Talking well pays well

  • Business
  • Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Red FM DJs Fiqrie (left) and Teoh say the job can be a lot tougher than many people think.

When Farit Ismeth Emir became the voice of Dunhill in the 1980s, little did the Teluk Intan native foresee the simple three-worded phrase “Gaya, mutu dan keunggulan” (style, quality and excellence) would take on an iconic relevance.

Originally created to lend an air of prestige to the tobacco house, it became a common phrase to compliment one’s fashion sense, physical appearance, and results for all manner of worthy endeavours. Even Farit himself was not spared, especially on days when he was looking particularly sharp.

He was wrong to assume the hoopla would eventually peter off, it lasted well into the 1990s and remained well into the present.

“Harith Iskander, the comedian, used to poke fun of me during his gigs. He would imitate my tone of voice and stoked the audience’s imagination by satirising how I’d speak to my wife at home. “Dahlink, mane I punya ayer? (Darling, where is my drink?),” chuckles Farit, now 60, imitating the Malaysian funny man.

Farit, who reads the news over TV1 on RTM, explained that advertising executives were looking for a “fusion” kind of accent at the time.

Farit Ismeth Emir unwittingly became a voice icon when he uttered the words, 'Gaya, mutu dan keunggulan'.
Farit Ismeth Emir unwittingly became a voice icon when he uttered the words, ‘Gaya, mutu dan keunggulan’.

Though the phrase was in Malay, it also appealed to other races. For inspiration, he looked to everyday life and realised an emerging trend where English words like “I” and “you” were increasingly becoming common in spoken Malay, especially among young graduates who had returned after years of studying overseas.

So, out of cheek, Farit, a hotel management graduate from the Mara Institute of Technology decided he’d try uttering the line in a similar fashion, and to his surprise, the advertising guys bought it!

For this little stunt, Farit earned himself a place as the brand’s voice and a regular income of RM12,000 to RM15,000 a month — for the next 13 years.

Voiceovers as a means of promoting services or products are but a drop in the national advertising expenditure, which has been estimated to touch RM9bil a year.

One arena which has acted as a platform for the voice industry to take root is radio.

Kavin, who studied mechanical engineering, went on to carve a career as a radio deejay.
Kavin, who studied mechanical engineering, went on to carve a career as a radio deejay.

According to chairman of Star Radio Group Datuk Borhanuddin Osman, the total spent on radio advertising expenditure (radex) for commercial radio alone can easily touch RM600mil a year.

Such potential has attracted even those from professional backgrounds to try their luck. Examples can be found in Halim Othman of Suria FM, an architect, Jeremy Teoh and Kavin Jay of Red FM, who hold degrees in psychology and mechanical engineering, respectively.

“The growth of the voice industry, particularly for radio happened during the 2000s. Before this, from the 1970s up to the 1990s, I could not bring myself to admit that I was a radio announcer. Today, things are very different,” confesses Halim, an industry veteran with 20 years of experience.

An rise in demand for the voice industry was believed to have begun in 1994 with Time Highway Radio, the nation’s first commercial radio station. The demand became even greater when AMP Radio Network (now Astro Radio) came into existence in 1996. Today, some 52 radio stations, both privately run and government owned, are known to grapple for talent in bid to raise listenernumbers.

Industry insiders all say there is obviously not enough talent to go round as poaching is a widespread practice.

Halim, a trained architect, confessed he could not bring himself to admit to being a radio announcer in the 1970s.
Halim, a trained architect, confessed he could not bring himself to admit to being a radio announcer in the 1970s.

Radio DJ Muhammad Fiqrie Mohd Dahari of Red FM recalls his earlier days as a new broadcasting graduate.

“I was only 24, at a time when the starting salary for a fresh graduate was not more than RM2,000. But I was already earning double. By the first year, I could afford a house and car,” reveals Fiqri.

But it was no walk in the park. For the first four months, he worked seven days a week. In between, he was also required to host events and do script readings.

“At the end of a nine-hour work day, I couldn’t talk anymore…” says Fiqrie.

But it is a job that comes along with perks. Depending on a DJ’s popularity (determined by the Nielsen ratings) they can earn themselves placements as product ambassadors.

