ON A.I. (and a March 2023 Update!)





By Johnny Heller



Before we get into the heart of today’s blog, I will update you on the activities scheduled for the end of March in New York City. I did do a blog on this earlier, but some things have changed or become clearer with time – which I think is the best we can hope for when it comes to time.

 THE PRE-APAC SOCIAL 5pm-7pm at the Astor Ballroom in the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. This is an open bar/snack deal, and you need to buy tickets from the APA.
I have a previous engagement so I cannot join you, but I do recommend that you attend this and cavort with your colleagues. We haven’t been able to cavort for far too long.
APAC!  A full day of learning, schmoozing and networking. It’s business casual and the day is capped with a beer/wine social.

SAGAFTRA HAPPY HOUR:  Our union hosts a member only soiree. I don’t know if I’m supposed to provide details yet even though I found the bar – lots of research on my part! – so I will hold off on sharing information until/unless I get the okay!

There may be other parties as well. Just keep your eyes and ears open!

This is my workshop and you should go to https://johnnyheller.com/product/2023-splendiferous-narrator-workshop-march-28-930am-430pm/   to learn all about it. Wonderful coaches, swell food and lots of fun. This is not a Meet-the-Publisher event. It is performance based and designed to help attendees up their narration skill levels.
It ends at 4:30 so you will have time to suit up for –

THE AUDIES 7:30-10:30PM
The Awards Show for our industry will be at Chelsea Piers and, promises to be a great evening with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and you get to see all your colleagues like you’ve never seen them before. They will all be wearing their best sweatpants and tee shirts.
Actually, lots of tuxes and gowns and people are so gussied up you won’t even recognize everyone you’ve been zooming with for 3 years.

THE NAUDIES 7:30pm – ???
(between Broadway and 6th). This is NOT an APA event. This is a party at a bar! Jeffrey Kafer, Melissa Exelberth and I started it years ago because there was no place to go if you weren’t going to the awards ceremony and no place to go after the awards. So, this is it. You can dress as you like and you pay for your food and drinks and that’s it. People come before, during, and after the Awards Ceremony. It’s a swell time.
And it is noisy. And it does get crowded. Please plan on joining us!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog.


A.I. stands for artificial intelligence, but should we stand for it? People have been in fear for ages saying: “AI is coming! AI is coming!”  There’s no reason to fear that. It isn’t coming. It’s here. And it’s been here for quite some time.
We were made malleable to the idea of living with AI over the years with movies and TV shows with robots and machines that had personalities. Some movies even starred the damn machine. Look at Terminator, Transformers, 2001, Westworld, Her, Chappie – tons of movies featuring interaction with Ais. And in most of them, AI kicks our ass. If things keep going this way, we will all be killed by our vacuums or electric toothbrushes.
I keep my Alexa unplugged until I need some Motown music. …just sayin..

We need to ask ourselves:

1.How dangerous is AI to our livelihood?

  1. What can do to stop it?
  2. How can we live with it?
  3. How do we protect ourselves from it?

Firstly, it is a danger to the livelihood of some of us. But it’s mostly a danger to those in the business who don’t belong in the business in the first place. I’m going to suggest what I suspect will be an unpopular or “mean” opinion here – some actors working in VO – particularly in audiobooks – are just terrible. They aren’t really actors at all – they are people who read out loud into microphones because some idiot told them they have a nice voice and some other idiot hired them to read their stuff.
They don’t belong because they suck, they aren’t actors, or they have some talent but no heart. They won’t do the work they need to do to become good so they stay at the bottom of the pond and feed on low paying gigs and do subpar work that audiences hear and assume such horrible work applies to all audiobooks so why not listen to a machine? If this is a human, how much worse can a machine be?
People who have done 6 books and then start coaching are a problem in this industry. People who aren’t very good or have horrible work habits/ethics and start giving advice in social media groups hurt the community.
And that leaves the door open to machines.
You can certainly disagree with me. You’d be wrong but you have every right to be wrong.

