Charese Fruge’ Talks To Rena-Marie Villano

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on May 11, 2021 

Rena-Marie Villano’s voice is one you’ll hear all over the country. You’ll instantly recognize it not only because she voices major market brands and stations, but also because she gets the message across in a manner that sounds sexy, real and engaging. She resonates. Villano is currently the voice of “The Woody Show” in more than 30 terrestrial radio markets, Christopher Russo’s “Mad Dog Unleashed” on SiriusXM 82, Los Angeles Alternative KYSR “ALT 98-7,” Chicago Classic Rocker WDRV “97-1 FM The Drive,” Miami 90’s Hits Station WMIA “Totally 93.9,” Seattle Classic Hits KJR “95.7 The Jet,” Detroit Rocker WLLZ “Detroit’s Wheels,” San Diego Hot AC KMYI “STAR 94.1,” Charlotte Alternative WEND “106.5 The End,” Rockers WMMS, “100.7 The Buzzard” in Cleveland and KAAZ “Rock 106.7” in Salt Lake City, the network of WAY-FM Christian radio stations around the country and Slacker Radio online.

Her role as a VO Actor, she says, “Is to deliver whatever message the script is calling for; sometimes that’s an emotional message and sometimes it’s a purely promotional or informational one. Because my voice is an aspect of the client’s branding, it needs to represent them and how they want to be perceived by their chosen demographic(s).” Click here to take a listen:

It all started for Rena-Marie in 1990. “From then to 2005 I worked on-air in smaller market radio. I had an active outdoor lifestyle, so I chose markets that allowed me to hike and camp in the summer and snowboard in the winter,” she says. “I worked in several different formats beginning in West Dover, Vermont (WVAY-FM, Smooth Jazz), and then on to Bozeman, Montana (KMMS-FM, Classic Rock), then Jackson Hole, Wyoming (KMTN-FM, Triple A), and finally to Boise, Idaho (KRVB-FM, Triple A, KQXR-FM, Alternative Rock). I also spent a year and a half doing morning traffic reporting for a private Boise broadcasting company who was contracted with local radio affiliates. In 2005, I left radio to focus solely on VO and I’ve been making my living as a voiceover artist ever since,” says Villano.

“In 1990, I was in high school, headed for a career in TV news. My idols were Connie Chung and Diane Sawyer. A local radio station (WVAY) had an internship opportunity that my mother knew about, and she asked if I’d be interested,” says Villano. “I decided to head down to the station and talk with them. I took the internship and – much to my surprise (I was trying to be a TV snob) – I absolutely loved it. After a few months, they offered me a position doing overnights. I got my FCC license as soon as I turned 17 and began doing air shifts. I was headed to college in the fall of ’91, so I figured I’d do radio until then – but as it happened – another radio opportunity arose out in Bozeman, Montana (KMMS) and I really wanted to move into Classic Rock and a bigger market,” she says.

“I deferred my college admission for one year. It was there that I began learning to splice tape and produce audio, and it turned out that I had a knack for it. I did entertainment segments and radio commercials; clients would often request me for their spots,” says Villano. “I started to realize I wasn’t going all the way back to Pennsylvania to start college, so I called the school and gave up my spot. Then, in 1997, in Jackson Hole while doing afternoons on KMTN, I was contacted by a film production company that wanted to hire me to narrate their ski documentary. That job gave me my first taste of freelance voiceover and taught me a new style: long-form narration and storytelling. From that day on, I was hooked.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for Rena-Marie to let go of her traditional radio career, but to her, becoming strictly a VO Actor was an opportunity that just evolved organically. “I always loved doing live radio and the connection I felt to listeners when I was on the air, but by the early aughts, radio had changed; voice tracking had become the norm and there were just fewer opportunities for certain dayparts to be live. I found I was losing my passion for broadcasting,” she says. “Meanwhile, I was building my VO business and securing agency representation in other markets, which led to more opportunities for auditioning and for traveling – all of which required more of my time and effort. While my connection to radio was being downsized, I saw my VO career in a growth cycle. I was encouraged and excited about the new opportunities in my life and all that I was learning as an entrepreneur, and I knew that soon I wouldn’t have enough time to do both – but I still loved radio and I struggled to walk away from what I felt had always been my calling,” says Villano. “In 2005, I began voicing radio imaging, and that’s when everything shifted. It allowed me to stay connected to radio, in a different way – giving me the best of both worlds without having to continue punching the proverbial clock. That’s when I knew I could let go of radio and step fully into VO, and I did – in October of that year.”

One of the most exciting things Rena-Marie has experienced as a VO Actor happened in 1998. “I was visiting a friend in Lake Tahoe, and I heard my voice in his living room,” she says. “I rushed out to see where it was coming from. He had his television turned to Outdoor Life Network, and they were airing the documentary I’d narrated in Jackson Hole, which, I learned, had been purchased by OLN for re-broadcast. It was an absolutely surreal moment: I was used to speaking to people in ONE market; the concept of being able to speak to people in all corners of the country – simultaneously – just lit me up! That moment I decided to forge a career in VO,” says Villano. “Some other special turning points for me: In radio imaging, it was landing the gigs voicing Q101/Chicago and 91X/San Diego. My entire family is from Chicago, so it meant a lot to have my voice there, and I grew up listening to the legendary 91X as a kid in SoCal, so voicing that heritage station was a dream come true. In promo, it was 2007: landing my first broadcast TV promo for NBC’s Lipstick Jungle. When I heard my voice on NBC, I almost fell over,” she says. “Another big one was voicing my first movie trailer campaign for BLOCKERS back in 2018. That was definitely a milestone.”

