AJ McKay is always chasing the dream.
Born and raised in Louisville, KY, he still resides there — just three blocks from his childhood home. His voiceover journey began when he was only 15 years old at his local radio station.
“I’ve always been an audio nerd — I started recording radio shows at my house and would send them to the top 40 stations. They played them on the air — kind of making fun of me, but at the time I felt like the king of the world. My mom and dad were constantly taking me to live-records, little did they know they were planting the seeds for what would become my career and life. I am very grateful for that.”
As a young teen, he started working for a little AM country radio station in his hometown. He would do a three hour shift after school, working on his math homework during the music breaks. He’s come a long way from that radio station gig, but his passion for the work has never dimmed.
He discusses the importance of persevering through the highs and lows of the business, his live announcing work, and more in this Q&A.
In addition to voice acting, you are also an award-winning demo producer and audio engineer. How did you get involved in that side of the business and how do you think it impacts your work as an actor?
I fell in love with the manipulation of sound from a very young age. I would hear something in a movie — like the noise of the lightsabers in “Star Wars” and think: “How do those noises get made? What is that really?”
I became enamored with that art and being able to transform my own voice to sound like different people, whether that be naturally or digitally. I never really had any formal training, it was all self-taught.
I started on reel-to-reel machines back in the day, which most people don’t even know what those are now. Then the computer age came along, and I was the first person at the radio station to learn how to use the new digital editing systems. I taught all the “old timers” how to use it. I’ve always been on the cutting edge of technology, so I love learning the newest trends as far as audio and gear goes. It was a natural evolution for me.
In terms of how it affects my work as an actor — I’m influenced by people all the time! We’re in entertainment, and nothing is truly original anymore. Being able to hear so many different styles and techniques is a bank of knowledge. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I’m definitely storing that all away and it impacts my work.
You also do live announcing – how has that experience been, especially your time emceeing for wrestling matches?
Wrestling on Tuesday nights has been a Louisville tradition since the ‘60s. Dad would take me to the Louisville Garden on Tuesday nights, and I fell in love with wrestling there. I knew I was never going to be a wrestler because I was a lanky kid, and I wasn’t particularly athletic. I thought, maybe I’ll be a ring announcer or a commentator.
I got a gig ring announcing a local wrestling show when I lived in Scottsburg, Indiana. I was working on the radio and the station said, “Hey, we need a ring announcer, ours has laryngitis. Would you want to do it?” It was a total right place, right time moment for me, and it all started from that first gig. I eventually began doing MMA and boxing announcing. About three years ago, I got a call from a buddy of mine that I used to work with in radio. He said, “Ohio Valley Wrestling is looking for a play-by-play announcer. Would you be interested?” I absolutely was.
Now I’m directing the TV shows, working with wrestling legend Al Snow. He’s worked for the WWE, he’s a hugely popular wrestler, and he’s developed some of the biggest names in the wrestling industry. Al is the executive producer and I call the shots as far as camera changes and things like that. I’m an overachiever, so I go 150 miles an hour at anything I do, no matter how mundane. And I just kind of pick the ball up and I take off running with it as best I can. And I think people see my work ethic and then they say, “Here, try this.” That’s kind of how it’s worked for me over the years.
It’s very exciting, this past September, “Wrestlers” premiered on Netflix. It gives you kind of a behind the scenes look of what it’s like to fight, claw, and scratch to become a professional wrestler by following OVW wrestlers. I’m in some of the episodes with that announcing work, which is very cool. You can check out the series here.
You’ve been successful in the VO business for a long time, how have you seen the industry change, and how do you stay relevant in this dynamic field?
The shift has been offering more opportunities for women and people of color. I am here for it and I love it. There are times where I’ve really wanted a gig or I’ve gone out for a gig that I was really hoping to book and I didn’t get it. Of course there’s disappointment involved, but as a cis white male, we have run this industry for hundreds of years. We have played all the parts, and we have played all the roles. It is time for folks to step into their own spotlight and let their voices shine.
I am so happy that the powers that be have come to their senses and realize that there is a lot more opportunity out there. I’m a big advocate that if they’re looking for a voice actor – if they’re looking for a person of color to play a role– it’s that spec for a reason. I don’t mean to get on a soapbox, but I’m very passionate about that as a gay person. If they’re looking for someone representing the LGBTQ community, it’s someone that needs to speak from that experience. If you are a straight white male, you can’t really speak from that perspective if you don’t know what it’s like to struggle and be hit in the head because of who you love. For me, it’s all about authenticity. I think that we’re in a great spot now. People are able to step into their truth and tell their truth, and that’s something that was lacking for a long time. It’s opened up so much and it’s so good to see. If I have to take a backseat to allow someone else to shine, I’m totally fine doing that.
