Alumnus Michael Bauer has found success during the pandemic by narrating audiobooks

By Noela Hueso

Prior to 2020, a year that no one will soon forget, Michael Bauer had never read a romance novel before. Now, a trifecta of ingenuity, necessity and opportunity has caused him to read nine such books (and counting) — as a narrator for Audible, Amazon’s audiobook division.

Voiceover work wasn’t a track that Bauer intended to pursue after completing his M.F.A. acting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television this past spring but when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, with the world sheltering at home and the entertainment industry going into crisis mode, acting jobs became nonexistent. To make ends meet, he landed a short-lived gig as an at-home learning pod teacher before deciding to take a different approach to pay the rent.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to try to get really, really good at this and if I can get a bunch of audiobook contracts, then maybe that will be enough for now,’” Bauer, a New York native, remembers, and really, was there a better time to start this job that is easily done from home, given the right equipment, than during a pandemic?

It was Scott Brick, a respected, veteran voiceover actor and one of Bauer’s UCLA TFT instructors, who first told him that there’s a big need in the business for male voices to narrate romance novels. Jumping headlong into the opportunity, Bauer logged onto ACX, an online site that brings together authors and narrators and then sells the finished product through Amazon. He discovered that, just like an acting gig, there’s an audition process, though a would-be narrator performs for the author directly rather than a casting director. Successful auditions lead to a signed contract and an important first step: A 15-minute recorded reading of the material, which is submitted to the author for notes.

“You have to try out the voices of all the characters,” Bauer says. “You don't want to finish a book and then have the author say, ‘Well, this guy's voice is all wrong,’ then you have to go back and do it over.” There are also conversations about the pronunciation of unusual names or locations.

Bauer credits the UCLA TFT classes taught by Lecturer Toni Dager (dialects) and Professor J.Ed Araiza (Suzuki Method) for helping him successfully navigate the nuances of his current career.

“J.Ed was constantly pushing us to lower our voices, deepen the tones, when we delivered speeches,” Bauer recalls. “It’s a small thing but it really makes a difference if you can master your vocal quality on stage. [Audiobook] listeners tend to like a low, resonant voice. This training helped me develop that tool.”

It took Bauer two and a half months to finish his first project because, on the fly, he had to learn the technical aspects of voiceover work, too: He wasn’t just the narrator of the material, he was also the editor.

“I used my iPhone and a terrible recorder for my first audiobook; my makeshift recording studio was a blanket fort I sat underneath,” he says with a laugh. Now the process is more like two weeks for audiobooks that average between seven and 10 hours of finished performance. His at-home set up has improved as well. “After having gotten some nicer contracts and attracted some bigger work, I've invested in a really nice microphone and I’ve learned some software.”

One recent project allowed him to work with Kate Schott, one of his M.F.A. cohorts, who has also been having success narrating audiobooks.

“A lot of authors are looking for a male-female duo,” he says. “Sometimes they want to put the voices together themselves but a lot of the times, it’s easier if you present yourself as a package team, ready to go. They’re more likely to buy it.”

For reasons of practicality, Bauer says he can’t reveal any titles he’s done.

“Many narrators, including myself, take on professional names so that if they record a salacious romance book, it won’t hurt their chances of working a Disney gig or a children’s book,” he says.

Salacious or not, Bauer is proud of the work he has done thus far. In many ways, he feels like he’s doing something more than just entertain.

“One book I recently finished was a romance between two men. One of them was a Catholic priest who was wrestling with identity, trying to reconcile the fact that he has this deep desire to love a man,” he says. “As I was narrating it, I was thinking wow, besides the entertainment value, there are a lot of people who could come to this material and have it be tremendously helpful. Because of that, I want to make sure that I give a really honest portrayal; I don’t want to unintentionally dishonor the work by giving a performance that is cartoony or stereotypical.”

Bauer hopes, of course, that the world will open up soon and things will go back to normal but until then, he is remaining positive and a bit philosophical.

“One of my heroes is P.T. Barnum,” he says. “In his biographies, they talk about how he had so many tragedies in his life and how he was so quick to turn them into opportunities. I’m trying to emulate that approach; that’s what has brought me to audiobooks.”

Posted: October 29, 2020