Villano’s most challenging experience over the course of her VO career is one she will never forget. “It was a VO job that I booked while moving to Los Angeles from Boise. Literally, the call came from my agent while I was driving south down 395 — and it was scheduled for the next morning,” she says. “I was already living on coffee; I arrived in LA late that night, unpacked my storage container and got about 2 winks of sleep. When I got to the session the next morning, I was bleary-eyed and felt like I’d been drugged, and to make matters worse, I was not given a copy of the script beforehand, so I was literally walking into a cold-reading scenario. The project was a word-heavy infomercial-esque narration that required lots of breath control and diction, and the client was very picky,” added Villano. “An I.V. drip of espresso might have helped… Worst session of my life! Luckily, I got through it, and the client was happy, but it took every ounce of focus and experience I could muster and, boy, I’ve never been so happy to wrap a session! I remember thanking them and casually walking out the door, but believe me, if I could have run out like my ass was on fire, I would have! Moral of the story: Sleep. Hydrate. Prepare.”

Rena-Marie has great advice for women looking to get into VO Acting, but don’t have the luxury of starting in traditional radio. “I always suggest to anyone interested in pursuing VO that they take some classes first. The benefits are plentiful: you learn how to interpret copy; you make friends; you come to understand your own “signature sound,” you gain industry insights; you learn to identify your strengths and weaknesses; you get familiar with the different genres that make up the VO industry and it becomes easier to determine where you want to put your focus, and – if you play your cards right – you’ll find yourself in front of someone who can hire you and/or represent you. Taking classes provides that vital stepping-stone that will link you to the next phase in your VO pursuit.”

Because Villano works from her home studio, she wasn’t impacted by the pandemic professionally as much as everyone else was. She did, however, learn an important lesson during the last year. “As with so many folks, the pandemic caused a slow-down in ‘certain areas’ of my work. To create financial balance, I drastically reeled in my spending and basically went into preservation mode, only spending money on the essentials,” she says. “In doing that, I suddenly became aware of how much money I’d been spending on stuff I don’t really need. I think we all do, being inundated with ads online and whatnot. It was a good consumer realization moment for me, and it helped me reset and redirect myself.”

Even outside of the pandemic, 2020 changed the world in many other ways. And that weighs heavily on Rena-Marie’s mind. “Most often the thing that keeps me awake at night is not anything to do with VO – and not to get too political here, but in all honesty – it’s contemplating and worrying about the social divides our country is grappling with at the moment,” she says. “We are in such a pivotal time in our history. It’s equal parts unsettling and inspiring – and it leaves me rattled sometimes. I know that’s necessary for things to change, so I try to stay grounded and ride it out and I support the organizations that I feel will bring a more just experience to this American life. I’m definitely hopeful and encouraged by some of what I’m starting to see. May it continue,” she says.

Villano does find balance in her life. “I’ve become very fond of short, guided meditation programs. I’m a Gemini – many radio people are! – so I’m very analytical, ambitious, driven and constantly multi-tasking,” she says. “I’ve learned that the only way to effectively slow down and really allow my body to reset is with a guided mindbody program where I’m connecting to the person’s voice, following their directives, focusing on my breath, visualizing and just being present in that moment. It’s the only thing that has brought actual, noticeable balance to my system.

I spend time in my yard, communing with my plants. I cook. I do yoga and workout to move my body and counteract the many hours I spend sitting, editing and such. I snuggle with my dog and my cats. I read. I watch television,” Villano adds. “One wonderful thing that’s come from the pandemic: I’ve had lots of time to catch up on much of the incredible filmmaking and series-driven content available on all the various subscription platforms. I’m very inspired by brilliant, moving acting and storytelling, and there’s just so much of it right now! Sometimes I’ll forego the new stuff and opt to revisit an old movie that I love; sometimes I’ll sacrifice a few hours of sleep and binge a new series. It’s become a welcome wind-down at the end of my day where I can turn off my business brain and just get lost in a story.”

As for the future, Rena-Marie says, “The thing I love most about working in VO is that I never truly know what’s coming. I spend 95% of my time auditioning for jobs and never hearing back, and that can be a little crazy-making, so in order to stay sane, I focus on the opportunity that’s being created each time I submit an audition,” she says. “When my audition is being played, there could be one creative in the room, or there could be ten. While I may not be right for that project, they might like me for another project they’re working on, and frankly, that’s happened before. It’s always a nice surprise to wind up with an unexpected booking. The way I see it, I’m always dropping embers and waiting for them to ignite.”

Rena-Marie Villano is represented by CESD Talent’s Nate Zeitz and managed by Hoss at Hoss Management Group. She’s also available on barter through Benztown.

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