Teoh, for example, holds a complimentary Nokia 1520, thanks to his affiliation with high-tech gadget brands, further strengthened by a column that he writes for Stuff magazine.

Teoh is also a voiceover talent. Naturally, the emerging number of radio personalities have allowed the advertising agencies to pick from a larger pool of voice talents, unlike the early 1970s.

Back then, founder of The Voice Guild of Malaysia, Geoffrey Nicholson, recalled there were only only eight or so prominent voice artists in the market and the going rate was only RM5 a second opposed to the current fee of RM15.

Veterans like Halim Othman, however, are known to charge up to RM20.

“We had a code of conduct about not discussing our work with others until the ad was released. This was because other ad agencies might be pitching for the same job and you’d be revealing valuable ideas from another party. Even the briefs were kept confidential till the last minute,” recalls Nicholson.

Requirements were also stricter. In those days, voices had to be approved by RTM before they could work as talents.

A demo script sent in for consideration in 1979 might only get the all clear in 1983, for example. One of the reasons for a voice to be rejected is a mistake in pronunciation, says Nicholson.

Such standards would prompt talents like entertainer and emcee, Datuk Leonard Tan, otherwise known as The Maestro of a Thousand Voices and The King of Jingles, to carry first a Franklin dictionary around with him, and later with the onset of technology, an electronic thesaurus, so he could be sure he had his pronunciation down pat.

“Do you say ‘presentation’ with a ‘pri’ or ‘pre’? Those were the things we were very particular about back then,” reveals Tan, who was also the first artiste to cut a record label with Positive Tone, a Malaysian music production house established in 1993.

Emcee Arthur Tan says the business is about bringing joy to others.
Emcee Arthur Tan says the business is about bringing joy to others.

Having shot to fame as the voice of Gardenia, Tan who also keeps a high profile as a live performer, would break out with the famous bread jingle once in a while just so his audience would know he was the one behind the loaf’s wholesome note.

But the early years of the voice industry, reveals Tan, was not entirely a rosy one.

There were some jobs where Tan did not get paid. One of which would be for a fried chicken chain which required Tan to take on several roles as a giraffe, tiger and bear.

The likeliest cause behind thenon-payment, surmises Tan, lay with studio owners who got carried away with the large sums of money from ad agencies. By right, these should have gone towards settling the fees for talent, but many got tempted into channeling the cash towards other pursuits instead.

“Professionally, it was a major deterrent. I’d be ready to go to work only to find out it was the same studiothat had not paid me. I’d try to make excuses not to go because when you’re making a living, it is not advisable to be too blunt about non-payments.

“At last, I managed to come to a compromise for partial payments for outstanding accounts but for the current jobs, I’d ask for cash,” says Tan, who now produces jingles from his own recording studio, Beansproutz.

And let’s not forget another arena where voice as well as wit are also valuable commodities.

Tan, whose going fee is RM11,000 for a show reckons the market is currently a robust one.

“By rough estimates and based on very conservative figures, the nationwide market for emcees is easily worth RM30mil a year.

“In Kuala Lumpur alone, it is not uncommon to see up to 40 events being held in week. That alone averages to about RM200,000 worth of work for emcees,” calculates Tan.

Such figures are enough to motivate Arthur Tan, 30, (no relation) to embark on a career as an emvcee.

“I started at 24 and my first paid gig for a family day event was only RM250. Without official guidance, it was a tough journey and I relied on instinct and intuition. In fact, when I first tried pitching for jobs, I went to the casting houses first instead of approaching event companies, which was what I should have done in the first place,” says Arthur.

But today, Arthur can command a fee of RM3,000 per event. Last year, he reportedly made close to RM80,000 just from emceeing alone.

However, the job is not without risk and a simple slip of the tongue can end a career. Flubbing the simplest line can occur when stage fright sets in, Arthur affirms.

“It is not impossible to make disastrous mistakes like thanking Digi when you’re hosting a Maxis event, for example,” says Arthur.

But at the end of the day, you can count on those blessed with the gift of the gab to cover up and get on with the show.

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