What is the most challenging part of this industry?
I think the most challenging part is educating clients on rates. I constantly have to explain my worth to people that aren’t familiar with booking VO talent. I try not to take it personally, because I’ve got 33 years in the business now. But it is that experience that sometimes makes it personal, because after 33 years, when people question my rate it can feel like — is that what you say to a doctor? Is that what you say to your dentist? Is that what you say when you buy a car? You can, but you’re not gonna get the car!
If my price is higher than someone else’s who has only been in the business for a year or two, it’s because you’re paying for experience, knowledge, and professionalism that I’ve gained over those decades of work. So that’s a challenge, but it’s important to know your worth and hold your ground.
And your favorite part about it?
Paying it forward. I have always believed that the universe will put you where it needs you to be. You may not understand it at the time, but there’s a reason that certain things happen. I’m big about reaching back and pulling people up with me. So, anything I can impart to people along the way, I’m all about giving back. I learned that from the people that I learned from.
I think that’s quite important. If you get to a certain level of success, look back and reach out a helping hand and pull people up along with you. You can’t take your knowledge with you when you go. So you might as well share it and spread the love while you’re here.
Do you have a project you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of? With such an impressive portfolio, what goals do you have your sights set on now?
I recently did a campaign for Universal Studios in Orlando, where I played the voice of a crash test dummy. It was a whole campaign of spots and it was a lot of fun. They liked them so much that they decided to use us for the Hollywood Universal spots, as well.
There have been so many rewarding projects over the years – that’s what I love about VO. It’s always something exciting, and every day brings something different. So it’s always an adventure. As far as things I’d like to do, I’m still working on getting an LA agent. I’ve done some cable promo, but I would like to be doing more network promo work. I’m starting to dip my toe into animation, which I’ve never really done on a grand scale. So, that’s why I’m looking toward LA for animated work and video games. I always want to learn different things and continue growing.
I want to add something to this question — I think it’s important to be transparent here. You asked me what my highlight was, but I’ll tell you what my low light was: filing for bankruptcy in 2015. Nobody ever wants to talk about the downward trends. Everyone wants to talk about the great job they did or when everything is sunshine and rainbows. I want people out there to know that it’s not always the highlights that you see. We are all struggling, starving actors at some points.
You’re going to hit peaks and valleys. Don’t ever be ashamed or afraid to hit the reset button. Life happens and gets in the way. When I lost a bunch of radio gigs due to consolidation and budget cuts, I lost almost half of my income. I had to hit a little reset button to stop the debt, and that’s there for a reason. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure. You’re going to have ups and downs in your life. Embrace those, learn from those — because I sure did — and you’ll come out better on the backside of it. You take the great moments and the hard moments in stride, you keep a level head, and you just keep chasing the dream. That’s all we can do.
What’s your favorite thing about being on team CSM?
Besides the fact that my return on investment has been tenfold, what’s not to love?
I met Celia years ago, and so we already had that friendship. I just love her to pieces. I have for years, and I love her energy and her spirit. When I first talked to her about coming on as part of the roster, I knew that she surrounds herself with amazing people. It was proof positive when I met some of the team at VO Atlanta.
I’m not super organized when it comes to the business side of things with marketing; I’m more of a champion for other people than I am for myself. CSM does a great job of being a champion for not just me, but for so many others on the roster, as well. You guys have opened up a lot more opportunities and auditions that I would have never had access to prior to coming on. So I’m very grateful for that. And the fact that you all check in and make sure I’m in a good space, that may seem obvious, but it’s a big deal for me. I really love being a part of CSM.
What’s in your booth: Things AJ McKay can’t record without
- My stopwatch. I’m an old school radio guy. So, I’m used to doing everything in one take without stopping. My stopwatch is like my other hand; if I didn’t have it in my hand, I don’t know what I’d do!
- My flip book of faces. Now stay with me, I know that may sound a bit weird at first. But I suggest this to my coaching students — have a flip book of various faces, groups of kids, older people, all different demographics. It helps put a face to the audience and answers the question of, “Who are you talking to?” It connects me immediately, because I’m a visual learner. So it’s a trigger that puts me where I need to be very quickly so that I don’t have to imagine who I’m speaking to.
- My multicolored lights, cause I’m one of those weirdo creative out-of-the-box kind of guys. So if I just have like regular white or warm light in there, I just feel blah. If I’m in a darker mood or a sad mood, I’ll change it to blue. Sometimes I’m feeling a green day. Sometimes I’m feeling red. It helps set the tone.