A Q&A with voice actor and author Joan Baker, and Emmy Award-winning producer and director Rudy Gaskins — the husband-and-wife team who founded the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences.
Since 2013, Society of Voice Arts and Sciences (SOVAS) has offered education, professional training, mentorship, and job opportunities for working voice actors. Diversity and equity are core to the organization’s mission, and it’s personal for co-founders (and husband-and-wife duo) Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins. Joan is an award-winning actor and voiceover artist, whose career spans commercials, promos, and narration for TV, film, and videogames. Rudy is an award-winning producer, director, and TV executive. Together, they advocate for a more open and inclusive voiceover industry.
We spoke with both co-founders about their careers, why they founded SOVAS, and the changes they’ve observed in the voiceover world — and where it’s headed next.
What has your career path been? How did you get here?
JOAN: My career started with a childhood dream to be a dancer, actor, and humanitarian. As the only Black child in a white community, I was horribly ostracized. However, I quickly learned that I was accepted when I performed in school plays and dance contests. Straight out of high school, I got a scholarship to New York’s Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. I had visions of dancing on Broadway.
Of course, a sister has to eat. In the performance world, you either start booking jobs or you start waitressing. But as a light-skinned bi-racial woman, I didn’t fit into a specific marketing demographic. Marketing was far less inclusive in the mid-1980s and ‘90s. “You have the talent, but you don’t fit.” That’s what I kept hearing from producers and casting directors.
These days, every other TV commercial features interracial couples and children. Voice acting became an option for staying close to the entertainment industry without being seen.
What role has commercial voice acting played in your career?
JOAN: Learning voice acting (and there’s a lot to learn) added another arrow to my quiver. First and foremost, it also kept me within the entertainment industry. Eventually, as times changed, I was able to audition freely, without concern for my look. I was able to pay my bills, take acting classes, and rub elbows with producers and directors who were often working on other projects that I could audition for. Voice acting became my bread and butter, but it also opened the door to acceptance as an actor, host, and spokesperson.
What inspired you to create the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences?
JOAN: It was a 10-year process that began when I met my husband, Rudy Gaskins. He was a director and producer for ABC News and hired me to be the voice of a promo campaign.
By then, I was getting numerous requests to train people in the art of voice acting, which I did through private acting schools. Rudy was a guest speaker in one of those classes, after which he pitched me the idea of working as a duo to bring both the actor and director perspective to the teaching process – creating a more holistic approach that would better prepare students for real-world experiences. We began teaching together and eventually published a book on voice acting called Secrets of Voice-over Success.
RUDY: The book features some of the top voice actors in America — people we had always wanted to meet, and some with whom I was already working on projects through ABC News, NBC Sports, American Express, Food Network, and Lexus.
RUDY: [The book] put the anonymous world of voice acting on the map as a community of unsung talent that actually had faces and personalities of their own. It was the success of standing-room-only book signings that led us to create an annual voice-acting conference named after the book, and now under the current name of That’s Voiceover!™ Career Expo. The Society of Voice Arts and Sciences (SOVAS), was created as a nonprofit entity to encompass the conference along with an annual award contest called the Voice Arts® Awards.
As a nonprofit, we were able to build a foundation on humanitarian principles, which is ultimately the North Star for all we do. It was the difference between doing something to earn money and doing something to help people. Scholarships, auditions, jobs, and financial relief are also among our hallmarks.
How do you advocate for diversity and representation for voice actors through SOVAS? Why is that important to your organization’s mission?
RUDY: We operate in a mostly white, mostly male industry, but our life experience has always fallen under the BIPOC experience, even before anyone called it BIPOC. Racism and the lack of diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a form of torture that we have personally lived all our lives — it’s our history and our trauma. Sometimes it explodes in myriad ways. Sometimes it’s the catalyst for creating a new opportunity.
Systemic racism is a major obstacle, of course, so we maintain an intense, sustained work ethic to reach out to make sure BIPOC voices have a seat at the table, and to make sure we do not become complacent in a world where racism, bigotry, and white supremacy remain an active call to arms for the ignorant.
SOVAS is neither a Black organization, nor a white organization that needs to be taught to integrate D&I into its policies and practices. SOVAS is the birth of the very thing that the D&I conversation seeks to create in the world.
You founded SOVAS in 2013, years before the conversation about diversity in voice acting entered the mainstream. What changes have you observed in the voice acting industry between 2013 and now? Where is the industry headed next?
RUDY: The diversity conversation has been slowly creeping into the world of voice acting, but the historically anonymous nature of the voice acting industry, together with very strong bias toward white males, made it seem like a fruitless cause.
Voice actors, odd as it may sound, had no voice in these decisions. Agents and casting directors were voiceless too. In fact, whites were hired to do most everything, including roles that were meant to sound Black and target Black audiences. It was really the Black Lives Matter movement that gave everyone the moral and intellectual courage to speak up and confront inequality, racism, and bias.
Today, if you stand up for equality, you will be heard, rather than fired or otherwise marginalized. Producers, who are morally motivated, can speak up to their bosses — and that’s what it takes. Agents and managers have more room to open up discussions on casting without fear of losing the business to someone who will look the other way. Voice acting no longer has the anonymity that once allowed for these unfair practices to go unnoticed.
We’ve heard from commercial voice actors who’ve booked opportunities, only to be told to “sound more Latin,” or “sound more Black” when recording — which shows how stereotypes can show up in audio. How can advertisers avoid reinforcing stereotypes in their audio ads, while still highlighting a diverse range of voices?
JOAN: “You better recognize,” as the saying goes. Hire BIPOC people in percentages that are reflective of the population you serve. This is not just a matter of race. It’s a matter of culture. We are a blended society in America. It’s important to start with that framework, rather than trying to fix and supplement after the fact. We’re fighting against the invisible inertia of white bias and white privilege. This inertia can’t be allowed to dominate and control the stories and images that reflect who we are.
What can advertisers do to make sure their audio ads reflect culture in an authentic way?
RUDY: They can do what they do in every other aspect of their business: Get professional outside help from people who represent the culture they wish to reflect and engage. One way to kick this off is by creating D&I departments that are not just figureheads, but whose votes matter, and who have the autonomy to challenge from within without fear of reprisal.
The white person who studies Black history will never understand that history in the way that a Black person will. That means advertisers can sensitize themselves to the value of hiring people who are culturally indigenous. It’s not easy to accomplish, but it’s very easy to get started. It comes down to whether you think it’s important.
In other cases, it comes down to the people’s voices that are reflected at the cash register. Think about why the MLB, Coca-Cola, Delta, and Home Depot challenged Georgia’s new Jim Crow laws. These companies are reacting to sentiment of the people.
What’s your advice to people moving in this industry — specifically BIPOC voice actors? What has helped you succeed?
JOAN: Your voice is reflective of your unique self, culture, history, intellect, and emotional wellbeing. If you’re going to succeed at any level in this business, it’s going to include your unique individuality. Develop your sense of self-awareness and self-expression. Know that who you are is your key to success, and let no one box you into mimicking their idea of who you should be or how you sound.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.