Cost of Living

Why accents are behind the booming business of the human voice

From podcasts to video games, public service announcements to robocalls, the range of voices coming through our earbuds and speakers are more diverse than ever before.

How authenticity is driving the demand for the sound of everything from robocalls to cartoons

Banafsheh Taherian, right, is the voice of Maman, the lovable but very busy Persian mom in TVO Kids' cartoon series 16 Hudson. (Big Bad Boo/TVO Kids; Submitted by Banafsheh Taherian)
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Not since Disney's The Little Mermaid has the human voice been so highly prized as a commodity.

Whether we're shopping, driving, wasting time on the internet, or setting up a home assistant like Alexa at home — we're constantly surrounded by pre-recorded voices.

From podcasts to video games, public service announcements to robocalls, the range of voices coming through our earbuds and speakers are also more diverse than ever before, according to several industry players interviewed by The Cost of Living.

The boom is partly driven by technology, which has pushed down the price of audio recording, but it's also fuelled by what feels like an insatiable demand for better representation from the public. 

Growing demand for accents

Banafsheh Taherian, 40, lends her voice to the popular TVO Kids cartoon series 16 Hudson as well as Amazon Prime Video's Lili and Lola. Both series are set in the same universe, where Taherian plays a Persian "maman" caring for her two daughters, opposite their father or "baba" played by Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani.

Watch a clip featuring Banafsheh Taherian as the voice of "Maman"

 

The role is a dream come true for Taherian, an actor who immigrated to Canada from Iran in 2010.

"I was told that if I'm doing voice-over acting or acting, it's better to forget it because there's no demand for Farsi and the Persian accent," recalled Taherian.

"And if there is any demand, Canadian actors can imitate our accent even better than us which was so sad and hurtful, especially for a female Iranian immigrant who already had been through a lot," she said.

My voice is about the world I've travelled.- Banafsheh Taherian, Iranian-Canadian voice actress

Calling herself a rebel at heart, Taherian enrolled in acting workshops and immersed herself in the Toronto arts scene to prove her naysayers wrong. 

Today, she's involved in numerous projects in both English and Persian. She's recorded in-flight announcements for Turkish Airlines, written and directed plays and is now producing her own bilingual podcast. 

"My voice is about the world I've travelled," said Taherian.

"As an immigrant, I have varied life experiences."

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Taherian's success story is part of a larger trend in the business of voice work, said Roger King, president of Toronto-based talent agencies PN Agency and Ethnic Voice Talent. 

"I don't get that many requests for European Portuguese anymore, but I'm getting more requests for Brazilian Portuguese," said King, who's been connecting content producers with multilingual voice actors for 15 years. 

"They're not going to tolerate anything that isn't authentic," he said about his clients. "They won't even accept anyone putting on an accent anymore when there are so many talented actors who speak these languages and have these accents."

Authenticity is key

The Simpsons' popular South Asian character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, as voiced by white comedian Hank Azaria, is now considered a cultural relic in the voice acting world by many. 

Apu from The Simpsons — voiced by comedian Hank Azaria — is now considered a cultural relic in the voice acting world. (Fox)

The quest for authenticity is so exact, one of the fastest-growing online voiceover agencies once received a request for an elderly female voice on the condition that the actor must be a "real grandmother."
 
"They wanted her to be a grandmother and they wanted her to be an actual grandmother. As in, if she didn't have kids to her name, they didn't want her doing the recording," said Miles Chicoine, managing director of Voquent.

Voquent is one of the fastest growing websites in the voice acting industry. Clients can search by accent and language, or cross reference multiple accents and tone. (Screenshot/Voquent)

Since launching in mid-2018, the U.K.-based platform has amassed a database of 20,000 voices in 1,500 accents tracked across 500 languages. 

"Everyone is trying to find ways to connect with their audiences better," said Chicoine.

"The whole concept of being able to be really clear and really specific about who you're trying to reach is something that's become very, very attractive in today's world of advertising and video product."

Voices used to target specific audiences

Sometimes that specificity is just the nature of the acting role calls for, but at other times it's used to target a highly specific listener.

York University, for example, has a targeted radio ad for its Lassonde School of Engineering — it's recorded in English with a female Hindi accent. 

A radio ad for York University's Lassonde School of Engineering features a specific voice to target specific listening audiences. 0:17

"I think authenticity is key," said Jonathan Love, a 45-year-old voice actor based in Calgary who's known for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in 2002's Star Wars: The Clone Wars video game.

If that game were to be made today, Love said it's likely he wouldn't be cast. 

"I think gone are the days that I would be cast to do a Ewan McGregor accent," said Love.

Jonathan Love was the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in a 2002 Star Wars video game, but said if the game were to be produced today, it would likely star Ewan McGregor instead. (LucasArts; Falice Chin/CBC)

"The minute you hear somebody break that authenticity, the spell is broken."

Despite that, Love said he welcomes the trend toward more diverse, authentic voices.

"People want to hear themselves," said Love. "The more variety of voices you hear, the more interesting the project." 

The market is fragmented

While technology has helped propel more audio content to the forefront, it's also fragmented the voice market by making it very easy and cheap for aspiring actors to audition for roles. 

"There seems to be more of a demand," said singer and voice actor Belinda Brady.

"However I don't seem to land as many Caribbean jobs as easily as I used to."

Belinda Brady runs her own voiceover and production company. (Submitted by Belinda Brady)

Brady began performing voiceovers for companies like Subway and Scotiabank in the 1980s, before moving from Jamaica to Canada.

When she settled in Toronto in the 1990s, she said she was often the "it girl" for any job involving a female Caribbean accent.

"I think it's because there wasn't as much talent out there," said Brady, who said she believes things have changed in the last five years. 

"Normally if I got an audition I was almost 95 per cent confident that I would get the job," she said.

"But now I'm just like, 'Well, I've done about 10 auditions in two months and I haven't gotten any of them.'" 

To stay competitive, Brady went back to school to earn an MBA and start her own business. She now runs BB's VOImaging, a voiceover and production company that offers a variety of audio and marketing services.


Written and produced by Falice Chin.

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