, as space was tight, and proved himself to be a capable and calming presence in an oftentimes chaotic environment.”
According to Lynch, Houston’s interests and talents went beyond administrative duties. As a small independent label, there was plenty of room for growth for those who showed initiative and put forward their best hustle. Like many of Houston’s colleagues, he wore multiple hats, acting as a radio promotion representative for hip-hop specialty shows at college and commercial stations across the country. Soon he was in charge of overseeing, commissioning, and — on a few occasions — directing and producing all of Tommy Boy’s music videos.
Lynch explained that with the launch of media platforms such as Yo! MTV Raps, The Box, and the ongoing success of national outlets such as Video Music Box and local and regional shows around the country and overseas, the video was increasingly a critical component in imaging an artist and Houston was part of that development.
“Rodd had an incredible ability to translate and create visuals for artists,” says Lynch. “Many of the videos he oversaw were cutting edge and pushed the stylistic envelope. He also had a great gift for spotting emerging director talent, which many have gone on to colossal success in feature films and television.” Those directors included F. Gary Gray (Coolio’s “Fantastic”), Hype Williams (Naughty By Nature’s “Craziest” and K7’s “Come Baby Come,” “Zunga Zeng,” and “Hi-De-Ho”), Marcus Raboy (Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”), Mark Romanek (De La Soul’s “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)”), Francis Lawrence (Coolio’s “See You When You Get There”), McG Above The Law’s “City of Angeles”), David Dobkin (Coolio’s “18.104.22.168 Sumpin’ New”), and Sarah Pirozek (Queen Latifah’s “How Do I Love Thee”).
As Houston’s career at Tommy Boy elevated, so did his work in the voiceover industry. It was also during this time that Houston had an opportunity to put his skills to work at Tommy Boy, where he voiced numerous television and radio commercial spots for artists on the label’s roster, including Queen Latifah, Force M.D.’s, Coolio, and several compilations albums.
Houston also voiced television and radio spots for music artist releases on Clive Davis’ Arista Records label, which also included artists under the label’s imprints LaFace Records and Bad Boy Entertainment. Ken Levy, then senior vice president of creative services at Arista Records, started hiring him on a semi-regular basis. “At Arista, we had a few incredibly talented voiceover artists that we hired over the years including the late Adolph Caesar, William “Rosko” Mercer, and Gerry Bledsoe; and G. Keith Alexander and Hugh Morgan; but with the growing emphasis on Arista’s R&B roster, I thought we needed a fresh voice,” says Levy. “I was talking with Monica Lynch and somehow Rodd Houston’s name came up as a possibility. He came to the studio to read for us for a spot for LaFace recording artist Usher, and he was surprisingly good. After that Rodd became an integral part of Arista’s various campaigns for both pop and R&B artists, including Whitney Houston and others. We felt confident that he would do a great job and he delivered every time.”
Lynch adds, “Rodd would let me know when he was going to an audition or when he had a booking. He would duck out for a couple of hours and be back at the office, never missing a beat.”
Houston was soon voicing campaigns for Sony Music artists, including Destiny’s Child, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Bow Wow, and numerous others. Sony’s former senior advertising copywriter, Thembisa Mshaka, recalls, “I was always a happy client; thanks to Rodd’s versatility and professionalism.”
In 1998, on Valentine’s Day, Houston officially resigned from his executive position as the Director of Media Production at Tommy Boy to pursue his longtime passion as a full-time voiceover actor. He remembers that day well. He was shooting a music video starring Onyx and Wu-Tang Clan for a single titled “Worst,” which was featured in the film soundtrack Ride. “We were in Chinatown, and the assistant director called it a wrap; it was one or two o’clock in the morning,” Houston recalls. “And then it started snowing; I took that as a sign from the heavens that I was making the right move.”
“Rodd was always a super cool and kind guy,” says Lynch. “I considered him a fantastic co-worker and a friend. His contributions to the golden era of Tommy Boy Records are significant. Rodd was family.”
