His is the unmistakable voice that pours out of radios and TVs throughout the world every day; a vocal surge that has enthralled many a listener for more than 20 years.
That is why everyone — from Kenyan radio stations to the Brazilian government — wants him to be the man to vocalise their messages.
With a client list that includes CNN International, the BBC, National Geographic and Kenyan radio stations like Classic 105 and Kiss FM, it is easy to see why David Wartnaby, 39, is the go-to guy for unforgettable “radio imaging” and TV promos.
In Kenya, some of his work has included promoting big brands like Safaricom and Nakumatt. Yes, his is the mzungu accent that sometimes divides opinion on his pronunciation of Kiswahili words. In Uganda he is at home in Capital FM and Classic FM.
“I must have worked with hundreds of clients over the years, including CNN, the BBC and Heart (the giant commercial radio network in the UK). I also played “Geico Gecko” character for Geico Insurance for a few years. But my acting skills are limited, so they dropped me,” he says.
Other major clients around the world include Spotify, Xbox, Ikea, the United Nations, LinkedIn, Garmin, Channel 5, ITV2, Microsoft, TowerHamlets … the list goes on.
If you have been described as a versatile artist whose unique tone and intonation grasps the script, delivering what you want with confidence and gusto, it can only mean you are a man in demand.
Even though he mainly works from his home in the London district of Battersea, wherever he goes David is armed with his mic and Mac to handle a long list of jobs that fly his way from different parts of the world.
BEHIND SOME BINS
“Wherever I go, I voice. Occasionally, I will voice from the car by the roadside. I have also auditioned for a job into my iPhone behind some bins on a dimly lit side street. It’s a great way of looking like a mad man,” he says.
Not that one of the world’s most sought-after voiceover artist ever envisioned hitting such heights. David’s first job involved supplying fencing material with his father in the UK, and he still recalls cowering by his side as customers berated them for late delivery. But as a restless young man he knew he wasn’t cut out for that kind of job and he hit the road in search of something more fulfilling.
Then along came radio. His cool, clear voice caught the ear of a radio manager, earning him a slot as a presenter.
This was followed by a number of radio gigs in various parts of England before he landed a job at London’s dance music station, Kiss, as an audio producer, presenter and voice artist.
His broadcasting stint was, however, disappointing after he failed to be the presenter he wanted to be.
“My hero is a satirist called Chris Morris, and as a presenter on Kiss I tried to emulate his style, but didn’t have the intelligence to pull it off, and my failing efforts didn’t mix well with the ‘more music’ policy of the station. So, after a few years I gave up presenting to focus on voice work. If others write the scripts, there are few opportunities to screw up!” he told Lifestyle.
As a result, his work started focusing on “audio imaging” — the bits of audio that identify a radio station in between the songs or talk. It can take the form of “blips” that just mention a station’s name, through to one-minute pieces that announce the station’s next big concert or competition.
It was the big break he wasn’t anticipating.
David now has more to worry about than keeping a few homeowners happy. His job as a voiceover artist means sometimes hopping on boda bodas to beat the traffic and recording under blankets in hotel rooms.
Over the past few years, his client list has grown to fill five days a week seeking a mix of “radio imaging”, TV promos, announcing, commercials, documentary narration, and many corporate jobs — for everyone from a giant mobile network operator to the local dentist!
Sometimes he is called upon to voice a script with Kiswahili words, something that may not be as straightforward as it seems for someone who does not speak the language.
“After a shaky start, I can now mix local language pronunciation with English quite smoothly. In a script, I stick to my London accent for most English words in a sentence. But, for authenticity, I apply as good a Swahili accent as I can for any Swahili words and brand names – though I keep an element of my voice. If an English word is clearly part of a broader local phrase, or products tag line, I’ll apply a Swahili lilt, so it doesn’t jar,” he says.
To help him “acclimatise” sometimes a producer provides him with a recording of any new local words or business names in advance.
“Maybe one day they’ll let me voice a whole script in Swahili — there might be a lot of editing though!” he says.
Then there are the unlikely challenges he has had to overcome in the course of his work.
“I worked for Child’s i Foundation in Kampala for six weeks, managing to record for most of my clients from under the blankets in my hostel room. Unfortunately, the Internet was very slow, so I’d have to transfer the recording to a USB stick (flash disk),
and jump on a boda boda to the Sheraton (hotel)!”
And his career has not been without bizarre moments.
“The toughest broadcast thing I’ve ever done was three hours of live TV presenting — a show about ghosts! It was awful and very difficult enthusing about things that don’t exist!” he says.
So what does he attribute his success to? Luck, lots of favours and a fairly versatile voice, he says. But mainly being available.
And how do clients get in touch with him? “They find me on Google, or by word of mouth, then they shoot me an e-mail. If a client wants their voiceover delivered in 15 minutes, most days I can get it to them,” he says.
Radio, he adds, is a fluid industry, with producers and managers moving all around the world so they often use contacts. His agency is, however, responsible for TV promos and big commercial campaigns.
Despite his success, David says he didn’t set out to actively build a brand. “I just turned up for jobs and made a website! Being nice to clients helps, as does being instantly available.”
In a busy, competitive business such as his, he says there is no room to kick off your shoes and relax.
“There are lots of people doing it, because the equipment has never been cheaper or easier to use. Also clients look for authenticity so everyday folk with a ‘non-broadcaster/actor’ voice can just as easily get jobs especially if they are an expert in a subject matter. There are also more jobs, because social media and the Internet mean every business — small and large — can require a high quality voice production,” he says.
He adds that clients can come and go, but his relationships with his biggest clients all over the world have endured, something he considers a career highlight.
On whether the job is as lucrative as some imagine, he says his income is never stable and can fluctuate wildly from year to year. But as an indicator of what he can make on a good day, he says the Geico job paid for his parents’ wedding anniversary trip to Sri Lanka.
If you want his job remember, like other undertakings, there are occupational hazards. The onset of hearing loss — tinnitus — due to over use of loud headphones is something that David has to grapple
with for the remainder of his life.
If you can handle a workload for a list of clients that stretches from Nairobi to Atlanta, then the job could also be yours. And yes, your laptop will be stolen once or twice leaving you with one option: starting
For a man who mainly works from home, he says mustering self-motivation can be difficult. He also says killing time correctly during the quiet period has proved to be a challenge. “I should have the
discipline to update my website, accounts and other promotional activity.”
Also when the jobs come in thick and fast, and saying yes to all of them, can mean some serious juggling.
David was born in Bournemouth, a seaside resort town on the south coast of England, to an Irish mother and English father and attended Catholic State Comprehensive School in North East London and later
Trinity Catholic High where he studied Theatre and Media.
He lives with his partner, Fionnuala (a deputy head of a high school) in Battersea and often has his cats Purdita and Wicky for company whenever he is working.
“They mainly eat and destroy the sofa. One afternoon, they offered to help turn the pages of a script, but struggled, because they don’t have opposable thumbs,” he says.
Away from his job, David loves interior design and he is always finding and making new pictures, furniture and knick-knacks for his home. He loves listening to electronic music of all kinds and eras and
making silly videos for friends on iMovie. Occasionally he teaches video editing at a local school.
He has also been involved in charity.
“I worked in Kampala in 2010. I was helping the Child’s i Foundation, a charity promoting moving children out of orphanages and placing them with local families instead. As a result of the Foundation’s efforts, the Ugandan government is starting to adopt this approach as policy,” he says.
So does he consider himself a celebrity?
“No, I’m off the radar,” he says.