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Local voices make some noise

After you write a book and either self-publish or find a publisher, should you also bring out an audio version? Squeaky Cheese, a book-recording company in Petaluma, can help you decide.

And if the answer is yes, it can provide the voice talent.

The principals in Squeaky Cheese, Kendra Murray and Ralph Scott, bring solid acting experience to the audio-book business.

“As producers and actors, we listen for nuances in the text that others might miss,” Scott said. Because they love the spoken word, they gave their enterprise a name that is playful and whimsical. The cheese in question is halloumi, a Greek specialty that does indeed squeak when eaten, according to Murray.

An innovation that Squeaky Cheese offers is “duet narration,” in which Murray voices the females while Scott takes the males. Last May, a trade journal of the audio-book industry, AudioFile, reviewed one of the company’s recent productions, “Death among Us: An Anthology of Murder Mystery Short Stories.” The reviewer wrote that “Narrators Ralph Scott and Kendra Murray stirringly present these short mysteries … the finely written, well-rendered stories offer superior listening.”

To prepare for a project, Murray reads the book, noting character quirks and making notes on the text. She finds it useful to identify a “signature line” or two that embodies each principle character.

“I’ll make a recording of each character’s signature line,” she said. “It helps me find their voices.”

Murray has lived in Petaluma for nearly three decades. She studied theater and business at the University of Puget Sound, later earning a nursing degree. A few years ago, she visited the website of the Petaluma Radio Players, a group of voice actors who have been staging and recording radio dramas since 2016, complete with old-fashioned sound effects. The site announced upcoming auditions for voice talent. She still remembers the line that snagged her: “If you think you have a face for radio…”

“I wanted to get back into theater arts,” she said, “and I was fascinated by what the Players were doing.”

At the auditions, Murray met Scott, a founding member of the Players. Scott was struck by Murray’s vocal talent, especially her subsequent impersonation of Eve Arden for a Players’ production of “Our Miss Brooks,” an American sitcom that began as a radio show on CBS, running from 1948 to 1957.

They were married in 2018, the same year they launched Squeaky Cheese.

“We were married at Petaluma Historical Library and Museum at the end of their ‘I DO’ exhibit, a collection of period wedding attire from local Sonoma County families,” said Murray. The ceremony took place in a live radio play called “The Misadventure of the Beleaguered Bridegroom,” a Sherlock Holmes comedy.

From childhood, Scott has been fascinated by sound effects and sound recording. At age six he and a friend replicated the sound of rats in a sewer by putting a dishpan of water in the dryer and sloshing it around while they recorded the sound. He became interested in theater in high school in Philadelphia. At Cornell University Agricultural College, Ithaca, NY, he earned a degree in communications.

As associate producer for the Players, Scott worked under Linda Jay, the founder. Appropriately, the first production by the Players was an episode of the old radio mystery “The Shadow,” Jay’s parents were among the writers for original show, with its famous tagline, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” The show debuted in 1937.

Inspired by his work with the Players and watching closely the emerging demand for audio books, Scott had been ruminating on this new market.

“When books-on-tape started, I dreamed of starting my own business,” he said. With Murray on board, they went to work.

“The first couple months, we went through a steep learning curve,” Murray recalled. They were surprised to learn, for example, that their beloved radio sound effects, so important for creating a “soundscape” for a radio drama, were not welcome in the realm of audio books.

“In audio books, the standard is to use only the single human voice to reproduce the text exactly as written,” Murray said. “We initially wanted to bring an extra, more creative approach to the service, but the industry is not quite there yet, although there are signs that this is changing.” She cites the explosion in podcasting as a strong influence for expanding the audio-book soundscape.

Scott points out that the audio-book industry is pouring millions of dollars into the production of “multicast” radio dramas that use more than one voice to tell the story.

“It speaks volumes that the industry has embraced this art form,” he said. It’s as if the entertainment business has come full circle to 1930s-style radio storytelling.

To capitalize on the trend, Murray and Scott have recently launched a sister business called Speaks Volumes to develop multicast productions.

“We’re working on as-yet-unpublished multicast productions with the new company,” said Murray.

While Murray and Scott do most of the voice work for Squeaky Cheese, they occasionally use other narrators, depending on the project.

“Certainly, we collaborate with additional voices for the multi-cast projects,” Murray said.

As frontline witnesses to a revolution in publishing, in which listening is becoming as important as reading, Murray and Scott sense that many writers are now writing “for the ear,” as Scott put it.

“Many self-published books now come out in print and audio at the same time,” he said. “There seems to be a change in the nature of writing.”

Murray notes that many younger people are discovering that when you listen to content, rather than viewing it, “You use part of your brain” to process the information. Murray concedes that some critics argue that listening is not reading, but she notes that when young people enjoy an audio recording, they often want to read the book.

Murray and Scott have three suggestions for authors interested in going audio. First, listen to audio books in your genre and try to see what audio brings to the text. Second, be prepared to collaborate with the producers, but at the appropriate time - before the book goes to final production. Third, realize that when your text comes out of the recording studio, it is now a different entity, open to varying interpretations.

To help potential clients decide if an audio treatment is right for their book, the company will produce a free sample from a summary of the book and five pages of text.

“Squeaky Cheese is a long-term business,” Scott said. “We’re settling into the groove, with a steady stream of clients from all over the world.”

That said, he and Murray would like to work with more local authors.

“Audio,” he added, “has no boundaries.”

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