“I hear more from Rodd Houston than any other employee or artist that I worked with at Tommy Boy in the 1980s and 1990s,” Lynch concludes. “In fact, there’s no escape from hearing Rodd’s voice on TV, radio, and on streaming platforms, during film trailers and countless commercials. You name it. Rodd’s dulcet tones are omnipresent. A true testimony to his enormous and enduring success as a voice artist.”
No More Moonlighting
After Houston left Tommy Boy Records, he continued to record promo spots for both Sony Music and Arista Records. Houston’s first major radio commercial was with NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier for the brewing giant Miller Lite, followed by Kentucky Fried Chicken and then Dodge Car Company, which were all successful one-time-only promo spots that ran for a significant period.
Houston says he most proud of the Miller Lite commercial. “It was the first, and it was my first exposure to the business. It was my first time working in a top New York studio with seasoned talent; actors and voiceover people that had been doing it for a long time, with an engineer who had been in the business for a long time. That spot was very special to me.”
He later booked a spot for Sprite, which was the origin of “Sprite’s Obey Your Thirst” campaign. The first ad featured NBA legend Grant Hill and it was a highly successful spot for Sprite’s parent corporation, The Coca-Cola Company, which led to seven additional spots for Houston with the multinational beverage corporation. It also led to more work and other major campaigns for him.
Undoubtedly, Houston is best known for — and most proud of — his work as the brand voice of the Verizon general market campaign for nearly ten years (2006–2015), including the successful Fios campaign, with the memorable opening line, “This is Fios. This is big.”
“I did everything for Verizon,” Houston says with pride. “I’m eternally grateful to them and all of the agencies that I worked with on that campaign, and there were many. I was humbled that [Verizon] had such confidence in my ability to deliver their message for so many years.”
The Verizon campaign created other opportunities for Houston along the way. “I not only met people at the various agencies; I also met studio personnel at the various studios where the campaigns were recorded,” Houston continues. “Many of those people remembered me from my work on the campaign, and when other opportunities became available, they would say, ‘I know a guy,’ which led to more work.”
Houston’s career is now guided by his lead agent, Matt Ambrosia of KMR Talent, and his manager of more than fifteen years, Jason Marks of Jason Marks Talent Management, who is mainly responsible for expanding his bookings and brand in the television and film industries. A few of Houston’s movie trailers include Disney’s Safety, Lion King, and Into The Unknown: Making of Frozen II, Like a Boss, Miles Ahead, Superfly, Monsters and Men, Creed, Frankie & Alice, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and countless others.
Since 1998, Houston was represented by Jeb Bernstein, formerly of Paradigm Talent Agency. He is also represented by DPN Talent on the west coast, and occasionally he works with Another Tongue in the UK.
Ambrosia and Marks schedule his daily Google calendar. Houston’s days are filled with auditions and bookings. A typical day for Houston starts at 9 a.m.; his first appointments of the day are often from his home studio. He signs into his computer and reviews copy or any accompanying visuals that the client sends. Often, there’s a scratch reel, which is recorded by either the editor or the copywriter. After he reviews the assignment and gets a sense of the timing, he then prepares to record the spot, sometimes with the client via various Internet-based connections.
Generally, Houston has a few bookings a day, which includes new and existing clients that he works with regularly. CNN is one of the clients he often works with; he has created a variety of promo spots for the network’s daily shows, television specials, documentaries, and films, including CNN’s morning news show, New Day, The Van Jones Show, the Coronavirus Town Hall with Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Lincoln: Divide We Stand, The Redemption Project and This Is Life with Lisa Ling. In addition, he’s worked on A Deadly Haze, the network special on the fraternity hazing crisis on America’s university and college campuses; the documentary of The Most Powerful Man in the World, Vladimir Putin; Life Itself, based on the 2011 memoir of legendary film critic Roger Ebert; and CNN’s film Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, among other programs.