Secondly, we cannot stop AI. It is here and for some uses, it works just fine. You know that GPS voice? That’s AI. So is Siri. So is Alexa. We use all of these things because a voice giving accurate directions while we drive is better than our partner saying: “I dunno! I can’t even find this on the map! Where’d you get this map anyway – a rummage sale? Turn!! Turn!! No not here!! Back there. Damn it – we should’ve taken an uber…”

Thirdly, we already live with AI. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, it’s all over the place. We just need to recognize the part we are being asked or tricked to play in it.


Fourthly, we protect ourselves as actors by NOT signing away our rights to our voices/work/sound in ANY job at any time for any price. Look at your contract. If it says they can use your work (on this specific project) for other projects – in perpetuity – you do not sign.
Let’s say I offer you a 7 hour book gig and I want you sign over your intellectual property rights – your voice in perpetuity. I offer you 6 figures and you think – “Man. That’s a lot of loot.” But is it? How long can you live on that money? When the money is gone, and it will be gone sooner than you imagine, what will you do? If you live in New York City, you can spend it all on lunch. So, you go back to your client when the money is gone and ask for work, and they say – no thanks! We already have you. We don’t need you – we just use your voice anywhere we want, and we don’t have to pay you a dime.  And they can use your voice anywhere – you could be the new voice of Disney, of Budweiser, of FOX News with Tucker Carlson promos! – and you won’t be able to make any money from it or complain about it.

That’s why you don’t sell out.

SAGAFTRA works with contracts that don’t allow you to be stolen. If you don’t use a union contract, you won’t have the union behind you. If the client tries to weasel the deal and use your voice for AI, you will stand alone in court or on social media. I suggest you use the union for all contracts.
I also advise you to look at what you are signing and don’t give anything away in “perpetuity.”  Perpetuity is a very pretty word and it falls trippingly off the tongue but it should be a trigger for you if you see it in a contract. If you don’t understand the contract, get someone who does and don’t sign it until you understand it.

I think the best way to fight AI is to refuse to work with companies that use it – or that plan on using your work with them for it. I think you should be very careful with companies and with your authors when you sign distribution or production deals. Make certain there is no AI wording.

I’m sure that you’ve heard some pretty decent AI. Most of it isn’t too good. Yet.

We have a safety net IF we are actors at the top of our craft or, at the least – the very least, actors working to get to the top of their craft.

AI can never capture the essence of the true actor – the cadence, the pauses, the gestures heard only in the voice but suggestive of a complete person and personality; and that person in conversation with a completely different person — played by the same actor – each moment realized and real, so the audio creates an entire scene, a visual and demanding moment of true human interaction – a thing of beauty that connects the author with a listener in a way no machine can ever match.  That is audiobook narration. That is acting. That cannot be done by AI.

I believe that readers – people who just share the words with no thought to the scene or to the craft of acting – will be the ones who lose to AI. I believe the actor, however, to be irreplaceable, indispensable, and permanent.

Have faith. Have hope. Be good.

Comment (1)

  • Victor Warren Reply

    Absolutely dead on… as usual… I don’t mean you are dead I mean.. you know what I mean… I did come across an AI site that has no nuance, but it bugged me for about a day… 11ELEVEN AI https://beta.elevenlabs.io/

    On a brighter note… I signed up for SPLENDIFEROUS and am looking forward to going to my first LIVE APAC I started my Audiobook Journey in late 2020. I sincerely hope I can get a nudge when the New England retreat is happening this year. (hint- hint)

    and a Sincere thank you to YOU.. for how much you give back to the Audiobook community… I was with a Sunday night group where you popped in once and i learned a specific thing that was very helpful… I am still a working actor and that community is not SO giving… Hmmph.. ( he cleared his throat)

    Looking forward to meeting in person… Best! VW

    February 7, 2023 at 1:35 pm

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