For nearly forty years, Derek Botten has been using his voice to earn a living in London. The charismatic, affable, lover of motorcycles, spent most of that time working for a host of local radio stations, but these days, he uses that voice for London technology giant Voices.com. From radio personality, to radio producer, and now voice over talent, it is an evolution that offers both a fantastic look back at forty years of radio history in Southwestern Ontario, and an introspective view, into the growing world of voice over work.
Derek graduated from Fanshawe College in 1979 in radio broadcasting. He was part of the first group of students to be on the then-brand-new 6X radio station, now known as “106.9 The X“. The station became part of the college’s Radio Arts course and gave valuable training for the radio and television students like Botten, under actual conditions. It still does today, some forty-plus years later.
After graduating, his first job was with CHLO Radio Ltd. in St. Thomas, which would ultimately go on to become the now Fresh Radio. Then to Sarnia in 1980, and stand alone AM station CKJD. While there he was part of launching the FM station, CJFI-FM, which would later become The FOX.
It was 1982 when many Londoners got their first chance to hear Derek on the radio, when he was hired by long-time-stalwart CKSL-AM radio. At that time, Gord Hume was the General Manager, and vice-president of London Broadcasters Ltd.
Botten fondly remembers the antics that they would get up to, and some of the great maverick, guerilla marketing techniques that Hume would come up with. “You have to get listeners one at a time,” Botten remembered Hume telling him, and to get out there and meet people to gain listeners. They would blitz drive-in theatres and try to get people to put station bumper stickers on cars, both for promotion, and to connect with, and build an audience.
Botten spoke with the same wonderful, nostalgic reverence about Martha Blackburn. Obvious deep respect washed over him, as he spoke about the pillar of London’s media past. Perhaps it stemmed from the fact that despite that great voice, Botten’s radio aspirations were not in solely being on-air talent.
Derek had moved from CKSL to do swing announcing at CFPL-AM (now 980 News), and FM96), but when Blackburn purchased her sister’s shares and became the sole shareholder, she brought a mid-twenties Botten to CKNX-FM (FM 102) in Wingham as the new morning host, as well as program and music director. It was obvious that Botten considered this a pinnacle moment in his career. It was also obvious that Martha Blackburn had impacted that career in a significant manner. He vividly remembered her coming to the station, and talking with the staff.
In 1988, he left for the Kitchener-Waterloo market and CKKW-AM, then to CHTZ in the St. Catharines market in 1991. He did RRN overnights and swing on Q107 in Toronto, before landing on the morning show at Magic 106.9 in Guelph for over 3 years. Then, after a brief stint with his own marketing and promotions company, he came back to London to CFPL AM and FM before moving to 102.3 BOB-FM (now Jack-FM) in 2004. He was there up until 2011.
It was also around this period in his life that Botten started feeding another passion in his life more regularly. He ran the World of Motorcycles Expo from 2005 to 2013 – the popular annual motorcycle show in London featured custom and new bikes, and everything related to the sport of motorcycling. It was a smash hit at the Convention Centre, and then the Western Fair District Agriplex, and even expanded to include a Kitchener show (2 years) and a Hamilton show (1 year).
While Botten obviously enjoyed putting on the shows, it grew to such a level, that he said that it took most of the year to plan each one. It was becoming too much. After all, he was still on the radio every day as well.
In 2011, his radio path landed him at 98.1 Free FM as the Morning Show Co-Host, which would ultimately prove another pinnacle point in his career for a number of reasons. For one, he was once again employed by Blackburn Radio, technically his fourth career stint with the media mogul.
Two, it would prove his last official radio gig, before hanging it up in 2014 to be a five-star voice over talent full time.
Three, he would co-host the show with Lisa Brandt, who is also his wife.
The way that Derek speaks about his wife, is something that is a pleasure to behold. Seemingly nothing taken for granted, and still the apple of his eye. Lisa’s story AND career path share many parallels with Derek’s, and perhaps therein, lies some of the rub. They are seemingly cut from similar cloth.
Brandt is the current host of CJBK’s morning show. She’s working on her fourth book – a book about selling stories to the media. She’s a great voice over talent herself, who also works with Voices. She’s done work for clients like 3M, Babies ‘ R Us, Pfizer, CIBC, and Fanshawe.
It’s doubtful that you could find a couple anywhere, that could offer you more experience and knowledge about radio, and about using your voice to earn a living, than Derek and Lisa.
Despite the inordinate amount of radio experience, Botten said that transitioning to voice over talent was more difficult than expected, and “like learning a new craft.” The seemingly exaggerated, almost prototypical “K-Tel” voice that makes a radio personality great, is not actually that sought after. He said that in voice over work, that can come off as insincere, and in many instances, clients are even using phrases like “guy next door” in their descriptions of the voices that they are looking for.
So after years of hyper inflection being near-expected, as he made the switch from radio, suddenly his voice needed to be much more controlled. He also needed sample work other than radio references.
Botten said one of the great things Voices provided, was the the resources to talent just starting out: “There are free things available to members like scripts, rate cards, webinars, tips, etc.” He actually described those resources as “exceptional”.
Given the statistics Botten laid out, it’s easy to see why those provided tools would be useful. Here is a man that possesses a god-given voice that is made to mic, that is also trained and controlled, and it still took almost 300 voice auditions before he landed his first voice over gig. Three hundred.
Don’t prematurely assume that situation was brought about by a lack of portfolio either, even now as a veteran of the voice over industry, he hopes that approximately one in twenty auditions is successful. So in response, he does about twenty auditions per day. The world of marketing has evolved exponentially through technology. Clients can be ultra-vigilant in the thirty second messages they are trying to convey to the world.