The Challenges of the Voice Arts Business
In the past two decades, the voiceover industry has become extremely competitive. The talent pool has broadened to includes regional talent, which is mostly represented by local and national agencies. “There’s top talent working in the Midwest, the South, the Southwest,” he continues. “There’s great talent working out of Texas, North Carolina, Mexico, Milwaukee, Nevada, and Oregon, and you hear it on TV all the time.” More than ever, voiceover artists also market themselves globally through such pay-for-play websites and services as Voices.com, The Voice Bank, Voice 123, Bodalgo, and The Voice Realm, just to name a few.
Houston said the internet has completely changed the voiceover business, and he believes it’s for the better. “The internet democratized the industry,” he explains. “It also broadened opportunities for people worldwide. There was a time where most of the top talent came exclusively from New York or Los Angeles. And that’s where most of the people were based, and that was where most of the studios were based. With that diversity of talent, the competition level has increased exponentially and you have to be on top of your game. And, along with the advent of digital recording, coupled with the internet, people can now be anywhere and record broadcast-quality content and distribute it globally.”
The competitiveness of the voiceover industry certainly presents other challenges. According to Houston, the executives and producers who are in charge of hiring often work with both union and non-union talent, and because there’s an influx of voice actors available, it can sometimes lessen the number of opportunities that are available for some union talent.
“There are certain network commercials that advertising agencies can use union talent or they can use non-union talent; it’s to their discretion,” he explains. “It depends on whether or not the advertising agencies have contracts or agreements with the unions. The adverting agencies that do not have a contract with the union are free to use non-union talent. The union is always trying to work, organize, and make agreements with as many of the agencies as possible. And at the same time, the union is always working to get more people to join and strengthen its ranks and present a united front while building a collective of top talent. But it’s a constant challenge.”
One of the things Houston would like to help change is the negative perception of how some people of the African American community communicate, and the idea that speaking well, or articulating and expressing your thoughts clearly and concisely, equates to sounding “white.” “It’s often perceived as if Black people have an aversion to speaking and communicating well,” he says. “If you don’t speak with the language of the street or the language of the hood, somehow you’re trying to sound white. It’s a negative and pervasive stereotype that we need to eradicate. Ultimately, you should be able to speak the language of the neighborhood, as well as the language of the boardroom.”
Mentoring, Coaching, and Encouraging
Houston also mentors up-and-coming talent. When available, he also participates in panel discussions with key organizations and groups, such as That’s Voiceover! Career Expo, presented by the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences and others.
Voice actor and filmmaker Thembisa Mshaka says she has known Houston for more than twenty-five years, and he has been a consistent mentor through the years. “Rodd has always been generous with his knowledge since I started in the business in 2001. When I expressed a desire to break into sports voiceover, Rodd gave me some coaching and insight that only someone who has voiced for the NBA Finals, the NFL, and the Golf Channel could impart,” she says. “I know that his wisdom helped me book work as the voice of the New York Liberty, WNBA, the National Women’s Soccer League, and ultimately reach the pinnacle for my sports career, as the voice for The Women of Team USA ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics [NBC Sports]. He even engineered the recording session, which garnered my sixth Voice Arts Awards nomination.”
Rodd Houston’s career demonstrates faith, purpose, patience, perseverance, and a humble heart. Above and beyond his extraordinary talent, grace, and kindness, his easygoing nature is one of the many reasons clients continue to engage his services repeatedly.
“The blessing of what I have been able to do is not lost on me,” says Houston. “How many people can say that they get paid to talk? I’ve been able to make a great living at it, and look after the people that I love and care about. I wake up every day extremely grateful.”
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning communications strategist and consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is the Chief Content Officer of the Global Communicator. As a contributor, she has penned stories for NBCNews.com, Black Enterprise, Essence.com, Huff Post, and EURWEB.com.