Jen Sweeney traces her entrepreneurial spirit back to her father, the late E.J. “Bud” Sweeney.
An internationally known food sales and marketing services consultant, Bud Sweeney often worked with the McDonald’s restaurant chain, and was one of the developers of the company’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
It was her father’s work ethic that convinced Sweeney she wanted to be her own boss. She found her niche as an entrepreneur almost 20 years ago, and hasn’t looked back.
“I really love what I do,” she said. “And I feel pretty darn lucky. I’ve tried working for other people, and I made it happen, but I knew I had to be in business for myself.”
Sweeney, who began her professional career in the radio business, has spent the last 18 years being her own boss as a voiceover actor. She was introduced to the particular type of work in 1983, but went full time in 1995 when she opened Wild Plum Studio Inc. while living in Denver.
WPS is now headquartered atop a 25-acre hilltop farm on the outskirts east of Fayetteville, where Sweeney moved with her family in 2004. A vivacious presence who markets herself as “Jen Sweeney: The Voiceover Genie,” she produces all of her work at WPS, selling her voice for anything and everything that requires one.
From radio and television commercials or promos, video games, e-learning videos, narrations, telephone IVR (interactive voice response) voicemails, airport intercom systems and even pinball machines, Sweeney reads her scripts in a recording booth that’s no larger than a standup shower.
She said she has about 200 clients in the United States, Canada and Ireland, with approximately 35 of those being radio stations in both large and small markets across the U.S. Some of the more high-profile clients include Disney, the Hallmark Channel, Dish Network, Spike TV and the Grand Theft Auto video game series.
“She’s signature,” said Paul Manutes, a senior writer for Disney’s Yellow Shoes Creative Group. “You know when Tiger [Woods] hits a drive, or when [Jerry] Bruckheimer makes a movie? Well, that’s what it’s like when Jen voices a session.”
A Versatile Voice
Sweeney is recognized in the industry for having a versatile voice, which keeps her services in demand.
As one industry executive illustrated, Sweeney’s repertoire can range from hard sell to soft sell, high drama or low drama, comedy, irony, sincerity, educational, instructional, motivational, sad, sexy, sweet, even Shakespearian.
“I’ve sent Jen the most ludicrous scripts,” said Lazlow Jones, an audio producer for the Grand Theft Auto games. “From a Russian accent, to pharmaceutical babble like ‘the FLT3 receptor has antiproliferative and proapoptotic activity in hematological cell lines and VEGF-receptor tyrosine kinases.’ She knocks it out beautifully.”
Locally, Sweeney provides voiceover work for radio station KEZA-FM Magic 107.9 and for SVI, a Springdale company that creates leadership-training tools like corporate training videos for other companies and organizations.
She works every day — averaging about 15 sessions per day — sometimes on weekends and sometimes at strange hours. The recent political season is a good example, when candidates or political action groups hired her to read copy for commercials that were needed right away.
“I’ve pretty much done something in every field of the voice business,” Sweeney said.
And the business is lucrative. In a December 2011 article for CNBC.com, Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder and chief marketing officer of the voiceover talent agency Voices.com, said many professionals cite $100,000 as something a voice talent could make annually.
“I expect that every year,” Sweeney said. “In my experience, those of us in the upper echelon of this business can expect such wages, apart from gender.”
Sweeney did not disclose her annual salary, but did offer two examples of just how well she is compensated. Depending on several variables, Sweeney’s rates for each job are based on a union scale.
In a recent session for a client, who Sweeney did not identify, she recorded seven promos at $250 each. It took her about 15 minutes.
Calculating that on a per-hour rate of $7,000, at an average of 40 hours a week, Sweeney would have an annual salary of $15.7 million.
“Now that would be a handsome salary,” she joked. “But I’d probably have no voice after a couple of months and be out of business.”
Sweeney added that one of the highest-paying jobs of her career, again from an unidentified client, was with a negotiated rate of $1,000 per hour.
“They had to pay me $1,000 whether I stood there in front of the microphone for 30 seconds or one hour,” she said. “I cracked the mic … $1,000.”
Right Time, Right Stuff
Sweeney originally is from Libertyville, Ill. Her family made Northwest Arkansas a vacation destination when she was growing up — particularly Eureka Springs and Beaver Lake — and that led her to the University of Arkansas as a freshman student in 1983.
The versatility of her voice was evident even then, when she was cast as a Russian interpreter, even though the role was for a male, in a UA production of Arthur Kopit’s “Indians.”
“I had a Polish grandmother, so I had a pretty good Russian accent,” she recalled.
Sweeney also did part-time work for a couple of local radio stations, reading Associated Press wire reports and doing voice work for their commercials.
She was also cast to participate in “The Great Passion Play” in Eureka Springs, reading for a variety of roles that included comedic and dramatic monologues.
“I was even doing animal sounds,” she said. “I got to be a bunch of different voices and they paid me $30 an hour. That was my introduction to voiceovers.”
Sweeney’s radio career took her to Massachusetts, and later to Chicago and Denver. She originally thought she wanted to become an actress, and even studied with the noted Second City theatre troupe in Chicago.
In Denver, Sweeney got further exposed to voiceovers through a friend who was working at a post-production house. She began doing work for HBO and Cinemax, and thought she could make a full-time career as a voiceover artist.
“I think I got in the business at the right time with the right stuff,” Sweeney said. “I was getting clients left and right, started piecing together a studio and left radio to go full-time voiceover.”
Because of the dollars being paid to top-flight voices, Sweeney said the industry is a competitive one, estimated in 2010 to be worth nearly $13 billion, according to a report published by Voices.com.
Voiceover work, like any other acting career, is very entrepreneurial and can be fairly expensive. Sweeney’s studio is outfitted with top-of-the-line software and equipment that she estimates is worth $30,000.
“That is a big investment,” she said. “But why wouldn’t I? It’s my lifeline.”
Others, however, try to bypass the investment for a shortcut to the payoff, a practice that Sweeney said makes the industry diluted for legitimate professionals.
“Everybody and their brother with a closet, a laptop and a microphone thinks they can be a voiceover artist,” she said. “There are those people, and there are those who have talent. You’re going to get what you pay for.”
Badge of Honor
Most voiceover artists will say their first high-paying job with a recognized national client is the instant they know they’ve made it. Sweeney said her mountaintop moment was being hired for “World of Warcraft,” the online, role-playing video game.
The producers were looking for a specific voice — a creepy, low, gritty voice, Sweeney said, for one of the game’s Orc characters.
“They were trying to cast it in Los Angeles because most of the animation stuff is cast out there; it’s very clique-ish,” she said.
When producers couldn’t find what they were looking for in California, the casting net was thrown out into the rest of the country, ultimately hiring Sweeney as the voice.
“That, to me, is a badge of honor,” she said. “I get chills talking about it because it meant so much to me.”