It’s actually that kind of ultra-vigilance, that makes Voices.com such a valuable tool in the arsenal.
“I’d say the absolute biggest benefit to being a part of the Voices machine is the sheer volume of audition requests there are, coupled with the ‘firewall’ that protects us ‘little guys’ from anyone potentially taking advantage of voice talent,” said Botten. “We don’t have to chase clients for money and there’s way less chance that our audio will be scooped and used without our knowledge.”
Imagine trying to leg down twenty leads per day otherwise, and audition for them.
Botten built a studio in his house, where he looks after both recording and production. (header photo) When you’re looking to create so many audition attempts, your best course of action is to streamline your processes and be as productive as possible. In audio engineering, you cannot make a lousy recording sound good, no matter what tricks and techniques you come up with. Any increased level of production can be a time constraint that bogs you down immeasurably.
After a lot of various microphone testing, and utilizing a lot of his radio experience, Botten created a sound chamber that gave him a natural tonal response. He said that by doing so, his production can be reduced to recording room noise before a recording, then the recording, and then removing the room noise in Adobe Audition. He estimates that it takes approximately four times the recording time, for each produced audio clip. Given that listening, recording, and then re-listening to the finished product is three of the four times, that’s a pretty focused, and concerted effort on Botten’s part.
With quick audition clips, that puts the engineering time at 5-10 minutes per audition – which immediately translates to as much as two to three hours of time daily, in recording and engineering alone. “Auditioning is even more of a part of your job, than the contracts you actually get,” he explained.
Botten said the biggest challenge he actually faces, is a lack of feedback inherent in the system.
“In my opinion, the only way to grow is to know what you didn’t do right. Obviously, some coaching helps (which I have had) but based on the volume of auditions I have done, it’s a VERY small number that anyone has ever actually commented on or offered constructive criticism on. Even championship winning athletes and teams are given coaching and ways to improve their performance. VO is like golf. You never reach a point where you can’t improve some aspect of your ‘game’.”
It was obvious through the course of conversation, that while many things may have contributed to that earnest desire to improve, an indelible mark had been left on Botten’s consciousness by something the great Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull had once told him during an interview. During the course of that interview, Botten had asked Anderson something akin to if he had any totally different projects or ideas that he had been working on. To which Anderson replied simply, “I’m too busy practicing.” Anderson is a man who transcended rock and roll with his magical flute playing, and his message was still, you have to never stop honing your craft.
Botten has made a living with his voice for forty years, and he too still believes that he must continue striving to get better.
That effort and attention to detail does not go unnoticed.
“Derek is a true professional, with an extremely dynamic voice,” exclaimed Jessica Ellyatt, Voices.com Project Administrator. “As a voice over talent, he provides clients with a high quality of work, he’s super easy to work with and he’s incredibly fast at delivering the work on time.”
“Derek also takes direction extremely well, asks questions, and provides all clients with a quality product. And at the end of it all, he always manages to make you laugh! You can always count on Derek to get the job done – I would highly recommend working with him!”
Botten has done over 30 audio books, most of which you can find at audible.com. Interestingly, he said that typically an audio book has between 90 and 100,000 words. And that typically, a properly spaced and annunciated pace for an audio book, is to read about 10,000 words per hour.
Botten said he typically likes to record individual chapters, that take about 25-30 minutes; and that he only likes to record for audio books for about an hour a day. That disciplined voice management, and “a spot of lemon tea”, are what Botten credits for him still being able to earn a living with that silky, smooth voice today.
So where does that leave Derek Botten today?
He is a very successful client for Voices.com, something he credits to “old-fashioned hard work and wanting it”.
Even though the company may have reached massive global and international status, they are a proud London company, and clearly enthusiastic about the local voice talent that are clients.
“Connecting with the local talent community has been a priority for us from day one. We value our relationships with established talent and enjoy sharing insights on the industry with aspiring voice actors, who range from radio personalities to musicians to students,” said Stephanie Ciccarelli, Voices.com Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer. “I love it when someone realizes that they can use their instrument for more than just singing, acting, or teaching. Voice acting has opened many doors for performers in London and we’re grateful to be part of that.”
To that end, Botten is also heavily involved with a company called Witilingo – a company that specializes in voice enabling your brand on voice-first technologies like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana. He leads Voice Production and Skills Development there, and is clearly passionate about both the direction of the work, and his role in it.
Botten still feeds that burning motorcycle desire, by being an instructor at Fanshawe College for six or seven weekends a year. As a licensed motorcycle driver since 1974, he says he “takes great pleasure in being able to impact the minds of young riders.”
When he needs to get away from the microphone, and isn’t on his motorcycle, you can probably find him making tables or one-of-a-kind lamps. He loves the work. Lisa calls them, “functional works of art”. Derek calls them Lisa’s Pieces.
As for personally, it’s obvious that he’s content. There was no drop of regret as he re-counted a near forty year history through radio in Southwestern Ontario, to the voice over world he now resides in.
He’s always been a happy, and easy to talk to guy, but there’s a zen tranquility to Botten now, that is palpable.
He said his contentment stems from working at his own pace, and when he wants to. And from feeling like he gets out what he puts in.
How can you achieve this evolved state of being?
“Take a trip. Get on a bike. Take your wife.”
The Anger Factor – Jeffery Combs
Minding HIS Business – Don Corder
What He Sees Is What You Get – David J. Harrell
The Growth Gears – Art Saxby and Pete Hays
The Ninja Mindset – Luke Payten
The Wild Edge of Sorrow – Francis Weller
Why Vietnam – Mike Keene
A Guide To Managing Contracts – John M. Lowe Jr
The Rebel Son – Guy Quigley
The blue text denote the six local radio stations that Derek worked with, that are still operating today.