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The Mystery of Vanik's Vanishing Voice

Al Vanik's face might not be familiar, but his voice probably is. He's one of a handful of voiceover talents chosen to say the words and be the “voice” for TV stations across the country. From his Phoenix home studio, he reads a multitude of promos, his tones conveying the image and brand of stations' news product.

Copy from promotion producers arrives via fax and e-mail while Vanik mans computers and audio boards. He e-mails the tracks to his stations, where they are posted and aired, many times within minutes of Al hitting the “send” button.

Vanik has been at the TV voiceover game since 1987 when he was hired at KTSP Phoenix. Over the years, he's been heard in some 80 markets, not counting the times he was a rock disc jockey. At one time, he was handling more than 30 active stations in his daily roster. He opened a recording studio and video production company in Hawaii, thinking that he had created his own paradise.

Then an odd thing occurred.

“Somewhere around 2004-2005, I began having difficulty pronouncing certain words clearly,” Vanik said. “There was an odd feeling to my tongue that came on slowly.”

The oddness made it harder and harder for him to do his job. To make things more confusing, his everyday speech wasn't affected at all.

“I am comfortable with my everyday speaking voice and when I speak on the telephone, I correct myself easily. The voice I hear every day is when there are normal room acoustics and some reflected sound. I work in a sound-deadened area,” Vanik explained.

Even after a plethora of medical tests, experts were unsure why Vanik's tongue was having problems. Six different doctors, three in Phoenix and three in Hawaii, weighed in. A stroke was ruled out. So was any muscular problem or cancer; still, the left side of his tongue felt numb, and was not as responsive as the right side. “It was like dragging my friend along, with my right side saying, 'I'll carry you.'”

Vanik began doing what humans do—compensating. “I figured I'd keep at it and make sure it all sounded good on the station end. Being in radio and working in voiceovers for more than 40 years, I had a little high-end hearing loss. You get that way wearing loud headphones. To account for the hearing loss and tongue numbness, I put in EQ [equalizers] and a compressor for just my headphones. It only added more problems and made it harder to pronounce the T,D,N, L—front-of-the-tongue things. To compensate for that, I pushed my voice harder and ended up yelling. Bad juju.”

Stations began making changes, and Vanik's healthy client list began to shrink.

“We hated to make the change,” confesses a creative service director for a network O&O who let Vanik's contract lapse. “But we needed a certain sound, and it just wasn't happening.”

To make matters worse, Internet postings began popping up suggesting that he had suffered a mini-stroke. Others conjectured that they were confused as to why there was a problem—he sounded fine. Vanik used the Internet to combat the negatives.

“Speech therapists told me I had to redevelop my muscle memory on the left side of my tongue,” he simply stated.

Vanik took on a new routine that included daily training: vocal exercises, tongue exercises and stretching. “They were drills. Millions and millions of them, it seemed,” he described. Pages of the exercises sit in a folder near his computer, marked with his handwriting to remind him of special sounds that needed attention. This schedule went on for three years.

Repetition became part of his approach to voiceover work. “I would read the TV copy over and over. Recording it. Listening to it. It gave my tongue a workout and gave the client a good job.”

In addition to the many therapists, he also sought out a noted vocal coach, with whom Vanik still works. “Joe Brussard is teaching me a series of things. How to relax. To breathe. To get out of the way of the words. He's retraining me to breathe differently and how to go through it.”

Part of the coach's instructions is to have Vanik read song lyrics aloud. “Language is rhythmic. So are song lyrics. They're closer to copy than just reading sentences.”

Happily, his voice is returning. In accessing his own recovery, Vanik is pragmatic. “I'm back to 98% of where I was before this all happened. Many of my competitors, like Ed O'Brien and Charlie Van Dyke and Sean Caldwell, were there for me with ideas, solutions and support. They gave me vocal drills and pointed me toward studies and articles. These are all friends as well as competitors. They pointed me in the direction of humility, which I'm still trying to learn.”